Fashion-data firm Claire didn’t win the pitch competition at the Project Entrepreneur Weekend Intensive this past weekend, but they walked away with a win that was just as good.
The data firm will work with designer Rebecca Minkoff to be accelerated at the offices of her company, which has a reputation in the industry for being technologically proactive, such as having interactive screens in her stores. Claire, co-founded by Marta Jamrozik and Misha Laskin, helps fashion brands and retailers determine what to sell next and how to price it, through gaming.
The three winners of the pitch competition — end-of-life firm Cake; B2B platform Full Harvest Technologies, which brings their excess produce to market, and babysitting app Komae — will participate in a five-week accelerator program at Rent the Runway.
The competition was part of the program designed jointly by the Rent the Runway Foundation and UBS, which provided a $3 million grant to be used over a three-year period. Nearly 200 women founders attended the various sessions on how to refine a business and scale it.
Minkoff was one of several judges for the pitch competition. She said participating in the event was a way of “giving it back and paying it forward. I’ve always been big on female empowerment. When Jenn Hyman [co-founder of Rent the Runway] asked me to help, it was a no-brainer.”
The designer said she wanted to help women succeed, noting also how much help she needed when she first started her business. “I feel that in the last 18 months, maybe two years, there’s been a groundswell of women helping each other. The entrepreneurs are more open, and more women are willing to help,” Minkoff said.
She predicted that in five years’ time, there will be more female venture capitalists, as well as female engineers and “any area where it is now a man’s world. The walls will come down.”
In an interview with the founders of Claire, before the pitch competition, they explained that they use an A/B testing program, where the participant is deciding either option A or B. The participants are either active customers on a company’s e-mail list, or, for larger brands, shoppers who are part of a loyalty program. The queries are set up as games, and there can be multiple games asking for different opinions. The start-up is working with different firms, ranging from brick-and-mortar to e-tailers. According to Jamrozik, “People from a direct-to-consumer background are easier to get them to give you feedback — it’s like they want to help out.” She added that there are others who need an incentive, so the game is set up to provide either loyalty points or a giveaway, such as a product sample.
The weekend program included Bethenny Frankel as the keynote luncheon speaker. She spoke about starting her firm Skinnygirl Cocktails and the challenges female entrepreneurs face.
She told attendees that her decisions are made by instinct. “I don’t think about what the guys are doing,” referring to competitors, and even the noise that can accompany anything from criticism about an idea or a decision. What wins is execution. “People can be whining about everything, but it’s about who executes and who gets it done,” she said.
As for others joining the idea parade, Frankel isn’t a bit worried: “I don’t care. Come on in. I’m already onto my next best thing.” She also advised the entrepreneurs to have an understanding of “what you know and don’t know.”
Frankel spoke about recognizing opportunity. She was attending the Broadway show “Hamilton” Saturday night and decided to “stick some Skinnygirl products in the dressing rooms. Maybe they’ll love it. Maybe they’ll tweet it. You have to find ways to be creative.”
The weekend event began with a keynote by the founders of Rent the Runway, Hyman and Jenny Fleiss.
Hyman spoke about getting to the $1 billion threshold, and about why they chose dresses initially to disrupt the shopping model for the category. “When we looked at the segment [this is] clothing you wear a few times,” she said, noting that seasonal changes and lifestyle issues, such as pregnancy, can impact how often women wear what they wear. She added that dresses have a return rate to stores that’s over 50 percent, with the tags still on. “Women had been renting the runway, returning on Jan. 2,” Hyman said.
Fleiss noted that a concept that could become a big idea that disrupts the marketplace depends on the “problem you are trying to solve. [For us], women want new clothes, but they don’t want to spend the money.”
Hyman also spoke about developing the business and taking measured steps to make sure growth is accomplished using the right strategic approach. She said there’s room for the company to grow, including an idea to “put the closet back into the cloud, where you can pull things down from the cloud.” The idea parallels the Airbnb model, which Hyman said is still in development.
Hyman said she’s often asked when the company will go international. “I don’t know,” she said, noting that the company is going to stay focused on the U.S., which is a huge market. Going international would mean different logistics and distribution, and that could take away from the focus on the U.S. market. The new option called Unlimited, a monthly subscription option, was launched 6 years after first getting the idea.
“When you grow, you could think horizontally or vertically…. By going vertical, we are using our current customer base. That is a smart, economical way to grow,” Fleiss said.