Heidi Zak thought she was going to revolutionize the way women buy bras. But two years after she launched her company, ThirdLove, she was still trying to attract customers.
Getting women to shop for and buy a better-fitting bra online meant pushing them out of their comfort zone. It was 2015, Victoria's Secret stores were in practically every mall in America. Women had gotten used to awkward measurement sessions with strangers in dressing rooms and buying bras in stores.
"We had an amazing product, but how would we get women to actually take that chance and try the first bra?," recalls Zak. "We sat down as a company to figure this out."
The solution they came up with was a try-before-buying program that allows women to order a bra and wear it for up to 30 days. If the customer decides to keep it, they buy it. If they don't, they can return it to ThirdLove.
It was a radical idea and Zak was nervous about whether or not it would work. "But we believed in the quality of our bras," she says.
"From the beginning, we had a keep rate of 75%," she says. "So 75% of women who tried the program ended up becoming ThirdLove customers. It was much higher than we had anticipated."
It was a turning point for the company. "[The program] allowed a woman to take a risk on a brand she hadn't heard of and that truly changed the course of our business. It made us profitable."
'There's got to be a better brand'
Zak, who is now 40, came up with the idea for ThirdLove eight years ago while she was shopping for a bra at a nearby mall after work. "I found a bra. It didn't really fit me, but I settled, I bought it, and I left," she says.
When she returned home, she felt almost immediate regret. "I thought to myself, 'There's got to be a better brand, a brand that really resonates with me."
But Zak couldn't find one. Plus, she craved the ease of being able to buy bras online. "That was really the genesis of ThirdLove," says Zak.
So Zak, a senior marketing manager at Google at the time, teamed up with her husband David Spector, a former partner at venture capital firm Sequoia Capital, to start the company with $50,000 of their own money.
The two decided ThirdLove would launch as an app and develop proprietary technology that would instruct women on how to properly measure themselves and determine their correct bra size. The app would then suggest bras that the shopper could buy.
The app officially went live in August 2013 and quickly gained momentum. But after a few years, the company decided to move away from the app and launch a web site that offered a new tool called Fit Finder instead.
Fit Finder asks shoppers 10 questions, including their current bra size, their go-to brand and how long they've had their current bra, in order to assess their ideal bra size and fit. Also developed in-house, the tool has helped the company manage the business better, Zak says.
"We use all of those data points and build an internal algorithm that keeps getting smarter," she says. "For instance, the data helps inform supply chain decisions, such as how to manage inventory of particular sizes. It also helps us understand how size trends change over time."
Nearly 12 million shoppers have used Fit Finder so far.
To date, San Francisco-based ThirdLove has raised $30 million in funding from angel investors and venture capital firms, including New Enterprise Associates, whose investors include Lori Greeley, the former CEO of Victoria's Secret and Laurie Ann Goldman, former CEO of Spanx.
While ThirdLove has become a challenger to established women's intimate apparel brands like Victoria's Secret, it is also facing competition from more online players in its space, such as True&Co, Brayola and Lively. Zak says she welcomes the competition.
"I actually think it's good for consumers to have options," she says.
A bra for every woman
One thing that Zak hopes will make ThirdLove stand out is its messaging that its bras are for women of all shapes, colors, ages and sizes.
In September 2018, ThirdLove launched the "To Each Her Own" ad campaign, which was inspired by a customer who had emailed the company and said she was 50 years old and did not see herself represented in ThirdLove's product portfolio.
"We really took that to heart," says Zak.
That's when the brand decided to use real women, instead of models, in its ads.
"One woman is breastfeeding, one woman has tattoos, one woman is a yogi in her 60s," she says.
ThirdLove's line of flesh-colored bras, for instance, includes five shades to match a variety of skin tones. And ThirdLove is one of the rare lingerie makers to offer half sizes.
"The average bra brand has about 30 to 35 sizes, so we're offering double the amount," says Zak. "It's really this idea of being an inclusive brand with sizes to fit many women across all kinds of shapes and sizes."
Last summer, after the company added 24 new sizes to its lineup, it logged $1 million in sales in just five days. Six weeks later, it had a waitlist of 1.3 million customers for bras in the new sizes. ThirdLove now offers bras in 78 different sizes — from a 28-inch to 48-inch band and AA through H cups — that cost anywhere from $48 to $86 each. And it has scaled up production so it won't encounter issues with its stock in the future.
ThirdLove has sold more than 4 million bras so far and is turning a profit (it won't disclose any further financial information). Zak recognizes that the company has hit a pivotal point where investors will expect that growth to continue.
But there are new challenges on the horizon that could disrupt that momentum. ThirdLove's bras are manufactured in China and Vietnam and Zak worries about how the escalating trade war with China might affect her business.
"We haven't yet seen an impact. We're hoping our product category will not be affected by these tariffs," she says.
Looking ahead, Zak sees the possibility of expanding into new product categories, like swimwear and athletic wear, and wants to continue to build momentum with women from all walks of life.
"There's 150,000,000 women in the United States alone. So there's a lot more women for us to reach. Our goal is to build a long-term sustainable brand that really means something and connects with women," she said.