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This startup for college students is trying to make shopping for theme parties easier

Founded by two college juniors, Swayy attempts to solve the problem of dressing for too many parties.

Swayy ambassadors on the site’s Instagram page.
@shop_swayy/Instagram

A choker made of hot pink marabou could only be considered an “essential” item if you are a very specific kind of person living a very specific kind of lifestyle. But it’s exactly the kind of customer targeted by a new startup launched by two students at the University of Texas.

That customer is the highly social sorority girl at a school with a good football team, who consequentially has a very specific set of needs: A new outfit for each weekend’s party, one that’s super cute, not too try-hard, and, naturally, isn’t that expensive. And it’s not because she can’t bear to repeat an outfit (but because everyone will see it on her Instagram Story, that’s still certainly a concern) — it’s because each party has its own specific theme, ranging from rave to rodeo.

This is the central problem tackled by Swayy, a website that curates tops, dresses, bottoms, and accessories from fast-fashion sites like Forever 21 and the uber-cheap online megashop Shein. Items are available to view by members only, but anyone can sign up. They’re categorized by party theme: jungle/safari, rave/space, ’80s/neon, rodeo, and the “essentials” category, which includes a silver leotard, an iridescent fanny pack, light-up sneakers, and the aforementioned choker. Soon there’ll be a marketplace where members can buy and sell used party clothes.

Founders Rajya Atluri and Clio Harralson launched the site in January, when the two Pi Beta Phi sorority sisters were sophomores at UT Austin’s business honors program. They say that since then, they’ve garnered about 20,000 unique visitors to the site and 50 student ambassadors at 21 college campuses around the country, with a 333% growth rate in the spring semester. (Swayy did not disclose any other financial information.)

After being accepted into the Red Bull Launch Institute, a development program for undergraduate entrepreneurs that has also housed Specdrums and a collapsible bike helmet, Atluri and Harralson traveled to New York City to work with a global consultancy firm, then to San Francisco to TechCrunch Disrupt in September.

On a recent phone call with Atluri and Harralson, the two spoke to The Goods about what it’s like to launch a startup from a sorority house, pitching to investors, and what happens when they graduate.

Rebecca Jennings

How did the idea for the site come about?

Rajya Atluri

Around October or November of last year I’d been hearing from friends about the fact that people were just exhausted of having to constantly find the right clothes for all the different social events and parties they were going to. There’s a lot of social anxiety and I think it starts [when] you’re in a new environment, especially for freshmen. You don’t really know what other girls are wearing or what the right thing to wear is. And I think that just adds to lots of pressure that everyone’s feeling.

Clio Harralson

We chose the word “Swayy” because we wanted it to really convey this sense of ease and confidence that we wanted users of our website to have. And also it’s just a good word — it’s a motion word, and we’re hoping users will feel comfortable enough to enjoy themselves and party enough to like, sway, you know?

Swayy founders Rajya Atluri and Clio Harralson.
Red Bull Launch Institute

Rebecca Jennings

Do you see yourself as having any competitors in this space at all?

Clio Harralson

One issue right now is that with theme clothing, or just clothing in general, the market is two extremes: There’s one end which is full costume, and then the other end is normal, everyday clothing. So for a jungle party you don’t want to wear a full gorilla suit, but you also don’t want to wear just like, your athletic clothes. You want to wear something in the middle, which is like a leopard top, animal ears, and a skirt.

There aren’t really competitors in this middle ground space. So right now I think the competition is people just shopping at different stores all over the place and having to search through lots of different places to find what they need and assemble this outfit.

Rebecca Jennings

What was it like pitching to potential investors at the Disrupt conference?

Clio Harralson

I still can’t believe we were there. I love the show Silicon Valley so I’d seen TechCrunch Disrupt on there, so I was freaking out.

Rajya Atluri

Honestly it was pretty scary cause we just got thrown into the race and we had to talk to people very rapidly — we were pitching and pitching and pitching. We had to get out of our comfort zone. And there weren’t a lot of startups that were in the retail space — a lot of them were in AI so it was cool for us to be able to represent an area that really wasn’t that common there.

A lot of young girls who were from the Bay Area came up to us and were like, “It’s so cool seeing you because I’ve wanted to do a startup but I’ve never really known another girl who did one so it’s cool to meet y’all.” And so that was really precious for us as well.

