Homegrown: Pioneering The Circular Economy
– Interview with Isabella West of Hirestreet
Isabella West, born and bred in the North East and a graduate from Oxford University in Economics and Management, founded the clothing rental business Hirestreet in 2017 with the purpose of helping customers find an affordable alternative to buying fast-fashion.
Where did you get the idea from, was it a bedroom or kitchen table business?
The idea has been with me for years – I grew up with two sisters so was very used to sharing my clothes. When I was at school I started Swap Shop (a genius play on Topshop!) and my friends would bring in their dresses and swap for a new outfit. At University I developed The Dress Cupboard – one consolidated wardrobe of all the girls on my floor that they were happy to lend to others. It comes from my love of going out, being from the North East.
I moved to London as a strategy consultant helping businesses solve key problems. The side of that which interested me was the consumer side – trying to break down a consumer problem and making sure a business was targeting consumers the right way to address it.
This led me to Selfridges group working in their strategy team – we were asking what does the future of retail look like? As part of that project I had access to US data coming out and in 2016 Rent the Runway launched a subscription element, so they had phenomenal data coming out of that – they had this amazing understanding of what their key customer wanted from a fashion proposition.
I wanted to be able to provide that confidence people feel when they get dressed up – but in a way that was sustainable and affordable. We wanted to provide an alternative to buying fast fashion, which makes up over 50% of fashion sales in the UK. I didn’t want to solve a problem for a small niche of people, I wanted it to be available to people who bought from places like Zara, like myself.
It’s been an amazing journey since – I have taken that concept and done as much as I can to focus on what that customer wants, and looked at how we evolve that experience, from her first rental outfit for a wedding to renting an outfit for work for example.
I wanted to be able to provide that confidence people feel when they get dressed up – In a way that was sustainable
How did you get the first brands on board?
I wanted to start with a minimum viable product and get something in the hands of customers as soon as possible. I had an array of dresses, initially kept in my bedroom and progressively they overtook my parents’ basement. I asked my friends for fancy dresses that they wouldn’t mind donating to help me test and learn about the concept.
I had about 200 donated dresses, we did a very budget shoot, built a very haphazard WordPress website – the whole concept was ‘Is there interest in renting at this level?’
You could only rent a dress for 10 days and deliveries were always on a Friday – I was doing the dry cleaning and running to the post office to make sure they’d have their outfit for the weekend.
What was really interesting was that we had done a consumer survey before we launched and they said they would spend around £30-50 buying an outfit twice a month – so they’d like to rent a dress at around the same amount.
But what we actually saw was that people upgraded to rent a £150 dress for £30, they were substituting the purchase for a rental.
Had we just based our plans on the survey – they just didn’t know what they wanted from a rental proposition because one didn’t exist.
By launching as an MVP and not spending too much before we tested with customers then it gave us a sweet spot of items that were popular to rent.
We learned that the way into the market was as a live proposition – that’s the key thing that I would always stress to any future entrepreneur. Get real-life customer feedback as soon as you can.
We’ve taken that ethos with us – fail really fast, test hypotheses quickly, focus on the customer and keep iterating the offer towards them.
What was the first big step change?
It was just me from May 2018 to April 2019, and I built up our rentals and data points to give me an understanding to how we would want to scale.
In December 2018 I started a seed fundraising round, we had 97% of our stock rented that Christmas and featured in national press so we had all the evidence.
In the April following we closed that seed round, raising from private angels and we hired a head of marketing and CTO and moved the stock up to our warehouse partner in Glasgow.
That was the real first change in pace – they could power hundreds of thousands of rentals a day.
It took a whole year to get to that point.
How did you know where to go for those funders and partners?
You have to shake that network tree – I’m someone who loves data and economics and hate asking for things. That’s been the area of being a CEO that has taken me most outside of my comfort zone – pitching and public speaking is not where I feel happiest.
Getting used to using my voice on Linkedin and sharing articles didn’t make me 100% comfortable – but I’m really glad I did it.
One of the best things I did was move home – what I found when I came home to the North East was that people were so happy to support me and so proud of ‘one of their own’ trying to do something different in the big world of fashion – everyone helped. I don’t think I would have had a tenth of the feeling of community if I had stayed down in London. The North East is such a lovely place and people are so encouraging.
people were so happy to support me and so proud of ‘one of their own’ trying to do something different
That’s the one thing that I will always try and give back to – anytime a small entrepreneur is wanting support or help.
How did you win those big brand accounts?
