#70. TomboyX makes underwear and other essential products for everyone, regardless of gender, size, geography or economic status. We talk with Fran Dunaway, who founded the company with her partner Naomi after struggling to find a brand that spoke to their aesthetic and values. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 70th episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. You might notice we have new music, 70 episodes in, and it’s the work of my good friend Lucas Brahme, who composed something new just for the show. I hope you and your ears enjoy it. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you actionable analysis, insights and events that drive growth, and Loose Threads Espresso, your energizing and high-pressure filter for consumer news—in context. We also have a newsletter that features the latest open letters to CEOs, podcasts with industry leaders and news from Loose Threads. Check it all out at LooseThreads.com.

Richie: [00:00:48] Joining me today is friend Fran Dunaway, a co-founder of TomboyX, a company making underwear and other essential products for everyone. Fran founded the company, along with her partner Naomi, after struggling to find a brand that spoke to their aesthetic and values.

Fran: [00:01:02] There’s so much divisiveness and negativity in the world that we want to be a brand that wasn’t about trying to show you how to be cool but, rather, celebrates how cool you already are.

Richie: [00:01:16] The company, today, exists entirely outside of the bubble of fashion and consumer products which is exactly why it works. TomboyX is an important evolution for a brand that is not just about gender, size, geography or economic status. Instead, it’s about giving individuals the tools they need to be themselves. Here’s my talk with Fran Dunaway.

Richie: [00:01:42] So why don’t we start. Just talk a bit about your background and we can work our way up to TomboyX existing.

Fran: [00:01:49] I call myself an accidental entrepreneur because I was perfectly happy in my career—[it was] lucrative, [I] had vacations, time off, a lot of perks [but] got frustrated with the lack of shirting options. So I started this company out of a one-car garage. But, even further back, I actually worked full time through my master’s degree as a Group Home administrator and then was in human services for about 13 years and then sold everything and went to film school and became a video producer and activist. At the same time, I was working in a lot of human rights activism and so I merged or married the two and got involved in politics and produced political ads for Democrats nationwide and that was what I was doing. I was a partner [at] a media strategies firm, really loved it, and this was just a side thing that happened in the garage. I remember, to the day, Naomi saying, “Well how hard can it be to start a clothing line?” And so off we went.

Richie: [00:02:57] And so it came out of a personal need. How did you start? What did it look like? Was there a goal at that point? What was the beginning like?

Fran: [00:03:04] I wanted a cool shirt. I wanted a beautiful button-up shirt like you can find in menswear with the fine fabric. Like a Robert Graham or a Ben Sherman. That type of button-up shirt with some fun details underneath the color, underneath the cuffs, that expressed who I am. Just couldn’t find that in women’s shirting and so we designed this beautiful shirt. We worked with a friend of ours who is a designer and came up with this great shirt. We had a hidden button to keep it from gaping open. And we thought, “Well, there’s a market for this. There will be other people that will buy this so let’s try it via a Kickstarter campaign. Let’s get everything into production and, worst case scenario, we get some great shirts.” So we actually had two colorways of the shirt and then we had two polos and a knit blazer. So that’s what we put into production in April of 2013. We ran a Kickstarter campaign. We picked the name Tomboy because we thought it was cute. We thought it was just a fun name. Naomi and I both identified as tomboys as kids and that was just the name we chose.

Fran: [00:04:11] About a week into the Kickstarter campaign, we recognized that we had an instant brand because the name was resonating with girls and women across the world. We were hearing from people [who] were so excited that there was, finally, a brand for them. And one thing that we also noticed is that they all looked different on the outside but they identified with this independent, strong woman that was out forging her own path and we knew that that was powerful. I think, because of our background in politics, we both were able to recognize, “Okay, this is palpable. This is something that could be really big but what is it and how do we put a voice to it?” Neither of us had any background in that kind of marketing. I was in advertising, but not in messaging, as far as retail.

Fran: [00:05:01] So that became our next focus. How do we find someone to give this brand a voice? So we had a successful Kickstarter campaign. We raised $76,000 dollars in 30 days, put our stuff into production in Seattle, and then we thought, “Oh, let’s get some blanks and put our logo on it and start selling it and that’s a nice way to start generating revenue.” So we did that in April of 2013. Then we just started selling stuff online—hats and belts and shoes. We had people [who] were drop shipping for us. It was great. Business was fine. It wasn’t a huge hockey stick but we were definitely having revenue increases. Our stuff came out of production that August and we start selling those.

