Buying red lingerie? Chances are, you’re a cat person.
This story first appeared in the August 5, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
And that “lace and sexy” trend? Sure, it’s a thing — but that same woman likely bought a nude bra the day before.
At least, that’s according to what Michelle Lam fondly refers to as her “Rosetta Stone of bras,” created from 60 million data points gathered from several million women over the past three years.
She’s not only able to confirm trends like ath-leisure, she know who wants it — and why.
As the founder of intimates e-tailer True & Co., Lam is working to dramatically change the way women shop for bras. Starting with a two-minute fit quiz on Trueandco.com, customers are matched with a bra shape (rather than size), according to its “TrueSpectrum.” This guides the initial recommendations and familiarizes the customer with providing personal information. From there, the questions go more in-depth and the recommendations more personal, as customers browse, try on at home and become accustomed to a culture of constant feedback. And Lam has found that women want to share even more details, whether it’s through a quiz after a return or an e-mailed quiz tied to Valentine’s Day.
The inspiration behind the fit quiz was to avoid the often uncomfortable fitting room experience. The result has Silicon Valley investors excited about the splash this could make in the estimated $10.9 billion U.S. intimates market — more than
$6 billion of which was spent last year on bras alone, according to The NPD Group.
“The intimates market in the U.S. is dominated by one dominant brick-and-mortar player, with a specific look for a certain type of customer,” said True & Co. investor and Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee. “No one had figured out how to make [bra-shopping] a better experience, but she [Lam] has the quiz and the data-driven approach.”
At a time when the Harvard Business Review is calling “data scientist” the sexiest job of the 21st century and signing into a Web site via Facebook credentials has become de rigueur, “data” is a big-ticket buzzword. But utilizing that mysterious treasure trove? That often remains more elusive.
Not so for Lam, whose approach to matching women with well-fitting intimates has convinced investors — mostly male, aside from Lee — to contribute $15 million to True & Co. since 2012.
As an investor, Lee said, she’s looking for very large markets, entrepreneurs who have a personal connection to the opportunity of the problem, and a new approach that would make the experience better for customers. “Michelle,” she said, “has all those things.”
True & Co.’s approach has obvious applications beyond the bra, and it is slowly pushing into panties and loungewear. (It recently sent out a “cheek guide” to customers — i.e., for “the other 3-D part of a woman’s body.”)
“Women are saying, ‘Wow, there is a new and different way and the lingerie industry is starting to listen to me,’” Lam said while sitting in True & Co.’s sunny San Francisco SoMa district headquarters. “We’re pushing further into ‘emotional fit’ territory.” This means that, in addition to making recommendations based on her body shape, the algorithm can help gauge what a woman wants to see when she looks in the mirror. (For example, four out of five women don’t want a push-up bra.) “And our consumer research,” Lam said, “tells us that they are looking for a different definition of ‘sexy.’”
Lam is a different definition of “data geek.” The 36-year-old Toronto native cut her teeth at The Boston Consulting Group, which worked with Victoria’s Secret on research that led to the Body by Victoria bra and the development of the Angels. Later, she worked in due diligence at Bain Capital Ventures, where, in 2008, she crunched the numbers to confirm LinkedIn’s groundbreaking $1 billion valuation.
“I remember being afraid that I was going to lose my job, because no one had ever done that before,” Lam said.
When she began working on True & Co., she started with fit-tests in her home, where she would gather feedback on taste and fit from friends and family using a pen-and-paper quiz modeled after Cosmo quizzes she took in high school. Eventually, she needed a way to listen to the customer in a scalable way — which means data, and the online feedback loop she uses today.
“The goal was always delivering a beautiful product that makes her body look amazing and makes her feel amazing,” Lam said. “A lot of companies who are trying to do things with data don’t have such a strong goal in mind.”
In October 2013, Lam launched the True & Co. brand of lingerie, informed by the cues that customers had provided. Her feedback loop means she is able to produce more efficiently. Thanks to customer response, she recently identified a potential manufacturing defect within 48 hours, and confirmed it after two weeks — even though the product had passed inspection. She’s also found the “sweet spot” is making each silhouette in eight to 12 sizes, rather than the larger offering more common for department stores, since “not everyone can wear a balconette.”
Since launching, the house brand has grown at “multiples of percentages” of the business, and has slowly started expanding into loungewear, with plans to expand its assortment into premium lines. Most bras are $44 to $64, panties are $16 to $22; a pajama set is $68. Although Lam calls the True & Co. algorithm agnostic — meaning that it recommends both True & Co. products in addition to other brands available on the site — this is encouraging. (Of the 50 or so vendors it’s tested, current offerings include recognizable names like Natori and Calvin Klein, and others that are harder to find Stateside, like French line Princesse Tam Tam and Dutch brand Love Stories.) It also proved to investors that women can, actually, self-report what they want. She declines to provide revenue, but says that business has doubled already this year after strong growth in 2014.
In the Bay Area, investors are used to fielding terms like “customer-use case” and “high-margin business.” Lam is comfortable with these. But she’s equally as fluent in terms like “chicken wings” and “busting out” (which are unfavorable symptoms of an ill-fitting bra, to the uninitiated). Thus, she is often asked what it’s like to talk about bras with “mainly dude investment committees,” but she credits her history for giving her confidence to go talk about underwear. “I have been in the business before, so I know what it means to articulate in a way that investors can get behind.”
After the most recent round of funding, Lam says she took a step back to decide what “true north” was for the company. The result was a mission to harness millions of pieces of information to create or provide products that celebrate her customers’ unique body shape and taste. This is just one of the projects on the horizon.
“As a woman who has been through many career incarnations, and has been on my own personal journey to find myself, that’s a really liberating moment when you know who you are and what you want and what will make you happy,” Lam said. “It’s more than just, like, lifting up your boobs, right? It’s a whole outlook shift.”