Frankly's #WCW (Woman Crush Wednesday) series features some of our favorite female founders who are focused on providing goods and services that improve the lives of women and girls.
Welcome, Amy and Showly! We are so excited to hear from the two of you. You are our first co-founders #WCW feature. Let's start by learning a little bit more about both of you.
Amy: Hi Jane! Thanks for thinking of us. I’m from Chicago, IL and am a first generation, third-culture kid raised by Chinese immigrant parents. I’m an analytical data nerd with a background in strategy, statistics, and analytics. Love all things retail, fitness, food, and space. I also have an above-normal infatuation with personality types, which my friends both love and hate me for. I’m an INTJ.
Showly: I’m a mix of creative and analytical and am drawn to opportunities that allow me to utilize both skillsets, which is how I found myself in a fashion buying office for my first job. I really value authentic connection, so I’m not surprised that I love anything brand & marketing. I’m a sucker for thoughtful details that show a brand really understands me (ENFP over here). I also love things that stimulate the senses: delicious food, concerts, yoga, a relaxing bubble bath.
I'm also an INTJ :) We love the Myers-Briggs personality types here at Frankly. Your personality types and skill sets are super complementary, which is what we've been told makes a great founding team. Tell us about your co-founder relationship - how did you meet, and when did you realize you wanted to start a company together?
Showly: We met at Affirm in 2017 and got to really know each other while working on a project on a close-knit team. It was over dinner at Affirm one night in late 2018 that I asked some teammates, “if you could work on your own company, what would you build?” and Amy said, “I’d give women pockets in their clothes,” which was a problem that I had been thinking about as well. Amy was actually half-joking at the time, but we met frequently after to flesh out the problem and our ideas. After about 6 months of research and market validation we started working on Pairess full time.
That's awesome! We think it's smart that you spent months researching and validating the market and idea before making the jump. Can you give our Speak Frankly readers (possible future entrepreneurs) a better idea of how you did this research?
Amy & Showly: It was a combination of research, customer interviews, and surveys. During the research phase, we found social proof in the form of viral articles, tweets, Instagram posts with tens of thousands of shares where women complained about not having pockets. We then did about 20 phone interviews with women from different industries to learn more about their general clothing frustrations. This was where we found that women were most displeased with their work wardrobes, because their clothes were uncomfortable, were dry-clean only, and didn’t have pockets. Finally, we sent out a survey to women outside of our direct network to confirm our findings.
We’ll also note that even though the findings were incredibly helpful, it was important for us to ensure that women would actually buy our clothes, so we soft launched last October, 5 months into quitting full time, with a small production run so we could test the market and get some quick product feedback. We sold out of 65% of our inventory in 2 weeks and more importantly, received incredible validation from our customers that we were onto something.
We love that you used multiple ways to validate what you generally saw, with the effort to survey women from outside your network. Congrats on the recent public launch! Can you tell us more about Pairess?
Amy & Showly: Thank you! Pairess, which stands for a pair of pants and a dress, makes clothes for work that are machine washable, are super stretchy and comfortable, and have big roomy pockets. We were inspired to start Pairess by our personal pain points, but what really galvanized us to make the jump was learning that 1) many other women shared similar frustrations and 2) the lack of functionality in women’s clothes is rooted in gender stereotypes that value women for their appearance over what they can accomplish. As two feminists, we knew that we had to do something. So we built Pairess to give women a stylish & functional work wardrobe that makes their lives easier, so that their clothes are the least of their worries while they’re out here breaking the glass ceiling.
Women have also been conditioned to expect a tradeoff between aesthetics and functionality (no pockets, delicate fabrics, uncomfortable silhouettes, etc.) in their fashion choices, but it doesn’t have to be that way. We have a lofty goal of shifting fashion design standards so women expect stylish, beautiful products that are also high-functioning. The pandemic is already accelerating this shift in consumer behavior, and this is where the future of fashion will be. We also think Frankly is doing great work on this front in creating products that eliminate the need for bras, which tend to be constricting! (I didn't make her say this! But love and appreciation)
What advice do you have for women who want to be founders, especially younger Asian-American women interested in entrepreneurship?
Amy: Growing up in a Chinese immigrant household, entrepreneurship wasn’t ever a path that my parents wanted for me. Even though my mom was an entrepreneur herself, she’d always envisioned that I’d pursue lower risk careers, like in healthcare or at a big corporation. I imagine Asian-American women from immigrant families likely grew up with a similar upbringing where risk-aversion is conditioned into them at an early age, so my advice is to not let that hold you back and to use the learnings that you were raised with (e.g. frugality, work ethic, and yes, even risk aversion) to your advantage, because those traits actually set you up to be a great entrepreneur.
This is super personal to me, since I had always been pushed towards more risk-averse careers (hence how I initially ended up in investment banking). How did you manage that conversation with your parents and reset expectations on what your career would look like?
