Armed with a maternity bra and a hot glue gun, mom and former fitness competitor Sara Moylan created a makeshift sports bra in 2011 that she hoped would appease her own workout frustrations. This early iteration of the Shefit sports bra concept eventually turned into a booming business, going head to head with many of the leading brands and landing on this year's "Inc. 5000" list of fastest growing private companies.
I sat down with Moylan to learn the secret to her success. Here’s what she had to say.
Shefit’s growth took off after the company’s 2016 appearance on Shark Tank, the popular ABC television show where real-life entrepreneurs try to win over the hearts and dollars of seasoned investors.
"Being on Shark Tank was a significant media boost that helped us gain massive visibility," says Moylan.
The notoriety from Shark Tank had the appearance of making Shefit an overnight success -- and, it certainly helped with the company’s sales, which have continued to grow at more than 360 percent the last two years. However, it was Moylan’s preparation and vision that harnessed the publicity into a sustainable business.
“We watched every episode and wrote down all of the questions the entrepreneurs were asked so we could practice,” Moylan says about preparing for the prime time media opportunity.
While opportunities like Shark Tank can catapult startups like Shefit to a national stage, staying visible and continuing to reach customers is a primary challenge for brands. Although the final details of a Shark Tank deal are subject to confidentiality, Moylan says the company has bootstrapped without outside investment.
Fitness is an industry that has traditionally perpetuated an aspirational version of women. Rather than catering to this arbitrary ideal espoused by media, Moylan wanted to appeal to real women, a concept that was popularized by brands like Dove.
“For too long, the media and big brands have been trying to tell us what being fit is or what an ideal woman looks like,” says Moylan. “We wanted to crush those stereotypes and empower real women of all shapes, sizes, and abilities,” says Moylan.
Shefit runs from sizes AA - I cup and calls their larger sizes ‘luxe’ instead of ‘large,' in order to eliminate preconditioned biases.
While the notion of marketing to “real” audiences seems like a no-brainer, it should be done with care. Last year, Dove missed the mark with their limited edition bottles that were supposed to inspire body confidence, but instead caught criticism for encouraging women to identify based on their body type. The bottom line? Authenticity is key when you’re making a social statement in your marketing. Consider whether your messaging is genuine, and what impact a campaign is likely to have on your target consumer.
Particularly for bootstrapping retailers, leveraging the reach and resources of strategic partners that already have a foothold in retail is powerful -- especially when competing in the 3.5 billion dollar sports bra market.
For Shefit, this meant bringing on a strategic partner in Jeffry Aronsson, a former executive of leading fashion houses including Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs, and Donna Karen.
Having this level of strategic support helped Shefit bypass many of the challenges early-stage companies face, which often lead to a need for investment capital. Put another way, retailers are smart to learn from the hard-won missteps and successes of those who’ve come before them.
While maintaining a direct-to-consumer (DTC) model is not for every retailer, it’s becoming an important retail channel. Moylan made the decision to stick with DTC it in order to control the customer experience and offer a better level of support to their purchasers.
They also wanted to avoid cross-channel conflict. Even though it could have meant quicker growth, they decided to stay away from outside retailers and exclusively sell on their own e-commerce platform.
Understanding the kind of relationship you want with your target customer -- before, during and after the point of sale -- is an increasingly important consideration in retail marketing.
Of course, having your brand messaging and customer relationships dialed in can only take you so far.
Shefit is ultimately successful because it’s effective. A study conducted by the Central Michigan University Motion Analysis Center, which tested the Shefit Ultimate Sports Bra against counterparts from brands such as Adidas, Brooks, Moving Comfort, MOVE Performance Apparel, Nike and Under Armour, determined that Shefit’s bra resulted in the largest reduction in breast motion compared to the others.
In the end, all that notoriety and on-point messaging will fall flat if a product isn’t worthy of the hype. A key component in marketing is to ensure a product is ready for it.
Taking on industry leaders is a daunting task, particularly for bootstrapping retailers. But, as Shefit’s success implies, it’s not impossible. By seeking opportunities to fast-track success, preparing effectively, leveraging seasoned partners and having a clear value proposition, your products can rival the best.