Rebecca Jennings

Were you there mainly to scope out investors? Do you have any currently?

Clio Harralson

That was one of the big parts, but, or at least going in, that’s what we thought our main goal was. But as we were there we realized we met a lot of people who just started as mentors and gave us advice. Or people who wanted our advice on college marketing, for example.

We’ve just been using our own limited funds right now. We pitched it to a commission and got a small grant once, but we haven’t had investors.

Rajya Atluri

One thing that’s really cool about Swayy, I think, and which is why we’ve been able to really pursue it, is that we have been able to keep our costs low and just figure out ideas for marketing or how to spread the word basically using no money and no resources.

But it’s actually forced us to be more creative and think outside the box on like, how do we get this word out there? And really rely on networking and connections and other college women to help us grow it.

Tops from Swayy’s rave/space-themed collection.
Swayy.org

Rebecca Jennings

Speaking of marketing, what tactics have you found successful?

Rajya Atluri

One of the big ones has been making use of our Instagram and going to different campuses and have different girls post about it. And then we’ll follow a lot of girls who are liking a post or viewing something. So that’s been something that’s been free.

We partnered with UT [University of Texas] Panhellenic and OU [University of Oklahoma] Panhellenic to put a Swayy paper fan in all of the bags that girls go through rush with. So we were able to target 3,000 incoming freshmen at two of the schools that Swayy’s pretty well-known at.

Clio Harralson

At UT there’s one weekend with a lot of different fraternity events called Round Up, and we passed out 1,000 stickers to people throughout this weekend and our website views doubled after that. So even something as simple as a sticker’s been helpful.

Rebecca Jennings

What’s the reaction been like from your friends? Were they like, “You’re crazy for starting a business on top of all the work we already have to do?”

Rajya Atluri

Our friends kind of joke about it. They’re like, “Oh, well, y’all have a company so it’s fine.”

Clio Harralson

They’ll joke ’cause we’ll be saying how much work we have to do that day and they’re like, “There’s no homework, what’re you talking about?” And we’re like, “Oh, we weren’t doing homework.”

Rebecca Jennings

Are you seeing a lot of your classmates also starting businesses?

Clio Harralson

Actually, no. We kind of thought there would be more, but we recently have been trying to connect with more founders on campus and there’s a surprisingly small number, especially female founders.

Rajya Atluri

One of the hardest things is, we’re so excited about Swayy and love it a lot and want to work on it all the time. But we have to still find that balance and make time for school work and going to class. We’ll literally be sitting in class and be kind of angsty ’cause we want to go work on the next thing for Swayy. And then also we want to make time for friends and having a college experience that we can look back on and remember fondly.

So I think it’s just hard really finding the balance, but it’s been cool being in college because I think sometimes maybe as an entrepreneur outside of college it can maybe be lonely or you don’t have a constant squad of people supporting you. We live in our sorority house. Like, literally people in our hall will pop in and see us working on it and say something nice.

Clio Harralson

Another great part about being an entrepreneur in college is that there’s a lot of resources available to you because people are just excited to help you. So if we have a question, we can reach out to a professor and they’ll meet with us. Or we can utilize resources at the Herb Kelleher Center, [UT’s entrepreneurship center] or things like the Red Bull Launch Institute. All of those just cater to these college entrepreneurs, which has been amazingly helpful.

Rebecca Jennings

What are your current goals with the site?

Clio Harralson

I think one thing we’d like to do is consolidate the shopping experience on to our website so you can do transactions through Swayy instead [of going to the retailer’s site.]

Rajya Atluri

Super long-term is that we wanted Swayy to be not just about parties. The big part of our mission is about confidence, and what we have on our site is literally the words “Be Electric.” So I think branching Swayy out to different aspects of a young woman’s life, whether that’s the workplace or really anything else.

Rebecca Jennings

So what happens when you graduate and aren’t going to theme parties every weekend?

Clio Harralson

The college market is a really strong place to start, it’s something we’re really passionate about. But we’d like to expand. We’d like to grow with our users. So right now we really want to lock in this college market and then a few years down the line we can do things for weddings or bridesmaids. And then later down the line there’s things for kids’ parties, just following our users through their life journey.