Fran: [00:05:47] We had found a pair of blank underwear that kind of were like a guy’s whitey-tighty look, but made for women and we would put our logo on it. The challenge was it only went—not only the quality—but they only went to sizes extra-large, which really was a small extra-large. What was important to us, very early on, when we made our shirts, for example, was that we had a larger size range. We didn’t want people to feel left out or like they weren’t part of our brand. So we started selling these little underwear. You could buy the same underwear on Amazon for $5 and we kept adding a little bit of price to ours, just to see what the top level was, and people were paying $14, just with our silkscreen logo on them.

Fran: [00:06:36] It was still just me and Naomi and we started hearing from customers. Naomi was doing customer service and she said, “You know, we have a lot of customers that are asking us to make boxer briefs for women.” We had no idea no one was making them. We started doing some research. I went to various websites and typed in boxer briefs for women and up would come a pair of Spanx. We were pretty sure that wasn’t what the customer was looking for. And we had a good friend who was a police officer who said, “Oh, absolutely, I’ve been wearing men’s boxer briefs for my entire career.” She was in the military, prior to that, and she said, “Women’s underwear just isn’t comfortable for loose fitting clothing. It moves around too much. So boxer briefs are the solution.” But there are obvious reasons, and some not-so-obvious reasons, that men’s boxer briefs didn’t work for her. So she brought in her stack of boxer briefs.

Fran: [00:07:30] About a week prior—we have, what I call throughout this journey, a lot of “rainbow unicorn” moments. One of our rainbow unicorn moments was when Julie Nomi walked into our lives with 30 years of production experience and strong, keen attention to detail and also with a design background. She came to us to ask if we were looking for any help with production and put this beautiful PowerPoint presentation together to help us understand how we could use her and, of course, we were blown away and hired her on the spot. So she came in and met with our friend, the police officer, whose name was Karma, and worked with Karma on what makes a great boxer briefs. Julie took great notes and set off to make some samples. We decided to do two different lengths. At the time, we called the first pair the Good Karma and, because she was a police officer, the second length we were calling the Feeling Frisky. That was our old branding.

Fran: [00:08:31] So Julie got samples in various sizes. We started with a large. Most companies start with a size zero or two and grade up from there. I think because Naomi and I didn’t come from the industry, we didn’t ever think for a minute that we wouldn’t go all the way to a 4X in everything that we do, and that’s still true, at the same price point. We had lots of discussion around, well, “at 1X we should charge more. No we’re not going to charge more. This seems so arbitrary. It takes more fabric to go from extra-small to a large and you still charge the same price.” So that was one of the things that we said: “We’re always going to make every style in extra-small through 4X. And we’re going to make sure it fits in each of those styles.”

Fran: [00:09:18] So we had samples in various sizes. We brought real people in—all of our friends and people that we found on Facebook come in and try these on and give us feedback. Did five or six renditions of that and put them into production. Talked about doing another Kickstarter. We actually white-boarded out this whole Kickstarter campaign and, on the way home, I turned to Naomi and said, “Why don’t we just pre-sell them?” And so that’s what we did. This was in September of 2014. So we introduced that we were coming out with boxer briefs. Two weeks later, we had sold out. So before they arrived, we had sold out and we felt like we had found a hero product that we could build the brand around.

Richie: [00:10:01] So, talking to companies like yours, I always ask a question of why did this not exist, from where you sat? Did you have any theories about why this didn’t exist, up until this point, and why it took you all to actually go build it?

Fran: [00:10:12] It’s similar to what led us to making the shirts and what led us to the frustration that we felt when you walked into any store. If you walked into a Gap, for example, you looked to the left and it’s pastels and it’s ruffles and it’s florals. You looked to the right and you have neutral tones, you have more relaxed fit. You have this very definitive line that is around gender and that, to us, was just confusing. I’ve never been an ultra-feminine woman. I’ve never been an ultra-masculine woman, either. I’m kind of in this middle ground. I think that there are so many societal norms around gender that building the brand and the way it’s resonating with people across the spectrum has really educated and informed my thinking around it. But I do think that we stepped into a white space that had been unexplored within the fashion industry.