It’s been a process. We had to obviously build out the Hirestreet credentials – we are the biggest rental platform in the UK with nearly 2m users but this takes time. There are brands we work with now that I could not have started a conversation with three years ago and it wouldn’t have gone the same way.
It’s about not being discouraged, asking what is my current size and then reaching out to the brands you can work with today and working with them before stepping up.
I took certain rejections as negative to begin with – but it’s never actually a ‘No’ it’s usually a ‘Not Yet’. That’s really key – the brands you see us working with now, that was not a ‘yes’ in previous years.
It is about being super resilient, not taking it personally if you’re not big enough yet, not giving up and being super polite and respectful of their requirements of you. And be that person that does not let it go.
M&S is the biggest brand we partner with, they have 30million customers and are the second biggest clothing retailer in the UK, but it takes time for them to think you are a brand that is credible and trustworthy enough to deliver a service on their behalf. Three years ago I didn’t understand the scale of the wave of traffic they send to you – that they can make you Apple News biggest news story of the day.
I am proud of the resilience we have shown to knock those doors down.
Renting occasion wear is commonplace but slowly you’ll see us break down other industries so that becomes the norm there too.
Do you pinch yourself when the big deals land, and do you take time out as a team to celebrate?
Culturally I need to get better at stepping back and celebrating the wins – I am rubbish at it. I launched M&S at midnight on the 16th and I was working on a new client on the 17th – I didn’t look back at all.
I don’t know when it ever sunk in – there’s always so much left to do – but I don’t want to be that type of CEO for the business, so it’s an area I am personally working on. How do we be target-led and make sure that when we hit it we have a planned celebration.
Who has helped you on this journey?
In the early years I worked myself into the ground, I became ill by doing everything myself. On weekends I got up at 6am working, I said no to plans and didn’t have a life.
My family and my other half pulled me back from that – 18 months in I was able to separate the highs and lows from the business from my own life.
For instance Covid hit, and I had no understanding how to navigate through it – I internalised all that stress.
My family helped me to separate that and work on some work-life balance.
I was always told I would benefit from a mentor and I spent years looking for someone without success. I have the most amazing mentor now, he was the COO of Depop and it was announced in the press he was leaving, so I messaged him a year ago on LinkedIn and asked if he might have a half hour chat with me – and we’ve spoken almost every day since.
We had a positive but challenging conversation and he offered to chat the next week and he is now my mentor and person that guides me – but it was worth the wait. I’m grateful I didn’t force a fit anywhere else.
Tell us about Zoa?
It comes back to the core principles of the business – being super in tune with what your customer wants.
When your revenues are going in the right direction and the numbers are good you don’t question things as much as you should. In the pandemic we had this ability to slow down and stop for the first time – we took a step back and looked at the market.
We were looking at acquiring customers and purchasing stock through wholesalers. I don’t like inefficiencies, so I realised that both of those things would be more efficient by powering our rental business with retailers, who already own stock and have an established customer base.
We went through this exercise to future proof the business – we took the core technology that we use to rent on Hirestreet and gave that directly to retailers to they could start to rent themselves.
It’s a white label Saas product – if you want to launch a rental business you can go on and do that tomorrow – it’s like Shopify but for circular commerce.
Its early days on Zoa, we spent 18 months building it and were first to market in the UK but its definitely still a market that is evolving but it will dominate the next five years I believe.
We already know what’s coming after that. If I’m working on today’s problem in the business something is dramatically wrong. I have a brilliant team who look after various elements of the business and focus on the needs of today but that is definitely not my role – Zoa was the first time you saw us prepare for the future and we will continue to do that.
The needs of retailers will continue to evolve and our job is to be ahead of the market to be the go-to solution.
We have our first brands using the platform, I am super proud to be powering the next generation of entrepreneurs to be joining the rental market. I love the fun of starting the new elements of the business, I can’t help but try and get involved.
We are running a little accelerator programme to the brands that are using Zoa to get started in rental – we have done menswear, skiing, vintage womenswear, peer to peer already.
The next step is powering a large retailer, you’ll see that coming in the next few months. In the fashion industry there is a lot of FOMO, so it’s a great help for us in our sales cycle that they see M&S doing it and want to be on board with rental too.
What does your average day look like?
I am up in the North every couple of weeks. I do three days a week head-down working on the business, a day in London and either the North-East or Glasgow where our warehouse is.
Raising fundraising and launching a big brand on Zoa is taking up a lot of my time just now.
Each day is very much a variety, it’s a perfect blend of data and trend forecasting with meetings and motivating my team which is very fulfilling. I do that from afar now and I just sit in meetings and upwards learn from them.
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