The Motivation and Magic Behind “Rent the Runway”

by Marlise Knechtle on February 5, 2013

rent the runwayImagine the following scenario: You are invited to a wedding or party that requires you to dress up in your cutest cocktail dress. The excitement for what is sure to be a fun-filled night with friends and begin to tackle the ever-so-challenging task of choosing a killer outfit. As you stare at your closet full of clothes, you begin to experience a wave of despair that is usually followed by, “I have nothing to wear!”

This all-too-common feeling of exasperation inspired Jennifer Hyman and Jennifer Carter Fleiss, two Harvard Business School classmates, to create a reasonable solution that came to be known as “Rent the Runway.”

Described as “The Netflix of Fashion,” Rent the Runway allows women to rent designer dresses and accessories at a fraction of the retail cost. Suddenly, that gorgeous Herve Ledger dress you spotted in a magazine could be yours for that glamorous party, all without breaking your bank. The process is as simple as choosing a dress, receiving two sizes in the mail (just in case one doesn’t fit) and shipping it back after the allotted rental period. You even have the option of renting a second dress for as low as $25 in case you don’t have too much faith in your initial choice.

The two second-year students decided to first test out their concept by conducting focus groups at Yale and Harvard. They saw the immediate successes that came along with seeing girls find a perfect dress. “Women would put on a sparkly gold dress, twirl around in the mirror, say ‘Don’t I look hot?’ and strut their stuff in front of all of her friends,” says Fleiss. “For us that was real proof that there is a lot of tangibility to this concept, there’s a huge stickiness factor, an emotional connection. We decided to build the concept of Rent the Runway around that feeling that fantastic fashion gets to women.”

In the eleven weeks after launching, Rent the Runway filled over 2,000 orders and had nearly recovered their initial inventory purchase.
The company’s first outside investment came from Bain Capital Ventures for $1.5 million. Over the next two years, the company would attract $30 million in funding, helping it expand to include over 150 designers and thousands of dresses.

Motivation is a Plan, Right?
But the most fascinating aspect of the entrepreneurial success story is not in its impressive revenue stream or saavy business model. Ask the founders if they had a strategic plan since the onset of their venture and you might be surprised in their response. “We had an idea, we thought that it was fun, we decided to start working on it,” says Hyman. “We never had a business plan. We pretended that we had a business from the very beginning, as opposed to planning and strategizing as to whether it would work.” In a day when the entrepreneurial spirit runs wild on college campuses, it’s interesting to come across cases that sprouted to success without a clear-cut and strategic model.
Jenny and Jennifer prove that sometimes all you need to strike gold is a whole lot of motivation. I guess a bit of luck doesn’t hurt either.

To learn more about the founding dynamic duo, check out the video below!

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  • TaylorOlson

    Great post! I love Rent the Runway but I never knew the background story of it! I use it all of the time for my sorority invites and my boyfriend’s fraternity ones, especially good for Vegas. It’s perfect because I don’t want to wear the same thing to multiple events nor do I have the room to store a lot of dresses.

  • Jordan Bennett

    Love this post! I remember hearing about Rent the Runway before, but I completely forgot about it until now. It’s such an innovative and clever idea. I’m definitely going to be using it more!

  • Monica Nguyen

    This is such a fun post, Marlise! I’ve heard of Rent the Runway but have never tried it before. It’s like Bag Borrow or Steal for designer dresses. And “I have nothing to wear!” = story of my life. You really made the post relatable. Great job!

  • ceciliauc

    Cool post, Marlise! It was nice to read up on something I’m not too familiar with. Nice writing style.

  • LillianMa

    This is a genius idea! I’ve also heard about places where you can rent high end designer bags. People always get tired wearing the same outfit no matter how classic they are. This company helps ladies to save money and look to their best everyday ;)

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