We interview Oxford graduate, ex- Goldman Sachs Executive Director, Lulu O’Connor to talk all things startups – more specifically her startup, Clothes Doctor.
It’s always inspiring hearing about people’s brave journey taking the plunge from secure employment to risky self-employment. What’s more, if we solve a common problem people face in their lives or make people’s lives easier, it’s a win-win!
We ask Lulu about her motives behind leaving her fruitful career in financial services career to start Clothes Doctor.
Sit back and enjoy watching our first Instagram live video interview! Follow us on Instagram @Start.Smarter to watch future live interviews.
For those who prefer to read rather than watch a video, we have the written transcript of the interview below the video.
Topic: CEO & Founder, Lulu O’Connor
We found with a lot of CEOs and founders that what separates them from everyone else is their motivation and what inspired them. So we’ll start off by asking: what gets you out of bed in the morning?
I enjoy every moment of what I do. I find it enthralling, the idea of building something. After spending nine years in financial services and I never felt that I was building something that could stand on its own two feet, nor that I was giving back to society. It’s not hard to get me out of the bed in the morning with what I do now.
You used to work at a well-known financial services company. What led you to quit what was presumably a well-paid job to pursue something a bit riskier?
It felt like a natural progression to move into something where I was taking more ownership. It just felt as if I’d needed something to challenge me. I really wanted to get my teeth into something new and build something. I got to see so many interesting companies that inspired me and I met CEOs who were doing amazing things. And I started to see gaps in the market and have ideas. It just felt like a natural next step; I just felt as if this was what I was supposed to do next.
The reason for this question is more to empower those who may not be in a relevant job to what they want to start a business in. Obviously, we know you’re in fashion retail now, but what did you specialize in previously?
I was a consumer retail analyst, actually. But it’s still a huge change of direction to go into repairs and alterations because I can’t sew and have never done repairs and alterations before! In a funny way, that actually helps me take an objective view of the market and the industry. I have really good people who work with me who do the repairs and the alterations, and I get to keep a degree of separation and look at it all holistically.
“I think it’s very easy in a small business to get sucked into trying to do everything.”
What do you spend your time doing? A bit of everything?
When you move from being one cog in a big machine to being what feels like the entire machine, you learn very quickly that you are the only person who’s ultimately responsible for everything. It’s exhausting mentally sometimes, but as time goes on and you get bigger, you can afford to bring people in. I didn’t really know at the start where the big challenges would be and where I would need that help, so it actually took me over a year before I hired our head of marketing. I was really taking my time to work out what type of marketing we wanted to do, what type of business we wanted to be, and also I really wanted to get the product and the service really good before we started to ramp up. We think we’re well on the way. We’ve got a great team.
Topic: Startup, Clothes Doctor
So a bit more about yourself before we focus on Clothes Doctor. Tell us about the university. And was there any family history of entrepreneurship?
My father was self-employed as a lawyer for many years and, actually, I don’t have a great childhood memory of that. It was a lot of stress and I remember thinking, ‘God, I would never do that’!
I was at Oxford studying economics and management, and I found that really fascinating. And I studied strategy and marketing and accounting and finance and a lot of economics as well. It really gave me inspiration around company strategy and marketing and branding and things like that. So I guess that stood me in good stead.
What is the USP of Clothes Doctor? Are there any other similar firms out there that provide a similar service? What sets Clothes Doctor apart from dry cleaners?
If your making that decision to go to a dry cleaner, you have to worry about opening hours; you have to worry about things like do you have one close to you; is the tailor actually in the store at the time you go there, which often they’re not; can you trust that the quality is going to be good enough; is there any comeback if you’re not happy with the work done?
We have an enormous range of machinery and fabrics and cotton and things, which basically means we can do pretty much everything. Including leather work, which is limited at the local dry cleaner. It’s semi-instantaneous gratification.
