Prior to RTR, she was at Lawrence Lenihan, and Joseph Ferrara, as an early leader at Resonance, a venture operating company that invests in and operates early-stage fashion brands. Here she shares best practices for running a smooth operation.
How would you describe your role in relation to RTR's CEO, Jennifer Hyman?
Jen, the CEO and co-founder who runs the business, is a true visionary. She sees into the future and knows what consumers will want and need. A discontinuous thinker is the way I like to describe her. I'm more of a continuous thinker, although I've learned a lot by working alongside her for many years. We have sort of a yin yang relationship where she's the one who dreams the big dreams, and I'm the one who makes them happen.
How has your role evolved over the last four years?
It's changed significantly. I started early on at the company, and Rent the Runway had, and still has, an ambitious business model. As an early-stage employee, I got the pleasure and the benefit of being involved in almost every area of the business. In the first four years that I spent at Rent the Runway, I touched a lot of different things that I had no experience in.
At RTR I learned about technology, production, supply chain and operations, and inventory management. I faced some unique challenges that I had never encountered before. That early experience, where I got to touch all these pieces of the business, teed me up for the role that I'm in today, many years later, overseeing the day-to-day operations.
What is the operational approach each of your departments at Rent the Runway employs to continue to drive scale?
We're a very data-driven, test and learn company at the core of who we are as a business. Whether it's the technology organization, consumer product organization, or supply chain operation, that is the commonality in our process.
We are also highly results-driven. Like many organizations, we use OKRs. It's a process that we’ve been refining over time. We use them diligently, so even though every group operates differently due to wildly different mandates, there's a commonality in the way we talk about our goals.
We're a very data-driven, test, and learn company at the core of who we are as a business.
How do you measure the effectiveness of the current operational processes?
The data, test and learn approach is critical. One small operational example to illustrate this is the fact that we've had an analytics team since the beginning. One of our first senior hires at the company was the head of analytics. He started the practice of collecting analytical insights, and 11 years later, we still do it. Every four weeks someone from the data team will present to a range of people across our company. It's a pretty technical presentation that goes into the team's methodology, how they approached the analysis and built the model, and what the results were.
Information sharing is also incredibly important. As an organization, we believe in sharing information across all the different groups even if it doesn't necessarily seem relevant on the surface. We also do things like hackathons where someone from a totally different team can help solve a problem in a separate department.
As you innovate, grow, and change, how do you approach changing customer behavior, and how have those tactics changed?
When we launched back in 2009, the ’sharing economy‘ was not a known term. Airbnb and Uber etc came up around the same time as us. It was much easier and more normalized to think about sharing a ride. People were already using taxis and staying in hotels so riding in someone's car or staying in their house was not that different. However, sharing clothing was quite different. In many ways, we had higher hurdles to jump than a lot of other sharing economy companies.
Virality and customer referrals were at the core of our growth from the beginning because we were tackling something unusual. Women just hadn't rented clothes very much before. The closest people had come were thrift shops, which was fundamentally not the same product. We had a lot of work to do in the first 5- 7 years of the business, just explaining that this could be a delightful, high-quality, high-end experience.
How have your customer service tactics evolved over the years?
The first years of the business were the most high touch experience ever. People called us wanting styling advice, they stayed on the phone for 30 minutes, and sent us pictures if something went wrong. That doesn't scale over time. So as our business shifted towards subscription, the customer service needs became very different. Instead of people renting a dress a couple of times a year, they wanted something for every day of the week. The stakes were much lower, and customer service demands fundamentally changed.
Across the board, we've seen that customers want to help themselves. To accommodate that, we've built a lot of self-service tools. People can pause their subscription account and make a bunch of other account changes on their own. We see high utilization of all of those services.
Is your scale more driven by having great technology or having the right people?
Both. We are a very technology-driven and technology-dependent company. But most of that technology is homegrown technology that we've built specifically for our complex business.
Over the last two years, we've really focused on hardening the foundation of our technology. It's the unsexy stuff, but it's vital for our business. We need people to build and maintain that technology. So the answer is both.
Over the last two years, we've really focused on hardening the foundation of our technology. It's the unsexy stuff, but it's vital for our business.
Any advice for startups as they evolve from just getting clients to building a desirable place to work?
That is a great question. In the beginning, the list of potential growth generating ideas is 10,000 bullets long. Of those 10,000, only 500 are good ideas that could optimize your business by driving revenue, reducing costs, or facilitating customer delight. Realistically speaking, you can probably only do three of them. I think the most challenging part about running a business well is picking three ideas and sticking with them.
Pick your three things and have conviction around those priorities. Tell your staff these are the goals - we're going to be successful if we meet them, and we're going to be less successful if we don't. Clarity, especially when you're in an early-stage startup, makes for a desirable workplace.
How do you build consensus around what to pursue?
It depends on what you want to optimize. Are you optimizing to get three amazing clients? Or are you optimizing for volume, and you want 10 so-so clients? Those are two very different strategies that you would follow depending on which path you want to take. Once you have that framework, everything becomes much simpler and less subjective.
A lot of companies have found efficiencies through technology and remote working. Do you believe they will stick in the future?
We've certainly seen that. If you had asked me a couple years ago if I thought we could effectively operate remotely as a company, I would definitely have said no. Yet here we are and I think the answer is 100% yes. We've driven more results and been more innovative than I ever thought possible.
Has the management of your role changed with remote working? How are you managing that from an operational standpoint?
It's great if you're an individual contributor, especially in a technical role. We've seen folks on our data team who are super happy because no one's bothering them. They're able to be productive, working fewer hours a day and yet getting more work done. There are certain positions where remote work is incredible.
However, in positions like mine, where so much of my job is partnering with people through conversations, it's been hard. The ability to sit down and bang something out in 10 minutes with people versus needing to hash it out over Slack has been challenging. I'm ready to go back to the office. I'm ready to see people again, sit in a conference room, and collaborate.
We're utilizing a flexibility policy where we come to the office two to three days a week and work from home the other days. I think that's the best of both worlds, where we don't completely eliminate the social and collaborative work aspects.
How was your supply change affected by COVID-19?
Many of the brands that we work with get their raw materials from China. So back in November and December of 2019, we already had a heads up about COVID-19. In hindsight, we didn't anticipate that it would come here and cause the havoc that it did. Initially, we thought it would just be a supply chain disruption. We had to develop creative and alternative deals to continue partnering with those brands. Luckily, we have an incredible team of merchants who could work with our brand partners.
Is there a move to include a wider range of independent and underrepresented designers in your offerings?
There definitely is! I'm glad you asked this question. We thought long and hard about this and took a hard look at ourselves. In 2020 we had a lot of conversations about racial justice and made a number of external commitments.
One was to spend an incremental million dollars on designers of color and black designers. We also thought about representation in our imagery on our site, social media platforms, and ambassador network. We have set more ambitious goals to increase representation in our editorial, which is super important because that's what we're putting out into the world as what's aspirational. We are pretty excited about those efforts. We see them as multi-year efforts and not a one time thing. Nothing's a one and done.