This article is a part of a special series on the Wharton Business Plan Competition (WBPC). Stylitics, the grand prize winner of the 2011 WBPC, is on a mission to bring fashion analytics into the digital world – one closet at a time. I caught up with co-founder Rohan Deuskar (WG’11) to find out what’s been keeping him busy. Started in Rohan’s small Brooklyn apartment, Stylitics has raised over $3.2M, grown to 16 people, and helped thousands of fashionistas find their unique styles.
Wharton Journal: Where did you get the idea to start Stylitics?
RD: Stylitics is the confluence of my personal need as a consumer and a major need in the fashion industry.
Stylitics was born from my frustration that although like most people I was spending a decent amount of money and time on buying clothes and deciding what to wear, my closet was still one of the most inefficient parts of my life. I’d wear only 20% of my stuff, I’d forget what I owned, and I’d buy duplicates of clothes I already owned. It struck me that the closet was one of those central experiences in people’s lives that is still completely analog and tied to one physical location. I realized that if you had a digital version of your closet – essentially all your clothing data in one place online – then you could unlock an amazing set of new capabilities. Imagine putting together packing lists on the go, or tracking stats like cost per wear of each item, or getting online outfit advice from your friend or a digital stylist.
And not only would consumers be better off, but with the user’s permission brands and retailers could see what people are wearing and buying in real-time, for the first time. That means better and more personal recommendations, more targeted offers, and better insights.
WJ: How did you meet your co-founder, Zach Davis?
RD: Zach is a friend and colleague from Chicago. We were both early at a mobile startup called Vibes Media. In 2010, he was in Seattle while was I interning at Amazon so we talked a lot about startups. During Sell Weekend I was back in Seattle and shared this concept with him. He got it immediately and began working remotely on it with me on top of his full-time job. Then he quit his job, I turned down my job offer, and the day after my graduation we were working on this full-time in New York!
WJ: Both you and your co-founder didn’t have technical backgrounds – can you tell us how you were able to get your business started?
RD: While I believe it is absolutely feasible to have two non-technical founders build a technology-based business, you are definitely starting with a lot more risk and at a disadvantage. For the first 2 years, finding good and affordable developers was the most difficult and challenging thing. For our first engineer, we hired a new grad in Iraq who was referred through my cousin at Berkeley. He ended up working with us for 2 years. Our first designer is a stay-at-home mom in Serbia who at the time had very little English but had the right attitude and talent. She is still with us. For our first senior engineer, I went to a Ruby on Rails meetup, made sure to walk back to Center City with the speaker, took him to dinner, and sold him on the vision. He was with us for a couple of years.
If this sounds easy – it was not. We’ve scoured LinkedIn and sent messages to hundreds of developers to get one great one. In fact, to put together the great 9 person engineering team we have now meant going through about 20 contractors and a couple full-timers.
If I can offer a few lessons learned that will make the process easier:
- You are responsible for understanding how engineers work, how technology works, and how product development works. This is not someone else’s problem. To hire and manage engineers, you need to know this. You don’t have to learn to code, but you do need to understand the principles and culture of software engineering. It’ll save you and your engineers a lot of grief.
- Until you know all the above really well, only consider engineers or contractors who score very high on communication and attitude. Doesn’t matter where in the world they are, or if they are “senior”. If there are red flags about irregular and unprofessional communication, walk away as soon as you can. Nothing is more costly and frustrating than chasing down your engineers for updates.
- Pay your engineers from Day 1. Even a little. It works better for everyone that way. There are too many good opportunities for decent engineers for you to show up empty handed. Options don’t count.
- Software engineering is a creative endeavor. It is not an assembly line for code. Treat development and developers accordingly.
WJ: When developing the pitch presentation for the competition, what were some of the most important pieces of the narrative?
RD: I think you have to sell the big vision and then solve the big roadblocks. The judges are coming in cold and watching critically, but they are also there for the love of business and bold ideas. Hook them early. Our pitch started with “There’s a massive gap in fashion. Unlike nearly every other major industry, there is no billion dollar analytics company in fashion.” We then explained why we thought that was the case, why that had to change given market forces, and what our plan was for becoming that company.
