Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?
My name is Fran Dunaway and I am CEO and Co-Founder of TomboyX. We make underwear, swim, and loungewear that isn’t for everybody but is for anybody.
That’s right, a gender-neutral company that is focused on fit and quality. We are all inclusive so offer every style in sizes XS to 4X. We’ve gone from zero employees 2 years ago to 15 today and have consistently increased our revenue over 100% each year.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
When we started the company, my co-founder (and wife) Naomi and I didn’t know a knit from a woven. We just had a burning desire to make beautiful button-up shirts, like a Ben Sherman for women.
We wanted to create a shirt with fine quality fabric, fun details and fit for a woman’s body. At the time, we both had careers that we loved and made a decent living with vacations and paychecks… This was just a side project for us.
We chose the name TomboyX because we thought it was cute.
In order to pay for our shirts to go into production, we opted to start a Kickstarter campaign. Production was going to cost about $70,000 so we set the 30-day goal at $75,000. And about a week into our Kickstarter campaign, we realized that it was the name that was really resonating with a cross-section of people from around the world.
Our research taught us that the lifestyle brands with staying power started by focusing on one ‘hero’ product and building from there.
We hit the goal with a little extra and then started wondering what to do with this ‘instant brand’ that was about the name. We wanted to find a more broadly appealing ‘hero’ product on which to build a lifestyle brand. That seemed like the real opportunity that was presenting itself.
Our research taught us that the lifestyle brands with staying power started by focusing on one ‘hero’ product and building from there. Our customers had been asking us to make boxer briefs for women so we listened and presto: we found our hero product.
We found that we were good at making quality underwear that fits well, and we have since expanded our line to include everything from a bikini cut to a 9” boxer brief.
Describe the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing the product.
Initially, we set out to make the softest, longest lasting waistband out there. We were determined to create one that you don’t even notice because it’s so comfortable, doesn’t leave a mark and doesn’t cut off your circulation.
So we sent off for samples to various suppliers and had a table full of waistbands to choose from. There was one that was close but we had to work with them to give it that little extra special sauce.
Once we had the perfect waistband formula, we focused on finding quality fabrics for the underwear and then working on a design that had seams in all the right places, legs that don’t ride up and partners who have sustainable practices.
One thing that I think is important is to not get excited about anything until it’s a done deal.
We did some research and visited various factories, finally finding a good fit with a woman-owned one in Vancouver, BC. They had made boxer briefs for men and were eager to form a partnership with us. She had a keen marketing sense as well. She’s been a critical part of our journey and has more than doubled her business as we have grown together. Once we had original patterns, we had samples made in various sizes and then brought in real people to try them on and offer feedback.
We did that process 5 or 6 times until we were happy with the results.
Describe the process of launching the online store/business.
The first thing we did was incorporate as an S Corp and then trademarked our name. We also grabbed any websites that we could afford as a protection (like www.tomboyxsucks.com).
Our original launch, via the Shopify platform, was in April of 2013 and we didn’t have any underwear at the time. We had the shirts we’d made and then started curating things like belts, shoes, hats, jeans, etc.
In April 2015 we were accepted into an accelerator program based in Boulder. They took the lead on our Seed round of investment and also introduced us to an amazing person in the branding/advertising business. Ever since the Kickstarter, we knew we didn’t have the marketing chops to give this brand the voice it needed. Once we met Courtney, we knew we had found our voice. She brought us into her agency, the CPB Group, and we worked with them for nearly a year on rebranding.
And then, in July of 2016, we launched with a new look and feel, we stopped showing our product on the body, changed our logo, fonts, and palette. It was a huge transformation that has had a significant impact on our growth.
Since launch, what has worked to attract new customers?
Originally we focused on Facebook advertising and I would literally set a daily goal, launch a campaign and turn it off when we hit the goal. Not very sophisticated at all but since it was just the two of us, it was all that we could really manage.
Today, we have a five-person marketing team and work with incredible outside vendors who have the marketing down to a science.
We are very focused on our customer acquisition costs and how our advertising spend is doing across various channels. We make adjustments accordingly.
Here's a breakdown of our most successful marketing channels:
We have been running Facebook ads since the beginning. I would literally turn the ads on in the morning, set a daily revenue goal and then turn them off. It was just the two of us and we had no experience with marketing. Luckily we had a product that people wanted so we could flip the switch as needed. Today, FB is still our primary channel and we spend a lot of money here.
In July of 2017, we hired an outside digital media agency to place all of our social media ad buys and they are doing an incredible job. We provide creative and they make ads that soar. They manage our FB, IG and paid search. We get incredibly detailed channel reports weekly and keep a close eye on everything they do. They are built to be responsive and thorough.
Instagram is a big driver of growth for us in terms of awareness. It’s not a huge revenue source for us but a great way to engage with our customers.
Last year we hired an outside agency to do our SEO for us, they specialize in it and help take that burden off of our marketing team.
We recently started placing podcast ad buys and they already are showing positive results.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One thing that I think is important is to not get excited about anything until it’s a done deal - not until the check is in the bank.
At first, we’d let ourselves get excited about an opportunity and sometimes think it would be a big break for us, only to see it go away. That would be a big let down and was hard. You can’t sustain the ups and downs emotionally. Instead, I’d stay focused on your journey and don’t celebrate any successes until they are delivered upon.
We’ve had many magical moments along the way that were inspirational and buoyed us to the next level. When we needed someone with years of production expertise we got a cold call from an industry expert looking for a gig. She’s been with us for over 3 years now and we wouldn’t be where we are without her.
I’m a big believer in asking the universe for what you need and then doing everything you can to make it happen. Sometimes magic happens and other times you have to work hard to make it so.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Shopify is an amazing e-commerce platform that we’ve used from the beginning. We use a multitude of apps to give us more insight into our data, inventory, user experience and more.
We’re using YOTPO for our reviews and are fairly happy with it, although it does have some limitations, like customizations, and can be glitchy. We have some functionality that we’d like to implement but it requires a dev team and weeks of testing. It’s a work in progress.
About six months ago we switched from MailChimp to KLAVIYO and are really happy with that change. KLAVIYO is a more robust platform that allows us more control, testing, and analysis. We were at the stage of needing something that had more extensive capabilities than MailChimp, which was great for the first few years.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources for your business?
If you haven’t discovered Loose Threads, then you’re missing out. It’s a great podcast and Richie is so smart and thoughtful in his approach. Our whole team listens regularly and we love the tidbits, hearing about other entrepreneurs and how they have overcome odds.
How I Built This also features founder stories that are fun to hear about.
I try to read all the books by apparel leaders and watch documentaries about fashion, brands, and entrepreneurs. I remember reading Shoe Dog, the Nike story when we were having cash flow problems. To read what they went through to become what they are today was exhilarating and terrifying at the same time.
Daymond John’s books were helpful early on.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Know that you’re going to sacrifice more than you expect, everything will take way longer than you expect, you’re going to need more money than you expect and whatever you do - never give up. Other than that, it's a piece of cake.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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