To celebrate Glossy’s one-year anniversary, we’re spending a week profiling the standout change-makers who inspired us in our first year. These insiders are currently transforming the fashion, beauty and luxury spaces.
When Rent the Runway cofounder Jennifer Fleiss returned to work after giving birth to her daughter last year, she realized something within her had shifted. After nine years working at the helm of the online rental company, she was wistful for the excitement of working at an early-stage startup.
She couldn’t shake the feeling, and with Rent the Runway performing better than ever before, she realized it was time for her to move on. After a discussion with Marc Lore — CEO of Walmart’s e-commerce arm and mentor to both herself and Rent the Runway cofounder Jennifer Hyman — Fleiss decided to take her talents to yet another burgeoning retail venture. Fleiss is the new cofounder and CEO of Code Eight, the first incubator company to launch as part of Store No. 8, Walmart’s new retail innovation program based in Silicon Valley that is dedicated to cultivating startups in areas like virtual reality, drone delivery and personalized shopping.
Though the company is still in its early phases, with plans to launch in spring 2018, Fleiss already has a team of six people working out of a shared co-working space in New York City, just a few blocks away from Rent the Runway’s office. Code Eight is the company’s working name, Fleiss said, and it will be focused on developing personalized and customized e-commerce experiences for brands and customers. Using her Rent the Runway background, a company that has thrived by using consumer data to improve its business and better tailor products to consumers, she has big plans for continuing to transform the future of retail.
As Walmart continues to establish itself in the retail space — it recently acquired Jet.com and ModCloth, and is rumored to be purchasing Bonobos — the success of Code Eight will be telling to the company’s ability to tackle innovation. We spoke to Fleiss about her transition, as well as her ambitions for Code Eight.
What made you decide you were ready to step down from Rent the Runway?
It was definitely a difficult decision and bittersweet in some ways, but it had been almost nine years since I started Rent the Runway. It had been a dream come true, but I came back from maternity leave and had this feeling that there weren’t any fires burning. We had an incredible team. I wasn’t needed in the same way, and it was freeing. I compare it to when your kids go away to college: It just felt like the right time, and if I wanted to go do my own thing, I could. I missed the feeling of the early start-up stages, and was starting to think about going back to something that related to those early days.
What drew you to Store No. 8?
Marc [Lore] had been a mentor of mine since the early days of Rent the Runway and had always been someone I looked to for advice. One draw was the chance to work with him, someone I consider one of the strong entrepreneurs of our time, a real visionary. Given that Code Eight is within Store No.8, some of the stress of being a start-up is reduced because Walmart has a longer-term funding vision. You don’t have to meet certain goals before raising your next round of money and running out of funding. You also have the ability to leverage certain resources from Walmart, whether that’s data that can be tapped into or legal, financial and recruiting resources. That’s really nice when you’re starting out, and a lot of the technology that we’re building is something that can be acquired or implemented across Walmart and Jet.
Code Eight is centered on designing a “highly personalized one-to-one shopping experience.” What does that mean in practice?
On the technical front, it means having a personalization and recommendation tool that can accurately surface products that match your needs as a consumer. We want to already know what you would have come to if you had spent an hour researching on your own. The reality is that consumers are so busy these days, it’s not practical to look at hundreds of product review pages — it’s analysis paralysis. There’s just the practicality to having fewer items that really suit someone’s needs and realizing that having more is not always better. The other element is personalization. We’re hoping to create authenticity and connection with this experience, much like you get when you walk into a small boutique or local shop that knows your morning coffee order. There’s a level of trust in a brick-and-mortar shopping experience that is so foreign to most e-commerce shopping.
How do you plan to bring your Rent the Runway background to Code Eight?
Data was certainly something that was very important at Rent the Runway, and [Jennifer Hyman and I] were both lucky but also thoughtful in hiring a chief analytics officer very early on. I think that led to data-focused solutions and a culture and mentality that was really healthy. We have this great privilege when you have an e-commerce company to know your customers and get smarter with each step that you make. With Rent the Runway, we were disrupting an industry — nobody else was really renting dresses in a scalable way. Likewise, what we’re looking to do with Code Eight is something that is different and transformative to e-commerce. We need to learn from ourselves and iterate.