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Heidi Zak

Cofounder, ThirdLove

Lingerie startup ThirdLove was conceived at a Google holiday party.

“My dress demanded a certain type of bra, so, I ended up at Victoria’s Secret,” says cofounder Heidi Zak. “I remember thinking, ‘Why am I here? I hate this store!”

Zak’s frustration came not only from the fit and quality of the brand, whose parent company controls 61.8% of the market, but also the fact that they advertise to men.

“Why do they get to tell us how to feel?” she continues. “Why does their marketing target men when they sell functional, everyday garments for women?”

And it’s not just Victoria’s Secret. Mega brand Calvin Klein recently came under fire when a sexist billboard showed scantily-clad actress Klara Kristin above the words, “I seduce in #mycalvins” next to a portrait of rapper Fetty Wap that read, “I make money in #mycalvins.” (Zak started a petition to take the ad down.)

“Lingerie should make women feel confident and empowered, not a victim of 1950s values,” she adds with a flourish.

ThirdLove Takes On Victoria's Secret

So, did you quit Google as soon as you thought of the idea?
“I spent six months thinking before I quit—a research period I would recommend to anyone. And once I realized there was no way I could launch a business on the side of such an already demanding job, I simply asked, ‘If I don’t start this company, will I regret it?’ The answer was yes.”

That must have been terrifying!
“Of course, but I could always go back to Google. Safe jobs will always exist. And when you’re young and without children, it’s now or never. A lot of people don’t know my husband, David, quit his job to found ThirdLove with me. We were nuts!”

What, other than marketing, did you want to change about lingerie?
“I had no previous experience in the industry. But as a consumer, I saw two issues: one, the need for higher quality materials considering how often these garments are worn; and two, the need for additional sizing. That we were the first company to offer half cups is kind of insane.”

Quitting Her Job

Safe jobs will always exist. And when you’re young without children, it’s now or never.”
“That we were the first company to offer half cups is kind of insane.”

How did you decide the lingerie category was worth disrupting?
“The first thing you need to understand is the overall size of your market—the bigger it is, the more successful players there can be. That the worldwide lingerie industry is more than $100B indicated there was room for a newcomer… The fact that one player, Victoria’s Secret, controlled over 50% of the industry was also really interesting. That kind of domination is unheard of.”

What happens when one player gets control of an industry?
“They get control of the product: sizing, pricing, the supply chain. And while that can be scary to take on, it’s also an opportunity… When one company defines what sexy means, you can come in with a really strong counterpoint. If that counterpoint resonates, you change a market.”

What was the industry’s biggest challenge?
“We underestimated how difficult it would be to break into such an established supply chain. Most manufacturers laughed at our idea of half cups; they were happy maintaining the status quo… And while it didn’t happen to us, I have heard of examples where Victoria’s Secret or other large manufacturers told factories they’d pull their business if they produced for smaller brands.”

Analyzing The Market

Victoria’s Secret [controls] well over 50% of the industry... That kind of domination is unheard of.”
The bigger [an industry] is, the more successful players there can be.”

Four years into ThirdLove, what do you consider your biggest differentiator?
“That cost comes last… We’re not thinking of ways to shave $0.50 off a garment; we think about quality and fit. That’s inherently different than most apparel companies, lingerie or not.”

And was it difficult sharing that message?
“The most difficult message to communicate was that most women don’t understand traditional bra sizing… don’t know a 34B and 32C are actually the same cup size. It makes no sense. That’s why we didn’t initially tell customers their size—because it’s about fit, not size, right?”

Final thought: What’s the largest piece of advice you can offer?
“[Laughs] Don’t try on demand manufacturing. There are a few companies who make it work—Piol, who produces dresses on a demand—but it’s a difficult model. At launch, we thought it would be great to manufacture only what we need. There is, however, a reason for continuous assembly lines: higher quality. When on demand production of a bra with over 30 components proved impossible, we abandoned that model and lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in the process.”

Interested in another husband/wife duo? Check out Anomalie, who, funnily enough, produces wedding dresses on demand.

Four Years Later

There's a reason things are made on a continuous assembly line: higher quality.”


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