Zhanna Babchuk came to the United States from Ukraine at age 19. She found herself in New York City, where she became fascinated by the unlimited possibilities of styles on display. Her background in finance combined with a passion for fashion sparked the creation of Poshare, a fashion platform where women can rent or buy clothing from a curated community of boutiques, designers, retailers and wholesalers, usually for special events.
The online platform beta-launched in February of 2016, and Zhanna welcomed the birth of her business not in New York but in her new home in Houston, where she has settled with her boyfriend since 2015. Houstonia spoke with Zhanna on the benefits of a shared economy, what it's like to be a female entrepreneur, and why Houston is better than New York.
Tell us more about Poshare!
Poshare actually combines two words, “posh” and “share.” Posh means fashionable; share comes from shared economy. We allow shoppers to shop local from boutiques available in their area. As I was living in New York when I first had the idea, most of our dresses currently are in the northeast; in Houston we have one partner so far, but we are looking to expand in the next few months. Of course, all our dresses are available for shipping across the country.
As a new Houstonian, what are your impressions of the Bayou City?
First of all, I feel like it's less of a financial burden. In Houston, money goes much longer ways than in New York. Also, the rhythm of life is easier here. People are just so friendly and helpful—I mean, I love New York with all my heart, but it's so competitive. Sometimes it has this “the shark eats the shark” vibe. In Houston it's a different atmosphere: I feel at home, I feel more relaxed. Moreover, Houston is concentrated in medical and oil start-ups and business, but it is actually a pretty fashionable place. To be honest, coming from New York, I did not expect that. Initially you'd think Texas must be cowboys, farms, ranches. But Houston is really nice. Very fashionable, very classy. So I feel like there's a big potential here.
How did you come up with the idea for Poshare?
I used to borrow dresses from my best friend, but at some point she moved to Miami. An event was coming up, and I was like "oh my God, she is gone. What am I gonna do?" I looked up Rent the Runway and I just couldn't find anything that I was too excited about. At the time they were also experimenting with sales, plus Rent the Runway had to buy their inventory. They were interested in certain styles that are easy to clean, simple to maintain. I read in an interview that they rent dresses up to 30 times, which means that it probably needs to be a certain kind of material and design. If you get a dress that has a lot of details, it would probably get destroyed after a couple of rentals.
So I started working with back-end developers, and simultaneously I launched this Instagram account. A few weeks later, this woman reached out to me. [Her company is] a wholesaler—they have over $5 million worth of dresses in inventory and a bunch of cool designers—she is interested in the idea and she wants to meet. This is how we found our first vendor.
Your original concept was to create a peer-to-peer marketplace. Why did that not work?
What often happens is women would go on vacation or change their mind, or somebody is not taking good care of their dress. There's nothing worse than receiving a dress that's not up to your standards, right before your event. Most of our business is special occasion, so it means the dress must be there on time and it must be in excellent condition. That's why I decided to move from peer-to-peer model to a curated business community. This way, we hand-pick vendors that will showcase their dresses on our platform. We help them by creating a profile, uploading their inventory, and taking care of the customer service. This minimizes the problems a vendor or a buyer could have.
What are the benefits of renting over buying?
We are in a time of social media. When we go out, most likely we will be photographed. And most likely, the photographs will be shared instantly. And then you don't really want to appear in that dress again. You can go and buy a cute dress at Zara, but most likely most of the girls in your group goes to Zara as well, and they will know what this is.
Or you can rent a dress, it will cost you probably even less than the Zara dress, but it's actually a $700 dress from a name brand. For the price of buying one fancy gown, you can probably rent five different dresses. And another thing—it takes up a lot of space in your closet, which may not be a problem if you're in Houston, but it's a big problem if you're in New York. Personally I didn't feel like maintenance was the biggest problem, but it could be an issue—I may find this trendy right now, but then two years down the road, what am I going to do with it?
How has the business community in Houston helped you grow as an entrepreneur?
It is sometimes frustrating to be a woman in technology, because it is still a male-dominated field. It's very helpful when we have groups where women can get together and pull each other up.
One of the organizations I joined is called Circular Board, which is a Houston-based community for female entrepreneurs. They help with mentorship and advice, which I found pretty interesting. Another one I joined was SheHacks. Nobody was hacking anything, really, except for ideas, but it was a great place where women entrepreneurs and coders got together. It wasn’t too aggressive, more like a whole team environment and we all felt pretty good about it. I think Houston could be the next top destination for technology start-ups.
Are there any upcoming projects you would like to share?
We are looking to launch a special bridal section on the site, where we will have dresses for bridesmaids, for mother of the bride, mother of the groom, and some bridal gowns. One of our best customers are actually bridesmaids. As you know, often bridesmaids are not very excited about spending a ton of money on a dress that they are not that crazy about, that they will probably only wear once in their lives. They will be able to pre-order dresses three to 12 months in advance, and most of those dresses are designer dresses.
What about the website in terms of functionality—any new features to look forward to?
We are working on an algorithm that would actually pick out best dresses based on fit depending on the person's body measurements. Right now, very often, I would be the one actually facing customers. It's been a great experience; I do enjoy helping them find the right size and the perfect style that works for a particular event. Once we scale, though, most of the stuff will be automated. Customers will fill in their body measurements: their height, weight, waist, hip, and then the algorithm will pull up dresses that would be best for their body type. It's just a suggestion, they can shop however they want, but it may be a lot easier for someone to find the perfect outfit.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.