Editor’s Note: Eskadi has been named to The Story Exchange’s list of 12 Brilliant Business Ideas.
Sarah Helppi was working at eBay in the UK when she saw how many innovative new competitors were eating away at eBay’s core resale business. She realized that the situation was exciting for consumers who love used designer duds, but also frustrating as it was impossible to shop across dozens of different sites. Her solution is Eskadi, which bills itself as the first search engine entirely dedicated to pre-owned designer fashion. (“We can’t find anything like it!” she says.) Her aim is two-fold: save people time and money, and reduce the fashion industry’s considerable impact on the planet. The secondhand fashion market is booming as consumers increasingly seek both sustainability and savings, making Helppi’s London-based business idea a timely one.
Here’s our lightly edited Q&A, from The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project.
Tell us more about starting your business.
I had this idea: if I could use Trivago to find a hotel and Skyscanner to compare flights, why was there nothing to help me search, save and compare pre-owned fashion?
I couldn’t pursue the business operationally while working at eBay, but I started scoping it on the side. When lay-offs happened in May 2021, I knew I had the chance to go build it. I brought on a tech co-founder who custom-coded the entire site from scratch and we launched in February 2022 with several million listings and over 3,000 designers.
How do you define success?
Starting a business at 41 after almost 20 years in corporate life taught me a lot — namely that I love learning and growing, and am not fixated on upward progression or titles. I didn’t clock this as something that defined a successful career until I was well into my working life.
When I was a child, I moved around a lot so change began to feel familiar – something I could navigate and even grow from. When I was in my early 20s, I taught myself how to how to DJ (and beat match) in my bedroom using trial and error. In 2008, I moved into a finance career after my MBA, even though I knew very little going into that role. I then felt the need to immerse myself in culture, taking a gap year and visiting 20 countries in six months, eventually relocating to the UK.
After I moved to eBay, which was a brilliantly intense introduction to marketing, I again felt myself getting restless as my development stalled, hence the drive to launch my own business. I thought why not? I don’t define success in terms of business growth rates, profit etc. – not yet anyways – I define success as, am I learning? Growing? Engaged?
What is your biggest success so far?
We signed commercial agreements with 13 partners just based on the concept alone. We launched with four and are working our way through the pipeline. We have chosen not to raise funding from external investors, at least not venture capital, and grow the business in a self-funded way, by supplementing our income with more traditional work. There are too many stories in the press now about VC-backed businesses sinking because the venture could never be profitable. We are growing on a profit-first basis which means slower growth, but I am certain this is the right path. It’s even a relief — some founders never realize what they sign up for until it is far too late.
What is your top challenge?
Paying ourselves. That comes with not getting on the VC train.
Have you experienced any significant personal situations that have affected your business decisions?
Yes, I am a single mum, so financial security is critical to me. I supplement my income in other ways. As I am mid-career, my market rate is much higher than I would be paid in my own startup. This gives me flexibility to run the business without the expectation of investors, and not stress about money.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
The venture capital path is not the only one, and don’t let it define your success. Raising money does not mean a company is or will be successful.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
Leave the house and go work near other creatives or founders in a co-working space. Isolation and its impact on mental health has been a very real threat over the course of this journey.
Who is your most important role model?
I don’t really have one. But my 7-year-old daughter is an inspiration to me every day. ◼