Fran: [00:11:13] I’ve done some research, since then, and it’s fascinating to me that the whole notion of pink and blue didn’t come about until the 80s. I didn’t grow up with pink and blue. I grew up with my favorite color was red and I wore as much red as I possibly could. But the gender stuff has really become around that. I think that it was just a white space, that there weren’t enough of us out there. They didn’t see this as more than a small niche community that wasn’t scalable or didn’t have the numbers that we knew, that was palpable and global from the beginning.

Richie: [00:11:49] So you pre-sold the products. They sold out in two weeks. Was this still a part time thing?

Fran: [00:11:53] Absolutely. We were still working. I had gone to freelance. I wasn’t working at the firm but doing freelance and Naomi is a sports massage therapist. She was trained. She worked with Olympic athletes so [she] would see clients in the morning and then we’d go head to the warehouse. It started in our one-car garage. Then we did end up in a warehouse without heat or air conditioning. We were there for a year. But, yes, you would see clients in the morning and then again in the evening. I would have to leave town and go and produce ads in various places and then come back and continue trying to run the business. We were doing the website. I was doing the product photography. We did hire some people, occasionally, to help with that. But, yeah, it was a concerted effort of working non-stop and we didn’t go on vacation for four years.

Richie: [00:12:43] So you make the merchandising hire and then what unfolds from there, as you start to build more and go deeper into this?

Fran: [00:12:50] We started building a line plan out and looking at what we wanted to introduce. We opted to start with core basics. So set colours. At the time, we had black, grey and red. Now we’ve found that black and grey is our core staple and we just introduced a rainbow stripe that will become a core staple and then we [will] have seasonal patterns. We use the patterns as our seasonal roll-out so that they’re limited. People know [that] if you’re collecting the patterns, you’ve got to get them up front. We replenish certain things but not all things.

Fran: [00:13:26] We actually rolled out, last year, we decided, because of popular demand—spent a lot of time discussing whether it was too soon for us to branch into a new category, which is swimwear. But the challenge is, or the opportunity was, that no one was really making a type of swimsuit for our customer, that they want. And so, while we initially focused on underwear that were initially made for a woman’s body, we’re now in the gender neutral space because it turns out that focusing on fit and quality, it actually works for all body types. We say that we’re not for anybody, but we are for everybody. And so we listen to our customers. They have the best ideas and they were demanding swim and so we decided we’d come out, via our launchpad, which is where we roll out smaller numbers, a limited color selection, just to see and get feedback so that we can roll it out in a bigger way. So we did roll it out. We sold out in ten days.

Fran: [00:14:29] We’ve now brought back a lot more styles with sharp prints and octopus prints and stuff like that, that you wouldn’t normally find, not only the prints, but the cut. So we have a board short. We go all the way down to a nine-inch boxer brief. We have a boyshort cut. We have everything from a racerback bra to a full, long-sleeve rash guard. Our customers like to be able to move in their swimwear. They’re not just lying around on the beach. They want to be able to move around, they want to get on their paddleboard, play volleyball. All of that good stuff. So it’s really surf-to-sand-wear and it’s doing really well and it’s very cute.

Richie: [00:15:05] That’s great. So how do you approach that from a fit perspective then? Because it would seem that, as you said, it’s both an opportunity and a challenge to, again, build for that amorphous customer.

Fran: [00:15:16] Because we carry extra small through 4X, that has its own unique challenges. Once we have the right fit for that whole range and we test them on each body type—we don’t just grade, we actually bring in 4X models and say, “Okay, well, the 4X we need to do it a little bit differently than the Large.” So it isn’t a pure grading. It’s actually separate patterns. And so, once we had that right, it’s great because we just change the fabrication and then confirm that it works with the fit. There are some challenges. So, for example, our cotton blend has more structure. It holds you a little bit tighter than our luxury fabric. The MicroModal is looser and so they just fit looser. So the fit may feel a bit off but, once you know you’re fit, you can trust it.

Richie: [00:16:10] So we kind of covered two, two and a half years so far. How is the brand, both aesthetically and value-wise, evolving through that time from where it started to where it was mid-2015?

Fran: [00:16:24] At that time, we participated in an accelerator program because we were still questioning what do we have? Are we an underwear company now? We liked, to grab a sass term, pivot into the underwear space. So we participated in an accelerator program and they said, “You guys need to raise money and really look at what your opportunity is.” So we focused that three months on the business. Neither of us had run a business—a for-profit business—before. We were, certainly, familiar with budgets and whatnot but not so much around the analysis of P & Ls and balance sheets and all that entails.

