Welcome to ‘Female Founders’, the Information Age series profiling 12 women who have grabbed the entrepreneurial reins and ridden into the unpredictability of start-up life.
We talk to the women about their business, entrepreneurship journey and advice they’d give to other women considering starting their own business.
Information Age interviewed all 12 women on the Startup Catalyst Mission to London this year. Startup Catalyst runs regular missions for start-ups, investors, and other leaders to some of the world’s top tech hotspots, such as Silicon Valley, Israel, Hong Kong and London. The goal? To transform both the individual and innovation landscape in Australia.
Today we speak with Kym Atkins, co-founder of The Volte.
Name: Kym Atkins, co-founder
Business: The Volte
Established: 2017 in Perth
No. of employees: 10
No. of customers: 100,000 monthly users
Information Age: What is your business all about?
Kym: The Volte is an online peer-to-peer marketplace for borrowing and lending designer fashion items. The best way to think about us is the Airbnb of fashion.
IA: How did the idea for your business come about?
Kym: It came about a couple of years ago when one of my co-founders was going to lots of weddings. I looked at her wardrobe and wondered how could she monetise the clothes in there. She was often only wearing the dress once and felt like she had to buy a new dress for each event she was going to. On top of that, we felt that with fast fashion being the second largest polluter in the world, maybe we could get people back into designer fashion – back into the real thing – and consuming fashion sustainably, that would be a good thing as well.
IA: What problem does your business solve?
Kym: I guess it solves the problem of women having nothing to wear! One of the Volte's visions from the beginning has been that every woman in the world can have access to designer fashion and consume fashion sustainably.
IA: Who is your ideal customer?
Kym: To be honest, we’ve found that it’s any female from 18 to 55. We have a really broad range because everyone has an event at some point that they need to go to. I think a lot of people don't necessarily want to purchase an evening gown or even just a new dress for a one-off event.
IA: What has been your biggest challenge to date with The Volte?
Kym: Probably funding to be honest – and being female in a tech world.
Once we got the traction and the numbers started doing the talking, the money came in, but I think proving to everyone that females are just as good as techies as males has been a big challenge.
In terms of the business itself, probably just making sure that everyone understands to trust the site is secure has been challenging. I think we've been lucky that Uber and Airbnb have led the way in the sharing economy. Five years ago, you never would let a stranger pick you up from your house in a car. If you don't have trust at the core of your platform, you'll never be successful.
The way we do that is we have a really good customer service team and we really try to help both sides of the transaction if they need us. We try and go above and beyond each time. For example, if your dress didn't turn up for an event because of Australia post or it was delayed, we will always find someone an emergency dress from the region or the city they live in. I think that's just building up the trust over time and making sure people know that the site is secure and is a safe place to transact.
IA: Who has mentored you along your journey?
Kym: We've had fantastic mentors actually Mike Rosenbaum from Spacer, which is a marketplace for linear space. He's been amazing. He's been one of our mentors from day one and he's obviously really prominent in the tech industry. Also, an amazing mentor out of Silicon Valley called Adam Broadway who's an Aussie who lives in the States. He's the CEO of the person who developed our marketplace and just took us under his wing as well. Then we did Springboard last year. We got accepted into that program and out of Springboard, we've had some amazing mentors as well that have continued with our journey.
IA: What is the vision for your business?
Kym: We would like to definitely explore new markets. Our vision really is for every woman in the world to have access to designer fashion. We have all different price points, demographics, size range and we want to start people thinking about consuming sustainably. Let's get people back into the real thing. Let's support designers and let's try and move away from being disposable with our fashion.
IA: What would you say has been your biggest stuff-up up to date?
Kym: We delayed our development by six months attaching a courier service to the site. It was really tricky for the developers so we delayed six months, cost a lot of money and within two to four weeks of launching, we realised that the Australian public only wanted Australia Post!
That was probably our most expensive and time-consuming mistake. We took the courier off straight away. It wasn't working.
IA: With the benefit of hindsight then, what would you have done differently?
Kym: The funny, interesting thing is that we did ask the customers but we asked the wrong question. We were asking, "Would you like it delivered to your house?" We didn't ask how you'd like it delivered. We liked the idea that it would come to your house. We just didn't realise that people didn't want couriers. People live in apartment blocks in Sydney and Melbourne and most people don't have a safe place at their house to leave a parcel. They want it to go the post office and be signed for.
I think we asked them the wrong question when we asked it and our mentor, Adam Broadway, told us for nearly every week for those five or six months to not do this and maybe just stick to Australia Post but we insisted that it was the secret sauce [laughs].
IA: How have you funded your business to date?
Kym: Initially, we bootstrapped it ourselves then we did an angel round with some private individuals.
IA: Do you see a further capital raise in your future?
Kym: Yes, we're working that out now. Maybe at the end of this year, beginning of next year, just depending on what happens in the next few months.
IA: Where would you like the business to be in the next five years?
Kym: Preferably have gone to a new market, wherever that may be, and then hopefully looking at an exit.
IA: Any idea of the first international markets you'd like to enter?
Kym: We're just looking at that at the moment, actually. We will probably will look at Europe or potentially Asia. US was up there but I think that's dropped off now. I think the key with us is we don't own any stock. We are scalable and we have very low overheads. We can launch into a new market very, very easily compared to having to buy the stock ourselves.
IA: Who would you say put you on the path to entrepreneurship?
Kym: Probably my dad. I'm one of two girls in the family and he was always very keen for us to get a really good education. We also did a lot of travelling growing up, lived in other countries – he really wanted our eyes opened up.
I did five years in London post-university working as a corporate lawyer. I got the global experience and learned resilience and skills.
I'm probably a little bit of a go-getter and quite motivated and we saw a good idea and I thought ‘why not?’ If you don't take chances, if you don't give it a go, you never know.
IA: What’s your advice to women looking to become female founders?
Kym: If you have a great idea I think it's worth just giving it a go. You never know where it might take you. At times it is relentless and challenging but it also gives you flexibility. If you are a mother -- and I'm a mother of four -- you can at least be flexible around the children but do not underestimate how hard it is. It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done.
Roulla Yiacoumi travelled on the 2019 Startup Catalyst Mission to London with the Female Founders.