Sarah McVittie is co-founder of Dressipi, a London based fashion technology start up that offers women a truly tailored shopping experience. Through owning an unrivalled and comprehensive view of how millions of women shop and dress, Dressipi is a data-driven business which provides its personalisation technology to some of the UK's leading retailers including Shop Direct, Jacques Vert Group, Arcadia Group and M&S.
A serial entrepreneur, Sarah built her first business (Texperts) inspired by her first job working as an analyst at an investment bank. Texperts sold in 2008 to its largest competitor (kgb), but after moving to New York to work for the acquiring company, Sarah quickly realised she missed the excitement that came from building her own business. She resigned and came back to the UK to start Dressipi in 2009 with business partner Donna North.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I am very fortunate to have an amazing family who have always encouraged me to do what I am passionate about and what I believe in. I don't think it is leadership so much as being able to have a vision and see it all the way through. I helped to create my own degree at University and ended up studying Economics and Chinese. I pioneered a motorbike and sidecar trip from London to Beijing (across the oldest silk road) in 2001 where we also raised £50K for charity. I have been lucky to have been led to believe that anything is possible and when you start to make things happen it kind of follows on from there. With respect to Dressipi, Donna and I have very different skills and backgrounds that enable us to lead Dressipi in the way we do today. We have both run businesses before when we were relatively young and I definitely think this helps; the confidence of youth and not knowing what you don't know helps overcome obstacles that otherwise you may not have tackled! But fundamentally, it comes down to having a vision, self-belief and the tenacity to see it through - regardless of what challenges present themselves.
How has your previous employment experience aided your position at Dressipi?
I started my first business as a direct result of my first job. I was working as an analyst at an Investment Bank (in Corporate Finance) and as a graduate, part of my job was having to locate very accurate bits of information for very demanding bosses 24/7. My colleague and I got increasingly frustrated that we were being paid well to analyse the information but spent more time locating it! That was the seed for the first business. When we sold Texperts and I moved to New York I loved the city and enjoyed the job I was doing but I was missing that fire in your belly that you get when you are building and running your own business. We had learnt so many valuable lessons with the first business and there were plenty of ups and downs, but I realised that I did actually quite enjoy that rollercoaster! I ended up resigning pretty quickly to come back to the UK to start Dressipi with Donna, who previously led the digital division at IMG.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Dressipi?
Starting a business is without a doubt very hard work. There are so many challenges involved and as a result we have made plenty of mistakes and learnt many lessons! There is no overriding challenge but the key point is that you tend to learn from those mistakes and in doing so get better at building your business. Raising money is hard work but when you believe in something enough you learn that tenacity and passion are two of your greatest assets. We are passionate about technology, data, solving real customer problems and as women, we also want to look lovely so, for us, it really is the perfect job! In terms of highlights, I love the fact that every day is different, as well as the rollercoaster ride that is pretty much a given when you run your own business. Starting to get consistently good results is hugely satisfying and rewarding. It is great to feel proud of what you are building, and a real pleasure to work alongside such a brilliant team of very talented individuals.
What advice can you offer women who want to start their own business?
I believe that advice constantly evolves as you continue to learn, but at the moment my top tips would be:
1. Do or build something you are passionate about
2. Make sure you are solving a real problem / servicing a real need
3. Work with people you think are awesome and have a lot of respect for
4. Make sure you have fun doing it!
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
My husband also runs his own business so in that respect I am very lucky - he understands the pressure that comes with running a business and so we split childcare duties completely 50/50. I had my first child last year and that undoubtedly forces you to have a much better balance and also forces you to be far more efficient with the time you spend in the office. My day now typically goes as follows: 6am - woken up by small child and exercise, 7am - leave for work, 7:30am - arrive at work, I then work through to 5pm when I leave to pick him up from nursery and do his dinner and put him to bed and then usually I do another couple of hours work from 8pm - 10pm. It's not terribly exciting or glamorous but it means I get to see my son and husband for a decent period each day as well as get everything I need to get done for work. I also now take more of my holiday than I used to - which helps with perspective and means that I get at least 20 days a year (apart from weekends) with my family.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
As an entrepreneur you don't tend to be impacted by some of the more common issues that women have in the workplace - particularly around having kids and how you manage that with a full-time job. That is definitely still a challenge for most women but I have plenty of female friends who are very successful in their field and have 2 or 3 kids. Since having our first child my opinion of working mums has totally changed! I now appreciate the additional drive it gives you and the focus you then have on the end goal. It is also good for your own efficiency to have a time when you absolutely need to leave the office - it is amazing how much more you can get done when you don't allow yourself any other distractions. I am very proud to be a working mum and love the role model it sets for my son. As entrepreneurs we are definitely luckier and because you can set your own rules. It is less about being male or female, and more about having what it take to get the job done. Donna and I both do lots to support women in business and to support young men and women who are interested in entrepreurship.
How has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life?
As a child my grandfather was a great mentor and inspiration to me. In my professional career, both with Dressipi and with Texperts I have been very fortunate to work with brilliant people who have a whole host of experience and I have enjoyed learning from every one of them! I am also fortunate to have an amazing husband (who is now on his 4th successful business) so we tend to share challenges and issues and learn a lot from each other. Again, Donna and I also do a fair bit of mentoring of other younger entrepreneurs and it is definitely good to be able to help people not make the same mistakes you did in the early days!
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
So many! Other UK female entrepreneurs who I really respect are Wendy Tan-White from Moonfruit and Sarah Wood from Unruly - they are both amazing entrepreneurs, mums and also incredibly down to earth and lovely. I found both of them very inspirational. I have always had huge admiration for Aung Sang Suu Kyi - her courage in her conviction for democracy and women's' rights was extraordinary. And, I was also fortunate to hear Indra Nooyi speak and she was brilliant - her realistic view on trying to be a good wife, mother and business woman really struck a chord with me. Every day you often have to make a choice about which one you are going to be because it is impossible to be all 3 at once.
What do you want Dressipi to accomplish in the next year?
Our vision for Dressipi is to build a service where every woman has a portable Fashion Fingerprint®, helping them with every shopping and dressing decision they make to ensure they always feel confident in what they wear, how they look and what they buy. This core vision has not changed since we started but obviously (as with all start-ups) our route to get there has evolved as we have understood more about the customer's needs! We now deliver personalisation to over 5 million women and have a number of projects underway for the next 12 months that will help us to deliver our core goal. It is definitely going to be an exciting year!