Zhanna Babchuk, founder of Poshare, an on-demand fashion platform where customers can rent or purchase dresses, noticed something was amiss when 50% of her web traffic vanished. She initially chalked it up to some kind of software glitch, but then, around mid-March, the cancellation requests began to flood in. The threat of coronavirus had finally arrived in the United States, and the era of social distancing had officially set in.
"We are a special occasion-oriented business," Babchuk says. "All the events — all the public gatherings! — have been canceled."
This is not the first time Babchuk has been thrown a curve ball. Now based in Houston, the idea for Poshare sprouted while Babchuk was working a less-than-stimulating finance job in New York City. "I didn't want to sit there, so I created an Instagram account and started posting dresses I wish had myself when I got a direct message from this woman," Babchuk says. "It turned out she’s a wholesaler and carried all of the dresses I listed!" Poshare suddenly had its first vendor before it even launched its website; what Babchuk once envisioned as a peer-to-peer marketplace where users would rent and sell their own dresses was now supplanted by access to more than 10,000 designer dresses out of the gate.
Since Poshare's beta launch in February 2016, Babchuk sought to differentiate it from competitors like Rent the Runway by offering high-end designers and an obsessive focus on a quality experience — from the glossy photography on the Poshare website to responsive customer service.
What are Babchuk's biggest lessons from those early days? Communicate with your customer and be ready to adapt. "We’ve changed so much based on customer feedback," she says, pointing to a huge focus on bridesmaid dresses that made up her most popular category for several years. Poshare similarly noticed huge upticks associated with prom season as customers sought to rent designer dresses for specific occasions.
By now, COVID-19 has slowed sales to near zero. Yet a nimble mindset leaves Poshare well-positioned to weather any business disruptions.
One huge relief? A lack of inventory. As a marketplace, Poshare acts as an additional point of sale for traditional retailers and designers looking to rent or sell their apparel. Other than the website hosting fees and business software, Babchuk lacks any real overhead — think warehouses, storefronts, and other costs traditionally associated with a retail operation that offers thousands of dresses to customers. "I’m just very thankful that we’re fully virtual with no showroom to pay rent," she explains.
The Poshare team works remotely, too, with Babchuk's freelance customer service and web developers distributed across the globe. They've been focused on facilitating returns and cancellations, allowing exceptions to their usually strict cancellation policy. "Most people have been perfectly understanding," she explains.
Overall, Babchuk views the coronavirus outbreak much like any other business challenge she's encountered over the years.
"Anyone who is an entrepreneur, they know there will be setbacks," she says. "There will be months of great revenue, and then the next month the coronavirus will come and you just have to pull it together and understand that this too shall pass. Talk to your team, and move forward. It’s not going to be easy, but in business the toughest one survives."
That's not to say Poshare is going dark, even for the immediate future. There's plenty to do even if the company isn't fulfilling orders.
"I’m going to spend this time looking for some content writers and marketing opportunities," says Babchuk. "Once quarantine is over, it’s back on full speed."