Memories over materials

October 2, 2019

In May 2018, Isabella West left her high-flying consulting career in London to launch Hirestreet – an online fashion platform that allows customers to hires out dresses for all occasions for as little as £9 for four days. She relocated to her home town of Jesmond, where she has seen the popularity of her website grow. She speaks to North East Times about her journey so far

Tell me a bit about your career before starting Hirestreet?

I left university in 2014 and went straight into a career as a strategy consultant in London. In terms of learning key career lessons, this was an amazing place to start. I gained experience working across a range of industries, presenting solutions to various business problems. It taught me a lot about the kind of decision-maker I wanted to be in the future, as well as how to handle extremely long work hours. After a couple of years, I specialised within consultancy in a more creative role – advising world-leading brands on their engagement and social strategies. I am a huge believer that a brand is only as strong as its community of customers. After deciding to become a freelance consultant, I ended up working for Selfridges. I became increasingly interested in the changing nature of retail – and one area in particular – rental fashion. As a fashion addict, I didn’t understand why the UK didn’t have an equivalent to Rent The Runway. During my months at Selfridges I collected all the data I could on the rental market, and I started questioning my friends on their shopping habits – trying to understand both the potential motivations and barriers to switching to renting outfits. The final step in my career, before officially becoming Hirestreet CEO was an investment banking role. This was mostly a tactical move. Financially, it enabled me to cut down my working hours to three days a week (the other four were spent building Hirestreet). Five months later, with the website built, market research conducted and dresses photographed, I was ready to quit working for someone else and put live.

Did you always have a desire to start your own business?

Yes, I always knew I would run my own business. I would describe myself as an “ideas” person – so even before Hirestreet, I’d written lots of different business plans. I think the difference with Hirestreet, was that I felt like I was the right person to do it – and that gave me a different kind of pressure.

How do you explain the concept to others?

Hirestreet is an online fashion rental platform. You go on to the site, choose your favourite outfits, your size, and then your delivery and return date. The purpose of the business is simple. Lot’s of people spend money on outfits for formal events such as weddings, balls, the races, etc. but they only wear them once. Instead of spending £150 on a dress, you can rent it for around £30 and save £120 for the big day instead. ‘Memories over materials’ is how I like to think of it.

Where did you get the idea from Hirestreet from?

Growing up with two sisters and an amazing group of friends, I’ve always been used to sharing clothes. Then, when I was in the sixth form at school, I started a concept called SwopShop, which would encourage girls to swap dresses they had worn the weekend before. At university, I was lucky enough to live with 15 close girlfriends, and before formals or nights out, there would sometimes be ten people in my tiny room going through the wardrobe! These memories became so crucial in shaping the kind of brand personality I wanted to build – Hirestreet’s motto is that the service should feel like ‘borrowing from a friend’.

What were your biggest challenges setting up Hirestreet? How did you overcome them?

I think managing my own confidence and expectations was probably the biggest challenge. I had so much belief in the concept, but starting a business is a lonely journey at the beginning. Looking back, I felt like the company was doing well by accident – I was almost apologetic when explaining that to people. Now a year on, my confidence in my own ability to run a business is so much higher.

You initially balanced Hirestreet with your job in London before relocating to Jesmond. What led to the move?

If I am really honest, the move was purely a financial decision. I couldn’t afford to run the business from London – everything from rent to staff was triple the price. I love the North East so it wasn’t hard to move home. I miss my friends in London, but from a business perspective coming back was probably one of the best decisions I ever made. The business support network up here, as well as the sense of community, has been one of the driving forces behind Hirestreet’s success to date.

Did you get any business support? If so, from who?

My parents have been involved from the beginning. They are both entrepreneurs themselves and have been an endless source of help and support. One of the best things I’ve found out being in the North East is that everyone is so willing to help – there are lots of people who have shaped the Hirestreet journey – from old school friends to the NatWest accelerator programme, based on the Quayside.

How have people taken to the Hirestreet concept?

The truth is that the business is developing every day. I am very much a data person and I love to try and test and learn from everything we do. Our customers also value the fact that we listen to them and we have a really active community. We are constantly trialling new things. A couple of months ago, we launched our insurance offer, which covers customers for accidental damage and has been hugely popular.

What are your short and long term plans for Hirestreet? How are you looking to achieve these goals?

We are currently in the process of raising an A-round investment. The focus of this is to enable us to build stock base so we can add a premium subscription service to our current reserve offering. It’s is a really exciting process and will see some dramatic expansion over the coming year. We also have two fantastic partnerships in the pipeline, which will transform the way certain aspects of the business work. We hope to be able to announce them by the end of the year – but watch this space.


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