Fran: [00:17:03] At the same time that we were in the accelerator program, we were fortunate enough to find the person that would give TomboyX the voice and that’s a woman named Courtney Loveman, who worked for the CP+B group, based in Boulder, and that’s a beautiful branding marketing agency that has done a lot of great work. And so they had a program where they could choose a couple of companies to work with you on a more cash-equity split. Obviously, we couldn’t afford them otherwise. And so worked with them for six to eight months on a new brand, a new look, a new feel, new messaging. They came and spent three days with me and Naomi and really drilled into us and our biographies and our values and, I think, did a remarkable job in putting those values into what is the structure or the backbone of TomboyX today. And that is that we’re very positive, we are fixers, we like to make things better, like to be all-inclusive. And we feel like there’s so much divisiveness and negativity in the world that we want to be a brand that wasn’t about trying to show you how to be cool but, rather celebrates how cool you already are. And so they really took us to this whole new stratosphere.

Fran: [00:18:24] Took us about another six months until we could get the website built, all the new product photography. We went from shooting on body to building these forms where we’re floating in space so that it’s not on a particular, gendered body but you can look at it from different angles. So that took some time and we rolled that out in July of 2016 and then saw great growth from there and we continue to build on that.

Richie: [00:18:55] Throughout your journey, were there other brands that you identified with, whether they were in apparel or not? Or did you feel that no one was really trying or getting to the place where you thought they could get to, just from a general, even brand perspective, to this customer base?

Fran: [00:19:10] There weren’t really any brands that I, personally, felt spoke to me. I think Naomi—we would say the same thing. I think that we both were able to go and find certain items at certain clothing stores that could speak to our personality but we certainly didn’t and don’t have a closet full of clothing that’s more along the fast fashion line where you shop and you wear something once or twice. We go for more quality and tend to wear it for longer amounts of time. I would say that goes from shoes through shirts and pants and hats—the whole look—jackets… Not that we don’t have a vast collection of shoes right now. But there wasn’t really a brand that spoke to us specifically. I think that the bigger piece was that it always felt like we were being told how we should look or what it takes to fit in. I think that there is a certain strength and independence in knowing who you are and being okay with that that really is what the brand TomboyX about.

Richie: [00:20:26] Yeah. I’m curious to talk about that more because there are famous Steve Jobs quotes of “Customers don’t know what they want until they see it,” and—especially, in fashion more broadly—that people should adapt to them, not the other way around. Was it just obvious to you that that didn’t work today or it was becoming less relevant? How did you end up embracing the opposite of what was traditionally done?

Fran: [00:20:47] Curiosity. I think curiosity and the ability to listen and be intrigued when you start hearing from enough people. None of the products that we currently make were my idea or Naomi’s idea. They all came from customers. Now, certainly, the beauty of being the co-founders of a company like this, we can get a wild hair to put an octopus on as a print and that’s our best-selling print—that did come from us. We do have the final say in all of the prints. Or it will come from a friend. We’re out on a boat and she loves octopus. It’s like, “Okay, let’s do that.” And so it’s really about having fun with that piece of it. But, as far as the product, we literally have not come up with any of that. The boxer briefs were customers’ ideas. The nine-inch boxer brief cut—we thought, “Are you kidding me? Who would wear a nine inch boxer brief?” They sell incredibly well. Women love to wear them under their skirts. They like to wear them to work out in. They like to wear them to yoga. So they’re wearing their underwear out in public. No one knows because it’s a nine inch boxer brief. It’s really their ideas. Same with the swim.

Fran: [00:22:04] And then, when we have new ideas that we think, “Okay, let’s go into pajamas. What style?” So I’ll get on a little Facebook video and say, “Hey we need your feedback. You want flannel? You want pockets? You want this, that?” And we get such a response. And I think it comes from a long history of not being asked and not being seen and not being heard, that people have a very specific idea. They know what they want and they’re very vocal about it. I think that the beauty and power of ecommerce is that we can engage in that conversation and be responsive to it. And I think that that’s really the path to success. But I also think that it’s just the right thing to do.

Richie: [00:22:49] So it’s definitely one thing to get the feedback. It’s another to embrace it internally. Because you also can’t always please everyone and I think anyone who runs a company knows it. They’re always getting pulled a million different directions. What was a journey, internally, to understand how to filter or embrace that feedback and to understand, then, when you know you have to make a call? Because you can’t always just ask everyone for everything.

