“How can we wear a ton of stuff all the time without owning it?” is the question Alissa Micciulla tells me started her business, over a holiday brunch visit with an old friend during Alissa’s first year at Darden School of Business. She was back home in New York City, and the two friends were lamenting the fact that their mutual love of fashion (and love-hate relationship with fashion’s inherent trends and one-and-done mentality) meant that they were always searching for a new special outfit to wear to the numerous NYC engagements popping up on their calendars. I can instantly relate – some derivation of that question has been plaguing me for years. Similarly, I can almost guarantee that somewhere, across town, two women were having a related but opposite conversation about how they could profitably lighten the load of their bulging wardrobes of once-worn designer duds. And that’s the beauty of this idea, it solves a problem that women from all backgrounds have frequently pondered. As Alissa’s effectuation studies at Darden have taught her, despite startup lore, not being the only one in the world with your idea is not a bad thing, it’s actually the best validation you can get.
There is no doubt that the sharing economy mindset has fully taken hold, so the quickest way for Alissa to explain her venture, she tells me, is simply by saying it’s the “Airbnb model, just imagine that instead of pictures of apartments there are pictures of dresses.” Designer dresses, in particular – garments for the high fashion/socialite set, a group Alissa is intimately familiar with through years of proximity with the fashion industry in NYC. The basics are as follows: the lender would select the pieces from their closet that they want to lend out and create a listing with garment details and vivid images. A would-be renter would then browse the options in their area, skimming through images of clothing similarly to any e-commerce site. If the renter finds something they want, they then request it from the lender, and, if available, can rent it for one week at a time (after a 24-hour try-on period in which they can return the piece if it doesn’t fit). At the end of the week’s rental time frame, they will drop it off at the lender’s dry cleaner of choice.
“New York City is totally set up for this in a unique way,” Alissa shares, and it’s also filled with women from the exact demographic for which her venture was created – she counts herself among them. Unsurprisingly, Alissa and her friends have already been cobbling together the low-tech version of this for years. “These charity galas, etc are just part of the culture of our group…and I can’t remember the last time [many of my friends] wore something that was theirs.” They’ve gotten the system down to a science – from arranging the pickup and drop-off to ensuring the best dry cleaning services, and more. But taking it online is a new challenge – albeit one that this newly-minted MBA can undoubtedly handle. Micciulla cut her teeth working in marketing for massive Fortune 500 brands, and she spent her business school internship last summer at Amazon, working as a product manager for one of their more innovative, tech-forward divisions. Ultimately, she believes, she can provide “the fashion-tech combo that this idea needs.”
But this seemingly-innate confidence wasn’t always so unshakeable. Micciulla recalls a time early on, when she discovered a few similar startups already in existence. Her initial reaction to learning that other, perhaps farther along, ventures were working on similar concepts was “okay, I guess I’m out of the game,” she tells me. But then, during her second year at Darden, she enrolled in a few entrepreneurship classes with Saras Sarasvathy and discovered the effectual process and mindset that Sarasvathy espouses. “She had a whole lesson on how if someone also has your idea, that doesn’t mean you’re out of the game, it’s actually validation of your idea.” The distinction is – you must be the best person to execute on this idea. A bit of soul searching regarding her background, skill set, and sensibilities restored Micciulla’s excitement and drive to move forward. “As Saras would say, there are certain founders who should bring this idea to life,” and Alissa believes that she’s the right one to make it happen.
As such, she’s poised to tackle the challenges ahead. While Micciulla is now a firm believer in the effectual process, she still feels that trying to build a luxury company touting top-tier brands on a shoestring budget presents some inherent conflict. A “scrappy version of luxury” is a balance that may take a bit of time to strike. Additionally, she feels a kinship with her future customers because she considers herself one of them, and she wants to crack the code on how to build a trusting community while remaining hands-off. The sharing economy has transformed this peer-to-peer space – “ten years ago, if you asked me if I’d get in a stranger’s car, I would have said no.” Now, she says, we don’t think twice about calling an Uber – in fact, we enjoy that service as an integral part of our life and routine. Nevertheless, “girls doing this want to know that someone’s got their back. We will figure out how much we need to intervene in this process and how much this community can support and sustain itself.” Ultimately, she hopes the idea doesn’t stop with NYC. Micciulla believes firmly in the idea that fashion, at its core, is a regional entity – she envisions an eventual world in which both local girls and tourists can wear a French-inspired outfit in Paris one week and a quality set of cowboy boots in Nashville the next. She sees the venture as serving as the platform connecting local networks of fashion lovers around the world.
If reading closely, you may have noticed that I didn’t mention the venture’s name, which is still in the works and constantly on Alissa’s mind (for now, it can be found at vetedco.com). Ultimately, a venture name is a concept similar to its founder – many may have merit, but it takes that special combination of attributes to really take off. Like any startup idea, it needs to be familiar with just a touch of something original. And just like the path to those aforementioned things, Micciulla is sure she’ll know it when it’s right.