Ambika Singh, CEO and Boss Lady of Armoire Style, on how to run a smart business through a global pandemic and why we should all get out of our PJs every day.
We are always learning and looking for inspiration on how we can be better and do better as small business owners. One source of inspiration from the beginning of Public Habit has been the team leader at Armoire, a Seattle-based clothing rental service that enables women (strictly referred to as Boss Ladies inside the Armoire workplace) to rent contemporary clothing and swap anytime with a monthly subscription.
Ambika and I had planned to do a fireside chat in one of their beautiful boutiques in Seattle but, as with everything in the time of corona, we pivoted to a Skype interview last week to catch up. In true boss lady fashion, she dialed in from the Armoire warehouse where she was helping out the volunteer staff as they continued to ship out rental orders with a skeleton team.
I learned a lot from our chat, about how to run a profitable, lean business (in and out of a global pandemic), what it takes to motivate a team remotely, and how important getting dressed every day is for our mental well-being. Ambika represents a new generation of empowered leaders who will be forever changed and better for this experience of leading through a challenging time.
Sydney: Set the scene – where are you and what are you wearing?
Ambika: I’m in our warehouse in downtown Seattle wearing some BB Dakota sweatpants with a comfy, cozy long sleeve. I wish I was wearing a Public Habit tee but this is what I had today.
S: Now that the new normal has settled in a bit, what keeps you up at night now?
A: One of the tough parts is determining the right balance between planning and agility. That’s always an issue for a business as it’s growing but even more so now because there is very little historical precedent for us to plan with. We have always tended to be a little more conservative with respect to our ratio of fixed costs to variable costs. We try and keep as much of that cost variable as we can but it is a tradeoff.
Your business model is based on this at Public Habit! You’ve chosen to make your supply chain just in time so your costs and revenue are in lockstep. The general business school rule of thumb is that you ideally want to closely tie what you spend with what cash you’re bringing. Think about it this way, if it was your own money, you’d try and spend it out of your checking account and not spend beyond what you can pay for.
S: What changes have you had to think about as it relates to your business model?
A: We haven’t changed the fundamental business model. Our assets are our clothing and we can drive value for our consumer and our partners by utilizing that asset more than single use, enabled by the sharing model. Revenue has taken a hit so we’ve had to scale back on our variable costs. That means we buy less from our suppliers, we have fewer employees in warehouse, we’re sending fewer items to dry-cleaning, and shipping less stuff out. Our core rental model is more applicable today than ever before when there is less discretionary spend from consumers.
S: What trends are you noticing in your rentals? What are people wearing in quarantine?
A: The obvious ones are lounge and athleisure, also tops that look good on Zoom meetings! What has been surprising is the number of people that are still dressing up at home. I’m on day 31 of quarantine and generally I’ve been home (unless I’m at the warehouse). 30 days running of not blow-drying your hair, sometimes not showering, not getting dressed has a real impact on your psyche. The days when I’ve gotten dressed have made all the difference. We always say at Armoire that the armor a Boss Lady puts on every day impacts how she feels.
"It’s not about how the external world perceives you, it’s much deeper than that. It’s about the skip in your step that that outfit gives you, or the twirl of a skirt that brings you joy."
A: I love seeing the beautiful ball gown go out or the frilly maxi skirt. People are sending us pictures of them in a faux fur coat just cozied up on the couch.
S: That’s amazing! We are all just looking to feel good. It’s an important part of our identity so it’s weird when we don’t pay attention to it for such an extended period of time.
Leading through uncertainty
S: As a leader of 44, mostly female employees, what role do you hope to play for your team during this time?
A: I’m learning every day. The word authentic is overused and cliched but it seems appropriate. It’s important for me to show to my team that I have never seen this before, I have no playbook. I am going to make a bunch of mistakes but hopefully none that we can’t roll back. I hope to convey through that both the optimism that I truly do feel as well as the fear and uncertainty and be honest about the fact that those things can coexist in a peaceful way. We are trying to be as communicative as possible; I could be doing a better job so we aren’t just waiting for news to share but instead checking in consistently to let everyone know we’re here.
Downsizing the team was really painful. That day was up there as one of the worst days of my life. I don’t know if there’s anything you could be doing from a leadership perspective for that to hurt any less.
S: I think that’s human for that to hurt.
A: We have recently reopened our warehouse on a volunteer basis. By that I mean our part-time workers who were previously at the warehouse can choose to take unemployment now or they could come in to work if they want to. It’s incredible to see how many people are coming back to their job, despite the risk. It gives me so much hope and pride that they believe enough in what we are doing.
Growing Up With Big Plans To Be A Boss Lady at Everything
S: Going way back, what were you like as a little girl?
A: I’ve heard from my parents that I always had lots of plans. About where are we going on a great adventure, packing for a big trip. I apparently had a plan that I would be a different occupation every day of the week. I was going to be a quilt maker and a teacher and a garbage woman. I wanted to be everyone I observed. Loud, busy and ambitious!
S: Ambitious from day one! Your parents encouraged you to be bold and bossy.
A: They let me plan a whole trip to Nicaragua with no plans when I was a teenager. They’re still incredibly supportive.
S: Was fashion a big part of your childhood and early life?
A: My grandmother was incredibly fashionable. She was fabulous and was definitely my style icon. She was of that generation where she really got dressed every day. Which is funny because my mom, even though she was also born in India is Seattle through and through. She’s very practical about what she wears. I think it helped remind me that fashion works differently for different people but it’s still important. You can’t put it in a box and it’s always evolving for each of us.
"We are very careful at Armoire to not define the Boss Lady in one specific environment. She may be the CEO of her household and have very different needs from her wardrobe than someone else. Neither is better."
S: What’s the best piece of career advice you received during early days of Armoire?
A: A woman who was my mentor at Microsoft and our first angel investor at Armoire. She always gives me tough love advice:
“I don’t want you to agonize over the options that do not exist. Go create the option and if you have the option then let’s discuss it.”
I come back to this almost daily. And I think it’s certainly applicable for new entrepreneurs as they may get stuck on big questions that there’s isn’t an answer to yet. There are, like, 50 steps in between where they are and the answer they’re looking for. They need to get started, create the options and make decisions as the potential solutions arise.
S: What's your vision for the future of Armoire?
A: I see the joy that we are able to deliver with these transient, physical goods and I love that. I missed the boat on becoming an MD but the fact that we can deliver joy, that’s inspiring. And I hope to expand that to reach more people. We are in the service business like restauranteurs and Uber drivers. We all have the opportunity to deliver a little bit of joy. And if we can do that better and to more people, that’s my vision.
S: What's your vision for the future of fashion?
A: I think that, unfortunately, fashion has been used in the past as a tool to make people feel bad. But it should be a tool for a smile, for making you feel good about yourself and I think there are things that we can do to make that better. I want all that prescriptiveness about what you “should wear” to go away and for us to help people to find what they need and want that make them feel great.
S: What are you optimistic about coming out of this time?
A: It’s funny, I think that even behind a face mask you can still see people smiling at one another, trying to be helpful. For most Seattleites that is a welcome change from the infamous Seattle freeze. This is like the Seattle anti-freeze. I think it’s reduced the distance between people. Public health crises don’t pick and choose. Major economic recessions don’t pick and choose. I have noticed that people are recognizing that our human experience is closer together than it is further apart.
We are all equally vulnerable and powerful.
To learn more about Armoire, head over to their website or find them on Instagram or Facebook. If you have any comments or feedback please drop a note in the comments below or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’d love to hear from you!
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