This weekend I had the humbling opportunity to share the story of Pepper at the UCLA Founder’s School and to meet some pretty impressive students. Founder’s School is the largest university entrepreneurship conference in Southern California, where 200 students, founders, investors and professionals gather to exchange stories and build meaningful connections. For those who didn’t attend, here’s a recap of the talk and full video recording at the end.
I was initially surprised to get the invitation (because what do I know about entrepreneurship?!), but the theme of the conference was EXPLORATION and I realized how fitting this was for us since Pepper was pioneered from Lia and I exploring uncharted waters in our experiences. So to a roomful of hopeful students, I shared the story of Pepper not because we were the best example of starting a business, but maybe because we were far from it.
There’s a superhuman category of entrepreneurs out there who are brilliant at what they do and created a business out of their brilliance:
- Mark Zuckerberg, engineer who built technology platform Facebook
- David Chang, chef who opened up restaurant Momofuku (and makes delicious pork buns)
- Sallie Krawcheck, banker who created investment platform for women Ellevest
- Tory Burch, designer who started eponymous fashion line Tory Burch
These situations make SENSE, right?
But then you have someone like me…who doesn’t really fit the traditional profile as a bra company creator:
- Fashion or design school? Nope, I studied history and wrote my thesis on the rise and fall of the samurai.
- Manufacturing expertise? Didn’t know the first thing about manufacturing; my entire career has been in product marketing at technology companies.
- Strong quantitative skills for price/cost/inventory optimization? I’m probably the worst person at math you’ll ever meet.
If I took away only one lesson from this early journey, it would be that limited experience and not having the “traditional” background doesn’t matter as much as you think it does, it can actually lead to your success. It makes you more aware and eager to learn what you don’t know. For all the areas that we knew nothing about (there were quite a few), we met with experts in the field who could teach us.
One particular expert we met, a woman who was a veteran in the bra industry, gave us advice that was so simple and impactful it changed our entire perspective on how to get started: Don’t reinvent the wheel.
In the beginning, turns out Lia and I were overcomplicating it. We were stressing out about how to develop a design (do we draw it? what if we can’t draw?), where to source the best materials (what materials are even out there??), finding a manufacturing partner (not exactly Google-able)…the list goes on. We were trying to reinvent the wheel when we all we really needed to do was make an existing solution better. When you’re just starting out, overcomplicating it is what prevents you from starting in the first place.
So in the process of figuring out the path of least resistance to make Pepper happen, we picked up a few lessons along the way that hopefully might help you get to the first step, then the next….and before you know it you’ve started!
1. Be obsessed with the problem you’re solving
When you don’t know how to approach developing the product, try focusing on the problem. This creates a larger mission-driven context that helps with creating the BEST solution for your target audience. There’s a million versions of your product out there already, but it doesn’t mean the problem is solved.
For Pepper, we started by focusing on the specific bra fit challenges that small-chested women face. But then we expanded a level beyond that and looked at what their shopping experience was like: While today many mainstream bra companies now offer “maternity”, “plus sized” etc categories, there still usually wasn’t a specific category for small cup sizes. How the bra companies marketed their products affected what “standards” of beauty were reinforced. The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show is a great example of setting unrealistic body goals for women. This all then perpetuates a negative self image if you don’t look like the established model of beauty. I personally really, really hate this above advertisement of a woman holding small tangerines looking so unhappy, and it implies she can only find happiness with large grapefruits. It’s not true!! Tangerines are awesome!
These feelings of not being enough, of not fitting in, of not being perfect…this is the ultimate problem Pepper is trying to solve. Having this mission made it easier when it came time to evaluate product and marketing decisions.
Become an expert in the deepest, most hurtful pains your target audience is experiencing, and that will help uniquely position you as the only one who can provide the magical solution.
2. Reject the idea of “organic marketing”
I’m a believer that there’s no such thing as organic marketing. The idea that ‘if you build it, they will come’ is absolutely false. There’s nothing natural or organic about starting up. For an early stage company with little to no brand equity, every user acquisition or sales you make will come directly from your elbow grease one way or another.
For our Kickstarter, we doubled down on PR and social media marketing. For you, your acquisition channels will probably look different. It comes down to figuring out what will resonate most with your target audience, and then doing everything you can to make it as easy as possible for them to discover you. More details on how we put in the work for PR.
In order to have word of mouth marketing, you need to give them something worth talking about.
Our craziest learning here? We got all those press hits and Kickstarter pledges…with just an idea. Our product wasn’t even fully baked yet when we launched the campaign (we’re closer now)! So don’t let a half baked product or story deter you from starting to talk about it — the sooner you start marketing it the more validation and promotion opportunities you get!
3. Answers and solutions to everything
When you’re new to this, YOU WILL MESS UP! IT WILL SUCK! But that’s totes fine. The best part is that for every challenge you face and for every question you have, there’s an answer and solution for everything.
Example: For the day of our Kickstarter campaign launch, I was on point to hit the go live button. Lia and I had agreed on a duration of 21 days to raise $10,000. It was 5am Mountain Time, and I was half asleep the morning of. I pressed the go live button, and shortly after realized the campaign was set to 13 days. “What?! It must’ve been the platform!!” I exclaimed. Obviously I was the one to blame for accidentally massively shortening our timeframe.
We let ourselves freak out for a few minutes. Then, we got to work using this to our advantage and drove urgency with our backers. The result? We met that $10k in just 10 hours on the first day.
Every problem is going to feel like the end of the world when time and money are against you. With overcoming each one comes the confidence to tackle head-on bigger and hairier problems in the future.
(Watch the full video for more examples of my impressive mistakes)
There you have it! My “B-R-A” tips on how not to succumb to the overwhelming initial chaos, but instead how to move past the early feelings of intimidation and self-doubt. All it takes is that first step.
My hopes with this session was to inspire even just ONE person to explore their idea a little further, despite maybe not having the experience to know where to start. Got an idea you’re trying to make happen? Let’s swap stories! Tweet me: @jaclyn_fu
Watch the full session here: