The Fund Founder Spotlight Interview: Allison Lee of Hemster
Allison Lee is Founder & CEO of Hemster, the virtual tailoring and repair solution to add wearable years to all garments.
Welcome to The Founder Spotlight where we highlight the incredible people behind the companies we’ve backed at The Fund. The Fund is a founder collective and early stage firm, by founders for founders.
The fashion industry has a huge waste problem! Brands are sitting on thousands of garments deemed unsellable for miscellaneous reasons (including being too wrinkled). What happens to all of those items? Some are donated, some are recycled, some are burned, but most of the time they end up in landfills. All of these options aren’t sustainable considering the energy emitted to make them. Hemster is taking these garments and using technology to refurbish them at scale. The company started as a tailoring service to empower retailers and brands to guarantee perfect fits in stores and online. They still offer this service, but have expanded to provide a sustainable solution so no garment goes to waste from fixable damages and minor flaws.
Allison Lee is the founder and CEO of Hemster. She was born in Korea and moved to the U.S. as a teenager. She studied psychology and has a professional background in data segmentation and monetization. She used her experience to fuse the two and bring the forgotten art of tailoring into the journey of shopping. Allison shares how Hemster has modernized tailoring through tech and is helping us all create a circular and sustainable wardrobe.
What’s Hemster’s mission?
We’re continuously developing a new mission. We’ve been around for 7 years now, and have had to redefine ourselves a number of times to adapt to the market and embrace change. As the company grows, the team grows, and everyone is maturing. It’s always good to ask yourself, is there a better mission to unlock the next chapter of the company? We started out bringing fit freedom to everyone by partnering with brands to provide virtual tailoring solutions. We’ve now expanded with our Revive service, which adds wearable years to previously unsellable inventory.
How does Hemster inspire “customer love”?
The big thing, especially when you're thinking about our B2B2C funnel, is we provide transparency at every stage. Brands claim they’re going to be sustainable by 2035, but what does that mean? We provide a QR code for each item so that people can scan and learn the environmental impact they’ve made by purchasing this refurbished item. It brings a different individualized experience to the shopper knowing they’re getting something that would have probably ended up in a landfill.
In addition, what’s really missing in the industry is the transparency about how long an item is supposed to last. Is it 10 years? 20 years? We’re shifting the paradigm of how people think about the value of what they’re buying based on the wearable years, not just the price tag you see. Spending $200 on something that lasts 20 years is a lot better deal than spending $50 on something that lasts 2 years. Customers appreciate that they can redefine their budget to optimize for long lasting fashion.
Tell us about some recent milestones Hemster’s crushed.
A huge milestone for us was that we became profitable at the end of last year. That’s due to the growth we experienced over the last couple years. In 2021 we grew 9x and last year we grew 5x, which was particularly exciting because it was through the expansion of the sustainability side. This year we’re really doubling down and should grow another 5x while staying EBIDTA positive.
What’s on the horizon for Hemster?
We’re really focusing on our Revive service and sustainability. Brands are sitting on thousands of garments that basically become garbage. We’ve sorted, processed, and digitized thousands of these 'lost' garments and compiled data and insights to address the issue. We’re thinking about expanding to Europe, as most of the brands we’re working with already have a European market and there’s a definite need. We also want to target the Asian market down the line.
What have been some of the greatest challenges founding Hemster?
There are always new challenges, but I would highlight a few:
It was a hard journey being a young, first-time, immigrant, female founder. I wanted people to look at my numbers and not me, which wasn’t always the case. In the end, I'm glad investors weeded me out so that I could in turn pick the right people to be on my cap table.
The pandemic almost took us out because our brand partners basically closed down overnight. We went from $200k monthly revenue to $0 and stayed at $0 for all of 2020. It was our first pivot from working with brick-and-mortar stores to working with the online virtual experience. We never gave up and muscled through.
I’ve had to learn to let go of my own narrative. I grew Hemster through the sheer willpower of convincing people that they needed our product, but it wasn’t really a natural market fit. I had to stop selling, so that I could hear what problems really required fixing. I needed to let go of my agenda and really listen, and that’s been the biggest mindset shift and moment of growth for me.
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