Heidi Zak has been in finance, in retail and in tech. Like most women, she’s also been in plenty of dressing rooms trying to find the right bra, leading her to build ThirdLove, one of the largest online bra and underwear companies in America.
Close encounters with the NOT ThirdLove kind of shopping experiences, meaning the universal ick-factor of cold hands and awkward measurement moments with in-store underwear salespeople, were part of Zak’s a-ha moment. So, putting all of her professional and personal experience together, she created a brand that disrupted an entire industry — to the great relief of uncomfortable women everywhere.
Her first-to-market service as a DTC bra retailer hit some, ah, curves, along the journey but Zak has been named everything from Goldman Sachs’ 100 Most Intriguing Entrepreneurs to a Fortune “40 Under 40”, and more.
Part of the accolades stem from how Zak has embraced not just brand marketing but brand purpose. Inclusivity at ThirdLove means being the only brand to offer more than 80 bra sizes, including their unique half cup sizing – and donating over $40 million worth of products to women in need. It has also helped evolve an old school industry previously defined by a narrow concept of beauty with a focus on inclusivity.
“We didn’t want to look like any other bra brand which mostly photographed skinny, generally white women with small boobs and generally did it in a really sexy way. So, we set out to build something radically different from scratch…. Back then there were barely any plus size models.”
Further iterating on inclusivity, ThirdLove launched a new initiative during COVID-challenged 2020: The TL Effect, to support entrepreneurial women of color.
“…Brand purpose has to be authentic, true to who you are and what you stand for, and what you’re building. Otherwise it can fall flat, or a consumer sees through it.”
While Zak and I commiserated about finding a proper fitting and comfortable bra I was a bit discomfited to discover that this rock star CEO/mom of two has managed to use her homebound pandemic time to also hyper-organize her home, when I haven’t even organized my sock drawer. In a conversation perfectly apropos Women’s History Month, hear how, in addition to organizing her home, this efficient CEO/co-founder has organized her company for success through adapting to the changes of the pandemic.
Envy aside, we discussed:
- Her path from small town Main Street to Wall Street, Herald Square to Silicon Valley
- How an encounter with the founders of Lyft drove her to solve another consumer problem, one bra at a time
“In 2012, if you look at what had existed [for bra shopping] at that time, there were department stores, Victoria’s Secret and some big box stores. There certainly weren’t online bra brands at the time. And that was the idea: better brand, better product, better online shopping experience for women.”
- Zak on disruption and her definition of DTC, and why it was important for ThirdLove to “have a direct way to speak to our customer, to educate her, to bring her along the journey, to make her feel really comfortable.”
- The product evolution — from one bestselling bra to their recently launched Fit Finder — and the pivot required by pandemic-era marketing
- Navigating manufacturing and funding, especially as a woman seeking financing from primarily men (Note: McKinsey reports women are still only 21% of the C-suite and of those are mostly white women.)
- Early-stage ThirdLove marketing tactics and positioning
- How their innovative “try before you buy” program along with ads that asked if women were ‘Ready to graduate from Victoria’s Secret?’ drove 1 million new customers
- How and why they leveraged podcasting as one of their main ad vehicles in 2015, baffling some investors
- The pros and cons of linear and OTT TV
- How ThirdLove spans Black History Month to Women’s History Month and beyond by uplifting women, in all senses of the word
“We were trying to figure out how ThirdLove was going to help support and impact change in the broader community. The TL Effect helps give female founders of color a little more of a voice in a crowded marketplace. We launched in June and picked our first recipient, Arra Simms, founder of Kewtie Nails.”
- How ThirdLove keeps the conversation going with unconscious bias training required for all employees
- The value of brand purpose to the bottom line
- Aside from having Katie Couric in the ThirdLove influencer camp, Zak describes her use of micro-influencers: “real women who act as an advocate or a friend to the people who follow them.”