In the fall of 2011, while sitting at the south base camp of Mount Everest, then venture capitalist David Spector and his wife Heidi Zak, a Google executive, decided it was time to take a risk that would change the trajectory of their careers. As the snow-capped mountain loomed in the distance, the couple’s business idea came into focus.
One year later, the adventure-seeking couple had left the comfort of their well-paying jobs and founded ThirdLove with one goal in mind—revolutionize the women’s intimates industry, a U.S. market that’s expected to be valued at nearly $20 billion dollars by 2024.
ThirdLove’s vision can be summed up in three rules: No discomfort. No dressing rooms. No drama. For every woman who has ever gone bra shopping, that may sound too good to be true—but it didn’t have to be, according to Spector.
“We took a problem—bad shopping experiences, poor products, and inauthentic competitors—and designed something better,” Spector, ThirdLove’s co-founder and co-CEO, said in an interview. “We created our own memory foam, which goes into every bra cup, we invented half-cup sizes, and our Fit Finder technology enables women to size themselves in just 60 seconds. The result? An insanely comfortable bra.”
Today, the San-Francisco-based company employs 300 people across four offices and is headquartered in a 30,000-square-foot facility with its own parking lot (a sign that you’ve really made it in the Bay Area!). In the past two years, the company has seen annualized revenue growth exceeding 450%, and it was named to CNBC’s Upstart 100 list, which recognizes highly promising startups from around the world.
Zak and Spector have also partnered with I Support the Girls, which provides bras and feminine hygiene products to homeless women, and The Unmentionables, a nonprofit that provides products and health education services to displaced individuals around the world. This year alone, ThirdLove has donated more than 75,000 bras, becoming the largest donor of bras in the United States.
“We believe every woman deserves to feel comfortable and confident,” Spector said.
On the sidelines of the U.S. Chamber’s National Small Business Summit, we sat down with Spector to talk about his journey from fledgling startup to insurgent brand and the growing pains his company experienced along the way. During our conversation he shared important lessons learned and his advice for any young entrepreneur. What follows has been edited for length and clarity.
What’s the most important thing you need to start your own business?
Very thick skin. It takes the ability to get punched in the face over and over again, falling to the ground, and getting back up. That fortitude can’t be trained for so, you just have to endure to succeed.
What was the biggest fear you had to overcome?
There’s fear when you do anything that’s unknown, but what makes America so successful is that we are a country of second chances. Our culture embraces failure, which is one of the reasons I think this country is so amazing. Everybody loves a comeback story. I wasn’t worried about failure because I’m an American, and American businesses are very strong. If we failed, I was confident that we’d bounce back.
What gets you up in the morning?
Most days I try to get up at 5:00 a.m. to get a workout in before my kids wake up. I actually feel better getting 5 hours of sleep coupled with exercise in than I do if I sleep those extra hours.
As an insurgent brand, what business bad habits are you striving to break?
At ThirdLove, we try to be “meeting light.” Smaller, shorter, and fewer meetings is always our goal. My team members—intentionally not referred to as employees—who come from larger companies tell me, “Dave, I finally have time to think.” It’s amazing what can be accomplished when you give really talented, smart people time to breathe and think.
How do you keep your company and employees energized?
One thing that I think gets us all excited is our use of “Tiger Teams,” which are a compilation of team members with varying levels of seniority from departments throughout the company. We bring them together to help solve a single problem. People love it because it provides an opportunity for them to work on projects and with people outside their normal roles. They get excited about solving a new challenge.
Looking back, what do you wish you’d know before starting ThirdLove?
I’ll tell you what I’m glad I didn’t know—I’m glad that I did not know how hard it would be. We went into it being naïve. Like many small businesses, if you knew what you were getting into then you probably wouldn’t have done it, so being naive can be a real asset when getting a business off the ground. While you may not know what’s around the next corner, you do have to be prepared to manage those unknowns and navigate the inevitable twists and turns.
Looking ahead, what do you see as the next big trend in business?
My wife Heidi and I are co-founders and co-CEOs, and I think co-CEOs is a becoming a trend—take Oracle and Salesforce, for example. It’s hard work to run a company. It’s a lot of pressure, and it’s stressful when the entire business and all your employees are relying on you. When you break up those high-pressure decisions and share a little bit of that weight with someone that you inherently trust, it allows you to be a little clearer in your thinking. And, I think we will continue to see the evolvement of that shared responsibility model.
Any advice for young founders?
When starting a business, especially in the earliest stages, try to spend as much time as possible outside the office with your co-founder. Commute together, live together, eat together, because there are never enough hours in a day to talk about business decisions.