Sarah Perkins, 26, is the CEO and co-founder of DesignerShare. Sarah has loved fashion her whole life and spent many years trying to convince others her taste is “exquisite” and not “expensive.” She has visions of outfits based on mood and vividly dreams in color. Before starting DesignerShare, Perkins was a lifestyle journalist in Chicago.
What motivated and inspired you to start your own business?
I was approached by my business partner, a longtime family friend, with the bare bones idea of DesignerShare. I was happy enough in my role as an associate editor for a magazine in Chicago, but I wanted to see what it would be like to start my own business. I think I’ve always dreamed of climbing the career ladder high enough to be considered for a chief position, someone that could see the big picture for an organization. I’ve always loved fashion and frequently shared with my friends in college at Santa Clara University whenever we had different events—it made sense to monetize something I was doing for free!
Tell us about your business.
DesignerShare is the first truly peer-to-peer marketplace for women to rent their designer clothing and accessories to one another. Our mission is to give women of all backgrounds access to high-quality pieces to take on anything they put their minds to—or to be an entrepreneur from home if they have amazing designer wardrobes! Women’s fashion doesn’t have the same staying power as men’s, and we’re constantly expected to keep up with trends, never wearing the same thing over and over again for the fear we’re going to be shamed for it. DesignerShare allows women to open their wardrobes.
To ensure your pieces are kept in the best quality, our exclusive dry-cleaning partner is Tide Spin here in the Chicagoland area. The company does a two day turnaround for dry cleaning. We split the cost between the renter and lender to enforce a sense of shared responsibility—based on the clothing type, you’ll never be paying more than five dollars or so. DesignerShare self-insures each transaction (thus the $5 insurance fee placed on renters). If an item was truly damaged beyond repair, DesignerShare will make sure the lender is compensated for the original retail value of the item.
Our biggest rule, though: If you can’t live without it, don’t put it on the site! There are a few of my pieces that are too integral to my life that would do well on DesignerShare, but they have become too important to my wardrobe. Ultimately, our competition says there is a less than one percent loss rate in this industry. We hand deliver the items and are always checking to make sure they are in the condition they are supposed to be. Our biggest goal is to make our users happy and comfortable with the experience, all while looking and feeling great!
Are you currently running any promos/contests/giveaways that you would like our readers to know about?
Use SARAH10 for 10% off your first rental with us 🙂
Launched March 31, we are already post-revenue. We have been written on multiple sites/in publications, including the Chicago Tribune and Chicago woman magazine. Apparently we also were mentioned on NBC5, as well!
Where is your business based?
We are Chicago-based at the 1871 incubator at the Merchandise Mart. We serve the Chicagoland area with hopes to expand beyond.
What were the first few steps you took to get your business up and running?
My partner Bill and I sat down and discussed everything we liked and disliked about the power players and competitors in the designer fashion rental industry. We dreamt about what the entire process would be like and who the DesignerShare user would be, from both the renter and lender perspectives: How would our site be the one that women think of to move forward with their fashion? We knew we needed a community aspect that isn’t available through other sites and that it wasn’t necessary for us to hold on to the inventory, but simply deliver it, creating our business model from there. Luckily, Bill was a business attorney for about 20 years, so I had a lot of help figuring out compliance issues! We became incorporated in December 2015, and knew by Summer 2016 we wanted to work on this full time. I quit my day job September 1 and here we are!
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness of your business and getting new customers?
We’ve been raising awareness through social media and spreading the word through our network. We’ve been teaming up with influencers to help us create content that we can push online. We’ve also been hosting and participating in lifestyle events, such as with Chicago Splash and charitable organizations like the Daisie Foundation, to reach our target demographic.
What have been your biggest challenges so far?
The biggest challenge has been growing the inventory base! It was a challenge to get women onboard before the launch to have enough pieces on Day 1, but having the site live has made an incredible difference in our growth. They are now able to see how easy it is to upload a description and pictures so they can get paid from their closets!
How did you overcome these challenges?
We are continuing to find ways to overcome this challenge. We’ve been conducting in-home closet consultations (wine included, of course!) to help women easily set up a profile and upload great photos to their online wardrobes. We also are finding retail and consignment partners to team up with to help them move the inventory costing them so much overhead.
How do you keep motivated through difficult times?
I’ve come to realize that all my life, the skills I’ve developed and my interests, has led to starting a business like this. This is truly my passion. The motivation that keeps me going is knowing that persistence will pay off. I don’t like to give up on anything, so knowing when to pivot to make things better is important. I have the greatest team and family and friends around me to make the difficult times a lot easier to handle.
How do you distinguish yourself from your competitors?
By being truly peer-to-peer, we allow our users to be the entrepreneurs and consumers. We are hoping to build in a messaging capability soon and to allow users to search profiles, enabling us to have as much a social element to our site as much as transactional. Ultimately we want women to build each other up through our DS community and share their amazing fashion. We also spent a lot of time figuring out how to differentiate our experience for the better: We are the low cost option, with a higher quality experience. It all comes down to transparency—we don’t want anyone getting surprised by last minute line items on their bill or extra fees tacked on the lender end without them knowing. For us, it is all about sharing responsibility and respect.
What is the best advice you have received recently?
A combination of things to quell my anxiety about the future: “Rome wasn’t built in a day” and “The moment is the safe space.” Those two things keep me much less stressed out and happier on a day-to-day basis even more so post-launch than pre-launch! I had a shift in my mentality a few weeks before our launch date that I wasn’t working towards launch, but for everything that comes after it. I’ve let myself breathe a little easier since.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
Make sure you’re doing what you love! And it’s important to maintain balance in your life—you should have time for activities and those outside of work. A bit of a work hard, play hard, and rest hard mentality!
What are your favorite business tools/resources and why?
It’s a simple one, but I’ve become obsessed with my Google calendar. Staying organized and on top of my schedule is key to moving forward. I also have a simple dashboard that my team and I check into with our weekly and quarterly goals, and celebrate our wins. I keep my personal goals on there too so that they can keep me in check—if I’m not balanced all around, I’m not of good service to anyone else!
What is a good article or book you have read recently?
I have really loved reading articles from the “Business of Fashion” site. Not only am I on top of what is happening in the fashion industry, I’m learning a lot of great facts about how our business lends to sustainability. Here’s one of my recent favorites: The Problem with Fashion Brands Calling Themselves Sustainable.
What are you currently learning about for your business or looking for help with?
We are currently delivering door-to-door for free in the Chicagoland area and figuring out how to handle logistics beyond. We’re not sure if we should continue to act as a courier service or team up with a partner for that responsibility.
What are your goals for the next few months and how are you striving to achieve them?
We are hoping to continue to grow our user and inventory base in the Chicago area and start raising our seed round. We are working with a venture group in its strategic growth program to get to know the right investors for funding, and are pushing promotions and special offers for signing up to get more users and inventory.
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