Q&A with Entrepreneur Elyse Kaye
Elyse Kaye has spent her career leading innovation and marketing teams launching dozens of brands and hundreds of product lines through her product development consultancy, AHA Product Solutions. Additionally, she is the Founder and CEO of Bloom Bras – a line of patented activewear for the well-endowed woman. She was contributing author in The Product Manager’s Handbook and gives talks around the globe regarding building a brand, bringing innovation to life and female mentorship. In her free time, she is a certified fitness teacher and enthusiast.
On my background
I developed Bloom Bras out of frustration after trying virtually every sports bra out there. It was clear that I was not alone in that quest. One in three women experiences breast pain when working out, leading to many opting out of physical activity. And today the average breast size has risen from a 34B to a 34DD in the past 20 years. The major brands – Nike, Lululemon, Athleta, Victoria Secret - only carry up to a D or DD, leaving 50% of the active US female population unsupported. Today’s sports bra simply does not cater to the well-endowed woman.
On average, the body naturally changes 10% a month. For a woman with a DDD size, this is a full cup change. I brought together the minds from NASA, the shipping industry and a corset maker who works with opera singers, ballerinas, Oprah and a roster of women of all sizes. Throughout the development process, testing and prototyping on regular bodies - not fit models - was key.
90% of the weight falls into the band on a bra. By taking the burden off and distributing the weight differently, it gives the feeling of lifting, not squishing, which is how we came up with our tagline. The straps come to a point in the back, which pulls the weight and then spreads the weight throughout a mesh panel. The Bloom Bra uses state-of-the-art materials to eliminate the use of harmful underwire. One of my advisors from NASA helped to validate the design of the seams, which mimic the structure of the back so that the bra expands and contracts with the body.
On what inspired me to start this business
Like many women, I was frustrated. Living in the bay area, I see a lot of ideas - good and bad - launch. The reaction for me was staggering. We sold out of our first order in 82 hours. We had 240,000 unique viewers to Facebook page in 3 weeks without an ad spend. Our videos went viral with people tagging and spreading the word before we even finished our first prototype.
The bra is truly a convergence of science, technology, and fashion. This is an industry that has lacked innovation. Bloom Bras will continue to provide solutions that are healthy, comfortable and designed for the evolving female population.
The company is based in San Francisco, CA.
On how did I start and some of the challenges
I wrote the business plan in 1999 from personal need and every few years came back to the idea. When I ran my first half marathon, I did what so many women do which is wear two sports bras. I had no skin left from the chafing and the hooks digging in. I started to do the research learning how awful sports bras on the market truly are. If I was going to do this, I was going all in. It is not a design flaw. It is an engineering challenge. We took the word "boob" out and said how would we approach from a weight distribution perspective. Comfort was the key. However, no one wants to feel like they are wearing a suit of armor. After countless prototypes, I found the solution, patented it and set out to find a manufacturer.
There is no place like the bay area to start a company. This community - especially the entrepreneurial women - has been so inspiring. I put a note out on a Facebook page for women asking for ladies who wear certain bra sizes to come by to give feedback. I had 160 women respond immediately in San Francisco alone who came by to try on prototypes, gave me the critiques and encouragement to persevere through the toughest of times.
I often get asked the question of how did I decide on a manufacturer for Bloom Bras. When I sit down with Oprah to tell her my trials and tribulations as I went down the road to production, this will all be a part of my story. A factory is a partnership similar to a marriage. You start out by listing out the qualities you are looking for in a mate ruling out the masses.
My values of quality, sustainability, excellence in communication and a vast knowledge of the world of technical sports bras were imperative. I was approaching this more as a consumer with big boobs and an even larger problem I was trying to solve for. There is a reason why it is difficult to get technical sports bra made for the D+ market. I spoke with 40 or more factories around the globe on our path to finding our partner. Similar to dating, it is easy to rule some out after just a few conversations. You end up with a smaller pool. If only there were an app for this!!
I got connected through a colleague’s friend with a factory that was like a dream with a large development team and we were off to the races. We spent nine months prototyping, experimenting with materials and testing on hundreds of women. If you put ten women who are 38DDD next to each other, they look very different.
A fit model – which is standard for most brands in the space to use – would not have given me the data points and confidence that the bra would function properly. I posted on social media asking for women who are between a 28D and a 44K to come by to give feedback and had over 160 responses within hours. The sample in each of the sizes was approved.
