Business

Seven Steps to Starting Your Own Sustainable Business

By Eco-Age
04.05.20

Eshita Kabra - founder of By Rotation - made the career switch from finance to fashion when she dedicated herself to her peer-to-peer rental app full time last year. She shares what she learned from taking the plunge in her handy seven-step guide to starting your own sustainable business.  

 

Being a founder is a privilege. And it’s an especially bigger responsibility owed to society if you are operating in the sustainability-driven space. Those are just two takeaways I have come since switching careers from finance to fashion and dedicating myself full time to running my fashion rental app By Rotation last year. 

As a first-time founder there are a few questions I get asked regularly - from the idea itself to funding. While there are many uncontrollable factors, I believe certain steps are essential in the founding of any new organisation. I hope you’ll find these tips I have collated along my journey from side hustle to taking the plunge to be useful. 

Idea generation

“The best entrepreneurs know this: every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside.” - Zero to One

Look at the world around you, is something amiss? Can something be radically different and better? As opposed to slight adjustments or improvements to the norm, what about throwing away the rulebook and challenging the status quo? This is also known as vertical or intensive progress. I discovered a fundamental problem within the fashion industry through my own habits as an average consumer: overconsumption and the lack of accountability. 

Stay curious and dig deep about your passions in life. The best way to stumble upon an idea that makes sense for you to pursue is usually something in your daily routine that affects your worldview.

 

 

Market Research

Survey the market, and don’t just think local - look at what international peers have achieved in the past and present and infuse relevant ideas to your product. Reach out to who you think may be your target audience and begin sharing the idea with them. If it’s one that challenges them, chances are they’ll need to see it to believe it.

This is also when you’ll be considering your business model very carefully versus incumbent players. When I was looking into the fashion rental landscape, I quickly noticed a pattern that most options were focused on buying inventory (which is not a circular solution to fashion consumption), occasion wear (which means fewer transactions) and had an air of exclusivity (which also means fewer, potentially demanding clientele). Given that my idea for pushing fashion rental a step forward was to become a sharing economy, this market research had started answering my questions about our business model.

Testing and Feedback

Because your target audience will need to see your ‘vertical, intensive progress’ idea to believe it, you ought to think about offering them a trial. Ideally, you will create the most cost-effective and convenient prototype or ‘minimum viable product.’ In the case of By Rotation, I built a beta (or test) platform on the desktop over a weekend, using my past experience as a web designer. It was not a beautiful website by any means but did the main functions: create profiles, list items, rent items and leave feedback. 

This cheap-and-cheerful test not only helped me in acquiring users and understanding their behaviour quickly, but it was also user-friendly enough to be included by press in multiple articles. Perhaps the biggest learnings for me were about what our final product should be: the UK’s first peer-to-peer fashion rental app.

 

 

Opportunity Cost

With the qualitative and quantitative feedback gathered from testing, you will now have your answer: is this worth yourtime? 

This was particularly difficult for me. With a career of over six years in investment management, there was a large opportunity cost in walking away. Life was good; I had the time and money for holidays, brunch and Pilates. In all honesty, I was hesitant even on the Friday meeting when I resigned, which prompted my manager to ask me to reconsider over the weekend.

But I also knew By Rotation was no longer a side hustle: it was ready to transform how we consume fashion. The stars were finally aligning: our official launch featuring our mobile app was covered by the Business of Fashion in October 2019, the same day I left my full-time career in finance. In my view, I believe you can push as far as possible until you recognise that your performance and growth are being hindered if you don’t take the leap (or disband completely).

The Sustainability Promise

If you’re reading this article, you care about your lifestyle and the impact it has on the climate crisis. For some businesses, sustainability has become a trendy marketing/PR campaign to dip your toe into so as to earn goodwill. I like to think we as consumers have become as discerning as ever, and we see right through this.

If you’re starting up a business with sustainability as one of your core values (and therefore also a differentiating factor), it’s important for you to demonstrate this at every step and be honest if there are things you need to work on. I took several decisions to ensure that By Rotation gives a clear signal of its raison d’etre by doing the following:

  • Peer-to-peer fashion rental: No purchasing of inventory, no dry-cleaning, no waste
  • Purely digital: No physical presence such as pop-ups or stores to ensure minimum carbon impact
  • Focus on community: Conscious individuals who are becoming more aware of their environmental footprint through their consumption of fashion, beyond the topic of affordability
  • Acknowledgment: Because we do not buy stock for the purpose of renting out, we haven’t found size inclusivity to be one of our fortes but it is something we continue to communicate and work very hard on
  • Education: Through our Impact Scale, users can calculate positive savings made from renting, rather than purchasing a new item

Simply put, take the industry seriously and give it the respect it deserves. Your stakeholders are watching.

 

 

Funding

Funding decisions have long-term effects on your business and its vision. As far as possible, try not to raise any finances externally. This may sound outlandish coming from me given my previous career but it’s the exact reason I share this advice. In media, fundraising can be seen as a sign of success because it is another press article and “money begets money” (Theranos, anyone?) but those days are over. Investors are now actively thinking about end goals - be it the road to financial profitability or social good - as opposed to yet another funding round.

As the first external source of funds, I would consider government grants and awards that you can apply to and then approach angels as your next source of funding. To me, angels are part of “the Ones” and if you have a great idea, you’ll be getting a lot of interest from potential suitors. The advice here is to accept funding only from those who bring more than just cashflow: they need to be a strategic fit in line with your long-term goals. Ownership is important not because you want 100% of what you created, but because it provides a clear path forward.

Finding ‘the Ones’

I have this concept of “the Ones”. When you’re just starting up, it’s very important to work with the right people - employees or investors - to get the most with the little resources (time and money) that you have. 

To know what you’re looking for externally, you need to look internally. What expertise or connections do you lack that you can’t learn up? As I was running By Rotation as a side hustle with little time and no experience in fashion or media, I knew I needed assistance in Social Media and PR.  From a series of serendipitous encounters, I met “the Ones” - freelancers who strongly believed in the By Rotation story, its goals and in me. 

Having worked in financial markets for a while, I am no stranger to the concept of ‘herd mentality,’ so I composed a team of individuals who had very different backgrounds - professionally, academically and culturally. A melting pot of value-adding ideas, skills and networks - that’s what a lean start-up needs! It is true what they say - in the early days, people are more interested in the who’s behind the new business - not facts and figures.

So here’s my final advice: your business is only as good as you are. The highs can be high and the lows can be very low. Perspective and perseverance are very important because when you set up a business, it’s a long game. Continue to learn and improve yourself as you go further into your journey. I’m a very active person in general, so I’m up for any opportunity that comes my way - nothing or no person is ever too big or too small. 

I strongly believe in karma - treat people the way you’d like to be treated. I never forget where I come from, the people who helped me when By Rotation was only a dream, and every entrusting member of our community who is contributing to our 'rotating revolution.'

It’s special to be a founder. I hope you’ll lead with authenticity, generosity and purpose.

 

Read Eshita's Life as I Know It to find out more about her journey to sustainability.

Stuck with how to combine your career with sustainability? Read some of our teams tips.

Start small and set up your own sustainable pop-up.

 

Seven Steps to Starting Your Own Sustainable Business