Interview with Isabella West, Founder of Hirestreet
Have you ever wondered what your own version of success is? or even your friends? And that their version of success could mean something completely different to yours? We're not just talking about becoming the CEO of a a FTSE 250 (although dream big girls) but the real life honest versions of success.
As part of our mission to give you the confidence to conquer your world, we're investigating what that personally means to as many women as we can chat to, whether it's working a job that allows you to travel the world, saving enough money to move out of your parents house, bossing the boardroom or leaving at the end of your shift to enjoy the finer things in life. We're creating more transparency around success to help you realise your own version, inspire you to put a plan in place to achieve and execute it so you can conquer your world confidently.
Today we read all about how Newcastle born entrepreneur, Isabella West, ditched her London city job to found Hirestreet: the UK’s first-ever high-street fashion rental service offering a lifeline to the budget-conscious who loathe to outfit repeat but to put more simply, every millennial’s answer to sustainable fast fashion.
LIFE AND SUCCESS
What is your definition of success and what does it personally look like for you?
I think happiness is the best measure of success. When you start a business there are never enough hours in a day - it teaches you a lot about prioritising the things that really matter to you and for me that is spending time with my friends and family. I am lucky, I have a job that I love doing but I think success would mean getting the business to the point where it doesn’t need me to run it every day.
I could not agree more! But how do you plan to achieve that? What is your strategy?
The strategy is simply to hire people, and work with people who have the same vision, but who are experts in their respective fields. Already we have a super skilled team, we work with the best cleaning and logistics provider in the UK, we have brilliant technical, marketing and customer staff members who are fully dedicated to making rental the go-to fashion solution in the UK. I work on business development, so for the time being there is still so much on my list to do - but I think the team we have in place will be key to making Hirestreet a success.
How different is your version of success from when you were in school? What did you want to be when you grew up?
I always wanted to have my own business, my parents are both entrepreneurs so I caught that bug from them. When I was in school I definitely didn’t realise how hard it would be, I was probably thinking of the glamorous side of success and being my own boss. I’ve always loved fashion and socialising so I think my younger self would be happy at how things have panned out.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
I think the thing I am most proud of is my team. They are amazing and they make going to work a treat every day. I know it’s probably a strange response but it’s not something to take for granted, I have worked as part of many teams some of which were great and some were not. I feel it has been a huge achievement to hire people who are not only super talented but also who believe in the Hirestreet vision.
What are the biggest things being a business owner has taught you so far?
I think the importance of prioritising - there is never enough time to do everything you need to so it’s about planning and managing each day efficiently. Also I have found that genuinely people are very supportive, so never be too proud to ask for help - many of the big decisions I had to make I have had huge amounts of help and advice with.
Starting your own business is a big gamble. What gave you the push to go ahead with it?
I have always wanted to start my own business, and growing up with 2 sisters was very familiar with the benefits of sharing clothes. When I was 17 I introduced the idea of a SwopShop to school, and throughout my uni life I was effectively running a ‘free rental’ service amongst my friends. I have always believed in the concept of a shared wardrobe, but it wasn’t until I moved to London and the logistics of sharing with friends became more complicated that I began to think about the potential business case. In 2017 I was working for Selfridges in their Global Strategy Team researching the future of British retail and rental kept popping up as a trend to watch. I remember feeling that I was perfectly positioned to act on an idea I had loved for years and as though it was ‘now or never’.
What are the biggest mistakes you’ve made since starting out?
So I am a big advocate of the fact that it’s only a mistake if you don’t learn from it. With Hirestreet we are all about a test and learn approach to growth - we put an idea out there and then directly measure customers response to it. I would rather try lots of different features that fail than assume I know what’s best for the service.
I think the mistakes I have made are more about burning myself out and trying to take on too much. It’s great to be passionate and focused but I didn’t listen when my body telling me to slow down. Whilst I am a bit better at managing this side of things now I still know I need to make a lot more time for self care.
How would you advise other start-up businesses to seek funding for their ideas?
I know it’s basic but the more you have proven by the time you want to raise funding the better valuation you will get so timing is key. Also I know it’s tempting to go for a big raise - but that means you give away more of your business so make a plan of what you actually need the money for, and how you will spend it. At the beginning I was really tempted to raise double what we ended up doing - but frankly we didn’t need to it was literally just me thinking that the more you raised the more successful you look. If you can make your business plan work with a smaller raise then I would absolutely take that approach.
