If you are looking to identify the rock stars of today, you need not look to the stages and the catwalks. Rather, you should simply cast your eyes to Silicon Valley. Because it’s not the singers and the supermodels who are having their moment – it’s the entrepreneurs.
And they don’t come much more starry than Heidi Zak. As the co-founder and co-CEO of ThirdLove, Heidi made it her mission to build a better bra. In the process, she created an empire. Since 2013, more than 12 million women have used ThirdLove’s process to find a bra in one of the brand’s 74 sizes (yes, you read that correctly). Zak has also been named among Fortune’s 40 under 40, has raised over $68 million in funding, and has donated over $20 million in bras to women in need.
But like all good startup stories, it’s never a case of overnight success. “My husband and I quit our jobs and started ThirdLove in our living room,” said Zak. “We heard a lot of no’s those first few years. From manufacturers that said they didn’t want to work with us, claiming that the concept of half-sizes would never work, to venture capitalists who wouldn’t back us because they couldn’t understand the problem in the industry that we were addressing. But all those no’s just made us stronger. We poured our hearts into creating an amazing experience and product for women, and 7 years later we’re still doing just that.”
From building that brand, to raising a family while embarking on a revolution, here’s more from the inimitable Heidi Zak.
Talk us through your career prior to launching ThirdLove.
I started my career in investment banking, working with retail and consumer companies – and about 80 hours per week! After receiving my MBA at MIT Sloan School of Management I transitioned to the company/operating side at Aeropostale, where I launched and ran their international business. From there I moved to Google and owned the global marketing strategy and testing for Google’s small business landing pages. That was my last job before ThirdLove.
An ill-fitting bra is what inspired your launch, but that’s something so many of us have experienced, without ever going on to start a groundbreaking company! Did you always have a desire to start your own business? Have you always been entrepreneurial?
I was never the person who thought they’d be an entrepreneur, I fell into it. After moving from New York City to San Francisco I found myself surrounded by many founders and new businesses, which spurred my interest in starting my own venture.
What role did your MBA have in giving you the confidence you needed to launch a company?
My MBA gave me a foundation across many aspects of business – finance, operations, organization structures, marketing, etc. and gave me a solid foundation. However nothing teaches you how to be an entrepreneur besides just diving in and doing it.
What were the early days like of launching ThirdLove?
It was hard. My husband and I quit our jobs and started ThirdLove in our living room. After that, Ra’el Cohen (our first hire) and now our Chief Creative Officer, and I spent most of the next two years perfecting our best-selling 24/7TM Classic T-Shirt Bra. We heard a lot of no’s those first few years. From manufacturers that said they didn’t want to work with us, claiming that the concept of half-sizes would never work to venture capitalists who wouldn’t back us because they couldn’t understand the problem in the industry that we were addressing. But all those no’s just made us stronger. We poured our hearts into creating an amazing experience and product for women, and 7 years later we’re still doing just that.
How did you go about managing career and motherhood in those earlier days?
I didn’t really balance much with my first pregnancy. I was in the office every night until 8 or 9 PM, and then I only took off 2 weeks and was back. There were only about 10-12 people at ThirdLove at the time, so that was what needed to happen!
Many of us are led to believe that having our own business is key to freedom and flexibility as a mother. But many of us also know this isn’t the case! What was your experience?
Being a founder does allow me flexibility, but between my family and my business, there is always something that requires my attention. For me, it’s all about balancing being a mom, being a startup founder, being a wife and being a friend. I’m still coming to grips with the fact that some days, some of those groups are going to get more attention than the others – and that’s okay!
Has having children shifted the way you approach your business and your career?
Before I had kids, I traveled more and worked later at the office. Now I say no to a lot of events that require me to travel because I like to be around in the mornings and evenings with my two littles. That also means I leave the office earlier than I ever have before (usually around 630/7 PM) so I can put them to bed. Then I’m back online for a few hours after they go to sleep.
How do you make it ‘work’ in your family? Are there particular things you always say yes to? Other things you deprioritize or outsource?
I try to stay present and focus on the task at hand. When I’m at work, I’m not also trying to manage things at home, and when I’m at home with my kids on the weekends, I (mostly) stay off my phone. I also have a lot of amazing childcare support, a second set of ‘moms’ for my kids.
Can you share with us the process of fundraising? How did you find the experience?
Fundraising is never easy, and it is time-consuming. You have to focus on ‘selling’ your business in the clearest way, learning as you go from investor questions.
What advice would you give to women who are looking to scale their businesses through investment?
Take a step back and ask yourself what kind of money do you need – does a friends and family round make sense, a venture round, or should you be financing your business through a bank loan? Each method has its pros and cons so it depends on your business and your aspirations.
ThirdLove has gone on to service so many underserved women in the bra market; whether this is due to size, breastfeeding, colour of their skin, etc. What are you most proud of when it comes to product?
I’m proud that we’ve created 84 (!) bra sizes in a short amount of time, and have helped millions of women find their best fit through our FitFinder. I get notes from many of our customers who are thrilled that they are wearing a bra that is comfortable for the first time in their lives.
You’ve said that when you worked in banking, you subscribed to the “work hard, play hard” mentality. How did this serve you (or not) and how has it influenced the way you now approach the work/life juggle?
The reality of my role as an investment banking analyst was that I had a lot to learn. Most of the people in my analyst class had business degrees and were excel whizzes so I had to work hard to even be average there. The all-consuming work hours (late nights and weekends) were rigorous but it helped set my work ethic and gave me an appreciation for later roles and companies that were more flexible. Now I believe that instead of having a “perfect balance” or balance that’s too one-sided, I believe in doing the best you can with the time you have. I would need much longer days to feel like I could have it all. Just do your best, take it day by day and don’t beat yourself up when some areas of your life get more attention than others.
On that note, what does self-care look like for you today? How do you go about prioritizing it?
I’m an exercise junky. I love working out whether it be running, biking, swimming – you get the picture. Every morning I squeeze in a workout before heading into the office. I used to try to make it to a class but as a mom of two that became unrealistic. Having a Peloton bike and treadmill in my house has cut out the stress of getting to the gym and ensures that I do something for myself every morning before starting my busy day.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I usually get woken up by one of my little kids, then I get them ready for school. I start my mornings with a quick workout to keep my energy level high, and to help me stay focused throughout the day. If I’m working out of ThirdLove HQ my day consists of emails, meetings and calls, with a quick lunch at my desk. Unless I have an important dinner, I try to get home to put my kids to bed every night. And then more email until it is bedtime.
What does a typical workday outfit look like? Do you subscribe to a ‘uniform’?
I don’t have a uniform. Some days I’m in jeans and sneakers, other days I have one of my favorite Alice & Olivia dresses on with heels.
What’s on your list of loves?
For home cooking, I’m a huge fan of June Oven and Good Eggs. And of course my Peloton bike. From my angel investments I’m loving my HZ shade and cuticle softener from Olive & June and my new brush and comb from Crown Affair. The last book I read (and am re-reading) is Master Your Code, by Darren Gold.