Armoire is a Seattle-based startup that wants to change the way people—for the moment, mostly women—approach their wardrobes.
Armoire members complete a style profile including questions about size and style preferences. The app then presents a “closet” of items for the member to choose from based on an algorithm and assistance from professional stylists. The chosen items are then shipped to the member’s home. Members wear the pieces for as long as they want, and swap items when they’re ready for something new.
On the business end, Armoire is a team of a little over 22 people—also mostly women—operating out of The Riveter coworking space in Capitol Hill. Armoire’s Founder, Owner and Chief BossLady Ambika Singh sat down with us to talk about her experience building a brand that caters to all women.
Tell us about your background and career leading up to Armoire.
I’m from Seattle, I grew up on the Eastside. I went to college in New Hampshire, pretty much as far away from Seattle as you can get. I really missed it here, so I came back as an intern at Microsoft, twice, which was really different from what I was studying. At the time I was a history major with a concentration in Asian studies. I wrote my thesis about microfinance in India, so landing at Microsoft was not a straight line.
My first startup experience was less than the big success it was expected to be. We went from about 17 people a year in, and then the company laid off 14 of the 17, in my perception, overnight. It was really blindsiding for me.
Looking back, it was professionally the most devastating thing that had happened to me. The first day was bad, the second day was better, and by three weeks later, I started to pick myself up and walk away. I learned even in the worst case, the worst case is okay. I realized this would not break me, and there would be another thing.
My next startup experience, I actually ended up with Rover. Rover was very cool, because I saw the other side. Which is very addicting. When it works, it’s awesome. We built a team, and it took on a soul of its own very quickly. I was itchy to have more ownership over what we were doing.
Where did the idea for Armoire come from?
I don’t have a fashion background. It was something I enjoyed, it was good for my career, and it made me happy, but it certainly wasn’t a top five priority. I realized that’s actually the way most women think about their wardrobe. Women have a lot of stuff going on, work, family, and maybe athletic pursuits or hobbies. All of us like to look good, but it’s not the first thing we think about every morning.
If I was going to dedicate my life to something, I wanted to be supporting an audience I felt connected to. So professional women were an obvious choice. I also felt like from a business perspective, they’re underserved, and they’re holding the purse strings. Why is no one building stuff for them?
Tell us about how you started Armoire. How did you prepare and get it off the ground?
For me, I felt like I didn’t have the kind of academic background I hoped for. After a few years in the workforce, I really felt like I needed more. So I went to business school and it was honestly really effective for me, because I learned a little bit of everything I do now. Armoire started while I was at MIT’s Sloan School of Business.
I applied to MIT’s Accelerator with four co-founders. By the end of the summer, we were the only ones making real revenue. And now two years later, we’re one of the few teams who survived. The people who ran the accelerator were really encouraging us to give this a real shot.
I thought in three months it would die. But it just continued to grow, and not in ways I expected. In the beginning, every week we’d get one new customer. And eventually it was every day. Some days we’d get two customers! But it wasn’t the way it is in the movies. We grew a little bit at a time, and it started to get bigger and bigger. Customers started to tell their friends, which was crazy. I’ll never forget the first customer who no one knew. “Maybe your mom’s friend? Nobody’s mom’s friend…oh my god, somebody else’s friend! This is crazy!”
What was the biggest challenge in say, the first six months?
Everything. 50 to 90 percent of my day, what I’m doing, I’ve never done that thing before.
Some of the biggest challenges at that stage were really logistical. Me and two other team members packed all of the boxes ourselves. We lived and worked in an apartment that was disorganized and full of clothes. I cannot tell you how many mail trucks I have chased down, in heels. We got to know the mailman very well.
I learned very quickly every step comes down to people’s ingenuity and their talents. That’s why it’s so important to have a strong team around you. So as a team, we started to build real operational processes. All of those things started to work. They’re still hard, but it’s new challenges.
How did you get the investment you needed to start Armoire?
When I moved back to Seattle, I pitched to all the big investors, and all of them said no. But one of them introduced me to a bunch of local angels, mostly women, and then I got my first check from a woman who runs a private equity firm, who had never made a consumer investment, but she personally wrote me a check.
One thing I tell female entrepreneurs is yes, the data on our success is bad. You can’t look away from that because that is the truth. But what they don’t tell you is that women will come to bat for you all over the place. So fear not! You gotta just go for it. A bunch of women in Seattle came to bat for us, and I am so grateful.
From there it’s been more incremental stuff. We started paying ourselves a little bit of money in December of 2016. And then the team started to grow. We’re super proud of the fact that 20 out of the 22 of us are women. This didn’t happen by design, as the majority of people we’ve hired have found us. I feel very fortunate to have a team of such talented women (and a few brave men).
How did you find your space at The Riveter?
The Riveter opened in May of 2017, while we were still working out of the apartment. It just so happened Amy Nelson, The Riveter founder, and I were raising money at the same time. I can’t tell you how many male investors were like, “Oh, there’s this woman I met who’s doing something really similar to you. You guys should meet.”
So finally I visited The Riveter’s Capitol Hill site and learned she was opening the building as a coworking space, so nothing we were doing was the same. With the exception we are both women servicing the female customer. We both had a good laugh about that. Amy has always been a great friend and a great business partner friend. When she was opening The Riveter, without hesitation she told me, “If it will help you, you can use it, it’s here.”
I had no idea how to sign a commercial lease. All the leases we looked at were three-year commitments. There was no way I was going to get three years of commitment. So I think The Riveter is an amazing place for startups. Because we’re members here, we don’t even have a lease.
We do whatever we can to help each other. We have this whole group of female founders in Seattle and beyond, and it’s just a really supportive community. It’s obvious to all of us that this is an all boats rise situation.
I know you have a certain ethos for hiring and mentoring employees, can you tell us about that?
I think for everybody, talent is the most important thing a business has. Everything else is repeatable, but the people are the incredible asset.
From a mentoring, skill growth perspective, we try to do a lot of sharing of what different parts of the business are doing. Startups are hard to work at because they’re so demanding. The only currency we have to give back to our employees is to give them room to grow and to shine and to take risks. So putting people out there and giving them their opportunity is very important to me personally, and from a retention perspective.
I think we’ve been able to be a launching spot for people. From a company building perspective, if we can invest in people, then they’ll invest in us. I think that’s one of the best leadership outcomes for me.
You participated in Mayor Jenny Durkan’s startup roundtable discussion this year. Why were you interested in participating?
I think Seattle, as we all know, and as the Mayor knows best, is going through incredible change. Some of it is really positive and some of it is less positive. So I was curious and honored to have a chance to hear her thoughts and hear how others in the startup community were thinking.
One of the big things I wanted to talk to the Mayor about was the fact that maternity leave for a company like ours is a really serious issue. 20 out of 22 of us are women, so we want those options to be available.
I certainly, at this stage, cannot financially cover a year of parental leave, even though I think that’s the right thing to do. So what is our collective responsibility to make sure that startups are places where women can work feasibly?
I think a major mindset shift that has to happen, all the way from local government to big government. We should understand that children are a collective good. We need childcare to be affordable and for maternity leave to be a thing we all have, without putting the whole burden on a startup company or on families. I believe what happens as a result is 80 percent of startup employees are men, because startups can’t afford comprehensive benefits.
So, if we could make startups a better place for women to work at while living their lives, it could really change the game.