When Bill Gurley, a partner at early stage VC firm Benchmark, sends you an email explaining that all the women in his office are throwing money at your company and he wants to know why, it’s a kind of a big deal. That’s exactly what happened to Katrina Lake, 31, the Harvard MBA founder of Stitch Fix, an online personal styling service for females.
The startup has raised some $16.75 million since launching in 2011, shipped style boxes to hundreds of thousands of users, and assembled an advisory board that includes Steve Anderson of Baseline Ventures, Julie Bornstein of Sephora, and – of course – Bill Gurley. Enter “Stitch Fix” in Google and you’re sure to find blogs posts from time-starved moms, chic young professionals, and quirky techies all posting selfies of their latest “fix,” Stich Fix lingo for a box of five clothing items selected to match a user’s style profile.
While Sitch Fix is all the rage, its petite, fast-talking founder is not your average startup junkie. “I didn’t have a lemonade stand as a kid, and it wasn’t as though I was born to be an entrepreneur,” she says. “I’m really not a risk-loving person.” So rather than pitching an idea and joining an incubator, the Bay Area native, opted to go to Harvard Business School to build her business in a safe zone. “My thinking was best-case scenario, I’ll be able to start my own business, and that’d be great; worst case scenario I have Harvard MBA, and that’s not bad either.”
RELYING ON A SISTER IN NEW YORK FOR STYLE ADVICE
When she entered HBS in the fall of 2009, Lake had a working thesis: the retail experience could be improved by leveraging data and new technology. “I was really fascinated by when you walk into Gap, why don’t they know that you left some jeans in your car or that you bought this sweater in a different color?” she says.
An idea began to take shape: She relied on her sister, a buyer in New York City, for style advice. Couldn’t she share that same expertise with busy women everywhere? While in the MBA program in Boston, she missed the fresh produce and subscribed to a community-supported agriculture box of fruits and vegetables; the mix consistently surprised and delighted her – and pushed her to try new things like turnip soup. Couldn’t she do that with clothing?
Lake spent her summer internship in the San Francisco Bay Area with Polyvore, a social shopping network. There, she witnessed behind-the-scenes startup life and returned to Harvard in the fall ready to get Stitch Fix off the ground.
HER HBS COURSE WORK INFORMED HER THINKING ABOUT HOW TO GET A STARTUP OFF THE GROUND
In her second year, Lake alternated her time between the West Coast and Harvard, courting investors while juggling a full class schedule. Courses such as Legal Aspects of Entrepreneurship by Lena Goldberg proved useful in explaining “what you should and shouldn’t be doing to protect yourself and to protect your company,” Lake says. Entrepreneurial Finance provided practical insights like how to fill out a term sheet, while the first-year class Technology and Operations Management helped out later on when Lake ran a weekly assembly line where early employees packed “fix” boxes. “It was really, really fun to set it up, test it out, and run time trials,” Lake recalls. “After a year, the COO from Walmart.com joined us, so my tinkering in operations stopped then,” she adds with a smile.
Despite taking advantage of class time, Lake says she probably could have leveraged the B-school network better. But it certainly didn’t prevent her from finding funding. In April 2011, Lake received $750,000 from Baseline Venture’s Steve Anderson, who later joined Stitch Fix’s board. She graduated in May and she moved to San Francisco in June.