Startup Spotlight: Own The Boardroom

Sep 24, 2017

Startup Spotlight: Own The Boardroom

Sep 24, 2017

Meet Erica Zahka – CEO and Founder of Own The Boardoom, an on-demand professional closet and business mentor!

GH: What is Own The Boardroom?

Think of Own The Boardroom as an on-demand, professional closet and business mentor.

You only have 7 seconds to make a first impression; how do you make that brief window of opportunity count? First impressions are critical and professional attire is expensive; Own The Boardroom offers professional attire for rent so interview candidates can look the part without financial stress. As a value-add, our blog is filled with tips on how to deliver a strong first impression.

GH: What was your Eureka moment: how did Own The Boardroom get started?

For three years I managed an entry-level team at a local tech company. The daily dress code is casual, but I was constantly asked about what to wear for different occasions; the company kick-off meeting, joining a sales rep on a client visit, attending a 1-on-1 with a new executive. I realized that professional attire was still an important tool for making a solid first impression, but it was not needed on a daily basis.

Other companies, like Rent the Runway, had already proved the attire rental model was sound from an operational and customer facing standpoint, so I decided to apply a similar model to a different market – the interview candidate.

GH: How did you build your team?

If you look at OTB’s organization chart, I am currently a solopreneur. However, I recognized early-on that it’s not reasonable to expect to build a company on your own. I pride myself on being self-aware and having a strong acceptance of my ‘aces and spaces’. From the beginning, I’ve leveraged my network of colleagues and mentors to hire contractors to fill in my spaces where applicable. For example, helping with the content marketing side of Own The Boardroom.

GH: What is your company philosophy driving your company culture?

We aim to level the playing field in business. We want to help everyone – regardless of status, or the name on their diploma – access opportunity in their careers. Own The Boardroom is not just about clothing or style; the outfit rentals are a budget-friendly tool for helping men and women instantaneously relay confidence and professionalism in high profile situations like interviews.

GH: Startup life is full of failures and ‘make it work’ moments – can you identify how you bounced back from one of yours?

Shortly after launch, in January, a customer booked two suits with their rental period starting on a Monday. At this time, UPS Ground did not deliver on Saturdays, which I did not think to check since all other UPS options did ship on Saturday. I packed and shipped the suits with enough time to arrive on Friday. Something happened with UPS and when I checked on Friday expecting to confirm the package arrival, I noticed the new delivery date was “By EOD Monday” (since Saturday delivery was not an option). This was unacceptable because my customer’s event was Monday.

Luckily, we had a duplicate size available in one of the suits; I packed that suit along with two other choices similar to the second suit the customer had selected and drove to Woburn, MA on Saturday morning to deliver these suit options to the client. I had contacted him in advance to confirm he would be home and fully explained the situation. To my surprise, he did not appear upset or disappointed. He appreciated the extra attention and actually liked one of the alternative suits I had brought with me better than the one he ordered (or so he said). He shipped all the suits back together in the original box that arrived Monday evening – and left OTB a happy customer review!

Logistics failures are expected and always feel like they’re happening at the worst possible times. Moving forward I adjusted shipping times to account for a day delay, however, thankfully, a few months ago UPS Ground started delivering on Saturdays. I still air on the cautious side with timing of packing and shipping outfits, and will never assume any details; I always double check and confirm in writing.  

 

GH: What did you learn from your first customers?

One huge lesson was that OTB’s market (interview candidates; primarily college-age, also anyone transitioning between roles or industries) doesn’t care much for brand-name attire. They appreciate quality, but would rather the clothing be more cost-effective than have a brand label attached. That led to the OTB brand of men’s suits and women’s blazers, and our collaboration with a local designer for the women’s dresses.

In addition, did you know that when a suit is purchased off the rack it is always the same ratio of jacket size to waist size? How many men do you think actually fit that ratio? Not enough. After a few sizing mishaps, we started keeping the jackets and trousers separate so customers can receive a best-fit suit. Since changing this operational process, we haven’t had any fit issues.

GH: What has the Boston ecosystem provided you?

The Boston ecosystem has provided support, information, and motivation, plus a healthy pool of potential customers: There are roughly 250,000 students spread across the colleges and universities in Greater Boston. I can’t talk about the Boston ecosystem or Own The Boardroom’s progress thus far without thanking Babson WINLab for their helpful programming, connections to prominent men and women in the Boston business scene, and a network of inspiring and supportive fellow women entrepreneurs.

GH: What is the Boston ecosystem lacking from your perspective?

It’s difficult to compare the Boston ecosystem to others considering that I’ve only been a startup in Boston. One tool that would be helpful is a guide for all the startup-focused groups and organizations in Boston. Organizations (like TCN) that provide the opportunity to network, learn from others on a similar path, and receive access to trainings for bettering yourself as a founder are incredibly valuable. However, there are numerous options and paying memberships to all would not be an effective use of time or money.

It’s difficult to determine the best one (for any given founder) to join; an overview of all these organizations, their expertise, and frequency of meeting would be helpful.

 

GH: What’s the best/worst piece of advice you were given along the way?

‘You know your business better than anyone else’ – this is the best (but in the moment felt like the worst) piece of advice. When receiving feedback and input from others you must listen and consider all of it, but you can’t act on everything that everyone else suggests. You have to trust yourself, your research, your vision, and pick and choose what ideas to pursue. It felt like the worst piece of advice in the moment because sometimes you just want to be told what the best or the correct thing to do is – truth is, no one really knows!

GH: What was the best thing that happened to you last year?

It’s hard to pick just one – many great things happened to get me to where I am today. Being selected to participate in Babson WIN Lab’s 2016-2017 cohort is at the top of that list, and then receiving 1st place in the final pitch competition was great momentum to stay focused beyond WIN. Without WIN Lab’s network, programming, and support system, I would not have been able to develop Own The Boardroom as quickly as I did in the past year.

GH: What does the future hold for Own The Boardroom?

OTB’s Immediate future holds customer focused website updates and local events: We started renting men’s suits because the sizing is more straightforward than women’s clothing, and I’m incredibly excited to announce that our first line of women’s attire for rent is now available! We worked diligently this summer; collaborating with Cecile Thieulin of SimoneSimon to produce dresses that are professional, comfortable, and stylish – and that don’t ride up when you walk or sit down. What will you wear to your next interview?

In the future you’ll be able to rent your entire professional outfit from OTB. For now, we curated a Style Guide of recommended looks for all outfits (men’s and women’s) to help you pair the outfit with the right fixings. Looks range from The Conservative to The Creative, and each includes links so you can easily add preferred items to your professional wardrobe.

In October, join us and #1 local career and life coach, Whole U. at the Microsoft store in the Prudential Center to learn how to present your best self on LinkedIn. You’ll get help optimizing your LinkedIn profile and receive a professional headshot.  

OTB’s long-term future: We can already ship across the continental US – I look forward to expanding our partnerships within New England and beyond. If you know an educational organization, university, or career coach whose graduates and/or clients could benefit from having a cost-effective option for professional attire, please introduce us.

Learn more about Own The Boardroom!

*Please note Photos in this spotlight were provided by Hornick Rivlin Studios, Models by Maggie,Inc., Dress Designs by SimoneSimon

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