There are tried and true rules when it comes to building a business from the ground up. Step one: Know your product. Step two: Develop your product. Step three: Introduce the product to your potential customers. But Michelle Cordeiro Grant took those time-tested steps and threw them out the proverbial window when she built her direct-to-consumer bra business Lively.
Instead, she launched her online bra company Lively in 2016 with an idea and a mailing list – but no physical product at all. These unconventional beginnings paid off, and fast. What Cordeiro Grant hoped Lively would accomplish in the first year, the company did in the first three months. And just three years later, Wacoal purchased the upstart bra company for an estimated $105 million.
So, how did she get there? First off, Cordeiro Grant didn’t skimp on step one. She knew the lingerie business inside and out before deciding to start her own company.
Growing up as the daughter of Indian immigrant parents, Cordeiro Grant assumed she’d become a doctor or an attorney. But after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh with a BS in Finance in 2002, she opted instead to work for retail brands. She racked up retail experience, first as a product assistant at Federated Merchandising Group, then as an Associate Product Manager at May Company and a Senior Merchandise Manager for Nautica. After working her way up those ranks, she landed at Victoria’s Secret. There, in her four years working on the retailer’s digital side as a director and senior merchant, she witnessed scores of women’s experiences shopping for bras.
During her tenure there, Victoria’s Secret claimed around a 40% share of the U.S. lingerie market. Cordeiro Grant knew intimately what the dominant player in the market was doing, and she knew that she wanted to do something different. Seeing many women’s frustration with their bras – especially with garments designed with an eye to style over comfort and with the perspective of someone looking at the wearer rather than the wearer herself in mind – she saw a hole in the market. She wanted to offer women a different bra buying experience, so she decided to focus on community and cost before she even knew exactly what bra to sell.
“What I was hearing and seeing is that women just weren't comfortable" Cordeiro Grant said in an interview with Nordstrom, a store the brand partnered with as it grew from pure DTC into wholesale. "There had to be another conversation to be had in this $13 billion lingerie industry."
Cordeiro Grant sought a conversation focused on women’s comfort and support rather than what looked sexy to men. Lingerie to men is supermodels and corsets (basically, the vision pushed by Victoria’s Secret). And, as Cordeiro Grant told Nordstrom, Lively isn’t that kind of a brand. Globally, the retail lingerie market was valued at $42 billion dollars in 2020 and is forecasted to reach $78.66 billion by 2027. And when Cordeiro Grant was starting out, it was ripe for the very sort of disruption she hoped to provide.
In order to understand what women really wanted, Cordeiro Grant decided that what she needed first was a community to serve as her own targeted focus group. Grant started with 250 emails.
Using that small mailing list, Cordeiro Grant proposed a refer a friend campaign. Taking a page from the success of Harry’s Razors, she gave a credit to every person who provided their email before launch. The difference was, Lively’s potential customers didn’t know what the product they were getting credit for was.
The campaign worked. Overnight, she had 133,000 email addresses of women interested in a better fitting, more comfortable bra.
Understanding the needs of the community, the first product Lively launched was a bralette that combined the function of a sports bra with the comfort of pajamas. Before launching, Cordeiro Grant also decided to set the initial price for every bra Lively sold at $35. She thought that simplicity in pricing was more important than profit margins and would go a long way towards creating satisfied customers.
The community proved invaluable when it came time to launch: she sent a handpicked group from her email list images about the launch of the company and asked them to share them on Instagram. With that, Cordeiro Grant created not just a community but a guerilla marketing force for her new company. The buzz this created worked. Lively shipped product to all 50 states within 45 days of its launch.
Through the Lively community, Grant came up with the term “leisuree” to describe the brand’s offerings which takes athleisure and combines it with the functional aspects of lingerie.
The company grew quickly and took on additional VC funding to expand from its online roots to brick and mortar retail stores. In 2017, Lively grew by 300%, as women increasingly began to demand inclusivity and sizing that brands like Victoria’s Secret failed to provide.
Lively’s success attracted the attention of Japanese lingerie giant Wacoal, and Cordeiro Grant sold the company in 2019 but remained at its helm.
Even after the sale, Cordeiro Grant continued to take her Lively community seriously, basing new product launches on its feedback. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, Lively was poised to bring out a new swimwear line. Cordeiro Grant quickly saw that that was not going to be viable at that moment in time and reached out to her Lively community to see what they needed. The answer was loungewear, something Lively already made. So, she upped loungewear production, and the company saw 10 times growth year over year in that category.