Rathna Sharad, the founder and CEO of Runway2Street, has spent most of her life straddling the fashion world and the tech world, having grown up with a creative, fashion forward mother and an engineer father. Although, she considered becoming a fashion designer, she ultimately followed in her father’s footsteps and became an engineer. However, she indulged her love of fashion while traveling around the world, finding unique, high quality products from local designers. But when friends would ask her where they could buy the products, she realized that many of the brands didn’t sell online or have a way to promote their products internationally. Sharad saw the perfect opportunity to merge her fashion expertise and tech acumen to tackle this problem. She teamed up with co-founder Sherwyn Soff to launch R2S with the goal of curating a space online – reminiscent of the boutiques she’d visit – to sell one-of-a-kind luxury products from the best up-and-coming and independent brands from around the world. In addition to shining a spotlight on emerging designers, Sharad allows women to shop the globe by sourcing products directly from the brands’ ateliers while also sharing the stories behind the brands – an important component of the site’s shopping experience. I reached out to Sharad recently to find out how she went from idea to viable business and overcame the challenges she faced along the way.
Tell me about your background and what brought you to what you’re doing now?
I grew up in Chennai, in southern India. As a child, I was influenced by my mom and grand mom who were incredibly talented creatives who instilled the love for color, fashion, recognizing fine fabrics and the love of jewelry. My earliest memories of fashion was my mom designing and creating clothes for me and my two younger sisters. She was also a certified gemologist who loved fine jewelry and we literally could talk about colors for hours. At the same time, I was also influenced by math, science and technology through my Dad, who is a computer science engineer. He could fix anything around the house and I was always his helper. He actually built our first TV as a summer project and I remember being fascinated by soldering ICs on to a motherboard.
I almost went to school for fashion design but I was equally drawn to science and tech. Eventually, the latter won and I studied engineering, taking after my Dad. I started my career as a developer, then eventually led engineering and business teams for logistics companies including UPS for about 10 years. Then I switched to a completely different industry as I was fascinated by the nascent online advertising space and joined the advertising marketplace team for Bing Ads. It was a fantastic experience as we were like a little startup within Microsoft – I started on the engineering team and then eventually managed product teams as director of product management.
How did your previous job experience prepare you for launching a fashion startup?
The fashion space has been going through a radical change as borders shrink and consumers have access to products online as they are launched, almost instantaneously, through platforms like Instagram. But, it is not as simple as adding a buy button because the underlying plumbing to complete that transaction does not exist. At Runway2Street, we are really innovating on that underlying, not-so-sexy ground work that is ripe for disruption and has not seen innovation in decades – technology that powers cross border commerce. This very much leverages my deep domain expertise in international supply chain and logistics. Sherwyn and I also brought our expertise in building marketplaces and advertising platforms to create the end to end R2S platform to offer consumers and brands a friction free experience.
What was the opportunity that you saw with Runway2Street?
I have travelled extensively for work and play, and my way of discovering a place is through local designers and brands that inform me of culture and design. I found that when I came back home and wanted to purchase again or wanted to provide an online link to friends and family who wanted these pieces – it was impossible. Because these brands were not online or did not sell internationally, the whole experience as a consumer was so frustrating.
One particular instance, I found a necklace on the cover of Glamour magazine and I could not find the product online. As an advertising nerd I just could not understand how you could have a premium placement and not close the loop on it. I eventually met with the designer in Paris and asked her how she would miss out on hundreds if not thousands of women like me and found that brands like hers have two major challenges – creating a presence online and more importantly dealing with international logistics. In doing more research and talking to hundreds of brands I was able to understand the need for a platform like Runway2Street and the tremendous opportunity it represents for brands and consumers alike.
What were some of the hurdles you had to overcome to get the business off the ground?
As a startup there are always hurdles along the way. The major one for us was the failures we had in figuring out our “anywhere to anywhere” cross-border logistics as it had never been done before at global scale and on-demand. We spent a lot of time educating partners and coding with them only to find it was not operationally viable. Luckily we were able to fail fast, learn the tough lessons that helped us create a much better formula for partnerships making our “anywhere to anywhere” much more robust, scalable and also super seamless for consumers and brands transacting through our marketplace.
