Closet queen: 99dresses founder on business plans, accelerators, and fashion startups

Nikki Durkin, 22, loves to shop. So it’s not surprising that she found herself in a situation that countless women find themselves in: She was spending thousands of dollars on clothes with most of them sitting in her closet – unworn with tags attached. Many of her friends had the same problem, so she wanted to find a cheaper way for women to consume fashion.

Durkin founded 99dresses – an online platform that helps shopaholics on a budget refresh their closets by giving their unwanted clothes a new home and receiving others in return.

Here’s how it works: Users list their unwanted fashion to give away to a loving new home, and they instantly earn “buttons” to spend on items that other women are giving away. All the items are free, but the receiver of an item pays for shipping and a fee.

She started 99dresses in Australia before she decided that she wanted to expand her company in the U.S. Without a formal business degree or programming skills, Durkin applied and joined Y Combinator, where she found the benefits of working shoulder to shoulder with other like-minded entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. The app launched in the U.S. in October 2013 and is in the process of some exciting new developments, which she won’t divulge just yet.

We sat down with Durkin for this Member Spotlight feature – a series that showcases the individuals behind startups and small businesses. Here’s what she shared:

I started my first business when I was 15. I designed t-shirts, got them printed and drop-shipped from China, but that was a hobby business I did on the side. At 16, I had the idea for 99dresses, and I pursued that seriously the day I finished high school. 

Being a part of an accelerator program like Y Combinator has its benefits. I started 99dresses in Australia and brought it over to the U.S. when I got into Y Combinator, so for me it was particularly helpful for my business. Instead of feeling like I entered a foreign country with no friends, contacts, money or name for myself, I immediately met smart, like-minded people, received some investment for my startup, used demo day as a platform to raise more money, and was mentored by incredibly experienced people. Furthermore, the YC alumni network proved to be very powerful.

Don’t waste time writing actual business plans. I think writing your ideas out and putting a structure around them is great because it forces you to think through your ideas. At most, I’ll write out high-level strategy plans, but business plans become obsolete pretty quickly in startups. It’s a much better use of time to work on an idea and validate whether there is demand for it first. Then you can write out action steps to help you get from steps A to B and power through those.

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My latest book purchase is Design + Code because I follow Meng To as a designer. I’m always looking to improve my design skills in Sketch (instead of Photoshop) and become proficient in using Storyboard in Xcode 5. I think it would make me better at designing products, so I have a deeper understanding of the engine underneath the hood.

There are definitely a few fashion startups that have inspired me. I love Rent The Runway because they have such a great concept that’s been well executed. Polyvore is such a cool place to make style sets and collages. And I love browsing through Pose to see all the different “looks”. It’s great for style inspiration!

Here’s my advice for aspiring female entrepreneurs:

1. Learn to code – if you have the time and don’t have the skills. The goal isn’t to become the “technical” person in your team, but it will help you understand the whole process a little better.

2. Use other female entrepreneurs as a support network. There are plenty of them in New York City!

3. When you’re out fundraising, emphasize the advantages of being female and the unique perspective you bring to the space. For example, 99dresses is solving a problem aimed at young budget-conscious female shopaholics because I’m scratching my own itch. Since the majority of tech founders are male and solving problems they’ve experienced, there was a big gap in the market for a service like ours. This applies to a lot of female-run companies I’ve seen and it’s a huge advantage.

4. Just do it.

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