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How to Run a Fashion Company: Behind the Scenes at Rent the Runway

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Since 2009, Rent the Runway has given its customers the opportunity to rent luxury and high-end dresses for special occasions—for a fraction of the retail cost no matter where they live in the United States. Racked stopped by the company's 18,000 square foot office and warehouse space in downtown New York for a visit—to see where all the magic happens and to chat with co-founder Jennifer Fleiss about launching and running a fashion start-up.

Racked: We noticed you sit in the tech department—do you feel like Rent the Runway is a fashion company? Do you feel like you work in fashion?

Jenny Fleiss: I feel like I work in an e-commerce company—and definitely a startup. It's more of a service company, I think, than it is a fashion company. We see ourselves as giving Cinderella moments to women more than just renting a dress or giving an actual product. The fashion industry certainly is all around us, and I think it's definitely part of our day-to-day, but it really depends on your role in the company. So, our buying team feels a lot more like they work at a fashion company, probably.

Because I deal more with the operations, getting all the dresses out the door, more the business side of things, I do a lot of work with the tech team—I do a lot of project management with them and I do a lot of work in guiding things like those barcodes I showed you upstairs or having the whole unilevel tracking of all our inventory. And we've been hiring a ton, so I'm welcoming people to the group, and, as we grow, making sure people are settled in, and getting a pulse of what's going on.

Racked: At the Karen Harvey event, we heard you and your co-founder Jennifer Hyman talk about corporate culture and how important it is to you to foster a sort of positive workplace environment.

Fleiss: I think what's really important to Jenn and I is to have a place where people are excited to go into work everyday and having a group of people you're excited to be around. I actually look forward to coming in to the office everyday, which is the best thing ever, and we want to make sure everyone here has that feeling—that happiness, luckiness to be here. So the family element to culture is something we believe in. It's the ability to be honest with people, to have great conversations, really good feedback, to want to spend time with them, to enjoy spending time with them in and out of the office.

We have a ton of team events. We'll go play ping pong or we'll go bowling or we'll sit on the pier for a picnic lunch. We're having our millionth member celebration coming up—we're going to the South Street Seaport, and people will bring their families from home—they'll bring their husbands and kids too. So it's a very family-oriented culture. And I think that coming from the finance world, where it was very male-dominated an a lot more corporate and strict—there were so many politics in some ways—it's really refreshing to have really bright women around, who are women serious about their careers, to have a really fast-paced culture where you're constantly changing and innovating and doing things and to also really have a really kind and warm and welcoming culture where everyone here cares about one another. And while you'll get feedback from critiques, it's really to lift you up and to lift the whole team up.

Racked: How do you learn about creating a positive workplace? Is this something you can learn in business school?

Fleiss: We read a lot of case studies and books and I think the Zappos culture, for example, is something we do admire for sure. We visited a lot of companies, we talked to a lot of entrepreneurs as well. I think sometimes just speaking to founders of other companies is an important element. And I think Jenn and I each have little bits of what we liked or didn't like about our old experiences and tried to bring them here and foster them here.

I think Jenn and I, our relationship with one another, was also a good starting off point, because we started off as friends—so, friends first—and then we had this family element of, well, Jen is like my second husband in a way, we spend a lot of time together, Rent the Runway is our child and we felt that way from early on. There's also the feeling of how lucky we are to be doing this, and to have, everyday, the growth of the company, to be able to get to do this.

We teased early on that we wanted to write handwritten notes to all our customers saying: "Please, keep renting just so we can go to work everyday" because we just feel that lucky. And I think that's really permeated a lot of the culture here.

Racked: What's your typical day like?

Fleiss: It's so different everyday. Today I came in, I have a meeting with you, we have a senior management meeting afterwards where we'll go over key metrics in each area of the business to get an overview of what's going on. I have a meeting with a couple of people who work at other companies with operations focus. So the guy who runs operations for Duane Reade is coming here, I'm going to learn from him about how he would look at our operations and ideas he has. I'm speaking with someone from Diapers.com about their operations later on. I've got a call with from an advisor who sits on our board to talk to him about some of the new growth we're experiencing and our warehouse move in particular. I have an interview with someone—because we're literally interviewing five people a day—I have an interview with someone for the tech team, I have an interview with someone for operations, and then who knows what else I"ll be pulled into. I have a meeting with someone from our analytics team, which is a team of three people here that's really the core of our company. I probably meet with them four times a day.

Racked: What do they analyze?

Fleiss: They do everything from telling us how much inventory to buy—which styles to buy, how much of which styles, how much of which sizes—to looking at it from an operations perspective, what's our turnover from the day it leaves the warehouse to the day it comes back, to looking at which locations our warehouse should be in to optimize shipping to all our customers. They will look at marketing analytics, to see what our drop off rate has been at checkout; comparing two ads we've run and seeing how they've been doing; are we tracking in terms of our member acquisition through partnerships versus paid acquisition versus general direct acquisition. So they really look at everything across the business and it's a really valuable resource to have.

We don't ever want to make decisions only based on our buyers' whims. It's an important element to have there for the artistic sense, but there's the important element of having the science to back it up and say, "What do we see in terms of trends?" What's renting with our users, what's popular with our users, and how can we really leverage that and say this price point's doing really well, this price point's not, let's buy more, and how can we evolve based on the data.

With something like inventory, which is such a big expense for the company, it's really important.

Racked: What are you seeing as emerging trends this spring.

Fleiss: I think in general, red is our most popular color. Gold sequins, especially around the holidays, is really popular. But the general point is that it's those statement colors—black is our least popular color—and one-shoulder is our most popular silhouette. It's this idea that it's something you're less likely to buy. Usually it's a statement piece. But this is agreat way to experiment and try it out.

Racked: What's it like being a start-up in New York?

Fleiss: The startup community, especially in New York, has an amazing kind of camaraderie—beween women's breakfasts I go to, our advisory board and the people on it. For example, Alexandra Wilkis Wilson from Gilt Groupe is on our advisory board. There's just a great network here and people are so helpful to one another. Catherine Levene who just started her own startup, who used to be the COO of Daily Candy, is on our advisory board. There's just such a welcoming community. and there's so many events to really foster people coming together on this. So that has been, again, something very different than any other industry that Jen or I had worked in. That's special, for sure.
· Rent The Runway [Official Site]