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Entrepreneur Friday: Rent the Runway

475highlineWHO: Jenny Fliess & Jen Hyman

WHAT: Rent the Runway, where women can rent top designer dresses for a fraction of their cost!

WHEN: 2009

HOW: You can have a closet full of clothes, but when it comes to that high school reunion, cousin’s wedding, first date, or company party, you have nothing to wear. After seeing their friends and family resort to spending hundreds of dollars on a perfect dress that they’d only wear once, Jenny Fleiss and Jen Hyman, classmates at Harvard business school, knew there had to be a solution.

“We’re both entrepreneurs at heart,” says Fleiss, “and we knew this was our opportunity.” So, the two simultaneously ran focus groups among undergrads at Harvard and Yale and received their MBAs. Then, the pair began to meet with designers about the idea. “The first Look28adesigner we met with was interested, and after that, we jumped right in,” says Fleiss. Putting in some of their own money for startup, the women said they’ve been bootstrapping since they began to put the company together. After seeking out a venture capitalist, the pair launched the site in November of last year.

Instead of splurging on a great find, only to feel guilty about buying it once the credit card bill arrives, Rent the Runway allows women to rent the dresses of runway designers – for about 10 percent of their retail cost. With roughly 600 dresses of their 1000 piece inventory in use on a daily basis, Fleiss and Hyman recently had to place an order to increase their inventory – by 5000 dresses. “We had to add them, just to keep up with demand!” says Fleiss. Fashionably and financially savvy, however, the girls added one major money-saver to their business model. The dresses are stored, serviced, and shipped, all from one convenient location – Slate NYC, a full-service dry cleaner. (Talk about one-stop-shopping.) The eco-friendly cleaner helps keeps the dresses looking and feeling newer for longer. Regular wear and tear is covered by a $5 insurance charge on each dress, and after 8 – 15 wears, the dresses are retired.

In the 11 weeks since they launched – that’s right, only 11 weeks – the site has accumulated over 160,000 members, has processed over 2,000 orders, and they’ve nearly broken even on their initial inventory purchase. The site now features the dresses of over 42 designers, “and we’re adding more every day,” says Fleiss. “Many women want glitzy, one-time wear pieces – things they never pictured themselves wearing,” says Fleiss. “Every woman wants the Carrie Bradshaw closet, and Rent the Runway allows women everywhere to have it.”

Look1In the next few months, you can look forward to Rent the Runway adding a few new lines, including rentable accessories, and a bridal line, including bridesmaid dresses (“which are better looking than a lot of other bridesmaid dresses!” says Fleiss), as well as wedding dresses (“since brides really do only wear the dress once”). Even with their instant-hit status, Fleiss says that one of the best parts of the job is receiving thank-you notes and calls from customers. “It’s emotional for them,” says Fleiss. “Dresses like these make women feel confident and sexy, and we’re glad to give them that opportunity.”

THEIR ADVICE: “Go out there and sell the concept,” says Fleiss. “We didn’t sit down and make a business plan, because we knew trends and styles were changing every day, and we’d have to keep up with that – we didn’t waste any time, we just went out and started.”

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