DesignerShare | Success Comes From Persistence
One of the first lessons kids learn in school is the value of sharing. And if the sharing economy—projected to be worth $335 billion by 2025—is any indication, these lessons stuck. Companies like Uber, Lyft and AirBnb have made it possible for users to leverage their homes, vehicles and time in order to optimize their incomes, but where is the Uber for fashion? I spoke with Sarah Perkins, CEO and co-founder of the Chicago-based DesignerShare about the changes happening in tech, the benefits of staying in the Midwest and how her company is stepping up to plug an overlooked hole in the tech industry.
For as long as she can remember, Sarah Perkins has hustled.
As a kid growing up 30 miles north of Chicago in Lake Bluff, Illinois, she eschewed the child labor laws that prevented her from accepting a job as a hostess or waitress. Possessing a strong Midwestern work ethic and no small amount of chutzpah, the then ten-year-old decided she was done abiding by arbitrary government regulations. She marched over to a neighbor’s house and offered to walk their Schnauzer for the very reasonable rate of ten dollars a week.
She hasn’t slowed down since.
Sarah remembers her childhood as an active, outdoorsy one, but for real adventures, she turned to books and fashion. She derived inspiration from strong women and fictional characters, so when it came time to pick out her high school prom dress, she knew exactly what she wanted.
“This was right around when Obama was first inaugurated and Michelle wore that Jason Wu dress which really took him to that global platform,” she tells me. “I was obsessed with that style, but I wanted it short and in purple.”
This ability to envision an outcome and manifest it into reality is what makes Sarah such an impressive person to speak with. Her company, DesignerShare, which she began building in 2015 with business partner Bill Meyer, is what would happen if AirBnb and Rent the Runway had a baby. Like Rent the Runway, DesignerShare allows users to lease designer fashions, ultimately saving them money. But unlike Rent the Runway, DesignerShare users aren’t renting from a company—they’re renting from other women.
It’s impossible to discuss contemporary fashion without examining the role social media has played on our shopping choices. The rise of the digital age has created a culture in which people—mainly women—are under an unspoken and (mainly) internalized pressure not to repeat outfits. But outside of the rich and Instagram famous, few can afford to purchase a new dress to wear for every friend’s wedding or formal occasion.
As a college student in California, Sarah experienced this sartorial conundrum firsthand. At the time, she was investing in dresses by mid-level designers for events, only to see them languish in her closet after one use. Rather than getting rid of the dresses, Sarah began lending them out to friends. “It was really fun to share and bond over it…helping other people feel really good about themselves helped me feel good.”
As much as she enjoyed playing clothing matchmaker, Sarah had other career plans. Since high school, she always envisioned she’d end up in publishing. After graduating from Santa Clara University with a major in marketing and a minor in English, she returned to the Midwest and accepted a job as an editorial assistant for a roofing magazine. The job was a bad fit and Sarah returned to school to get her Masters in journalism. A job writing for Modern Luxury followed and soon she was living the Midwestern media dream—or as much as anyone can on a journalist’s salary.
It took nine months of writing during the day and grinding on behalf of DesignerShare at night, but eventually Sarah decided it was time to fall off the cliff and quit her day job. In the fall of 2016, she left Where Chicago to focus full time on building DesignerShare into a viable business. In March of 2017, the company launched their first site. Today, DesignerShare boasts six employees, a slew of summer interns and an entirely redesigned site focused on personalizing and improving user experience.
The company has 4,400 users from across the country signed up, but only a smaller percentage of that number has listed or rented items from the site. As DesignerShare continues to evolve, the team hopes to grow this number and convert more people into active users. Sarah anticipates that as the company adds a CTO to their roster, an app and improvements to the site’s technological capabilities will follow.
As a young founder, Sarah is keenly aware of the power technology has to build her business—or destroy it. She is incredibly careful about what she posts online, noting “Your entire business is on the Internet now. My investors follow me on Instagram.” She’s thoughtful about managing her team, striving to nurture the intimate office environment she’s created while maintaining boundaries and executing her vision for the brand.
Sarah takes a very hands-on approach to her company, involving herself in all facets of DesignerShare. She knows where her strengths are, but continually pushes herself to learn more about the legal and accounting sides of the business. She’s seen enough promising, young start-ups fold because companies were unwilling to pivot or founders gave up. Sarah is determined not to repeat their mistakes or follow in their footsteps.
As a woman in tech, she knows the stakes are sometimes higher. But as she pragmatically points out, thanks to the internet’s long memory, being young and stupid is no longer an excuse for either gender.
“I think there’s a big change happening in tech,” Sarah says. “I’m very excited to see more equality overall in what’s represented from a funding standpoint.” She knows there are gatekeepers within the industry who won’t see the value in a fashion startup, but chooses instead to focus on the special investors who will.
“We’re always really excited when we find those amazing investors who are like, ‘I love a marketplace, I love e-commerce, I love retail, I love fashion’ because of the huge market that’s out there.” She adds, “Just because our idea happens to be serving an industry that a lot of people who are at the forefront of funding might say ‘I don’t care about’ doesn’t mean other people don’t.”
Sarah knows her young, fashionable, predominantly female team stands out in a community that generally skews white and male. She recalls people coming up to her and saying, “You girls must have so much fun playing with all this stuff.” She doesn’t take the condescension seriously, preferring to concentrate instead on DesignerShare’s potential.
“It’s a real business model,” she says. “The sharing economy only continues to grow and the peer to peer clothing aspect of that is only growing as well.” The metrics on the site are promising. The average user spends $90 on DesignerShare and on average, renters make close to $300 for leasing out their old fashions. The site went national in January of this year and as more people are able to list their items, Sarah expects these numbers will continue to increase.
Chicago is not as well known of a tech hub as San Francisco or New York, but with startups like Groupon, GrubHub and SpotHero launching here, the Windy City offers an impressive pedigree of its own. Sarah cautions aspiring tech founders not to write the Midwest off. Chicago offers a lower cost of living, growing resources and a tight-knit tech community. For DesignerShare, proximity to Chicago’s burgeoning logistics scene offers opportunities to optimize their delivery system. Most importantly, Sarah says, the Midwest balances the laid back vibes of the West Coast with the grind of the East Coast, creating a workplace mentality that is unique to Chicago.
My biggest pieces of advice is to learn to put the pencil down, physically and mentally, and to know that success comes from persistence. As Tim Gunn would say, “Make it work!”
As for the future of DesignerShare, Sarah hopes to eventually open the site up so both men and women can list and rent their fashions. In five years, she’d like the site to go global, noting there is already interest from the European market.
There’s no way to predict what’s next for Sarah Perkins, but there is one thing she knows for sure. When it comes to DesignerShare, the time is now and there is no plan B.