Studio chats: Sarah Perkins, CEO & Founder of DesignerShare
Do something for me – think of an idea. A really great one you had. One that you thought could change the way people interacted with others and the world around them. Got it?
Now, what did you do with that idea? Did you act on it? Did you talk about it with friends and family? Vet it with a partner or colleague? Or did you let that idea pass by?
Sarah Perkins, a beloved client and friend of LimeRed, and her business partner, Bill Meyer, had such an idea. It was life changing — one that begged to be developed into something real. They discussed, developed, prototyped, designed, fought for, believed in, and sweat for this idea. And now, in just a few short days, that idea will be reality.
On Friday, March 31, Sarah, Bill, and their team are launching their MVP, DesignerShare, the first ever peer-to-peer designer clothes and accessories lending platform that allows women to open their wardrobe and have access to thousands of high-quality designer pieces. In short, it’s the the ultimate dream closet, right at your fingertips, for a fraction of the retail price. We sat down to talk to Sarah about how this idea became reality and what it’s really like to be a smart, kick-ass entrepreneur in today’s world.
Annie DaValle, Project Manager, LimeRed: Sarah! Let’s start. Tell us a little bit about your story and your background.
Sarah Perkins, CEO & Founder, DesignerShare: I have always loved fashion. I can remember growing up and being so enchanted by it. I come from a marketing and journalism background and I have been in a lifestyle journalism role for the last few years. A really good family friend [co-founder and colleague, Bill Meyer] reached out to me with this idea for doing a sharing-economy business in fashion. Just between the two of us, I know a bit more about women’s fashion than he does, but he is incredibly intelligent and knows far more about the law. We came together on this idea at the end of 2015 while I was still working my editorial job. We would meet once or twice a week to work on this until the summer when we realized that if we really wanted to get this off the ground we had to dive into it. At the beginning of September, I quit my job and we met with LimeRed to do our prototype. It has been amazing and fast-paced ever since. In the past 6 months, we were able to get our business model more secure and get a site launched.
AD: What does it feel like being a young, entrepreneurial business woman in this day and age? What have been some of your challenges?
SP: In a managerial role at a younger age and being a woman in this space, people are aware of the numbers and how low the percentage is for women who receive investment money. I still have a fear of this. I have to work really hard with the people that say they even want to talk to me. In some ways, I feel that I almost have to do more than the men in the room…even though some of them didn’t pitch as well. There seems to be a self-assurance that men have that they don’t have to worry about what they look like — their ideas are enough. I feel that I have to look better to get the same type of attention and respect.
Starting off, I experienced a lot of “manterruptions”, especially in meetings. When I was just starting, I had a guy say to me, “it is just so cute seeing all these 25-year olds wanting to be CEO’s out of 1871”. And then he shook my partner’s hand when we said goodbye, but not mine. The combination of being younger and a woman, sometimes you feel like you’re not receiving the same respect. I am very serious about what I do. That is another hard part, when you are a woman and serious or stern, it comes across as being a $#!*%. But with men, it’s “he’s a serious guy, he’s very focused.” It is never, “he’s such a jerk”.
But I keep going. [At a recent pitch event], I met a lot of really great women. There is this immediate kinship and bonding. Some even stuck around and waited until I pitched at 10:30 at night because they were so excited by our business model and they wanted to see someone do well and succeed. That is what kind of pushed me through. Having that support is also the reason we are creating DesignerShare: to give women access to pieces that give them more confidence but to also have a community that is full of respect.
AD: Let’s think about this particular situation for a minute: Very feasibly, that man was once in your shoes. He once started from nothing and forged a path to get where he is today. From your perspective, what do you think shifts in someone so that instead of extending a hand, they withhold help and guidance from those coming up behind them? And Part 2 of this question: A lot of businesses are run by men. A lot of executives are men. Men tend to have more opportunities and avenues to help each other out. I am interested to hear, what you think we can do as women to empower each other and pull each other up?
SP: I think it comes out of insecurity. I look at Evan Spiegel who just had the biggest tech IPO ever, and he is my age. You can’t compare yourself to other people or you will go insane. It can be tough, but in the end, I am my own toughest critic and I am competing against myself. It is never anyone else in my space. I don’t look at other people out at 1871 and think, “they are so much farther ahead of me”.
