This panel with Negative Underwear founders Marissa Vosper and Lauren Schwab covers their experience in launching a business—what they wish they’d known, what they would have done differently, and the things they’ve had to learn in action—because there are some things no amount of advice can prepare you for.
“Lauren and I launched Negative in February 2014. We met during freshman year at University of Pennsylvania. Like most college kids, we were shuffled into certain careers—I went into consulting, Lauren went into finance. Fashion wasn’t really presented as a viable career path, but that’s where our hearts were. So, four or five years into our careers in New York, we started asking those questions which I think are very common among our peer-set: "Is this really what I want to do with my life? Do I feel fulfilled?” For the most part, the answer was no. Instead of whining about it over brunch, we started classes at FIT. We realized that it might take a while to create a really thoughtful company, so we used that time to think about what we really wanted to do.
It took probably six months worth of class to really hone in on the fact that we felt like lingerie was a real opportunity space. Now we look back and laugh saying that we should have chosen wrap dresses or t-shirts, but I think the reason that we saw opportunity in lingerie is partially because it was a complex category to enter. Our real goal was, and still is, to up the status quo. We felt that the lingerie business needed some serious shaking up, and that there weren’t really any good options for women. We spent four years developing the idea, sourcing and honing in on product development—many nights and weekends alongside our full-time jobs. During that time, I think that the faith came from knowing that, regardless of what happened to Negative or how long it took, it felt like it was around the corner. It felt like the outlet, not the time drain. I think you really can understand the difference between a hobby or a career if you’re willing to sacrifice aspects of your free time to pursue it. I could say that my hobby is cooking, but do I want to spend all weekend cooking for free for a catering event that I’m volunteering my time for?
When you look at start-ups, especially the injection of VC capital into start-up world, it seems like things pop up over night. You don’t realize that Outdoor Voices has been around for five or six years, or that Refinery29 was a seven year in the making business before it became the huge platform that it is. It’s not all Uber and Snapchat, and I think the ability to scale a tech platform is very different than the ability to scale a product. I look at brands that I admire in the fashion landscape specifically. The Ralph Lauren’s and Calvin Klein’s of the world were not built overnight. I remind myself of that, especially because we’ve chosen a path that doesn’t involve VC lending. Funnily enough, Lauren and I are pretty risk-averse people in our nature. We knew that for us to be confident quitting our full-time jobs with pretty lucrative salaries, we needed to be able to have an on-ramp to revenue. With a product business, that means having a physical good to sell. We didn’t quit our jobs until a few months after we got our first production run in. I think we wanted to prove to ourselves that there was real proof-of-concept, there was real customer demand and interest, and that this was a business that could make money, not just a business that sounded cool on paper. Keeping our jobs also meant we could subsidize the cost of the business. We looked at it in the way of, “I could either use this to buy a cocktail dress, or I could use this to make a bra sample.” It didn’t feel like we had to inject all this money at once. It was a couple hundred bucks here and a thousand dollars there. It felt achievable, and we sort of just split it as we went (which is not how you should run your accounting!) but at the time, it worked.
The decision to be a self-funded company was, at the time, something that we felt really strongly about. Coming from a school like Penn, a huge amount of our friends had started companies and worked in Venture Capital firms, and were like, “Why aren’t you fundraising? Go out and raise a couple million dollars. Why would you do this on your own dime? Waste someone else’s money.” But Lauren and I felt strongly that we wanted to prove that we could be profitable the old fashioned way. We wanted to learn how to spend money in a smart way versus throwing it at things and seeing what stuck. I question that sometimes, because due to the crowded nature of the world we’re living in, and trying to be a direct-to-consumer business, it’s pretty hard to grow fast without a marketing budget. I do wonder if Negative would be in a different place today if we had started with a bigger nest egg. That said, we own 100% of our company and that’s amazing. We get to make decisions 100% on our own and we don’t have any investors telling us to start make pink bras when we don’t want to. So that’s a constant debate in my head, and I’m not sure if there’s a right or wrong way, I just think it’s something to consider. It’s a lot easier to raise money before you have revenue as opposed to after. Once you have revenue, they’re looking at your numbers. Before you have revenue, they’re looking at your vision.
We didn’t have a PR agency for the first many months of business. Our strategy was that I had told my former company that I was starting a company and they were incredibly supportive. They allowed me to work a four day week leading up to launch for about six months, allowing me to network with anyone I could. We asked anyone and everyone we knew who might be able to connect us with media. Most editors we met with would say, “Great, come back to me once you’re a real company,” but I happened to meet with the editor of The Wall Street Journal, who said, “I want to do an exclusive on this.” We were very fortunate to have the happy coincidence of a Wall Street Journal article about our launch two weeks before Valentine’s Day, which is a really great accident when you’re in lingerie. We had no idea what that kind of press could do for us. That article went live, and we had hundreds of orders overnight. We hadn’t once thought about shipping or fulfillment. We hadn’t even set up an inventory management system. We just had boxes on this floor with packages from our factory. The first few weeks involved a ton of late nights packing orders, early mornings at the post office, and sneaking away in between lunch breaks to answer customer service emails. It was readily apparent that it was not sustainable to do both, but we were very fortunate to have friends and family helping us package orders at night. Those were funny times. It was in February, so right in the middle of winter. I think Lauren had a moment of walking to work with bags full of packages, slipping on the ice on the way to the post office, and lying there in the street like, “I have never been happier.” Sometimes you have to embrace the chaos.
