This article originally appeared in the cover story of Total Retail’s Summer issue, Game Changers. (Total Retail is the sister publication of Women in Retail Leadership Circle.) In this excerpt from the cover story, Heidi Zak, co-founder and CEO of ThirdLove, a retailer that sells bras designed for the modern woman, was interviewed.
Total Retail: Where did you get the inspiration to launch your company?
Heidi Zak: I think similar to a lot of other women out there, I just really dreaded bra shopping. At the time I was at Google, I had to go to a party and I needed a new bra for the dress that I was wearing. I walked into a Victoria’s Secret store and the whole experience, leaving with something that wasn’t perfect for me but just accepting it was the best I was going to do led me to an idea: How can we create a better experience to buy a bra so you don’t have to go into the store, and how do you design a better product that really means something to the modern woman? That was really the genesis of ThirdLove.
TR: What was the “aha” moment when you realized you might have a successful business?
HZ: Earlier this year I was in Marco, Texas, where the population is under 2,000 people. I was getting a coffee and it was hot, and I was wearing a tank top and my ThirdLove bra strap was showing. As I was leaving the barista leaned over and said, “I know this is sort of random, but I see you have a ThirdLove bra on. I love my ThirdLove bra.”
Her name was Becky, and I started chatting with her about her life. I realized in that moment in time that our reach was so vast, because I marked this as the end of the world in the U.S. — we were in the middle of nowhere. The fact that she heard of us and wore our bras and it was impacting her life and making her more comfortable, I think that was really a moment for me realizing that we’re on to something big and a lot of women out there are wearing ThirdLove bras.
TR: What was the pivotal marketing campaign or channel that really catapulted the business in its early days?
HZ: One of our biggest struggles at the beginning is we knew we had a really great product, but the question was if you have a really great brand that people haven’t heard of, how do you get them to try it? How do you get over that first purchase hurdle? So, we developed a program called “Try Before Buying” and it has been a huge part of our success. Through that program, we tell women if you pay $2.99 for shipping, we’ll send you a bra, and you can take the tags off the bra and really live in it for 30 days — make sure it’s going to be your new favorite bra. If you don’t love it, you can send it back no questions asked. We pay for return shipping. And if you love it, you pay for it. So really it’s a way to take the risk out of trying something new, and getting women to experience what it’s like to wear a high-quality bra that really fits.
TR: How are you planning to scale the business?
HZ: We market in many different ways, but really for us it’s about expanding our reach and continuing to engage women who know our brand. An example of a channel we’re really focused on lately is radio. It’s a new way for us to reach out to customers and increase our audience.
TR: Can you tell us about a successful initiative for your company that was launched in the last year?
HZ: Earlier this year we launched a new line of nude shades, and we called the product line “The New Naked.” It was incredibly successful. We got a lot of customer feedback that our one shade of nude didn’t necessarily match their skin tone, and we like to really listen to our customers. Through customer feedback, focus groups and surveys, we developed an additional four shades of neutral colors. A goal of ThirdLove is to not just deliver the perfect fitting bra, but deliver the perfect fitting bra and the best shade for a woman’s skin tone. That’s been really exciting for us.
TR: What are your goals for the business for the remainder of 2017 and then 2018?
HZ: We’re really excited to expand on both the category side as well as sizing. Soon we’ll be launching into plus sizing. Currently, we go through a double A to a G cup, and shortly we’ll actually be running through a K cup. Again, this goes back to, “How do we help every woman find her best-fitting bra?”
The second is what we’re launching on the category side. We’ll be launching nursing and maternity, and that’s also really exciting for us because we want to be a place a woman can come to find a bra that’s right for her at every moment in her life. Whether that’s when she’s pregnant or while she’s nursing, having that type of product for her as well is really important to us.
TR: What types of retail technology are you watching closely and/or thinking of implementing?
HZ: We will be launching 360-degree product videos soon. With a bra in particular, it’s very hard, even if your showing a flat lay photograph or a bra on a model, to show every aspect of the bra that makes it really unique. Whether that’s the straps, cup, hook and eye, etc. So we’ll be testing 360-degree videos and a rotation of the product so shoppers can see all of the details.
Something else that we’re excited about right now is chatbots, and leveraging the conversations you have with a customer at multiple points. I think the technology is still in its early days, but it’s a very interesting technology nonetheless.
TR: Can you tell us the technology systems and service providers in your technology stack?
HZ: Shopify Plus is our e-commerce platform provider. We also use Emarsys for email, and Yotta for review management. Recently we implemented Heap Analytics and Looker for data and analytics, and those tools have been incredibly impactful for us in terms of data visualization for every functional team here. We use data a lot to drive our decision making.
TR: Tell us about your hiring strategy.
HZ: It’s so hard to hire. One of the things we do is hire on our company values. We have five values at ThirdLove that we find are very important that we have everyone on the team uphold. When we’re hiring we really think through those values and determine whether a candidate has them. If they don’t, they won’t be the right fit for our organization. It’s really helped us hire better because it’s a lens that everybody uses across all of our teams.
TR: Tell us about your leadership style.
HZ: I think leadership is really about setting strategy. We’re consistently talking about our goals at every company update meeting we have, and also communicating openly with the team. I send a weekly update email that highlights what all of the different teams are doing and different successes, and I think that’s really important. I also think encouraging failure is very valuable — that’s another part of our company values.
Going back to our company values, it’s really all about being adaptive and really curious, and with that is going to come failure. We try to make sure everyone knows it’s OK to fail. It’s not OK to fail doing the same thing and making the same mistake over and over again, but it’s absolutely OK to do something that you fail at but can learn from. I think those are two really important messages that empower the team to be successful in everything they do.
TR: What do you think traditional retailers can learn from your business?
HZ: The core thing we do day in and day out that has made us successful is focus on delivering value to the customer and thinking about what she needs and wants. It’s not about me, it’s not about us, it’s about ThirdLove’s customers and how do we create a better experience for her buying a bra.
Everyone on our team, that’s all they think about. Whether they’re developing the online experience, interfacing with our customers directly through customer service, or creating email content for social or marketing, all of it goes back to what does our customer want and how can we make her life better. I think, inherently, if that’s what you’re doing as a company, you’ll be successful because you’re creating value. It’s not necessarily about cutting costs or the bottom line, it’s about the experience — and with experience comes profit and revenue.