How do you see the hireable fashion movement going over the next few years?
I think it's only going to get bigger. We have had such a fabulous initial response to the service and yet there is still so much for us to do. I think people are now much more willing to try renting than ever before. We find that customers are our biggest brand advocates, it’s amazing they are so proud of renting their outfits that they tell all of their friends. We are just at the start of the rental revolution in the UK.
Hirestreet currently carries brands like Keepsake the Label, Neverfullydressed & French Connection. Which other brands would you love to get on board?
It’s great - our customers do a lot of this side of the job for us. They tell us daily the new brands they would like us to stock and even send us links to the dresses they like. At the minute we get a lot of requests for the likes of House of CB, Rixo, Reiss and Whistles.
With people like Stacey Dooley highlighting the devasting effects of fast fashion, and retailers like ASOS experiencing a huge downturn in profits, do you think we are about to see a shift in the way people are shopping?
I certainly think so - we do a lot of customer research on this and sustainability is a key motivation for customers turning to renting. In the same month that ASOS announced their profits had dropped by 87% our sales grew by 103%. I think people are becoming much more aware of the true cost of fast fashion, but before Hirestreet there wasn’t necessarily an affordable and sustainable option to switch to.
What would you like to see other fashion brands doing to be more sustainable?
It’s hard because fundamentally I understand that brands have to make money to survive, and I know that a lot of supply chains are established and hugely costly to change. I think it’s about doing what you can, no one is perfect but if you are making an effort to be sustainably minded in the business decisions you make looking to the future then I respect that.
CONFIDENCE AND SELFCARE
What does true confidence look like for you, and when do you feel it most?
I absolutely love the confident feeling that comes with a new outfit - that is literally the reason I started the business. I think when you put something on that makes you feel great it really does lift your mood. I love getting ready with the girls for an event or an occasion when everyone is feeling great in what they are wearing.
A little more personal, what would you say has been your biggest struggle with self-confidence that you have had to overcome so far?
When I was at the start of the fund raising process I spoke to a couple of senior investors who said very frankly that they ‘didn’t invest in sole founders’ - they indicated my age and the fact that I had launched the business on my own would be an issue for any investment firm. I was actively advised to go and find a co-founder.
I wasted months looking for a co-founder and I remember feeling so torn, I knew I needed to raise money but I really didn’t think I would find the right person to co-found the business in that time frame (not to mention that the whole co-founder aspect seemed ridiculous because the business was already up and running at that point).
My self confidence was so low at that point, I saw what they had said as basically saying ‘you’re not good enough to do this on your own’ - I thought I would never be able to take the business to the next stage.
A couple of months later (I had given up on finding the co-founder at that point and was just focusing on growing the business), sales were growing as was press attention on the topic of rental - we had a real positive momentum. The investors who once told me that they would never invest in a sole founder came back with an investment offer.
Where do you go in search of inspiration?
I am not sure if its inspiration but if I need head space I go to the beach. I think being by the sea gives me a lot of perspective, it reminds me how big the world is which I always find calming.
What advice would you give to anyone who is struggling to find the confidence to conquer their world?
I always do this trick now - when I am feeling under confident or nervous for a meeting, I think of what Hirestreet has achieved in the past year and it really gives me a boost. I think it’s totally natural to feel under-confident especially when stepping out of your comfort zone, but make a list of a couple of things that you are proud of and think through those things when you sense yourself feeling low.
The other best piece of advice I can give is to find yourself a support network who big you up. This has been the biggest help to me and genuinely Hirestreet would not even exist if I didn’t have a key group of people in my life who are always pushing me forward.
As a CEO, it can be tempting to work 7 days a week and always be available. Have you mastered the balance? How do you like to unwind?
I have absolutely not mastered the balance. I am a terrible workaholic but I love what I do. I’m certainly not advocating my approach but I genuinely find it much easier to stay busy - I think if I tried to stop and unwind in any true sense it would just feel temporary. I am most relaxed having a glass of rose in the sun with my friends and family.