You can book it now and someone comes to your door and it’s all taken care of the following morning. Our customers love the reviews that they can have a look at online. They love that we offer a guarantee on all the work that we do. They love our customer service and how we keep in touch with them the whole way through. It’s all done by hand, so we’ll take a look at the clothes and we’ll say, ‘This coat might benefit from an anti-moth treatment or a darn here as well. We found that your pockets need replacing. Would you like us to do that as well?’ It’s a very personal service where people feel they’re kept up to date all the time and they don’t need to do anything.
So it’s basically very simple, very convenient, and the quality is great, and we have the reviews to prove it!
When you go to the tailor, they’ll fit you there and then, take the measurements, and they’ll give their expert opinion whilst you’re there, on a one-to-one basis. So how do you bridge that gap at Clothes Doctor?
If there’s something that’s very hands-on and they need it to be carefully tailored to their needs, we’ll usually do a FaceTime call with our head seamstress. That works really well, and it’s so easy because it’s a five or ten-minute call while the customer’s at home, standing in their wardrobe. That’s how we deal with the really hands-on alterations.
Otherwise, we just ask the customer to pin a safety pin where they want it, and we have never had a problem with that. Or sometimes we say, ‘Put something else in that is exactly how you would like this to be’, and we can copy that; we can take the measurements off that.
So to clarify: this is a FaceTime call with the customer from the seamstress?
“Yes. The customer puts on the item and has a quick FaceTime call with our seamstress, and she says, ‘Okay, so it looks like you need this, this, and this’ and they go, ‘Yep, that’s perfect’.”
So are there any other companies similar to the service you provide?
Not that I know of. The vast majority of our competition is either the local dry cleaner which, as we talked about, is difficult on many levels, inconvenient, and usually lacking the quality. On the other end, you have the high-end boutiques, which are great service, but you need to book an appointment on a Saturday, and then you go in and it’s, let’s face it, really expensive. They both have a place in the market, but what we’re trying to do is make it much more accessible, much more convenient. The fashion industry has really gone to new levels in the last years, and so much of that has been driven by the growth of online. But repairs and alterations don’t have a single online offering apart from us. We feel that there’s a big gap for that convenient, hassle-free, high-quality option.
Based on this convenience factor, are you thinking of expanding your collection service wider than London?
We’ve found that our Collect+ service is actually more popular than our collection service, funnily enough. The Collect+ service works whereby you place the order and the next day an envelope arrives. It’s basically a canvas bag that’s pre-addressed. It’s all reusable and plastic-free. You drop it down to your nearest Collect+ collection point and they get it back to their door a few days later. And that’s actually been more popular. So at the moment, it doesn’t feel as if there’s a need roll out collection nationwide.
Is there some sort of insurance with Collect Plus?
Yes, we’re fully insured. It’s all covered.
Are you scared of failure, and why?
“Yes, I am scared of failure. I think most people are.”
Everybody’s scared of failure to some extent. I think you have to make your peace with it and you have to realize that life is a journey and there are many twists and turns to it. And just because one shuts down, it doesn’t mean another one doesn’t open. You have to try to think about it in the most rational light that you can. I don’t think about it failing very often, but I think every founder would tell you that you have to look at the possibility from time to time and you have to make your peace with it. And then you keep going.
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking of becoming self-employed? What wise words would you give them?
I think that what I didn’t quite appreciate was the need to be unbelievably thick-skinned and resilient and not mind it when people reject you, and not mind it when people don’t like your business idea, because there are loads of others who do. You just have to be one of those people who can focus on the positives and let the negatives pass them by. And when it feels as if it’s just too much, you have to keep going.
“The really successful entrepreneurs are the people who just keep going.”
Fair observations. I think resilience is paramount. So last question before we delve into the nitty-gritty:
One of the biggest themes in our space right now is having an online presence. How crucial is it to have a well-designed website and how did you go about doing so? What was the challenge you faced with designing that website?
A lot of other businesses could take a pre-existing, designed e-commerce website and adapt it for their needs. For us, we had to design it from scratch to make it feel very user-friendly but also deal with this additional challenge of the unique flow of placing an order for a service, but a service which is attached to an item of clothing. So there was a lot of time and energy spent to try to make it feel easy to use and uncomplicated. And an important thing is to make it feel familiar.