[As women,] I think we need to take the time for one another. Really listening and networking. We can build such a strong community around each other to put ourselves in better positions. I wish we were further in a lot of ways. I think people are still afraid of women being in power. Why does it matter if I am different from you anatomically? I wish that in terms of applications, we could leave people’s names off of them. We would end up seeing a lot more diversity in our work force.
As women, we need to continue to be there for other women. It is not thinking that, once you have reached a certain level, you are too good for others. Because there is nothing better than having mentors and having someone to look up to. And eventually, we end up paying it forward. What better way to help each other than to continue to open bridges between each other rather than closing them off?
AD: Speaking of strong women, did you have a mentors who have lifted you up or that you look to as role models?
SP: I would say, in general, my mom has been really great. She was a CPA, in a supervisor position. She had the opportunity to be a CFO at one point. She gave this up to raise my brother and me.
In terms of other entrepreneurial influences, my grandpa is a big one for me. He had his own architecture firm and really believed in me, to a point where I still don’t really understand.
And my dad is my rock. I go to him about everything — we just click really well. My family never came from big money. My parents just worked super hard to get where they did.
In terms of a start up mentor, not to sound like I am trying to be a kiss-up, but Emily [Lonigro Boylan], has been a great one. I just felt an immediate connection to her and I can feel like I can be really open with her and learn a lot. She’s very encouraging.
AD: Creating a business plan and putting together a business model is a mountain that every company has to climb. Can you walk me through how you created your business model?
SP: It is still a work in progress. You think of all the scenarios possible, from a risk perspective, what can go wrong and then you go from there. It really helps to go to experts and those that have done this before and ask them what they think. You start to take advice from them and make your changes. Sometimes it is just that moment where you wonder, how am I going to fix this one problem, and you spend the entire day working it out. Or you actually, physically, draw out with a pencil your flowchart of operations of where the costs come in. This is what helps me the most. I am sure my business professors would be happy to hear that I retained some of their advice.
I also took a lot of time to research my competition. I don’t obsess over my competition because in the end, I am not going to be the last one in the space. Someone is going to come in and learn from us and it ends up shaping into a totally new industry. I do look at their price models and think about what my customers would want. If I am in their shoes, what would I like? I just try to make everything as amazing for her [the customer] as possible.
AD: Okay, so you have the idea, the business model, the actual product, and you are building your team. That is another hat you have to put on: The boss hat. Talk a little bit about what that process has been like for you: What do you look for in your team and how do you see yourself as a leader?
SP: We have hired two team members so far. I just want to encourage them to be their own people and show them that I trust their instincts. I try to listen as much as possible. They are really strong women and they are far smarter than me in a lot of ways. I think that is the smartest way to build a team: Find people who are more intelligent than you. I learn a lot from them and get emotional support. There are some days where I feel like I have to be that column for everyone and that can feel like a lot of weight. But I have been more concerned with making these people who have, so graciously, come onto my team feel supported and that they are in an environment they can thrive in. They are supporting me, when they don’t have to. They can go work for someone who is far more established than me. But they are people who believe enough in you and your concept to come onto your team.
AD: You are about to launch DesignerShare in just a few days and we have been working together on the final product for a while now. What has it been like to work with LimeRed? You can share the good and the bad!
SP: Bill and I thought we were set with one group here in Chicago. We had thought we found our Goldilocks moment — we were wrong. We were so insistent that it was here in Chicago so we could be hands on. We heard the horror stories of sending the work out elsewhere and there being so many more problems and [web] bugs. When we met Emily in July, we had this moment where we thought we needed to work with her. We just really hit it off and I admired her work. Then I realized we HAD found our perfect match with her, especially when I heard about the prototyping. This was everything we wanted. I always had wished that I could look at the designer’s screen while they worked to say things I liked and didn’t like. When you come from an editorial background, you are so attuned to background, I knew i had to see every single detail to make sure it fit with our branding. The one week prototyping we did was incredible. It was really great. It pushed us in so many ways. It even taught us to handle different aspects of business.
AD: It is 5 years from now. Where is DesignerShare and where is Sarah?
SP: With DesignerShare, we also felt like we had to dream big. We can see this scaling up really well. I was having pizza with another great woman investor here in Chicago and we were spitballing about where this could go, I have always liked the idea of this turning into a full lifestyle brand, and having a media component too. One day, I would let someone handle DesignerShare and I would be on a more global scale and looking after things in that sense. Or maybe tuck me into the side and I become editor of whatever little media spot we have. I would want something that is very community based and very empowering and allows women to have the best because we all deserve the best.