Were there any assumptions you made about your customer or the market that changed as you grew the business?
There have been a lot of learnings along in the way across supply, demand and operations. One specific example is about our customers. When I started R2S, I thought we appealed to women, just like me, in their 20s and 30s, who have disposable income, and want something really unique, or one-of-a kind and something their friends won’t be wearing. And we do certainly appeal to a “fashion-forward” segment. However, in the last 3 quarters we have found that we appeal to a broad range of women, 18-65 in ages and that in addition to the above, we appeal to two other categories – “conscious consumers” who love the complete transparency in our marketplace where they get to hear the story behind the creators, understand what the pieces are made of, who makes them and how they are made. And “millenials” as they care about non-mass produced products, they care less about brand names and they love the social impact of supporting the makers directly.
Once you launched, how did you get the word out about the business?
We started focusing on areas where we saw organic growth – like social media did well for especially image heavy channels because we have incredible imagery. Then we focused on aggregator platforms and technology integrations with them because we have hard to find brands and their fashion forward customers loved us. And finally press and stylists – this was easier for us again because we have incredible under the radar brands, and are constantly adding new brands and collections that editors and stylists love.
What sets Runway2Street apart from similar businesses online?
We are the first and only “direct to consumer” platform created exclusively for small and medium size luxury brands, enabling them to sell globally in 100+ markets. Our competitive edge is our patent pending tech. that makes cross border commerce super simple, for both consumers and brands transacting through our marketplace. We are also the only platform that showcases entire collections for these brands and tells their story.
How do you decide which brands to stock on the site?
We look for exciting luxury labels that have a unique and exiciting design point of view, strong collections as we don’t just carry a few pieces like other retailers and are very wearable. We also focus on high-quality craftsmanship and small-batch production. For beauty, we only work with small batch production with a focus on organic and natural products. We recently brought onboard Caroline De Marchi. A cult favorite Parisian brand – I met Caroline the designer and her daughter who manages the brand and fell in love with this exquisite line and the passionate women behind the label. They have a beautiful boutique in Paris that only the locals know about. Caroline designs these beautiful luxury bags with French craftsmanship, while infusing it with inspiration from her extensive travels around the world, making her designs one of kind. Her bags are very much part of our ethos of “less is more” and about high quality craftsmanship, limited edition manufacturing and access to hard to find gems from around the world. These are bags you will want to pass on your daughters someday.
A photo posted by Runway2Street (@runway2street) on
Has discovering new brands and designers changed your own personal style?
I think my personal style is always evolving – I constantly challenge myself to experiment and be bold. I think my job has made that challenge more exciting and rewarding.
Runway2Street boss lady & CEO @rathnas looking fierce in our @kseniaschnaider pixel print dress. We love the playfulness of the print and the pops of color. #bosslady #ceostyle #kseniaschnaider #pixelprint #fashiongram #instafashion #couture #atelier #dress #runwayready #fashionforward
A photo posted by Runway2Street (@runway2street) on
Being an entrepreneur and running a business is incredibly hard. How do you maintain perspective and keep going when things get difficult?
It is incredibly hard and probably the hardest thing I have ever done. I have mad respect for entrepreneurs now! I think there are 3 things that help immensely – 1. Having a great co-founder because the founder relationship is like a marriage and needs to endure lots of ups and downs 2. Personal support system outside of your startup like your family and friends who are extremely supportive 3. Other entrepreneurs who you can talk to and who will actually get what you are going through.
What’s been your proudest accomplishment or biggest success since launching?
For me the proudest moments are when I get on the phone with customers or they write to us and I hear reasons why they love us or they are selling me on the virtues of R2S. (Example or anecdotal story)
What advice would you give to someone who’s looking to start their own business?
If you are obsessed with your idea and can’t really think of any reason not to, then just go do it! 😉
Images courtesy of: Rathna Sharad and Michael Duryea