I think it’s crucial. Our website is not quite there yet, but you learn about prioritisation and that you can’t make it perfect the first time. But if you can get your conversion rate from 2% to 6% with your website, then that’s a game changer. So you have to make sure that the changes you’re making are the ones that you truly believe will have the greatest impact on your conversion rate.
You have a partnership with John Lewis, Karen Millen, French Connection… How does that partnership work?
It’s in select stores. At the moment, it’s in London stores only.
“If a customer goes into the massive John Lewis in the Westfield centre, they’ll see Clothes Doctor signs around, there’s a Clothes Doctor hangar in every fitting room…”
..and it reminds people that if something doesn’t fit perfectly, they can use this service to get it tailored to exactly how they want it. Then they just ask the stylist team or sales assistants, who can help them by pinning the item into place and helping them fill out a simple form for the item to be collected from the store. They can just add it to their purchases when they’re checking out and it’s a simple process. We either send it back to their home or back to the store. So people otherwise might have to make the decision of taking it somewhere really expensive or simply not buying it, and that’s what we’re helping John Lewis with – their conversion rate.
And it’s working really well!
Can you tell us if you’re in talks with any other major store to have a similar partnership with?
We’re in talks with quite a few, but because crowdfunding has been such a high priority, we’ve put the other conversations on hold. We’re aiming to go back once we’ve gathered lots of data from the partnerships we have and present that and the impact we’re having in terms of the customer experience and the sales we’re converting that otherwise wouldn’t be converted. I think once we’ve collated that information, we’ll be in a better position to make it a bit more two-way. At the moment, we’re providing a service to the retailers for free and we’re also providing a service to the customers, but I would like to make it more of an engaged process, with perhaps a small charge. But yes, it’s a really popular service and we have a lot of incoming inquiries.
Clothes Doctor is currently crowdfunding with twenty-three days left as of today, 6 November. You’ve raised £126,000, 63% of the way to your £200,000 goal. So people can just go to Crowdcube.com and type in Clothes Doctor and invest as little as £10.
This is more of an accounting/financial question. Over the next four years, you have a projected £8m turnover. It’s a steep rise between £54k in 2018 and £8m in 2022 – and we hope you get there or surpass it! – so what is the basis of that projection?
We’re not limited by proximity, so we can scale our business through a single workshop. As we’ve talked about, we’ve just started to add into the mix our retailer partnerships, which we believe can be a very significant portion of our revenues. We’re only in four or five stores and we’re getting regular orders from them, we have the opportunities to roll out nationally with them, with others, and we’ve had conversations about rolling out internationally with several other international brands as well. In addition, we believe there’s an opportunity to add partner tailors and seamstresses who have been thoroughly vetted and trained by us to work on a freelance basis around the UK to provide a convenient, quick alteration service, particularly for things like bridal wear, bridal parties, things where there isn’t a high-quality alteration service offered.
“Ultimately, this industry is around £650m in size, so £8m of that is still a tiny portion of the market, so it doesn’t seem like an overly ambitious target. We are growing very quickly today. If you look at where we were twelve months ago, we’ve grown between 300-500%.”
In order to really start to scale that, we need the investment, we need to ramp up our digital marketing spend, drive sales through our workshop, and add on those additional services through our partners as well. So a three-pronged approach is how we intend to hit that target.
Well, as we said, we’re hoping you’ll surpass that! Thank you very much for this interview. Do you have any last words you’d like to add?
Just that… We’re at such an exciting time, and things are really starting to take off, and I can’t tell you the reaction we’ve had. I’m sure the launch of our fundraising on Crowdcube has had something to do with it. Things in the workshop are going great, the sales are growing rapidly. It’s a very exciting time and it coincides with this campaign, which we’re really excited about. So now it’s just a question of time, and we feel that the crowd is on our side and we’re excited about what’s happening this year and next year and for the future!
Thank you very much for your time Lulu O’Connor, from Clothes-Doctor.com.
Thanks so much for having me!