Entrepreneur Behind Texperts Leading Personal Shopping Website

Few people can claim to have set up and sold their first business by the age of 30. But Sarah McVittie, 33, is already a serial entrepreneur. Her success has been recognized by The Times newspaper, which has ranked her in its “Top 35 women under 35” and Management Today has hailed her “one of Britain’s top female entrepreneurs.”

“I’ve always had quite an entrepreneurial flair,” says the London-based businesswoman. “I helped pioneer my own degree at university, and I like the challenge of doing something new. I’m pretty determined and pretty stubborn. I stick with things and see them through.”

In 2003, after a brief career as a corporate finance analyst, McVittie co-founded Texperts, a text message question and answering service, with Thomas Roberts, a fellow graduate trainee at UBS. They raised more than £2.5 million ($4 million) from investors, including Richard Brennan, the telecom executive who was part of the founding executive management team at Orange Plc.

At the end of 2008, they sold the company to kgb, owner of the 118118 directory service. “We weren’t looking to sell, but it was a good time to do so,” says McVittie, who declined to disclose the value of the deal, but said it was worth a “multi-million pound figure.”

While Roberts remains at kgb as its chief product officer, McVittie handed in her notice two months after the sale went through. She then joined forces with Donna North to launch personal shopping website dressipi.com in August 2009.

The site, still in beta, styles itself as a “fashion discovery and online styling service” that helps customers find clothes. Essentially, it aims to help customers decide what size to buy. Once fully functional, users will be able to input their measurements and the site will recommend the perfect cocktail dress for that specific user and tell them what size to buy, depending on the brand and how the clothes are cut. That, in turn, is expected to translate into fewer returns for retailers.

As was the case with Texperts, McVittie initially funded the business from personal savings. A year ago, dressipi raised £500,000 ($798,000) and is poised to close its second round of funding for a “substantially larger” sum, she says.

The company currently has 10 individual investors.

VCJ Contributor Jennifer Hill talked with McVittie about her plans.

Q: How does one go from an analyst to becoming an entrepreneur?

A:

I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after university, so I thought a graduate traineeship with an investment bank was a good place to start. I applied in 1999, which was a bit of a boom time. I’d studied economics and Chinese and the idea was that I’d spend time in London and in Asia, so it seemed a great opportunity. But the fallout from the Asia crisis and the bursting of the dot-com bubble meant that didn’t really materialize.

As part of my job as an analyst, I had to locate very accurate information quickly for demanding bosses, and that’s where the idea for Texperts came.

Q: How did you initially fund Texperts?

A:

I had my bonus, about £10,000 ($15,900) in the bank, but I lived on nothing. I was very skinny and very hungry.

I’m not a very risk-averse character. I was young. I wasn’t married with kids, so I thought if it had gone horribly wrong, it wouldn’t really have mattered.

Q: How did you decide to raise angel funding?

A:

Texperts launched in September 2003 and a competitor, called AQA, launched in April the following year, so we hit the phone and got in touch with journalists. The publicity led to an approach from our first investor, a Cambridge-based technology entrepreneur. He understood the tech and mobile space we were in and invested £100,000 ($159,000) nine months after launch.

Q: How did you and Donna North team up to launch dressipi?

A:

I like to look good, but fashion isn’t my passion. There’s huge potential, though, in taking really exciting technology and applying it to industries that aren’t yet providing an amazing customer experience.

I met Donna about five years ago through a mutual friend. She was previously head of digital at IMG and is a brilliant woman with great experience in all aspects of business. We share a similar ethos as to how businesses should be built. Donna was a great mentor to me while I was at Texperts and left IMG at the end of 2008. We had talked a number of times about doing something together. It was too good an opportunity to miss.

Q: Why do you prefer raising funding from angels, as opposed to traditional VC investors?

A:

For early stage businesses, angel investors are usually the right way to go. Angels tend to be entrepreneurs or business people with relevant experience who can help you build your business. They also allow you the flexibility to build the business towards your strategic goals without necessarily looking for that 20x exit.

Q: What are the benefits to being a female entrepreneur?

A:

I’m a big believer in that it doesn’t make much difference [whether you’re male or female]. At Texperts, people saw me as young, female and blonde, but in many ways it worked to my advantage. They would tend to underestimate me. You can never fail to impress people when their starting point is low.

I’ve always had quite an entrepreneurial flair. I helped pioneer my own degree at university, and I like the challenge of doing something new.

Sarah McVittieCo-founderdressipi

Q: How have you changed over the years in how you manage a business?

A:

I’ve always made a huge effort to know my business and competitors. However, I have the right balance now. I work fewer hours than I used to. It’s all about efficiency.

Q: What advice do you have for would-be entrepreneurs?

A:

Do as much due diligence on your investors as they do on you. Understand what a calculated risk is and what that entails if it goes wrong. And have really good people around you; nobody ever achieved anything all on their own, so recognize that you only have so many skills. Above all, go for it. Have tenacity, drive, ambition and belief in yourself.

Q: What’s your biggest achievement to date?

A:

I’ve always achieved what I’ve wanted to achieve. I’m proud of a lot, but there’s a lot more to come. I’m relatively young and am excited about what we can achieve with dressipi.

Q: What are your plans for the company?

A:

We’re at quite a sensitive stage in the business. We’re working with fantastic stylists and fantastic technologists to build a recommendation engine, and will launch the main customer site later this year. It will be free-to-use, but we also have plans for a premium paid-for service.

Our technology will add significant value to retailers – reducing returns and increasing their conversion rates. And we’re about to close our first deal with a retailer that wants to white-label our technology.

Q: What are your exit plans?

A:

If the right offer comes along at the right time we’ll take it, but we’re determined to deliver the business we see in dressipi. Money is a nice by-product of success, but seeing a vision become a reality is what drives me. We see an exit within 10 years, but if it goes amazingly well, we’ll stick with it.

Q: And after that, would you launch another startup?

A:

It’s a definite possibility. I couldn’t ever go back to working for someone else.

Bio

Sarah McVittie

Co-founder and co-CEO of dressipi.com

Birthplace:

Sherborne, Dorset

Age: 33

Education: Master’s in economics and Chinese from University of Edinburgh

Work history: Corporate finance analyst at UBS (2001-03); co-founder and CEO of Texperts (2003-08); vice-president of new markets at kgb (2008-2009); co-founder and co-CEO of dressipi (2009-present).

Last book read: “One Day” by David Nicholls

Hobbies: “I like to exercise. I swim a lot and cycle to work and I love motorbikes. I’m on the hunt for a new one after my Suzuki SV650 was stolen.”

Did you know? McVittie took a year out after graduating, during which she pioneered the “Silk & Steel” motorbike and sidecar expedition, riding her motorbike from London via China’s Silk Route to Beijing with five students in 2001. They raised £30,000 ($48,000) for cancer research and for the Mercy Corps.

Source: VCJ reporting