Amy: I had actually never planned to start my own company (and probably wouldn’t have if I hadn’t met Showly), so I knew it would be a shock to my parents. I started dropping subtle comments here and there to lessen the blow when I’d actually quit. Turns out, my mom thought I’d been joking so she was still pretty shocked. It wasn’t a fun conversation, to be honest, and she asked some tough questions about the market we were entering. My advice would be to have strong conviction and come to the conversation prepared to address every possible concern that they could bring up, from high level questions like “how are you going to find customers?” to super specific questions like “women carry purses everywhere as a common practice, how are you going to change this consumer behavior?”
Both of you had great careers in tech, with Showly also having retail experience, before making this jump - what are things about the fashion industry or starting Pairess that have surprised you?
Amy: What surprised me the most is learning that many designers and brands don’t incorporate functional elements into women’s clothes because that’s been the status quo for decades and straying from this would require a greater design and research effort. Style and function are typically seen as mutually exclusive, but they really aren’t. It just hasn’t been a priority for the industry to figure out how to combine the two.
Showly: I was expecting it to be a lot more challenging to get started with designing and manufacturing our products and finding the right partners. The domestic manufacturing community is actually much smaller than you’d expect especially in NYC. We may have lucked out in finding great-fit partners early on, but I was pleasantly surprised at how accessible reputable partners that work with well-known brands are and how open they are to working with a new, small brand and two people who have no prior apparel design or manufacturing experience.
How are the two of you thinking about funding for Pairess, and has it changed over time?
Amy & Showly: We’re currently bootstrapped and would like to get to a few milestones before raising outside money. Our view on the appropriate type of outside money has certainly changed over time. Having worked in Silicon Valley with many peers who have started different companies, the advice we got from our founder friends was to raise a large round from venture capital. After talking to a few investors in the space and apparel founders, we quickly learned that VC is not always the most appropriate funding source for an apparel start-up due to the return expectations that funds have to meet.
Both of you had experiences earlier in your careers that made you feel like female professionals weren’t being served as consumers or by their employers. What advice do you have for any women coming out of college into their first job? What advice do you have for men trying to be better allies in the workplace?
Amy: Even though I primarily worked on all-male teams with all-male clients in my first job out of college, I was very lucky in that most of my male colleagues were phenomenal allies. I immediately think about the head of my division, who made a huge effort to elevate the women at the company. He was very aware of the microaggressions that women encountered in the workplace, from sexist phrases like “you should smile more” to subtle acts like interrupting women in meetings, and would counteract them to the best of his ability (e.g. with a subtle “Hey Amy, what were you saying?” or “Hey Amy, what do you think?”).
So my advice to male allies would be: talk to your female friends and colleagues about their experiences, be mindful of your own actions, and stand up for women when you see microaggressions happening.
Showly: My advice is to have an opinion early on and not be afraid to contribute it. It can be a tough balancing act to share your ideas while being the bottom of the totem pole, but women should be encouraged to speak up early on in their careers, especially because society tends to tell women to have good manners and be polite, which in the workplace can translate to letting others speak ahead of you and being overly apologetic, behaviors that tend to go unrewarded.
How has COVID changed how Pairess thinks about workwear? Your new collection is perfect for WFH!
Amy & Showly: With many employees working remote, what we previously called “workwear” has become temporarily moot with less of a need to dress professionally. But a new definition of “workwear” has emerged; we surveyed our earliest customers on their biggest WFH wardrobe needs, and they told us that they were getting tired of wearing sweatpants and old T-shirts and wanted clothes that felt like pajamas but looked polished so that they 1) can feel more ready to take on the day, 2) not have to switch between different outfits when they take video conference meetings or run outside for quick errands, and 3) not have to feel embarrassed if they accidentally run into their neighbor.
So, instead of launching with office clothes back in April like we previously planned, we decided to pivot into creating a work-from-anywhere wardrobe with chic loungewear, tops for Zoom, and comfy polished pants that felt like PJs. Though COVID will certainly have lasting implications on the future of work for certain industries, we believe that other industries will bounce back, so we’ve saved our more stereotypical “work” clothes for later.
What’s next for Pairess?
Amy & Showly: We’re currently focused on bringing Pairess to more women. Customer acquisition in this new normal is a tougher nut to crack, because with so much hesitation around in-person events and activities, new companies are forced to compete online where eyeballs are expensive to acquire. We can no longer reach our customers where they physically are with pop ups on campuses and offices. Women are interacting with each other less frequently, so organic word-of-mouth marketing is also more difficult. This is a challenge for us because it’s important that we get our product into the hands of consumers so that they can touch, feel, and wear the garments. A new DTC playbook needs to emerge, and we’re excited to figure it out.
For a pair of pants and a dress, visit Pairess at Pairess.com to shop their new collection. Give them a follow on Instagram @pairess.shop!