Functionally, Armoire is a women’s clothing rental service. But a conversation with CEO Ambika Singh may convince you that her startup is really about girl power (or more precisely, busy professional woman power, but that’s less catchy).
Armoire lets women select apparel to keep for as long as they like, with the added perk of a live personal stylist to help them make selections, saving time and hassle. Behind the scenes, it’s all about the ladies, too. The company’s leadership is dominated by women, and nearly half of its investors are women — either as the main investor or, if it’s a team, a woman is the prime sponsor.
“The reason that we are passionate about building this business and confident that we’ll win is we’re giving women back the thing they crave the most, and that’s time,” Singh said.
The Seattle-based company launched in 2016, with its first three months in MIT’s Delta V accelerator program. It has grown to 14 employees. Other co-founders are Ali Driesman, who leads marketing and customer experience; Zach Owen, technical lead and former data scientist at StitchFix, another clothing rental business; and Brittany Seabaugh, who worked for Nordstrom for eight years and runs Armoire’s merchandising and styling.
The need for Armoire is driven in part by the bias in workplace attire, said 32-year-old Singh. Men can wear the same suit multiple times in a week, at most just changing their shirt and tie.
“If a woman shows up the next day wearing the same dress it’s, ‘Oh, she looks rumpled or she doesn’t look put together,’” Singh said. “We want to make it as even as possible, to make it as easy to get dressed as your male counterpart.”
Armoire builds a customer profile and uses algorithms of past rentals, as well as human help, to assist customers in choosing clothes. While there’s competition in the field, Singh said her company is targeting a specific profile that doesn’t necessarily overlap with other ventures.
“Armoire is building a brand that caters to her,” she said, “so that she can take the stressing out of dressing and focus on the things that matter.”
The biggest challenge is convincing women to consider renting clothes, just as they do vacation houses and cars. A service like Armoire provides an ever-changing wardrobe without the guilt of buying new clothes and growing tired of them, or going through the hassle and cost of dry cleaning, Singh said.
“We’ve seen millennials in particular start the charge toward value and experience over ownership in many categories,” she said. Armoire’s customers range from 17 to 82 years old.
Singh urged other female entrepreneurs to pursue their ideas, though it can be intimidating when the technology sector and VC are so male-dominated. “Women come out for you if you’re doing something that makes sense,” she said. “The odds are not all against you.”
We caught up with Singh for our Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for her answers to our questionnaire.
Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: “It’s Netflix for women’s clothing. Our members rent high-end, everyday items that are personalized for their style and fit preferences.”
Inspiration hit us when: “We realized you could do the same thing with clothes that Netflix was doing with movies and Spotify was doing with music: Use data to tailor an everyday scenario to your unique preferences and as a result, make it a more delightful and seamless experience.”
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: “Angel and VC. We raised a family-and-friends round from an amazing group of angel investors and early stage VCs who have served as our mentors, evangelists, connectors and event friends. We’re thrilled that they come with a range of experiences that can help guide our business and offer support along the way. We’re especially thrilled that just under 50 percent of our investors are women.”
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: “The amazing community of women we have cultivated. From our Armoire members, to our advisors to the team and beyond. This community helps drive decisions, invigorates our passion and reminds us why we’re fighting the good fight. It makes it clear that what we are building is so much more than a clothing rental service — it’s a movement.”
The smartest move we’ve made so far: “Doing MIT’s accelerator program, Delta V. That is what took our idea to something real. Practically, it also gave us the resources we needed to get started. With $20,000 of equity-free financing, we were able to take the leap to purchase inventory. We had access to mentors and professors with a wealth of knowledge. And we were surrounded by other people who were grinding for their passion. It made the process of getting started less daunting and, quite honestly, doable.”
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: “Underestimating the level of difficulty to bring this to life. We knew that building a business would be challenging, but you never really know what goes into it until you jump in, head first. We underestimated everything building a company from nothing entails — it’s a roller-coaster of emotions, a constant dose of challenges, and in reality, nothing about what we’re doing is easy. But it’s the little wins throughout that make it all worthwhile. It’s also taught us to approach everything with more expertise and structure to ensure that we’re focusing on the most important pieces. For instance, building out the tech piece of our business certainly isn’t easy. But adding more process, like having our dev team implement a road map based on our customer priorities, certainly helped.”
Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner: “Bezos. Operations and logistics are such a huge piece of our business. We also run an incredibly lean organization — we’re mindful about how we spend and eager to make every step faster, smarter and more efficient. We’ve been told Bezos knows a thing or two about these things.”
Our favorite team-building activity is: “Friday night game night. Nothing brings out the true colors of the team like a little friendly fire of ‘Code Names.’ We’ve also been known to dabble a bit in karaoke when the holidays roll around.”
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: “That perfect blend of passion and that startup hustle (read ‘slightly manic’… but in the good way). We’ve been incredibly fortunate to attract a team of unconditionally motivated individuals who are all inspired and passionate about what we are building. That is something you can’t learn and it’s what brings our diverse range of backgrounds together. It also helps that we genuinely don’t hate fun and enjoy spending time together.”
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: “Get your product into people’s hands early. Don’t spend all your time developing the perfect product because trust me, there are always things you can improve or perfect, but the real learning kicks in when you just go out there and do it. Then you can refine and improve along the way.”