Then you have to anticipate and answer the questions that will inevitably spring up. One trend I’ve noticed while judging business plans is that teams leave a lot of obvious questions unanswered. The audience will think of those difficult questions so you might as well address them. You don’t need the perfect solution, but you do have to show you have thought about realistic solutions to the big problems.
And finally, I think any pilots/tests/proofs of concept that you do will go a long way. We did a very low tech pilot to prove that people were willing to share their outfits in detail for a small incentive. Rather than saying – “we believe it will work” we were able to say “given our test with 250 people, we believe we can get 25,000 people to do this, which becomes one of the largest fashion panels in the world.”
WJ: Can you tell us how the trajectory of Stylitics changed after winning the competition?
RD: I’m not sure if the trajectory changed so much as the number of opportunities increased. We met a few judges who made intros to people who made intros to other people …and so on down the chain until we met the angel investors who led our early rounds and continue to be great supporters.
Actually, the most important impact was that it kicked off a “spiral of success” (do they still teach that?). It solidified in our company the confidence that we can dream big and actually achieve unlikely goals, even as a tiny startup. I have no doubt that luck was a big ingredient in winning the competition, but we also felt like winners. Feeling like winners and expecting to win has a powerful impact on culture. It gives you the confidence to attempt things that are out of your league. If we succeed, it reinforces our confidence. If we fail, we think “we know we can succeed, so let’s figure out why we failed this time and fix it.” vs. “Well, of course we failed. We’re just a startup. Let’s stick to what’s manageable today.” In fact, as part of their daily status email, each Stylitics employee lists any big wins they had the previous day.
WJ: How has Stylitics been able to keep up with the latest technology trends and keep competitors away?
RD: We were a little late to building on mobile, which now has about 4X the activity as web. We could have been quicker there. Besides that, we tend to be ahead of the curve with the technology and concepts we use, especially in the fashion industry. We tend to have a bias for innovation, so our challenge is making sure that we don’t get too far ahead of the market without testing what clients and consumers actually want.
We tend not to worry about competitors too much. We’re really competing with our own shortcomings and with the status quo in the fashion industry. What we’re doing is hard and the opportunity is huge, so good luck to all – for now 🙂
WJ: You’ve managed to successfully navigate a great entrepreneurial career at Wharton and onwards. Looking back, what was the most memorable experience at Wharton? (aside from winning the competition of course)
RD: Well, I would not call it “a great entrepreneurial career” yet…someday, hopefully!
A memorable experience:
When I arrived at Wharton, I was on crutches with a broken ankle. While I was hobbling by the river one morning, I saw these beautiful, streamlined boats go by with the rowers in perfect sync and wondered what kind of discipline and training it must take to be one of those people. It seemed unreachably far.
Fast forward a year and I was stepping out of a Wharton Crew novice team boat after an intense race at the Dad Vail Regatta where we won the silver medal. I owe 95% of that experience to my Wharton/Penn classmates. My coaches, team captains, teammates were mostly students and all volunteers. Many had raced at top undergrad programs, but would train with the novice team (their classmates) in the freezing rain at 6 a.m. so we could get better. The next year, we second-years tried to pay it forward, by spending hours each week organizing, practicing, and coaching. There is something really special at Wharton that calls on people to help each other achieve their personal goals.
WJ: Any professors or courses you’d recommend?
RD: Prof. Kartik Hosanagar was one of my favorites. I also loved the advanced communications class on speaking with the press. Classes on corporate taxes, managing people, and financing were helpful post-Wharton.
WJ: Best thing about being an entrepreneur?
RD: You get to dedicate your entire mind to creating something good and useful in the world and you get to see others take up your cause as you grow. And if you’re lucky, someone will hand you millions of dollars to pursue your dream. That still blows my mind.
WJ: What’s next for Stylitics?
RD: Today Stylitics has the largest digital closet platform, with over 100,000 closets via word-of-mouth. We expect to cross 500,000 this year, but hopefully 1 million. Starting later this year, our users will be able to sync their purchases instantly to their closet from major retailers.
On the analytics side, I believe we can have 50 of the top 100 retailers using our insights dashboard by the end of the year.
We’d love support from the Wharton/Penn community. You can download the Stylitics app on iPhone and Android, and use it to track your outfits, chat with stylists, and take your closet on the go! More details at www.stylitics.com/mobile.