Fran: [00:23:10] Absolutely. And we still struggle with it, especially those on the frontline, the customer service. If you hear five people say one thing you think, “Oh, gosh we’ve got to do something about it.”

Richie: [00:23:21] Something’s very wrong.

Fran: [00:23:22] Something’s so wrong. These five people! But then you put it in the context of, “Okay, let’s look at how many five stars we got on that and then weigh that. Oh, we have 3,000 five stars and five people. Who do you think we should follow?” That being said, we want to take any kind of feedback and be responsive. So it really depends on the cadence and the relevance of the feedback and, if it’s something that we find doesn’t fit our quality standard, then we absolutely are going to make a change and try to improve on that. For example, when we first came out we had this heat stamp label that after 20, 25 washes started peeling and would be itchy. And so we had to go back to the factory and find a new way of silk screening these instead of a heat stamp, something that wouldn’t peel. We didn’t get a ton of complaints about that but enough. We just felt like that was just not okay, that that was a quality standard that we, as a company, did not want to continue to have.

Richie: [00:24:31] I guess we’re at mid-2015. Talk through the end of 2015 and then through 2016. What was evolving, what it was like being behind or in the driver’s seat as it did?

Fran: [00:24:41] So we had introduced these underwear in September of ’14, tripled our revenue, did a seed round. We got that money in August of ’15.

Richie: [00:24:51] What was that like?

Fran: [00:24:51] Oh my goodness. That was like manna from heaven. It was such a relief. Naomi and I could finally go on payroll. We had done the whole startup thing where [we] racked up some credit card debt and we’re still working seven days a week and had no help. We had Julie on still. She’s been with us now for four years but she was on as a contractor for, really, way beneath what she was worth. It was just the three of us and we were paying someone, occasionally, to come in and help with shipping. So, at that time, we hired three people. One of them was a person that came in and, honestly, hounded me. I tease her that she stalked me until I hired her. She came in with a background in photography, not product photography but she was a photographer, and also a graphic artist. I thought, “Wow. Think of the money we’ll save not having to hire someone to do those two pieces.” So brought her in as the third employee, if you will. At that time, Naomi and Julie both went on payroll. I didn’t go on payroll until later.

Fran: [00:26:04] We, then, were able to start focusing in on, not only getting a handle on how and how much inventory to buy—this whole concept of a line plan—but, really, we could focus on getting through the end of the year because we had enough inventory once the money hit. We knew we’d have the inventory to get us through the end of the year to show the revenue growth that we needed and not really focus on what was obvious to me which was, at that time, the only way we were driving revenue was I would, literally, turn on Facebook ads in the morning and at the end of the day or when we hit our goal I would turn them off. And then do it again the next day, just to show the incremental because we didn’t have the time or the bandwidth or the expertise to really know all of the ways that we could advertise on digital media spend. So it was easy to just focus on getting through the end of the year. It was Q4. We knew we’d have the growth. And then, in January, we started focusing on digital metrics and working with an analyst and bringing in people that could help us know what our bounce rate was, what our conversion rate was, where places we could improve, our return on ad spend, all of that stuff so that we had baseline. It was important to me to really focus on building a strong business and having that be what we could build on.

Fran: [00:27:29] My gut was, and still is, that this is a lifestyle brand opportunity. We won’t know that for a while but that is what I believe, and so, wanted to build something that could sustain itself, that wasn’t just about, “Oh, yeah, we spend a lot on marketing and we can bring people in.” That, to me, is good marketing. We spent 2016 really doing just that and decreased our bounce rate, increased our conversion rate. All of that stuff that looked really good and the metrics proved it. In midyear, we also rolled out the new website which, of course, gave us an incredible spike in revenue. And so then we realized, “Okay, we need to raise some more money” and how, then, to go about doing that. So, unfortunately, that’s what I ended up spending the majority of 2017 working on, was raising money.

