Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss, Founders of Rent the Runway

In 2007, we met as sectionmates at Harvard Business School, where over frequent girls’ nights, we became fast friends. During a trip home for Thanksgiving, I (Jenn) witnessed my sister Becky struggle with a “closet full of clothes and nothing to wear” moment.

Becky had an upcoming wedding and wanted something gorgeous—an Hervé Léger maybe, or Proenza Schouler—but her modest salary meant that everything high-end was out of reach.

What if, I thought, the Beckys of this world could have access to their dream closet and a new dress for every occasion? What if designers were able to get their pieces into the hands of young, fashionable women and build an addiction for designer fashion?

Cut to Cambridge, Massachusetts, several days later. I told Jenny about Becky’s dilemma, and, being business school students, we started working on building the business immediately. Jenny and I had a rule from the very beginning of Rent the Runway to never write a business plan because we think that is a waste of time.

In our opinions, starting the business was going to be a series of iterative tests in the marketplace with each test eliminating some of the risks of starting the business.

We held a pop-up rental shop in an undergrad dorm at Harvard to garner initial interest in the idea. We purchased dresses at retail (in our sizes in case it did not work out!) and watched girls twirl around in the mirror. We knew there was something about the concept that could work.

By the looks on their faces and the descriptions to their friends, we knew we had created Cinderella experiences for them. After several focus groups with thousands of women, along with formative meetings with top designers and retailers, Rent the Runway was born in New York City in November 2009 so women can live the life they dream today.

As any self-starter can attest to, the road of entrepreneurship sees its highs and lows. Some of the greatest lessons we’ve learned have resulted in simply doing, trying and even failing. Here are few tips that have been monumental for us that can easily be applied to any business.

“No” Means “Not Right Now”
Don’t be afraid of the word “no”. When starting Rent the Runway, we heard a lot of “no’s”, but these “no’s” encouraged us to stay motivated and keep rethinking, tweaking, and testing our concept. One great example of hearing “no” while keeping in mind that it just means “not right now” has been in acquiring designers. At the beginning, designers said “no” fairly often, but we listened to their feedback on why they were saying no, so that we could develop long-term, meaningful relationships with them in the future. For some of our designers, it took over 10 meetings with them, and for others, we started working with them by first launching their contemporary collection to make sure they were comfortable working with us. We never would have imagined two years ago that we would now have over 150 designer brands on Rent the Runway.

Show by Example
It is absolutely vital to test any idea you have in the marketplace. Don’t hesitate in taking risks and testing out a concept that you are passionate about because each test eliminates some of the risks of starting a business. We first tested our idea in the undergraduate dorms at Harvard with a rental pop-up shop. We knew that there was something to our idea when we saw a girl twirl around in a silver sequin dress, and tell all her friends how great she looked and felt. Her face lit up immediately – she felt empowered, confident, and beautiful. She was having a true “Cinderella” moment. That is the feeling Rent the Runway wants all women to experience.

Trust in Mentors
Jenny and I are the biggest advocates of having mentors along the way. When we first started talking to people in the fashion industry, we would often sit for hours listening to them tell us why our concept wouldn’t work. Some of the comments were the most influential to us in starting the business. It is really important to speak to everyone you know because everyone’s opinion will steer you in a positive direction. This experience also speaks to the power of women helping other women. All of our mentors have also been especially helpful in teaching us how to lead and inspire a team.

So many women window shop for years in hopes that they will eventually be able to afford the designer dress of their dreams. Jenny and I wanted to make designer fashion as accessible as renting a movie from Netflix to let women know they truly CAN have it all.

What we are doing at Rent the Runway is introducing experiential brand marketing into the fashion industry. Women are renting the runway for the most important occasions in their lives – weddings, engagement parties, prom, etc. and are developing an emotional experience with the designer brand they wear on that special occasion.

You will never forget the hotel you stayed at on your honeymoon, just as you will never forget the designer brand you wore when you got engaged.

About the Author

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After meeting at Harvard Business School, Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Fleiss co-founded Rent the Runway, a company that after only 2 years includes over 2 million members, 72 employees and 150 designer brands. Rent the Runway is a members-only online fashion community that builds customer loyalty for designer brands by enabling women to rent dresses and accessories for all the special occasions in their lives. As the "Netflix for fashion," Rent the Runway encourages women to live the life they dream today.

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