After profiling Sarah April last year, We finally got the opportunity to sit down and discuss her start-up Dressipi. Sarah is currently the co-founder and CEO of Dressipi. Dressipi is an online styling service - Think having your own personal stylist online.
Prior to founding Dressipi, Sarah was the co-founder and CEO of Texperts.com, the world’s first text message question answering service which was sold to KGB, owners of the 118118 directory enquiries service, in a multi-million pound deal.
Below is the full interview.
Hi Sarah, How are you doing, great to have you on YHP?
Thanks, it is great to be here! I love your site and the fact that you are promoting young entrepreneurs – something I am also very passionate about. So, very excited to be featured.
Could you quickly give us some background information about yourself? Tell me about yourself growing up?
Well, I am 34 years old and have greatly enjoyed life so far. My Dad was in the army, so as a child I lived everywhere! Since leaving school in 1995, I spent a year teaching English in China. I then completed my education at Edinburgh University where I studied Economics and Chinese (gaining a 2:1) and was then offered a job in an investment bank working as an analyst in Corporate Finance.
At University, I developed a passion for motorbikes and fuelled by my year in China had a desire to ride my motorbike from London to Beijing across the Silk Route. I managed to convince 5 other friends to join me, the investment bank to give me a year off and we set off in 2001 on 2 Ural motorbike and sidecars, a Land Rover and a lot of spare parts! Thousands of miles, 13 countries and many breakdowns later we made it to Tiananmen Square having raised £50,000 for Cancer Research and Mercy Corps.
I started my first job but quickly realized that life in the city was not for me! But, it was my first job that inspired me to start my first business. Along with my first co-founder (Thomas Roberts) we spotted a gap in the information market and in June 2003 to set up my first business, Texperts. We ended up selling Texperts to our largest competitor (the company that own 118118) in 2008, I then went out to New York to work for them and then quickly realized that being an entrepreneur was now firmly in my blood so then resigned and came back to start Dressipi with Donna Kelly (amazingly talented lady!).
How did you get into business? Were you exposed to entrepreneurship as a child?
Purely by chance, it was literally whilst working for the investment bank that we got the idea for the first business and starting a business when you are younger is a much better time to do it. I was 25, had nothing to lose - no mortgage, no kids, and no real responsibilities so if it all went wrong I figured I would have learnt a fair bit and would just go back into a normal job! Although I have amazing role models in my family they were mostly in services or teachers so very little exposure to entrepreneurship. I honestly believe that if you see an opportunity or have an idea there is nothing better than just going for it – of course you’ll make mistakes but as long as you learn quickly it is an amazing experience and one that cannot be replicated in an office.
Who was your inspiration growing up and why?
I would say that one of my greatest inspirations growing up was my grandfather, not necessarily from an entrepreneurial point of view but he was without doubt the most time-less, class-less principled person I have ever known. Him and my grandmother were full of fun, laughter and always surrounded by people of all generations and from all walks of life. My parents have also been an inspiration to me, always encouraging me to do what I enjoy and to never give up!
You founded and sold Texperts, tell me about your experience running that company and the idea behind it, that was just after the dot-com bubble - it must have been a hard to start and grow a business?
The idea for Texperts came from our time as analysts on the graduate training program at the investment bank. We spent so much of our time having to locate very accurate information and numbers for very demanding bosses and client at all times of the day, night and weekend. We got fairly frustrated that we were being paid a good graduate salary to do lots of analysis but spent more of our time locating various bits of information. We could find a service that could deliver good quality information quickly (this was 4 or 5 years before the advent of the smart phone) so we decided to have a go at it ourselves!
We were very young and so, as you can imagine, made many mistakes but we also managed to build a good business with really great technology. One of the great things about starting a business when you are young is that you don’t know what you don’t know and so everything seems very achievable. It was hard starting but there is always a way to get through any situation and if you truly believe in your idea and what you are building then you will find the right way through any problem. The most important skill to learn is that of empathy – learn to understand who you are pitching to and what it is about your business that each person (whether it is a client or an investor) is interested in.
What were some of the key things you learnt from the whole Texperts experience?
We made a few mistakes at Texperts but as a result learnt amazing amounts in those 5 years.
Here is a shortlist:
· Make sure your business really needs investment, raising capital is hard work and very time consuming – make sure you have explored all other avenues first
· Make sure you get a good team. At early stages, people invest in the team just as much as they invest in the idea. It’s about the ability to execute in changing circumstances
· Know your business not just the basics; know all stats, figures & what really counts
· Understand that fundamentally investors want a return on their capital – angels tend to have different time horizons than VCs so it is important you have worked out what you want out of your business; are you building it to sell it or run it – what is your ideal exit?
· Learn to listen and watch what aspects of your business excite different investors/clients and adapt your focus accordingly – empathy is key
· Understand who you are pitching to – do as much due diligence on investors as they do on you. At the early stages you need smart investors who add real value. Talk to other companies they have invested, make sure there are no nasty surprises round the corner
· If you can, run a tight competitive process with your investors
· For every NO that you get – make sure you get honest feedback (everyone will have a different reason for the NO) and make sure that point has been addressed before you present again.
· Don’t get disheartened – retain your passion and belief. Don’t give up.
· Network, network, network – you never know where you’ll meet future investors
· Once you have investment, communicate with your investors, whether it is good or bad news, this is key. Existing investors are often the spring board to further investment
So tell me about Dressipi and how the idea came about?
Back in 2009, we were both busy working women who didn’t have the time to shop but definitely wanted to look lovely. And if we bought clothes, it was often from the same brands and not always clothes that were great for us. Everyone was pushing product but no one was genuinely servicing the customer. This led to the idea to create a service where you could find all the clothes and brands in one place, and where every single item you saw was selected personally for you, based on your own style and shopping preferences. A service that was simple and fun to use and where you could always find inspirational and feel good things. Exactly like having your own personal stylist on tap.
What were you doing before you founded Dressipi?
I was working in New York for the company that bought Texperts – they are called kgb and own kgb deals and many of the European 118 services.
What was your biggest challenge during the startup phase?
Working out whether what we wanted to build was technically feasible or not. We ended up speaking to specialists in many areas before we started building the first prototype.
How have you been able to fund the business?
We self-funded the business ourselves to begin with and then raised money from angel investors. But most importantly remember that, especially in the early stages, investors primarily invest in the team. Fundamentally it is about passion, tenacity and drive – with those 3 qualities you can make anything happen!
What are the most crucial things you have done to grow your business?
Most of our growth to-date has been through word-of-mouth and some SEO/PPC but to be honest we are still building quite a bit of the core functionality and would expect to have most of the core functionality built by June at which point we would expect to start to simplify the marketing and customer growth.
Would you say the business has changed from the first initial idea?
Absolutely. When we first started we had a social fashion game! It is still not a bad idea but it did not really appeal to the market that we were really trying to solve problems for.
What would you say has been the highlight of your entrepreneurial journey so far?
All of it! I love what I do and am lucky enough to wake up every day and find that I cannot wait to get into the office… (sad I know!)
What can we be expecting from your company in 2012?
We have so many plans for 2012. The first half of the year is about building the remaining 3 bit of functionality that our customers tell us they really want! And then the last half of the year is about introducing the social elements of the site and amplifying the benefits to increase customer growth.
What three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
1. Make sure you are solving a real problem
2. Make sure you believe in what you are doing
3. Go for it!