Jennifer Hyman, co-founder and CEO of Rent the Runway, says her company's mission is "delivering a Cinderella moment."
Forget magic wands and pumpkins -- these days, it takes tech to do it.
"Technology is the lifeblood of our company," said Hyman. "Since we don't have retail locations, the only way we're delivering this customer experience is online. Technology facilitates that entire experience."
Dubbed the "Netflix for couture," the online mail-order service Rent the Runway rents designer dresses and accessories for a fraction of their original price. Women order the outfits online, paying between $40 and $350 to rent them for up to 8 days at a time.
Hyman launched the company in 2009 with Jennifer Fleiss, a classmate from Harvard Business School, which Hyman attended after working at Starwood Hotels, the Wedding Channel and IMG. Hyman credits these varied career experiences with giving her the insight into sales, fashion, e-commerce, and entrepreneurship necessary to launch Rent the Runway.
"I think we're often trained and prepped in our culture to always try to get to the top and advance to the top, but I realized that's not it," said Hyman. "I just have to be surrounded by people all day long, be in a social environment, and doing innovative, creative things."
In an exclusive interview for The Huffington Post's Women in Tech series, Hyman shared what she's learned as an entrepreneur, how she approaches her career, her favorite apps and more.
What attracted you to a career in tech?
I never was attracted to a career in tech, just as I wasn't attracted to a career in fashion, or a career in marketing. I don't think of careers from a functional perspective, or from a subject matter perspective. I think of careers as, how do you like spending the time in your day? What makes you happiest? What are you most passionate about?
I think that I'm doing something with my co-founder that is extremely innovative, and in order to be innovative, you have to have a grounding and a laser focus on technology.
What's been the most important thing you've learned from launching Rent the Runway?
The technology has been the biggest learning curve. I didn't have a technology background, nor did my co-founder.
What advice do you have for people in similar situations who have an idea for a web company, but don't have a tech background? How can they bring themselves up-to-speed in the way they need to?
Develop a network of mentors, ask a huge number of questions, start building a team at any level and have them teach you -- sit with them. Jenny [Fleiss] and I have taken to sitting with our engineers to understand how they spend their day and how they're motivated.
What's the best advice you've received personally?
Just do it. There's no benefit to saying, "I'm just doing this because it will get me to this new place," or "I'm just going to go into this analyst program because it will prep me for X." If you're passionate about something, go for it, because people are great at what they love and when they're the happiest.
We've been brought up into a culture which is very much about preparedness: you go to the right middle school to get into the right high school to get into the right college, to get the right job after college. At a certain point, you need to turn around and say to yourself, do I love how I spend my day every single day? Is this the most effective use of my heart and my mind?
The downside to starting a company is having it fail, but in the process of potential failure, there's the fun of doing what you love every single day, which to me means there's absolutely no downside. I think if more people actually pursued what they loved, we'd have a lot more innovation and creativity.
SOUND BYTES: Jennifer Hyman on...
Her indispensable gadget: Her iPhone 4
Her favorite app: Instagram, Path and Hotel Tonight
Her favorite account to follow on Twitter: Steve Kolb, executive director of Council of Fashion Designers of America (@SteveKolb)
Her "required reading" recommendation (which is actually "required listening"): Carole King, "Beautiful" ("I derive all my inspiration from music," said Hyman. "I also don't have a long attention span, so a book for me at this point is just way too much of an effort.")
Where do you get your news?
I read NYTimes.com every day and I watch Anderson Cooper every night -- that's how I relax and go to sleep. I like news with an opinion, so I also read a huge amount of pop culture every day. I'm obsessed with New York magazine.
I think that working in such an open office, the news is just funneled to me. If something happens, someone in the office will scream it out loud. It's part of the culture at Rent the Runway: we're never going to have walls and we're never going to have offices because information is diffused so quickly and so effectively in this type of environment.
Why there aren't more women in tech?
First of all, technology is an intimidating industry -- and it's especially intimidating to come into as a woman because it is so heavily oriented toward men. There's that initial hurdle of being the only woman in the room to get over, which is something that will resonate whether you go into venture capital, or whether you go into technology, or whether you go and play football.
The second factor is that technology is presented to the general population [as] the two guys in a garage, sitting in front of a computer all day long with their glasses on, coding. That's one element of technology, but it certainly doesn't encompass the gamut of all of the roles within a technology organization.
I think we need to be cognizant of broadening the brand of what technology actually means, and highlighting for women that there are many different areas where you can shine in a technology organization.
What's the next big idea in tech?
I'd say Rent the Runway is an example of what I think the next big idea in tech is: bringing organic social behaviors online. I think "Social 1.0" on the web was about massive communities and letting you share. The next phase of "Social 2.0" is about differentiating the people you trust from those you don't trust as much and having people you trust help you comb through the massive selection we have on the web.
We don't have a search problem anymore. What we have now is a browsing problem. We think that this is going to be fixed through organic social communities.
What development in tech do you think is most concerning?
I definitely think the decrease in email open rates from companies, especially in e-commerce, is something to pay attention to. There are more and more members-only, flash-sale, email-once-a-day businesses, and not just in retail anymore. At a certain point, there's fatigue in your inbox of how are you going to spend your share of mind online.
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