Jenn Hyman is the CEO and co-founder of Rent the Runway. Before that she went to Harvard Business School (and Harvard for undergrad too, NBD). She’s writing a column for us that we’re calling Fashionpreneur. In it she’ll dole out advice and lessons learned on everything from raising funds, branding yourself, sales and generally managing a business.
Over the past two and a half years, Rent the Runway has grown quickly to a community of nearly three million young women. We had 100,000 members sign-up in our first week of business and beat our first year projections by week four--which was surreal both to us and to our investors. Because of this, I am often asked by hopeful entrepreneurs how to build this kind of buzz and turn your brand into something people keep on talking about. I've laid it all out for you in three simple rules. My first rule is: Work it Girl! Before Rent the Runway’s launch, Jenny Fleiss and I had no real connections to the media. But, we knew that we needed to get out there, make the media take notice of us and hopefully, love us. We trolled through all of our contacts (most of these “contacts” were of the 6-degrees of Kevin Bacon ilk), and we began by meeting with anyone and everyone who was even remotely connected to the media. You could have been an assistant, someone who used to work in media, someone whose distant cousin worked in media and we would take the meeting, listen, and ask for that person’s advice. Asking for advice and really meaning it is key because people invest more in your ideas when they feel like they are being heard. Thank you Oprah.
At the end of every meeting, we would ask folks if they had any suggestions of other people we should meet with, and hence our tree of contacts grew and grew because when people like you, they connect you to other people they like. Our tree of contacts led us to a Ms. Jenna Wortham.
While now, Jenna is a very big deal at the New York Times, at the time, she had just started there as a young technology reporter. Jenna found our story interesting, and she invested her time in writing a meaty piece about us that drove over 100,000 members to our site in our first week and became one of the most shared articles of the year. Beyond giving some credit to some incredible luck working for us in this situation, there are a few lessons here:
1. Respect everyone regardless of their level. If we had waited for more senior writers to pay attention to us, we could have been waiting a lifetime, and we likely would not have gotten the type of incredible coverage Jenna gave us. Often, in the brand building biz, people focus too much on getting to the top of the food chain. Realize that people in the middle or the bottom of the chain may have more sway than you think and will likely show you more love.
2. The best contacts come from everywhere. We found Jenna through a friend of a friend of a friend who thought she knew someone who worked at the New York Times.
3. Be nice–You may have the most genius idea on planet earth but you will only get buzz if people WANT to cover you. Throughout the process of working it all over New York, we not only networked with tons of media folk, we also made some new friends, many of whom we still grab lunches with.
My second rule is: Be resilient. Big girls do cry but then they stop and move forward. The buzz building business is a messy one and it is not always going to be a straight upward trajectory. In the case of Rent the Runway, weeks before we launched, we had “secured” what was our dream piece with Vogue. An adorable Vogue writer had rented Proenza and Yigal Azrouel, loved the experience and was planning an exclusive to cover our launch. Then, someone (we still don’t know who) leaked the story of our launch to this very site Fashionista and on Wednesday November 4th, a small piece was posted about our beta launch. The Fashionista post was picked up by InStyle and the general blogosphere, which did not go over well with Vogue. In fact, we feared that we had forever damaged our relationship with the publication we had adored since we were little girls. Vogue pulled the piece and we were DEVASTATED and scared. We sulked for about an hour, had a drink and that’s when we found a connection to someone with a @nytimes.com address—Jenna—which as you know turned into the best thing that ever happened to us.
Even if I went back in time, I would not have been able to change the leak that occurred. It was out of our control and it sucked. But, make lemonade out of those lemons because you never know what buzz can be found elsewhere.
My third and final rule: Use Social. In this day and age, it is essential that buzz becomes viral–meaning that it has a life of its own. More specifically, if you work it to get one new member to your site through amazing PR or great paid marketing spend, in order to really grow as a company, you need that one member to refer her friends. Why? Because your cost of member acquisition would be way too expensive and unsustainable if you had to pay for every single person who ever finds out about you. You have to create network effects.
With a business like Rent the Runway, we knew that women talking about us to their friends would be essential to our success. Given that women are renting the runway for social occasions—weddings, parties, galas etc.–we needed our customers to feel comfortable telling their friends they had rented the runway when someone came to compliment them at a party and to be proud of this, instead of pretending they had purchased that $1,000 dress. Therefore, we had to invest in making our brand cool and chic. We’ve made it cool to post a photo of your Rent the Runway moment on our site after your rental and share your experience. Brands like Shoedazzle invested in building an incredible Facebook community that has created massive virality for their brand. Gilt Groupe launched the innovative “refer a friend, get $25” promotion. There are many ways to build your brand socially but you MUST do it and figure out the strategy that is best for your brand. A social referral often has more than double the conversion of a member who comes from a general channel—so it’s also smart business to be social. Who would have thought that back in middle school?
I think finally, building buzz for your brand is fun. Creating the Rent the Runway brand has been the greatest privilege of my life (to date) and such an amazing time. Just project the love you feel and everything will fall into place.