(The following is a continuation of a blog written on March 1. If it is difficult to follow the story below, it might be helpful to read March 1 first…)
Before Women’s History Month 2015 ends, I thought I’d contribute another chapter in the Jogbra story. So often I get asked to tell this tale. And while the whole history is written, it hasn’t yet been published — too many of us are still living! LOL
Sitting around on my living room floor with Polly at the end of that summer in 1977, I recall brainstorming about what this new invention might mean, what to do next, how to proceed. We dismissed two options right away: sewing the garments ourselves and in effect starting a manufacturing biz (Polly especially was against this, having seen a few such operations in NYC), and selling the product design outright to a bigger company, sure of a difficult/bad deal from double-crossing sharks preying on us naive artsy types. (I was against this, having seen my father go through such a process). Subcontract out the cut & sew part and go into biz ourselves with the sales and marketing end? Then maybe sell it mail-order? Polly was indifferent about this as well. She wanted to design costumes. Business was not her forte. She’d been happy to help me bring the design into reality, but was not prepared to go into a business around it. She was clear.
I was enthusiastic, already marketing in my head — thinking of a new kind of business, a new way of business, a women’s business. Hinda was there for this conversation. Unlike Polly she was as enthusiastic as I was. She had always been athletic; although not a runner, she was into yoga and quite a skier. She got the potential for this product. I looked at her anew. In an aside, I asked Polly if she’d mind if I asked Hinda to join us, officially. She shrugged, saying no, fine, fine.
By women, for women was envisioned as our tag line. We wouldn’t do business like men. We’d be cooperative not competitive, inclusive not exclusive. We weren’t lingerie (said with a sneer), Jock Bra was serious athletic equipment! We’d… we’d… . You can imagine the scene. Naifs.
Earlier in that year, 1977, I had completed my Bachelor’s degree through the University of Vermont’s Evening Division — “Continuing Education” or “Adult Ed” by other names. Also working part-time as an administrator in a not for profit residential treatment program for adolescent drug abusers, “full” time as an artist/artisan (stained glass at that time; it was the 70s after all), taking varied courses at night, and oh yes, I was married. I loved learning/school and was very excited to have been accepted into the University’s Graduate Degree program in Educational Administration. I had started grad classes at the same time Polly and I were designing Jock Bra prototypes.
In retrospect, that period of time was my personal “perfect storm” brewing. By the next summer of 1978 I knew my marriage was over and divorce was on its way. I had no driver’s license. Epilepsy made that difficult at that time. After Polly and Hinda had left Vermont, after the kerfuffle with my brother-in-law, I’d formed a corporation around the Jockbra, and distributed equal shares to Polly and Hinda, too. I figured perhaps my new bra might be a nice little mail-order business on the side to help finance grad school while I found a real job I could walk to, continued with my studies and figured out how to make this new single life work. And frankly, I was frightened. I had been told all my life that if I had a grand mal seizure while alone I could die. Oh, weeeelllll. Stuck up over my desk I had a hand-lettered sign: PERSERVERE
Jockbra-soon-to-become-Jogbra trumped all that, both plans and fears. Well, the fears got suppressed. The plans got re-made. What’s the saying? “Life is what happens while you’re making other plans.”
Hinda was stuck in South Carolina the summer of ’78, so I mailed her the precious prototype. (I was worried that in my chaotic divorcing state it might get lost in the proverbial shuffle, and frankly she had not yet “earned her shares” so to speak). On a bicycle ride one day she noticed a sign for a start-up cut & sew operation. She took them our prototype bra and asked how such a garment might be mass-produced, and what it might cost. Changing the original design somewhat (me going “Yikes! What?”when I found out) they came up with a garment that could be manufactured for a reasonable cost. Hinda’s Dad generously fronted the money for the initial production “run” of the first athletic supporter for women and I opened us up a corporate bank account in Vermont. We were moving forward.
But it seemed in some areas of the country, South Carolina in 1978 among them, “jock” wasn’t such a nice word; and so Jogbra was born. I think 12 dozen were manufactured and sent to me in my Vermont apartment. My living room became the warehouse, my tiny dining room the office. A small ad in a running magazine of the time showed the product and listed my address as the contact point. Let’s remember: this was before computers and websites. The orders started rolling in. OMG. (It is interesting to note that we used that factory for years and, in fact, built our businesses together.)
Meanwhile Hinda’s stay in South Carolina was over. She drove to NYC and stopped in to visit Polly, where she bought the majority of the shares I had issued to Polly. When I learned of this I was surprised. I knew Polly did not want to be active in the company. But sell her shares to Hinda? Later she said Hinda inferred that I was not going forward with the biz, and that cinched it for Pol; she certainly wasn’t going to do it if I wasn’t. But I was. It was not a good way to start our partnership. I wondered what had happened to the “for women by women” and the attendant ethos we had espoused the summer before.
One of the first orders was from Macy’s department store. Only a “sample order” (what was that?”)….How are they packaged the buyer asked. I scrambled to figure out packaging with our new help, an advertising and marketing agency. But this order, among other things, reinforced my thinking re our marketplace: we did not want to sell into department stores. We were athletic equipment, not lingerie; and the sort of game they wanted to play was beyond our ken in those early days. Brilliantly, we had chosen to sell into the independent athletic stores that were springing up everywhere. Many fun and funny stories there about trying to sell a bra to the proverbial jocks who ran those stores. But that’s for later because…
First, of course came financing. Financing? Yikes again. Money for packaging, more fabric, a bit of communication to let the world know we existed — advertising and some p.r. maybe. Somehow I knew to go the Small Business Administration. One thing to be said about the two of us: we weren’t shy about asking questions. Hinda decided that I should write the business plan the SBA said we must have before they could help us get a loan from a bank. “Why me?” I asked. “Because you’re in school and used to writing papers. Just think of this as another paper.” I looked at her to see if she was joking. She wasn’t. The truth was that neither of us had a clue, and she wanted no part of it. At least I had taken an accounting class once. The SBA sent me a many-paged form to fill out and I began. Privately I titled it “Financial Fairytales” because, really, how the hell did I know how many bras we were going to sell in Year 1, Year 2 and Year 3? Or what the production costs would be each year. Or what percentage of sales we’d spend on marketing and advertising? Hell, I’d never even heard the term “CGS” before. So, I made it all up. “Educated guesses?” Maybe. I liked to think.
It was a damn good “paper” and got us our loan. Really, writing a business plan with financials was just an exercise and a test. An exercise to make us think through many aspects that we otherwise might not have, and a test of our intention, sincerity and dedication to our proposal. Pretty smart hoop, actually. (And years later I found myself teaching aspiring entrepreneurs how to write a business plan. Of course.).
Can you believe it? Two inexperienced women with a bra, in Vermont — and the loan officer said yes. I think he was just aghast by our ardent hutzpah. It didn’t hurt that the Vermont SBA had minority quotas to fill for their loan applications, Vermont had very few minorities at the time, and (drum roll) women constituted a minority. Really. Who knew?
A “perfect storm.” Facing a major life change, from a marital partner to a biz partner. Confronting mythical and real fears. So many of my assumptions were being challenged, my life was changing radically, I had to choose between pursuing graduate school and this nascent-but-wildly-growing business. I had to move. I spent one lunch hour finalizing a divorce. I had to petition for my drivers license and learn how to drive. Running, my joy and my coping mechanism for so many years was beginning to fail me (knees blowing out). And then, how to deal with a business partner who, it turned out, I knew not at all.