Society Nine muscles into women's gear, Steve Morris advises startups to validate product with customers and RapidMade quadruples staff.
Women’s athletic gear is subject to what Lynn Le calls “shrink and pink” — a phenomenon that involves shrinking designs for men and coloring them pink. “[Female athletes] were compromising their training because they were wearing things that didn’t fit them,” says Le, a former kickboxing instructor and student of Krav Maga, a type of self-defense. “They were wearing men’s gear, or youth gear — and as a result, they were risking injury.”
Le is the founder of Society Nine, a line of boxing and MMA gear tailored specifically for women.
The company developed its glove line through a focus group of over 100 female athletes, “ranging from pro and amateur fighters to everyday fitness moms,” Le says. “We measured their hand sizes and studied how they strike, as well as asked them what they loved and hated about products they were training in.”
With a prototype in hand, Society Nine — which pays homage to Title IX, the federal antidiscrimination law — raised $58,000 via Kickstarter in 2015 and is now approaching annual revenues of $500,000. Le’s history as a fund associate with the Portland Seed Fund has helped drive the company’s success.
“[The position] allowed me to really learn what it takes to be a startup CEO,” she says. “I managed all the due diligence for new investment deals, which allowed me to learn a lot about company structuring, as well as the messes that startup companies can create in the early days.”
Le and her team of four market Society Nine digitally and through “brand ambassadors.” She often steps into the marketing ring herself, touring gyms across the country to train alongside her customers. The path to success hasn’t been easy, however. The small company faces manufacturing delays from its supplier; competitors have also copied their merchandise.
As part of her fashion goal, Le wants to combat the prevailing message that women need to be skinnier to be healthy. “The fitness industry is one of the worst culprits. Bikini season, New Year’s resolution season — the barrage of messaging telling women not to be fat and that it’s time to lose weight is incessant,” she says. “At Society Nine, we want women to know that they are good as they are.”
One common mistake entrepreneurs make is to not spend time validating the value proposition with customers. Too often an entrepreneur will describe their idea to a handful of friends, and perhaps even an investor or advisor, get positive feedback and think they’ve validated the idea. Customer feedback is much more important than friend, advisor and investor feedback. It’s a good idea to (1) talk to at least 20 prospective customers about whether they have a compelling, unmet need; (2) describe your product or service and ask customers if it meets the need in a way that is different than and preferred over alternative solutions. Validating that customers have an unmet need and that your product or service delivers on that need are two distinct and important steps!”
— Steve Morris, executive director, Oregon Technology Business Center
Where they are now
Portland-based RapidMade has quadrupled revenue and staff since we first reported on the 3-D printing company in 2014.
The startup has expanded to new offices with new 3-D scanning and printing equipment and is leasing additional space from the Portland State business accelerator to accommodate growth in its engineering department. Starting and running a business keeps you young, says co-founder and CEO Renee Eaton.
“I’m constantly learning new things and doing new tasks I never imagined — like blogging about 3-D printing and investigating sales tax laws,” she says.