Interview by Marija Butkovic @MarijaButkovic
Founders Lexi Willetts and Marina Pengilly have worked together in startups for the last four years, whilst working with technology and lifestyle brand businesses for the last five years. Fashion is their passion and in their DNA. Founder of lifestyle brand WhoLovesYou, Retail Consultant and JP Morgan accelerator participant, Marina offers a background of product and brand development, driving commercial projects from inception to reality. Lexi’s experience includes Marks & Clerk LLP, Head of Intellectual Property at FIFA, and COO of social networking app Wistla. She breathes commercial live into startups and is a builder of teams.
How did you get into fashion tech?
A deliberate accident?! We’ve been working together in and around lifestyle tech ventures for the last four years, but we’ve also both worked with fashion brands in our independent careers. Lexi has acted as legal advisor to brands like Dolce & Gabbana, negotiated brand deals with Chanel, and has developed IP used by Louis Vuitton. While, Marina created and launched a wellness brand, Who Loves You which had a physical store and eatery in Chelsea London. She has also marketed and launched independent fashion and lifestyle brands, some of which she helped roll out physical stores and pop-ups. You might say that LBD is where our worlds collide.
What is the idea behind Little Black Door and how did you come up with it?
Marina is our ideas goddess and concepted LBD, probably over coffee one day... Last year we were traveling a lot with work and it became apparent that we were generally unaware of what we owned, only wearing about 10% of the wardrobes that we had invested in over the years and often packing away at least half of our collections at any one time due to space constraints. Often, we were buying and overbuying purely because we had forgotten what we owned.
We genuinely felt that there must be a better, more sustainable way to manage our wardrobes, as well as to leverage one of our biggest assets! We were also reading more and more material about the adverse environmental impact of fast fashion on the environment and believed that fashion tech could help address this.
So, we first explored the idea of a central wardrobe system, we also looked at developments in the sharing economy for clothing especially thinking through resale marketplaces and peer-to-peer rental marketplaces, seeing user experience frustrations and barriers to use with some of these models.
Next came some months of heavy research, market and investor litmus testing, eventually arriving at the LBD platform concept by March (2019). Simply, we are an intelligent wardrobe inventory platform that captures the value of our wardrobes, opening up to a premium managed market. We are aiming to give our users a super cool daily product to see, play, value and release the value of our wardrobe assets. And we want to build an incredible fashion community around our platform.
When did you start with that business, how did you start and do you have other members in your team?
I guess the shoots of this start up were planted in September 2018, with Marina and I dedicating to the project full-time as of January; but it has really started to push out of the soil in the last two months. We’re now fortunate to be supported by six incredible advisors bringing industry expertise from Uber, eBay and PayPal and smart mirror creators Oak Labs. Team wise, we have some starting support from a great product manager and a supply chain wizard. We’re also now starting to attract some great interns...
How long did it take you to be where you are now?
We’re now 8 months in.
What was the biggest obstacle?
Probably to really nail the concept that met with our thinking as well as resonated with our advisor and investor set. Plus, we were reliant on the good grace of friends and industry colleagues to provide us with info, insight and expertise on a number of big-ticket items. When you’re scrappy start-up you have to call in favours and as a result you may have to run to others’ timelines, which is understood, but can slow you down.
Alongside of that, raising cash is also a big obstacle as to how quickly you can run with your ideas. So far, we’ve worked on a shoestring, but now we are moving to a tech development and Beta phase and this will trigger deployment of bigger cash.
What are the challenges of being an entrepreneur in the niche you are in? How about being a female founder / entrepreneur?
I think we are fortunate to be building in a space that is growing, both in size and in social acceptance. That said there are some incredible players that operate in some of our verticals and we will have to work hard to prove ourselves and get a seat at the industry table.
In respect of being female founders, we are constantly reminded that female founders have historically courted less investment. In February this year, the British Business Bank published the first ever report on UK venture capital and female founders on Monday, the insights that surfaced were shocking. Of the £5.6bn invested by the UK VC sector in 2017, only £56m (less than one per cent) went to solely female-founded businesses. As a result, we’re making most of female led opportunities that have been created to redress the imbalance.
