Inside Track: Business is ‘busting at the seams’
Sara Moylan leads sports bra company to three-year average of $3M in revenue and three-year growth rate of 2,770 percent.
During her first pregnancy more than 15 years ago, Sara Moylan became increasingly frustrated, as she couldn’t find a supportive enough bra to wear during her workouts.
Moylan — who worked in medical device and pharmaceutical sales for more than a decade and is a competitive weightlifter, former Miss Michigan Teen USA and Mrs. Michigan America — took several bras she was layering on top of each other for support and cut them up. She pieced them into a new creation using a needle, thread and a hot glue gun.
That rudimentary solution was a starting point for something much bigger.
Driven by the conviction that women come in all shapes and sizes and shouldn’t have to be held back from their athletic pursuits because of a poorly fitting bra, Moylan kept working to perfect her prototype and bring it to market.
She and her husband, Bob Moylan, co-CEO and co-owner, founded Shefit in 2013 out of the basement of their Jenison home.
“I never intended to start a business; I was just trying to solve my own problem,” Moylan said. “I was feeling self-conscious and I was growing depressed because I wasn’t able to do the things I normally would do, and all of these things started to compound. I said, ‘I’ve got to figure something out because this is not OK,’ and that’s how this started.”
Moylan began driving two hours one way for the next couple of years to meet with a patternist from a dance company and then eventually hired a technical patternist in New York. She scoured the U.S. for factories and fabric suppliers. She was “running on excitement and passion” for years before finalizing a product to sell.
She recently gave a talk at Failure Lab about the youthful mistakes she made in the early years of Shefit.
“There was no roadmap; there was no hand-holding; there was nobody that opened any door and did it for us,” Moylan said. “It was trial and error, trial and error, figuring things out as we went, spending and wasting a lot of money.”
In 2014, Shefit conducted a successful Kickstarter campaign, raising more than $20,000 to begin production. In 2016, the startup caught a $250,000 deal on ABC’s “Shark Tank” and soon sold out of its inventory.
“Even before ‘Shark Tank,’ we were caught in this cycle of having the best sports bra you can’t buy,” Moylan said. “If we got one burst of PR or eyes to the site, it was like, ‘Boom, they’re gone,’ and then people are back-ordered and waiting. We’ve come out of that in the last year, but that’s a huge high point. We’d been sold out for months with people on back order and waiting lists refusing to get off (them).”
A year and a half ago, Shefit moved out of the Moylans’ basement to an office in Hudsonville. Its team has grown from zero employees starting out to more than 30 today. The company recently split its shipping, customer service and distribution teams off into a second location that houses inventory because “we just keep busting at the seams,” Moylan said.
Shefit also has purchased a parcel of land a couple miles away that will allow the company room for future growth. The Moylans plan to break ground on a building there in the next year or two.
About a year ago, Moylan formalized a strategic partnership with Jeffry Aronsson, whom she refers to as a financial “turnaround king,” previously leading fashion companies Oscar de la Renta, Marc Jacobs and Donna Karan back into profitability.
“I went to an event in Detroit called Fashion Speaks, and he was the keynote speaker,” Moylan said. “I specifically went to hear him speak because I’d looked him up, and oh my gosh, his résumé. … I waited two hours in line to meet him, and we had 15 seconds to talk. That night, I emailed him, he emailed me back, seven days later, we were on the phone, and a week later, he was in our house. Several months later, he was a partner in the company. That was definitely a milestone.”
Shefit went to market with a single product, the Ultimate Sports Bra, which comes in seven colors at $67 apiece.
The bra is made for women of cup sizes A-I with a patented “zip, cinch, lift” technology that allows the wearer to customize the level of support she needs in the back, at the shoulder and in front.
According to a recent study, the average bra size for women 20 years ago has jumped from a 34B to a 34DD in 2013, according to Shefit.
A separate study, conducted by the Central Michigan University Motion Analysis Center, found the Ultimate Sports Bra reduced breast bounce 33 percent more effectively than bras by other sports apparel companies during activities such as jumping jacks, running, high knees, side twists and walking.
Shefit also was selling a lounge bra but pulled it down from shefit.com recently to re-engineer the product.
Moylan said she isn’t content to rest with less than the best. She has been gathering feedback from customers and is in the research and development phase for several other products, including a low-impact comfort bra to replace the former lounge bra; a seamless bra with more flexible fabric; an everyday wire cup bra; a tank top bra; and a swimsuit.
“The tank top and the swimsuit are in the works, and all these are in the pipeline to launch next year,” she said.
Moylan said she has been working with her suppliers to make the shift toward more sustainable fabrics and shipping the products in reusable laundry bags safe for machine washing the products in. She admitted the price of the garments increase because of choices like those and because she is keeping the customer service team, quality control and distribution in-house, rather than outsourcing it.
But she said those have been conscious choices to make her company and her product “world class.”
“You can’t do those things at a low price point,” she said. “We are always building the Maserati.”
Moylan said the continued demand has proven women are “fed up with the status quo” and willing to pay for a quality product because they “hold onto hope that it can be better,” just like she did 15 years ago.
She said starting Shefit has been stressful at times. Moylan has had issues with eye twitches and stress-induced hives, while Bob Moylan continues to work a full-time job and her daughters are in sports.
But she is committed to moving forward given all they’ve been through.
“Our entire livelihood is on the line,” Moylan said. “We drained college funds, 401(k)s, savings — we just got bankable last year.
“At the same time, it makes me proud because there are very few startups here that can do this. We are staying true to our roots and empowering women, so they can do their best and feel their best.”
For Moylan, empowering women starts at home.
“I have four girls at home, and my job is to make sure they look in the mirror and feel confident in what they see,” she said. “When my 9-year-old comes home and says bluntly she thinks she’s fat, that’s a problem.
“I think the opportunity (is) to forge a movement and use my story and findings on this crazy journey to inspire someone else. If I can help just one person, it’s worth it.”