When it comes to our partnership and who does what, Lauren spends her time on all things product, which includes ensuring existing product is in stock, but also thinking about future development and design. I spend most of my time thinking about how to market and sell the collection. If you boil down a business like ours, you have to make stuff and you have to sell stuff. Lauren is involved in the making and I’m involved in the selling, but there’s a lot of cross-over that comes with being a small team. I think it’s very helpful that Lauren and I have known each other from such a young age. There’s a deep-seated love and respect for one another. I never once question whether she’s committed or working as hard I am, or if we both have the same intention and vision for the brand. But of course, we’ve had to figure out how to make things work on a day-to-day basis—What do you have to weigh-in on in order to make decisions? What can you be autonomous on? Who gets to make the final call if you disagree? That is all a work in progress. I don’t think there’s any right answer. I think it comes down to remembering that you love and care about each other first and foremost, but also acknowledging that a successful business and a successful friendship are two different things, and they might sometimes be at odds. It’s about being very honest and not being afraid of confrontation. It’s a lot easier to not talk about uncomfortable things, but it doesn’t serve you well in the long run.
Personally, I think the best product businesses are based on two main things. One is having an incredible product. If your product isn’t amazing, you’ll have one-time customers and no return customers. Lauren and I firmly decided that we would never compromise on the quality of the material that goes into our garments. We went to trade shows for three years in a row while we were developing our brand looking for the best vendors. We source elastics from Japan, fabrics from Belgium and the US, hooks and eyes from France, and some components from Colombia. That’s a really messy equation, but we believe it’s important. We have a simple product so the quality matters even more. Something else that we recently splurged on was redesigning our website after two years in business. It was the first time we really invested in it, and it’s made a big difference on our site conversion rate and traffic. We spend when there’s clearly a benefit. We don’t just spend when it sounds like a fancy or fun thing to do—we’re pretty prudent about our money.
The second factor that we place a lot of emphasis on is customer experience. I think a huge reason why we have such a loyal following is because of the way that we relate to and engage with our people. We’ve invested in that from day one. I think you can learn a lot from the world of hospitality in that regard. An old client of mine from the branding world was Ritz Carlton. One of my best learnings from them is that if you have a great experience at a hotel, it’s not memorable. It’s just fine. If you end up having an issue at a hotel, that’s an opportunity to make it memorable because you can solve their problem in a way that wows them. You can create moments of surprise and delight that truly stick with people. You should never look at an upset customer as a down-side. You should look at it as a chance to solidify that customer’s relationship with the brand. That’s something I’m always trying to think about: how can I make this customer really happy?
Looking back, I think maintaining the business has probably been harder than starting it. Even though we worked so many years to get it over the finish line, there’s so much adrenaline and momentum when you hit that moment. I remember seeing those boxes in my apartment, opening the first bra, and being in tears. It’s such a fulfilling moment, especially making a physical good that you spent years of your blood, sweat, and tears to make. It’s like when you meet a guy and you’re so in love for six months, then two years later think, “Do I really love this guy?“ I think a business is the same. You can fall out of love with your business if you don’t remind yourself daily of why you chose this path. Even though once we got going we had relatively quick success, I don’t think I fully appreciated how patient I’d have to be, how hard I’d have to work for a really long time. Where I thought we’d be in two and a half years versus where we are now is different. Two and a half years isn’t even that long of an amount of time, but you have these ideas about where you’ll be. It’s been many steps forward, many steps back—I think I’ve had to learn that it’s not all steps forward.
In terms of advice, I don’t think you can go wrong with the advice to sleep on it. I think removing emotion from your reaction whenever possible is ideal in business. I also think it’s important to have empathy and to put yourself in the shoes of the other person. My husband has a funny phrase of, “If you meet an asshole in the morning, he’s the asshole. If you meet an asshole all day, you’re the asshole.” It’s a matter of accepting that you might be the problem and being humble enough to admit that. Also, acknowledging that it’s not brain surgery and that no one’s going to die if we don’t make this happen. We’re making bras, not saving lives. I’d also say that it’s not worth starting a business unless you really believe you have a product that makes a difference in the world, is unique, or solves a problem. There’s this Venn diagram that looks at what’s special about you and what the world needs—and that overlap is where you should be. If you’re doing something that’s really great but no one gives a shit, then no one’s going to buy it. And if you’re doing something that people care about but you’re not very good at it, it’s going to fall flat. So you have to find that sweet spot of what you can offer and what people need. I was given a piece of advice early on from a friend, who’s built his company from four people to hundreds of people, about maintaining what he calls a sense of “rationale optimism”. The odds are 100% stacked against you. You have to be realistic about that. Companies fail all the time, and if you don’t believe in yourself 110% then no one else is going to. The amount of people that have to buy into your idea in order for it to be successful is infinite, so it has to feel true and genuine to the core. People can see through inauthenticity very easily. You almost have to be a bit nutty to think you’re going to beat the odds.
When you’re building a business, you have to surround yourself with people that you can rely on for advice, help, and support. Two people alone are not going to build a company. Negative is the result of hundreds of people leading us down this path of, "I know someone who knows someone who can help you with this.” Networking feels like such a dirty word, but it’s really just being curious about people that you meet and creating a mutually beneficial relationship. When I’ve gone into meetings being curious and asking a bunch of questions about people, they’ve always led to a path that I didn’t expect. Grit and perseverance are also really important. You have to be willing to do hard things all the time. You don’t have the option of saying, I’ll get to that later or I’ll have someone else do that for me. When it’s your own company, there is no someone else for you. That could mean doing things that are mentally hard, physically hard—like lugging packages up the stairs because there’s no one else to do it with you, or getting through your accounting spreadsheet because you don’t have the resources to pay someone else. Finally, I’d say that you need to have an understanding of what balance means for you. It’s pretty easy to burn out if you’re working 24-7 on something, which is what a lot of start-ups require. I think it’s easy to forget about the fact that if you’re not happy and healthy, your company is going to suffer. An investment in yourself is an investment in your company.“