Fran: [00:28:21] As we all know, from the statistics out there, the fundraising for female entrepreneurs is subpar. And part of that reason is because people like to invest in people who look like themselves and that’s proven to be very true. Ninety percent of our series seed investors were female. And so that’s pretty amazing and exciting and we’ve had incredible support and mentorship from a lot of people. I think that one of the key things that Naomi and I have done is find really smart people that have done this because we haven’t done it. We didn’t have the background and ask a lot of questions. One particular mentor that we work with that will be on our board of directors—she has been the person that we can call to, a) walk us off a ledge and then b) to spoon feed us the next thing that we need to be working on and not overwhelming us with all of the things we didn’t know. So, today I can say that I feel like I’ve got a really firm handle on what used to be a lot of gray areas. Instead of trying to tackle all the gray at once, we would just strategically pick them off.

Fran: [00:29:36] So we, actually, are in a very good position right now in that we’ve hired employees. We’ve got 18 people on staff right now, [are] just bringing on a very experienced CFO, which is going to take us to a whole new stratosphere, putting together a beautiful board and just really focused on the next phase of growth and various channels for doing so. We’ve got advertising in a much broader spectrum out there right now and a team that is amazing and committed to the company and the brand. I think that’s the most exciting piece of it is, because of what we’ve built and the values and the focus on quality and how we treat one another and how we are with the world, that we’ve attracted really incredible people that share that value set and are so excited to be working on that and with the brand and for a brand that is so important to who they are individually but, also, their belief in how we can make a difference in the world.

Richie: [00:30:40] So you talked about juicing the Facebook ads, early on. How did you shift from that method which, for better or worse, is how so many of these brands are growing right now—and “I’m ‘growing’”—to kind of a more distributed, natural strategy where it sits today with influencers and so forth? Talk about that evolution and what you all learned or figured out along the way.

Fran: [00:31:03] In July of 2016, we brought in more of a Creative Director of Marketing that had a full breadth of skills around various channels for digital marketing, as well as a keen eye [for] opportunities that take a little bit more time to blossom.

Richie: [00:31:23] Right. It’s not a switch.

Fran: [00:31:24] It’s not a switch—unfortunately I really wanted a switch. It was not easy for me. I will readily admit that. I wanted results today. Also when you’re fundraising, you really need to have the revenue continue to grow up, and efficiency of spend was not exactly what I was used to needing or wanting because I wanted to prove that we had something and so wanted to just continue to have the revenue growth. This whole concept of customer acquisition cost was mind-boggling and seemed ridiculously complicated. Now I’m a firm believer and I get it and am really happy that we are focusing on efficiencies. At the same time, our revenues continue to grow. So the bigger piece that I think is important are the influencers. We’re fortunate, again, in that we have a brand that people care about. They want to get behind a brand that they share values with and we try very hard to be true to that. And so it’s a great opportunity because people, literally, want to be involved with the brand and are out there posting pictures, making videos, including our product in their music videos. Stuff like that—that is overwhelming and we feel so much gratitude for [it] but also a responsibility to stay true. That is going to continue to pay off for us in a significant way because it is—while certainly revenue and staying alive as a business is so important—but also the brand piece that the heart and soul of the company that we feel like is here to stay. That has to be from the grassroots from our customer base.

Richie: [00:33:22] Absolutely. When you look at the company from a product perspective, what do you consider it? Is this an underwear brand? What do you think of and then where does that go from here?

Fran: [00:33:32] Right now, we’re in the “next to your skin” space. So pajamas, underwear, swim—obviously, and we want to focus on that. We want to go deep and narrow into this space. We feel like there’s a tremendous opportunity. We have some new styles coming out and we’ve got some new campaigns coming out in the near future and we’re really excited about where we’re going. There continues to be a conversation, internally, about how narrow and deep, versus wanting to expand it a little bit wider because there are so many people that want to be part of the brand and that’s about more than specific product. And so, for example, we’re launching a neutrals campaign and that is going to open us up to an entirely different demographic. Also we feel like it’s going to be huge for us because it is also a reinforcement of our brand inclusivity. We’re actually featuring models that you don’t typically see in any fashion campaign, much less underwear, because we want to really be that inclusive brand that’s for everyone.

Richie: [00:34:53] Talk a bit more about the beginning of that campaign and what the goals are and how you see it evolving.

Fran: [00:34:58] We are so excited to be, not only working with some of the models that you’ll see that are amazing and impressive in their own right, but really about the embodiment of strength, resilience and hope and how that is so important in our lives as we move from or fight against, rebel against the objectification of our bodies and really embrace of being in your own skin. That is the focus of the neutrals campaign. It’s as much about the message as it is about the product. And so I think you’ll see with our imagery and with our messaging around that, that that’s exactly what we’ve been able to do and we’re just really excited to put that out into the world. I think that we’re much more inclusive, across the spectrum, of looks, body types and just being who we were born to be. And so we’re telling the stories. It’s really about our bodies [as] a canvas that tells the story of who we are and how we got here. We feel like that that’s an important story to be told and to be heard.

