Imagine an endless wardrobe to store and protect all your beloved pieces of clothing — your wedding dress, a favourite leather jacket or a collection of suits. Then imagine it all managed online, so that you can use a phone to swipe though your entire wardrobe, and all you have to do is tap on the item and it would be delivered straight to you. Sounds like something from a popular ’90s movie? It’s happening now with the Smart WardrobeTM service PAKT.

But how do you build and run a Smart Wardrobe tech startup? We went behind the (wardrobe) doors to talk to Founder and CEO, Barbara Yu Larsson, to find out just how she does it.

 

You launched PAKT in 2015. What led you to create this business? Where did the idea come from?

I moved from London to Hong Kong in 2010, and although my family and I stayed in a wonderful serviced apartment, we still needed to take an extra bedroom for storing all the clothing that we didn’t use regularly, including winter coats, ski outfits and evening wear. Caring for it all properly was difficult.

I realised with Hong Kong’s high population density, smaller living spaces, and the high levels of humidity, I really needed a climatecontrolled solution, with easy digital access. And when I say climate controlled, I mean 24/7 air conditioned and dehumidified, with clothes that are on hangers or folded with acid-free tissue paper — a proper clothing storage service. And that didn’t exist.

There were alternatives of course, with self storage and ‘box’ storage companies, but I didn’t want to pack and store my clothes in boxes. The longer I’ve lived in Hong Kong and travelled around Asia, the more I’ve realised that this is a problem that affects many people who live in urban centres.

It’s also having a digital inventory of your whole wardrobe, because people don’t always remember what they have. How many times have you bought something you already own?  So it’s about looking after your current wardrobe, but it’s also about being able to say that if you don’t want to wear an item anymore, you can sell it on, share or keep it. A lot styles have come and gone in fashion, and as we know, it all eventually comes back. I wish I’d kept some of my really great ’80s jackets!

Three years in, what have been the biggest successes and challenges for PAKT?

I think the biggest challenge has been educating the market, because it’s a new concept and a new service. Our platform is one of those things that people don’t know they need until they start to use it. But once they use it, they get it immediately.

A recent new client, who is a frequent traveller, wanted to keep a suitcase here with 10–15 items. Some were stored on hangers and some were laundered. On her return, everything was delivered back to her beautifully packed and ready to wear. She was absolutely thrilled, but she didn’t know she would enjoy the service as much as she did and so she kept putting it off. So the lead time to convert clients is a challenge.

Success is that when people get it, they get it. We have a really high customer retention rate — it’s over 95%.

What are some of the most important and/or surprising things you’ve learned from running your own business?

I’ve always been determined, but I’ve been amazed at my own resilience at sticking with the PAKT concept. Listening to others is critical. You may have a brilliant idea, but you need to listen to feedback — which is tricky in a new company as you want to listen to all the feedback — but you can’t keep chopping and changing all the time either.

But more importantly for me, because I’m constantly trying to come up with new ideas, was to learn the fine art of balance. Balance in making sure you’re responding to what people are saying and exploring different channels to get new clients, but also taking time to reflect and to build a great team.

I’ve had some really low moments and, of course, some great highs, but I’ve managed to keep going by creating a great atmosphere at work, even when times are tough. I always go into work with a positive attitude and I want to make sure my team feels that we are family and they are part of what we are building.

PAKT
Photo Credit: iStock/Paolo_Toffanin

 

Hong Kong has a reputation as a great city for entrepreneurs and startups. Have you found that to be the case?

I love Hong Kong and I’m proud that PAKT’s home market is here. It’s a great city from which to expand further throughout Asia. It’s a city that’s always open for business and people are generally easier to access. It’s surprisingly fast to get a meeting with the CEO of a company, whereas in London or New York, you may have to wait 3–6 months before you can meet. Hong Kong is so connected and people are always willing to listen to new ideas.

It has, however, been difficult to recruit young talent, because it’s harder to find people who can think outside the box. I’ve been lucky to find ambitious talent, but I’d like to see more of that.

Can you offer three pieces of advice for anyone who might consider launching their own startup?

The first is to talk to a lot of people about your idea. A friend of mine in Silicon Valley told me that I had to speak to a minimum of 100 people before I spent my first dollar. And he told me it should be potential clients, partners and people who have lived in Hong Kong for a long time. And then he advised me to write it all down. It was a really interesting experience and now, three years on, I’ve been able to go back to some of the people I first met and talk to them about partnerships, so that’s been rewarding.

Second, you have to be willing to listen to what people are saying. Listen to their genuine feedback and be willing to pivot. You can’t be stuck on the fact that your idea is the best, because maybe it’s a great idea on paper but no one wants to use it. Pride doesn’t work well in the startup world!

And my third piece of advice is that I think you need to stay true to your ideas and values. Gut instinct is really important and you can’t just keep pivoting every month. You need to have a vision and believe in it and in yourself. 

Do you have any role models in the business world that you look up to?
One is certainly Imaginary Ventures Co-Founder and Net-A-Porter Founder, Natalie Massenet, DBE. Starting to sell fashion online was at the time revolutionary, but she turned her idea into the world’s premier, luxury, online destination. I also don’t have a creative, design or branding background and so, I think Steve Jobs was incredible. I just finished his biography and the way he changed buying a computer into a completely different experience shows just how important design is. And I never realised that before.

 

Interested to try PAKT for yourself? Lifestyle Asia readers can enjoy 20% off PAKT LUXE  or a 1-month free trial of PAKT X Wardrobe Extension. To redeem this offer, call PAKT on +852 3462 9555 or email  at info@pakt.hk, quoting ‘LSA1’ promo code. Terms and conditions apply.

Michael Alan Connelly
Head of Digital Content
A Chicagoan by birth and a New Yorker by habit, Michael has more than a decade of experience in digital publishing at leading titles in the U.S. and Asia. When he's not checking out Hong Kong's newest restaurants and bars or jet setting around the globe, you'll find him hanging out with his dog Buster and enjoying an Aperol Spritz.