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What a bra company learned while disrupting the lingerie market

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In December 2013, 40 lingerie-clad supermodels descended upon the cavernous Lexington Avenue Armory in New York City for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show. The televised catwalk featured a performance by Taylor Swift, and raked in more than 9 million viewers.

Around the same time in San Francisco, a frustrated Heidi Zak launched her own online bra company ThirdLove.“I just saw there was immense opportunity to do something different,” said Zak, MBA ’07. “Victoria’s Secret — as large as they are, and as much market share as they own — has a very distinct aesthetic and focus on sexy, and how they sell product. So what we built was always different and was going to be different and I think when you see that opportunity [you] just decide ‘Hey, why not?’”

ThirdLove co-founders Heidi Zak and David Spector

Credit: ThirdLove

Today Zak, along with her husband and co-founder David Spector, MBA ’07, lead a bra and underwear company valued at $750 million. The company has raised $68 million in funding, including $55 million last month. The pair recently participated in a webinar hosted by the MIT Sloan Office of External Relations. They talked about disrupting the intimates industry, and the lessons they learned along the way.

Use technology to eliminate customer pain points

Instead of selling “sexy bras” that aren’t comfortable, or comfortable bras that “aren’t beautiful,” Zak said, ThirdLove blends the two. Rather than using traditional sizing models that can be limiting, ThirdLove offers cup sizes ranging from AA through I, and band sizes from 28-48.

“We said to ourselves we have the benefit of being online and having distribution centers, and not being confined to a retail store,” Spector said. “If we have the technical ability and manufacturing capacity to build a lot more sizes, clearly since everyone’s body is different, we should have as many sizes as possible.” 

The ThirdLove team also took one of the more dreaded aspects of traditional retail bra shopping — going into a dressing room with an unfamiliar sales associate and a tape measure — and turned it into a personalized at-home experience. Customers use ThirdLove’s Fit Finder algorithm to answer questions about their breast shape, as well as bra fit and feel.

“When we learn more about women's bodies and our customers’ tastes and interests from Fit Finder, that powers the types of product we develop,” Spector said. “And then knowing how people repeat and reorder from us powers the amount of inventory we buy. Knowing the types of model imagery to use, the types of customers that are coming to our website allows us to power our own personalization engine on the web. All these things we're doing are really surrounded by data.”

Stick up for yourself and your customers

In 2018, Vogue published an interview with two Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show executives. The headline partially read “We’re Nobody’s Third Love, We’re Their First Love.”

ThirdLove's co-founder Heidi Zak says it takes more than 30 different pieces to make a single bra.

In the interview, the executives bristled at criticism from competitors — including Third Love — and on social media, that called for a more inclusive fashion show and questioned whether a spectacle built around impossibly beautiful women scantily clad in lace and silicon was tone-deaf.Zak remembered waking up to the headline, and recognizing it as a defining moment for her startup. Days later, a full-page ad addressed to Victoria’s Secret appeared in the New York Times, in which Zak wrote: “It’s time to stop telling women what makes them sexy — let us decide.”

“You have to know who you are and what you stand for,” Zak said. “You’re never going to be everything to everyone, but in today’s society more than ever, the companies that are succeeding do have a strong voice, they believe in something, and they let people know what that is.”

Have confidence in the team you've built

While it’s crucial to set core values at the start of your business, it’s also important to bake in room for evolving as a brand.

When ThirdLove first started, Zak said, there was a focus on diversity — in size and ethnicity. But as the company grew, customers started asking for more diversity when it came to age and life-stage. Now ThirdLove uses models ranging from teenagers to women in their 60s, and the company also makes bras for nursing mothers.

Zak evolved her leadership style as the company grew. When she and Spector first started ThirdLove, they did everything from cleaning the office to handling the finances. But as they grew into a global company with 350 employees, it meant having to let others shoulder some of the work.

“I think that's the hardest thing, when you’re used to doing everything and at some point you don't know everything that’s going on,” Zak said. “You don't know every face that walks by, you don't know every person that's hired. The only way a company can grow and can succeed and have any idea of what balance can be like is to hire amazing people.”

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