Richie: [00:36:12] Right. It seems to make so much sense because so much of this is driven by imagery and the normal models who are normally selling these products and so forth and that there is a lot of opportunity to do the opposite, in a way.

Fran: [00:36:25] Absolutely. It’s also, I think, important that, as we become more aware of the harm that we do to one another when we, not only, objectify but other and [label] outsiders. This brand is really, at the core, started by a group of people [who] were outsiders, [who] had never been part of the story around what it is to be cool, what it is to be beautiful. I feel like that’s just done so much damage that we all have a lot of healing to do. The way that we can do that is to start accepting ourselves and being okay with who we are, out in the world. It really is about our human agenda and that is the core of the company, is that we have a human agenda that is very focused on just being who you are and being unapologetic about it all day, every day. And so the neutrals campaign is just another extension of that and a reflection of that. So we wanted to get into the neutrals because of that opportunity to have that conversation that is more inclusive.

Richie: [00:37:37] Were there any lessons building this that you took from your time in politics that applied to building this company?

Fran: [00:37:44] Absolutely. Not only the ability to listen, to be able to recognize that there was a pulse out there. There’s a movement. There’s a trend. Things are moving in a certain direction. Again, that wasn’t our intent, necessarily. It was more a byproduct of being fortunate to be able to get the word tomboy and to be able to harness that spirit within a name that has instant recognition. I haven’t found another brand that has instant brand recognition because of the name. Usually, you have to build that. I think that my work in politics was very beneficial in me being able to see that and know what it was. I likened it to the Howard Dean fervor of there [being] a sea of change coming and we’re on the cusp of that. What do we do with it? How do we stay on top of it?

Richie: [00:38:43] So, on that note, do you consider the brand to be political at all or does it fall outside of whatever that sphere is?

Fran: [00:38:52] It’s absolutely political. I have been an activist my entire life. It was very important to me. I wasn’t going to just build a brand that was about making money.

Richie: [00:39:03] Or stuff.

Fran: [00:39:04] Or stuff. And putting stuff out there that fills landfills. I couldn’t do it. That would be against my grain. And so, once I realized that we could use the brand as a platform for change, it was appealing to me on so many levels. One—I got to be in charge. It wasn’t committee work. It wasn’t having to run it up the flagpole of messaging. I believe very strongly in taking a stance for things that I think are right and come from the right place and so we absolutely get involved in political campaigns. We make donations to organizations that we care about—Planned Parenthood, ICE. There are a lot of different things. Right now, we’re actually helping cats. It’s a wide spectrum of things that we get involved in. We made donations—over $90,000 worth of donations last year, including sending underwear to survivors of hurricanes in Puerto Rico, as well as Florida and Texas. So I think that politics is absolutely a part of the brand and will continue to be.

Richie: [00:40:16] In previous episodes, we’ve talked about what I just kind of call like the Elon Curve, which is this idea that, if you want to have entirely environmentally friendly transportation, Tesla’s idea was, basically, “I can’t just go yell about this. I need to economically incentivize it.” Commerce, for them, was the means to meet the end that they wanted. It sounds that, in some way, that you share a similar belief—that creating this company and so forth, is a very valid, if not [an] even more effective way, to put the values and change and so forth into the world than purely just yelling about it. Not to diminish that but that there’s a broader impact one can have by incorporating it into the bloodstream of something bigger than just purely one voice.

Fran: [00:41:01] Absolutely, And that was a real “aha” moment for us. And I think that that became obvious about a week or ten days into the Kickstarter campaign. As I said before, we were not going to just make a company that was about making money. That, to me, would kill my soul and so that was not an option. Because I’ve been in politics and had seen that and had been very active in gay politics, human rights politics, from working on gay rights. Because, for me, when I came out I was 21 and I was ecstatic because I had figured out who I was. And I thought that that was something that everyone would be equally excited about. Because what’s better than being true to yourself and owning who you are? And the fact that I wasn’t embraced in that capacity has always been baffling because I’m a nice person. Get to know me, you know? It has nothing to do with whom I love.