What are your biggest achievements to date?
Goes without saying that we are super excited to have been selected for CFE’s Spring Programme. Alongside of that, we have a few notable wins – being invited to take part in the UN Sustainable Development Goals conference last month was a huge honour especially as we are now working with the President of Global Partnerships to align LBD with our vision. We’ve also attracted incredible advisor talent who want to support our mission and work has been a big achievement and positive validation for us. We have also been nominated as the hottest European FASHTECH start up award in The Europas - voting is now closed, but the winners are announced on the 27th June.
What are your projects you are currently working on?
Right now, we are working towards delivering our BETA product ATM - so working on our Beta design, build and pilot programme… watch this space.
Is the #WomenInTech movement important to you and if yes, why?
To quote, “When one woman helps another, amazing things can happen”, but actually help should be offered to, and by, everyone in the tech community, especially if we are looking to create a truly cohesive and inclusive industry.
We do see that the number of working women in technology is significantly lower than most other UK work sectors, just 17% of those working in tech UK are female. We think it’s important to acknowledge this but just as important to deliver practical solutions that will create a state of equilibrium. For us, this is a bigger-picture thing. It’s an education point. For instance, 7% of students taking computer science A-level courses are female. To see a positive uplift on this number, the subject matter and the career ahead needs to appeal to female demographics.
Also, we think we have a responsibility to educate men and women to understand that they have an equal place in whatever industry they choose to work in.
What will be the key trends in the fashion tech and wearable tech industry in the next 5 years and where do you see it heading?
Our hot list:
Traceable fabrics - fabric DNA show provenance and authentic product
Biotechnology - is playing a big role to produce temperature reactive clothing – Stanford and University of Maryland pushing projects in this area, with Maryland recently releasing specially-engineered yarn. The yarn strands are coated with carbon nanotubes. Each fibre expands or contracts when the temperature changes aSmart clothing – we think growth will continue, and especially in the sports apparel market – Under Armour, Nadi X, Snap already going strong.
3D printing - shoes and other accessories – bring customisation opportunities
Smart Mirrors – changing up your looks at the touch of a button
Innovative Retail Spaces – we see the fitting room becoming the new store – we already see this happening with Reformation which provides electronic look books and options to order different styles and sizes at the touch of a button.
What is the most important piece of advice you can give to all female founders and female entrepreneurs out there?
Write lists! We love lists… LOL
BE DEFENDABLE – research and know your space, litmus your test ideas, you can’t please everyone) – be able to fire back confident answers to difficult questions. Just never adopt a mindset that something is out of your reach, opportunity is waiting to be grabbed.
We would say that having a strong support network around you is vital. You need to be able to ride the start-up storms and rationalise ideas with those around you, whether that’s friends, family, mentors, or advisors. We are super lucky to have each other, to share the load. Our long-term friendship provides us both with a platform of stability and lots of laughter.
Who are your 3 inspirational women in fashion tech and / or wearable tech?
Katrina Lake, founder of Stitch Fix, the online personal styling service valued at $3 billion, is a personal fav. At 34, she became the youngest female founder ever to lead an IPO – ringing the Nasdaq bell with her child on her hip...kudos.
Karlie Kloss is a strong advocate for women working in technology - using her wide reach and social media sway to empower girls to learn to code and become leaders in tech through Kode With Klossy. Her organisation also hosts summer camps and award scholarships throughout the year. Making coding cool and creating access to careers is an incredible achievement.
Alexandra Van Houtte, founder of Tagwalk aka “the Google of fashion”, offers such an inspirational story. Her platform comes from a place of genuine use case; as a former fashion assistant she spent hours scrolling through fashion shows and cataloguing lookbooks and thought to herself there must be a better way. Love that.
This interview was conducted by Marija Butkovic, Digital Marketing and PR strategist, founder and CEO of Women of Wearables and co-founder of Kisha Smart Umbrella. She regularly writes and speaks on topics of wearable tech, fashion tech, IoT, entrepreneurship and diversity. Visit marijabutkovic.co.uk or follow Marija on Twitter @MarijaButkovic @Women_Wearables @GetKisha.