I ordered goods in November, paid for the order in December. Three nights before the product was set to ship, I got a call from the owner of the factory explaining that there was a problem. They would not be producing my order. As a matter of fact, they had not even ordered the approved materials and never had any intention of moving forward. It turns out that larger orders came in and I have shoved aside. I was floored and had three options:
1. Scream, shout, and break down into tears
2. Abandon my dream
3. Go back to the drawing board essentially starting from scratch
While the first two would have been justifiable, I was on a plane two days later. A good majority of factories will not work with start-ups no matter how great the idea may be. I have so many stories of “bad dates”. Manufacturers misrepresenting their abilities making false promises. Companies wanted to charge extra for using more materials in larger sizes or were refusing to them at all. Samples were coming back nowhere close to the quality I demanded.
As if I had manifested (thank you vision boards and sleepless nights) my dream factory, it appeared. A group of industry experts was establishing a new facility on a mountain in Sri Lanka – one of the most beautiful countries and cultures. The workforce would come from the neighboring village. Housing would be provided for those who had to travel. Fresh spring mountain water from the rushing river that ran behind the property would help to power the factory and employees could be fed by the abundance of fruits, vegetables and rice grown on the front lawn.
We spent days walking through every detail meticulously because they understood that I would not put a product out that I was not 150% proud of. My community of ladies had waited this long – I would not falter at this point. The owners and I discussed what our expectations of one another would be and agreed that open lines of communication were the only way we were both going to succeed. This was not without hiccups but no production plan ever is.
Selecting the proper materials had been the most difficult part of the design process. Each detail from the seams riding along the bone structure in the back to my insistence that any material that touches the body be soft, comfortable, and free of certain nasty chemicals was non-negotiable. Because I was a start-up, I would not get the same pricing or lead times. As a preemptive strike, I went directly to the vendor of each of the materials and purchased well above what I would ever need. PS – we sold out of our first orders within hours and still have trouble keeping certain sizes in stock.
Seeing the Bloom Bra on women across the globe gives me such a sense of pride. We are starting to work on the next lines of goods now that we are up and running. I hope that this is the beginning of a long history. We are setting out to disrupt an industry. People often ask if I would manufacture in the US. My answer is I would absolutely LOVE to. Costing came back from the over 20 factories across our country at four to five times our current costs. The product is a complex one to produce.
I have opted against raising money with the exception of crowdfunding, but there has been no shortage of inbound offers from people who believe in the success of the business. Women supporting women is the only way we are going to break some of the unfortunate trends that the valley is known for.
On raising awareness
Bloom Bras launched on Kickstarter. I pulled together with a team of interns a few videos in my kitchen which I posted on Facebook and the response was astounding. I had 240K people come through our Facebook page in 3 weeks with no spend. The Bloom Bra sold out of initial orders in hours but they are back in stock. Here are links to some of the recent articles in Huffington Post, Entrepreneur Magazine, New York Post and Elite Daily. It has been all word of mouth. I am working on pulling together some influencer campaigns but women are amazing supporters and our response has been overwhelmingly positive. Social media is very powerful but word of mouth is more effective.
On advice and staying focused
"I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work." This is one of my favorite quotes by Thomas Edison. The ups and the downs are dramatic. A good support system is the key. I went through three factories and countless setbacks in my journey so far and there will be more. Stay the course. Do not get distracted by shiny and new, nor should you get thrown when things seem like they cannot get any worse. Find great mentors. Celebrate the smallest of victories because no one else will. I just was a part of a panel last week with women who have been on my list of dream advisors. Also, join networking groups. Some of my closest friends have emerged from talking to women who are in a similar stage.
The Bloom Bra is a unique look and feel. There is nothing else like it out there. One of the things I am most proud of is that we have always used real women in our development - not fit models and not paid models (so far). You see all of these images in the media of women who do not look like me or most of my consumers. Bloom Bras is about making women feel good no matter what stage they are in. I speak to so many women who will not exercise out of discomfort or will buy everything out there in their size out of desperation.
Every single element of the Bloom Bra has a reason for being.
On my favorites
My favorite book this month is "How to Be A BadAss" by Jen Sincero. When I am having a bad day, I put it on Audible. And I am obsessed with the app Insight Timer for daily guided meditation. It has totally helped me to focus as well as to sleep.
My business Role Models include Sara Blakely, Tamara Mellon, Yvon Chouinard and of course Oprah. The ladies who work for and with me inspire me every day. I am also blessed to have parents that both took entrepreneurial routes. They have both supported my dream.
On the next 6 months
Now that I have proven out the concept and know that there are no issues with the product, we are getting ready to do our mass roll out. We are launching a slew of trunk shows. When women put the product on, they usually tell the story for us. Our biggest challenge is that women struggle with bra sizing. We offer free fittings, free exchanges and returns with a hope of making the process easier. Our next three lines are sports bras for pre and post maternity, breast cancer survivors and women over a certain age.