U.S. clothing sales generate $357 billion in revenue, according to Statistica. But clothes shopping remains an often inefficient and uninformed experience.
Online models and in-store mannequins “are limited and most often provide looks that are not inclusive of all body types and styles,” said Swati Padmaraj Angolkar. And shoppers trying to put together a certain look frequently have to hop between multiple sites to peruse different clothing brands and stores to assemble the right shoes, apparel and accessories.
The two have been friends for a decade. Padmaraj, who is a fashion designer, stylist and owner of Atiz Fashion House, noticed the problem in her field. Desai has worked for two startups and has experience building tech products targeting both businesses and consumers as customers. Padmaraj asked Desai if there was a scalable, digital solution to make shopping easier, and Seattle-based Style-At-Iz (pronounced “style at ease”) was born.
Through an app available for Apple devices, the five-person company provides recommendations for event outfits or wardrobe purchases via chats. The advice comes from personal suggestions from stylists, and from machine-learning algorithms.
To build its reach, Desai said their startup is working with a small secondhand clothing store in the Seattle area to help shoppers explore its inventory online. Style-At-Iz is eager to partner with more smaller brands as one avenue for reaching customers. The site will generate revenue by taking a percentage of sales generated by their app, as well as offering a subscription service to retailers and acting as a stylist partner.
Desai points to personalized clothing rental companies such as Seattle-based Armoire, or brands including Rent-the-Runway and Stitch Fix as the startup’s greatest competition.
“The relationship with the [clothing] retailers is going to be a big hurdle,” said Desai. “If we can get over it, I think (attracting) consumers and recruiting people to our platform will just take time and work.”
We caught up with Padmaraj and Desai for this Startup Spotlight, a regular GeekWire feature. Continue reading for their answers to our questionnaire.
What does your company do? Style-At-Iz provides customers with look and style recommendations based on personal criteria and machine learning models. Style-At-Iz provides styling services through real-time chats and curated looks across brands. We also plan to work with brand stores to create customized looks for specific criteria like special events, body type, budget and other preferences that can enhance the search within the store’s online presence. We believe that this approach allows customers to zero-in on their selections easily and will encourage them to go through to point of sale for their selections quickly.
Inspiration hit us when: There are two places where we were inspired to go ahead on this initiative. Initially, we were encouraged by my (Padmaraj’s) efforts to personally style multiple people, and we realized that this is a service that should be made easily available and accessible to all. We wanted to provide a scalable platform that allows users to work with stylists.
The second inspiration came from the challenge of bringing looks together. When people plan a vacation for their family, for example, they do not go through each airline or each hotel website; they use aggregation sites like Expedia, Kayak, etc. These platforms bring together the best package based on the user’s criteria like dates, times, budget, etc.
What if we could have an aggregation platform that allows users to put in their criteria and search for best possible looks within their parameters just as you do pulling together the pieces for a vacation? This could be combined with multiple brands, such as a top from Zara and a bottom from Nordstrom, which can be easily bought through a single platform: Style-At-Iz.
VC, Angel or Bootstrap: We are bootstrapped at this time, and as founders we have put our money where our mouth is. We want to prototype this idea and show that it has merit. We have an established way of how we like to work and a culture that we like to encourage, and we believe this can be only possible when working for ourselves.
Having said that, we are not averse to getting some VC or angel help in the future, but we want to prove some areas before we go down that path.
Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Our energy and our ability to quickly work through ideas to evaluate their feasibility and the value they’ll add. We also have experience in fashion design and knowledge of the industry, which allows us to create the best recommendations for our customers. The technical chops within the team, along with business acumen, provides us with a unique ability to solve lots of complex business problems by applying simple technical solutions.
The smartest move we’ve made so far: We built some initial affiliations with networks like ShopStyle, which allowed us to access inventory across multiple brands. This in turn allowed us to create recommendations for shoppers and for them to have a single point of sale to buy their selections. We’re also partnering with Jessica Singh, a local stylist and blogger, who brings expertise and skills. This was a good way to build an application, have real users try it and provide valuable feedback.
We also attended some courses with the The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) organization for roughly six months and it was extremely educational. These connections helped us to find the right resources and make some good contacts within the startup community, which we felt was very important for the initial push of the concept. We continue to maintain these valuable contacts as we grow.
The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Initially we went down a path of spending some of our limited finances on a strategy of sketched looks within our first app on iOS, as opposed to featuring real clothes and accessories — and we did this without conducting a good customer study and market research. This was not well accepted by the users and we had to scrap most of the work — except, of course, that we learned how to conduct detailed market research and user studies!
Which leading entrepreneur or executive would you most want working in your corner? Jeff Bezos quickly comes to mind. Amazon has been doing retail business replacement for years and has steadily added domains, from books, toys and clothes to everything else. We believe that once a model is proven within a domain, it can be replicated across other domains.
The Nordstrom family would be next. A store like Nordstrom brings together brands from multiple designers and has shown the ability to do that quickly and efficiently. We would like ideas and opportunities for partnering Style-At-Iz with a store like Nordstrom to provide the best experience for their consumers.
Our favorite team-building activity is: Our Starbucks discussions that sometimes go for hours. We also spend quite a lot of time in our small office area (or Bellevue public library rooms) brainstorming ideas.
The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Passion and an eagerness to contribute. We are looking for people who can take critical feedback with their eye on the eventual prize, and for their ability to pivot quickly, as is required within a startup environment. We believe that women — especially at stay-at-home moms — can join the team and empower themselves.
What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Test the market, spend a lot of time asking your customers what they need and get real data quickly. It will save you a lot of money and time in the future. The ability to build prototypes (even paper ones) and test them with real users is something you should strive for. Try not to spend months trying to perfect a lot of things, but spend a few weeks perfecting one or two things.