Richie: [00:42:09] Yep.

Fran: [00:42:09] I think that that drove me to activism and that drove me to get involved. But, when you’re involved with a lot of people that have different ideas about how to do that, the “aha” moment was, oh my gosh, I can do this with a business and still get this message out and still try to make this positive change that I think is so important in the world—and [to] make a living doing it. So it just seemed like a great opportunity that we couldn’t pass up.

Richie: [00:42:39] Right, and do it your way.

Fran: [00:42:41] Exactly.

Richie: [00:42:43] What’s the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned building the company?

Fran: [00:42:46] Ah. The most expensive lesson was we were looking to quickly expand to another factory. So we perfect[ed] our product with a woman-owned factory up in Canada. She has a couple of factories that she’s affiliated with in China and both happen to be more mom-and-pop, medium-sized. The factory that we primarily work with has a female CEO and we’re actually now bringing on another factory that’s women-owned. It just happens to be. We weren’t looking for that, but yay! It’s a bonus. But we did work with a factory, for a short period of time that… They didn’t share our quality standard. They really believed and continue to believe that getting it to us faster was more important thing getting it to us well-done. And we went back and forth five times, which is four times more than I wanted to, trying to get it. I think they still have some of our fabric but it was just an expensive lesson because we never got the quality of product from them that we needed and so, basically, had to write off all of that product. Spending the time to really work with a factory that has our shared values is really expensive.

Fran: [00:44:04] I guess that the cheapest lesson we’ve learned is to listen to our customers and make what they want, rather than from the top-down [where] I decide what styles are going to be [or] what people want when they clearly know what they want. Having that network of people that we can say, “What do you think? Should we do this? Should we do that?”

Richie: [00:44:26] As you continue looking forward, what do you think could go wrong and how would you work around that or mitigate that as you continue to grow the company?

Fran: [00:44:36] I think scaling. Scaling and—really, I think we’re young to focus a lot on culture, but I do think that, as we’re scaling, we need to make sure that that heart and soul permeates as we scale. I really want to focus on our diversity. I want to make sure that we’re innovating. I want to make sure that we’re continuing to be inclusive of our customers and make them our focus. How to do that with, again, the heart and soul but in a respectful way that is about encouraging people and, yet, doesn’t hold us back. And so I’ve come from the production world, politics where everything was, “You need it yesterday” and “Get it done” and “How do we reiterate?” Not saying, “no.” No was never in my vocabulary. It was always, “Yes, we can do that. This is how much it will cost you.” That doesn’t resonate in this industry as well. And so I’m learning how to adjust to that as we add more people. I’m a strong believer in letting people self-direct and self-lead and go out and get things done. At the same time, the pace of [it]—that can be different than what I would like. Trying to make that balance and be a good leader. I think there’s a difference between managing and leading. I spend a lot of time, maybe too much time thinking, over-thinking how to do that well.

Richie: [00:46:14] Gotcha. And then, as you look forward, what’s on the horizon? What are you most excited about?

Fran: [00:46:19] Oh my goodness. We have some new styles coming in that I had to be talked into. That’s all I’m going to say about it and it’s going to be very exciting. We actually are rolling out a performance line with new fabrications that are drirelease for workout and then we’ll have some new cuts of underwear included in that. We’ve got some French terry shorts that are coming out. We’ve got some new lengths of underwear. We just introduced a MicroModal underwear. MicroModal is a beautiful fabric. It’s made from a Beachwood, sustainable. It’s silky soft. It just feels like luxury. It’s a little bit more expensive to make but it’s a beautiful fabric. We have the full-length pajama right now that came out and they’re just exquisite. And so we want to continue on that line and add some more styles in that fabric. But we also, again, want to get into the performance-wear and new colorways in the swim. Then we’ll just keep adding to that as we go. We’re also looking—I know we have a lot of customers out in the U.K., Canada and Australia that would like some alternative shipping methods. We’re only shipping from the United States right now so it’s pretty expensive. So we do want to increase our distribution, globally.

Richie: [00:47:43] Very cool. Thanks so much for talking.

Fran: [00:47:44] Thank you very much.

Richie: [00:47:50] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to also leave a view on iTunes. We always appreciate it. Thanks to George Drake Jr. for editing this episode. We have a great roster of upcoming guests, including Tony King of King & Partners, Eleanor Turner of Argent and Natalie Mackey of Glow Concept. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.