When Jenna Kerner and Jane Fisher began seeking investor funding for their bra startup, Harper Wilde, they struggled to get through to male investors.
At first, they tried a numbers-based approach — highlighting the fact that America’s lingerie market pulls in $7.93 billion per year, and that bras account for 55.5 percent of it. The co-founders thought the massive market opportunity would impress venture capitalists, but their presentations kept falling flat.
“The majority of investors are men, and it’s typically not men wearing our product,” Fisher says. They simply couldn’t relate.
[Related: Read about male investors who make it their business to back women entrepreneurs]
So “we tried a new routine,” Fisher says. They kicked off their pitch meetings with a video showing a man awkwardly shopping for boxers at a store much like Victoria’s Secret — complete with a handsy salesperson, premium prices and a sexually charged ambiance. It got investors laughing.
It also got them to open their wallets. The Los Angeles company, which launched in June 2017, closed a $2 million seed round this month led by CRV, an early investor in social media giant Twitter. Harper Wilde has also snagged investments from BAM Ventures and Brilliant Ventures, along with several angel investors.
One of the pair’s biggest struggles in getting male investors to fund a bra business was making them understand the need for Harper Wilde, which makes simple bras that women order online and try on at home.
The co-founders tried telling their own and other women’s unhappy personal stories of bra shopping. They described how off-putting the process is — the hours spent sifting through racks to find the right size, the invasions of personal space from staff, and of course, the cost. It’s enough to make most women avoid the experience altogether.
Then they explained how Harper Wilde addresses those pain points: It lets online shoppers choose their size in the three bras the company sells and receive them by mail. Customers have 7 days to wear those bras in their everyday lives. They keep the bras they like, and ship back the ones they don’t using a prepaid label included with the initial shipment. Each bra costs $35.
But many investors remained unmoved. It wasn’t until the duo injected humor to pitches that they made any headway with VCs.
Of course, it wasn’t a complete cure-all — winning over investors is still challenging, as it is for many women. In fact, women received just 2 percent of all venture capital awarded in 2017, according to investment capital data firm Pitchbook. But it was effective enough that the duo decided to make humor a key part of their overall brand. “We really couldn’t find any other female-focused company that was funny. It was shocking to both of us — women are funny, too,” says Fisher.
Harper Wilde has injected irreverence into its marketing materials, opting for a lighthearted feel over a serious or overtly sexual one. Among the company’s tag lines: “Don’t let your boobs down,” and “Easy as A, B, C, DD.” The site also has a blog that discusses bra-shopping for uneven breasts, how to properly wash undergarments and more featuring quips, frank language and fun GIFs.
The co-founders declined to disclose revenue or order numbers, but Fisher says customer feedback has shown their approach “resonates really well with women.”
Learning, and Helping Others Learn
Understanding what makes customers tick has always been a subject of fascination for Fisher and Kerner. In fact, it’s how they bonded when they met as business students at The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania in 2015.
They were especially curious about how women shop for bras — or to be more precise, why they avoid it like the plague. “We’d see a friend who’s a doctor or a lawyer or a badass woman running a board room, but she was wearing a bra that was 5 years old. And we thought, ‘Damn, we’ve gotta help you.’”
Around that same time, Warby Parker came on to the scene. The pair noticed how the glasses seller and, soon, other home-trial companies selling things like mattresses and razors were “making it cooler and better to buy really basic commodity products that you generally hate shopping for.”
Fisher and Kerner decided to apply that shopping model to bras, and hosted a trial event in April 2016 that approximated their idea for an online store in an off-line setting. They purchased basic bras in a variety of sizes, and invited women to take up to five home with them. If participants wanted to keep them, they were charged on Venmo, the popular money transaction app. If not, they could drop them off at two convenient locations. “It was a way to prove the concept without [spending] any money,” Fisher says.
Participants raved, and the co-founders knew they had a hit on their hands. To test the online version, they started with a friends-and-family launch in April 2017, and then opened it up to the general public 2 months later.
While preparing to launch, the pair also thought about other ways they could help girls and women. The company is “about so much more than bras — we’re empowering the women in our lives,” and beyond, Fisher says.
The co-founders decided to donate a portion of their proceeds to The Girl Project, which connects girls the world over to learning opportunities. “It always comes back to education,” Fisher says. “We believe the reason we are able to sit where we are today is because we were fortunate enough to have a strong education — a strong foundation to build the careers we wanted to.”
A Well-Supported Future
Looking ahead, Fisher and Kerner are focused on expanding their customer base. They launched Harper Wilde last year with 19 sizes, and aim to expand well beyond that. The pair also wants to offer some new styles beyond the three they now sell, and to debut several limited edition colors in the fall.
Both goals will be accomplished, thanks to the investors’ dollars they landed, the co-founders happily report.
But the duo’s growth aspirations and company priorities are centered around a bigger mission of supporting their fellow women in any way they can. Fisher adds that this cultural moment of female empowerment makes it “an amazing time to speak your values, and to allow others to speak their values by purchasing through you. That’s something Jenna and I really embraced, and recognized the importance of.”