Learning with thredUP, Ready, Set, Go!

Leveraging user research to fuel rapid growth and disrupt the resale market in polka-dot disguise.

I have always had an interest in fashion. But, in the tropical environment where I am from, fashion is rather limited. Then, I moved to Paris, and everything changed.

On the other side of the Atlantic, I was introduced to a seasonal approach to fashion, and my fondness for the art of self-expression intensified. 

Back in the U.S., my appreciation for fashion and design led me to a new graduate program at the California College of Arts in San Francisco. That program is known as the DMBA. It’s a business program that takes the tools designers employ to make successful products and services and applies them to business management.

By my second semester, I was eager to implement these tools outside the classroom. With a focus on the retail and an interest in sustainability, the growing online consignment market seemed a perfect match.

Just prior to grad school, I made the acquaintance of one of these market entrants, a young startup called thredUP.  Behind the name, a group of ambitious Harvard MBAs. I reached out to to them, told them what I was up to, and inquired if they had any internship opportunities. A month later, I joined the team just as they were trying a new approach to the business.

As an online store where moms could cherry pick gently loved pieces, thredUP had a model it could scale. Now, the company needed to get up to speed on its customers. That was my job, and my experience at thredUP taught me a lot about research for startups.

Over the period of my five-month internship, thredUP relocated and expanded its drugstore-sized warehouse in the city to a Target-sized location in the suburbs, grew the team from 25 to 55, and were featured on the Today Show twice - unleashing a virtual run on our servers each time.

The constant change was electrifying. However, it made me rethink my research approach. No generous research budget, no subject recruitment partner, and a moving target as the problem – this research demanded creativity and agility.

There was never a typical day at thredUP. Sometimes, I would be working and suddenly, I would hear about something in production.  Wait – there is a new checkout page in the works?  Oh you didn’t hear? I would have to stop what I was doing and hunt down the assets to create an interactive checkout mockup based on the new design.

Next, I needed to find real customers to walk through the test checkout. But, it didn’t just end there. Once I got the feedback, I had to fight for my recommended changes before the update went live.

It was creative problem solving on the go, and I loved every minute of it.

Of course, this wasn’t the planned methodical research that theoretically should happen. Normally, you would identify the problem, recruit research subjects, and establish the research criteria allowing plenty of time to investigate thoroughly, at least a few weeks. That’s impossible for an early-stage startup because the product/service is constantly evolving.

For a startup to reap the benefits, research has to be rethought to run at its pace.