Conversation with Anna Zornosa, CEO & Founder of Ruby Ribbon
Redesigning the Shapewear Industry
May 16, 2018
1. What is your business?
My business is Ruby Ribbon, a body-shaping and bra-alternative apparel company whose products are sold exclusively through our independent stylists. Our patented shapewear combines confidence and comfort in fun and fashionable ways that is unique in the U.S. market. Our two biggest products are our Cami that reduces a woman’s waist size by an inch, takes away back fluff, and doesn’t use underwires for support and the Demiette™, a shorter version that can support women with any cup size without wires. We removed wires to improve comfort, but there is also an increasing body of concern about the proximity of metal wires to one’s lymph nodes.
Women are free to live any way they like in nearly all areas of their lives, but so many of us still wake up every morning and have to choose between looking cute and feeling comfortable. My idea was to remove the choice. I invented a few shapewear products that use variable compression (as opposed to uniform compression used by my competitors) to support without wires. Variable compression uses release points and strategically placed seams so that problem areas are targeted rather than all areas given the same weight of compression. It is the uniform compression of all areas that makes traditional shapewear so uncomfortable.
Ruby Ribbon started as a crazy idea in my living room in Burlingame, California in 2012, and today we’re a nationwide company. We have over 2,600 female stylists. Some women make enough that it’s become their full-time job. Other women do it to augment part-time jobs or in addition to being stay-at-home moms. Our stylists sell the garments through at-home parties so that our customers can get the right fit in a comfortable setting. The selling parties are a way to incorporate service and advice. I believe that the best way to take care of another woman’s needs is to sell in intimate environments where they can speak freely about their bodies and the fit.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
It was a career switch for me. I had spent 20 years working in internet companies both big and small. I was very lucky, as I was one of the rare women who was starting companies and getting venture capital in the internet services space. During that time, I also worked for some very big companies. I was a vice president of Yahoo and the chief marketing officer for the digital division of the Knight Ridder newspaper chain. In 2011, the last company I was part of, sold to the ADP Corporation.
I had this moment where I literally got to decide what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I started to pay attention to the fact that every woman that I talked to wanted a different relationship with her work. So if she was a woman who’d had a corporate career and a young family, she was struggling with how she could spend more time with her kids. Other women were concerned about spending time with their aging parents. I would hear the same story over and over again that women wanted alternatives. So the entrepreneur in me said, “You know, this is a trend. There’s a huge labor force out there that can be tapped if you can give them great options.” At the same time, I started to notice that the way women were dressing was changing and that the changes that were happening weren’t really suited to an e-commerce channel or to retail spaces. I ended up putting the two together.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
The very first time we did a trunk show with our test line. The event was about six women in a living room trying on the product, talking to each other, playing dress up, and one of the attendees was very reluctant to consider a product that she would wear without her bra. I believe she was a double D cup. She actually had lines on her shoulders from where the straps were digging into her body. She was very, very reluctant to believe that any product could support her well enough so that she wouldn’t have to endure indentation marks. So I gave her a camisole, pointed her to the powder room, and after a little while I knocked on the door to ask how the camisole was fitting. She opened the door and happy tears were streaming down her face. At that moment I knew that Ruby Ribbon had the potential to change how women were living their lives.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
Once I decided that Ruby Ribbon could be a big company, I intended to get external funding. Most of the venture capitalists that I first spoke to were men. Ruby Ribbon had already held many online and in-person trunk shows introducing our products to women, and we had months of sales results. Armed with data on actual purchases, I would walk into meetings with data on how big this company could be, how large the market was for intimate products, bras, shapewear, shaping bottoms, how shapewear was adjacent to the leggings market, and how we were bringing it to market in a particular way. In every meeting with no women present, I would get to a point where a man would look to me a little cock-eyed and say, “Are you saying that women will get together in living rooms, get naked together, try on these things and talk to each other about it?”
And I would say, “Yes. I’m not only saying that, here is a spreadsheet that shows what happened every time I did that over the last four months.” These men would then say, “Listen, I just can’t believe it.” In a way, I understand their perspective, which is that this sales technique is particular to women’s comfort in socializing while shopping, and it is sort of hard to imagine men getting together in living rooms and, you know, dropping their trousers and comparing notes.
I was very lucky that some venture capitalists did have general partners who were women, who totally got it and could experience the parties. So it wasn’t so much an obstacle, but it showed me the importance of having different, diverse perspectives at the table. It is not lost on me that of the three venture capital investments I have now, all three had a female general partner as an investment decision maker.
5. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
We are a private company so we don’t share revenues, but we have had 60 months of consistent growth and are making the venture capitalists who invested in us very happy. We are in 50 states. In our lifespan we have sold something like 500,000 support camisoles. We’ve had an impact on a lot of women’s lives. That makes me so proud.
The fact that we have 2,600 women making incomes makes me proud. The range is $500 a month up to $20,000 a month. This is in stark contrast to the 500,000 retail jobs were lost last year, most of which were women and most paid just a little bit more than the hourly wage. So, in that context, to be creating lucrative and flexible jobs for women makes me proud.
6. What are some of the biggest positive or negative surprises in your business?
Definitely, my biggest surprise was how much women hate their bras. If you Google “I hate my bra” you get 5.7 million results. By comparison, if you Google “I hate telemarketers” you get 374,000 hits. I actually didn’t know how bad it was until I started this company. I can walk into any room full of women and ask people to talk about their bras, and every single person has an issue. I don’t know if it was positive or negative, but it’s definitely been a surprise.
7. What would be your biggest piece of advice you would give to yourself ten years ago?
To have more confidence. I was very lucky, and I had been very well supported and still, when I started thinking about starting this company, I had a lot of voices in my head that said why I would fail, why I couldn’t do it and why someone else should do it. I think every woman should wake up every day and say, “Today I will proceed with confidence.” At the end of the day, confidence is a woman’s most beautiful accessory, and I really believe that when you have confidence, everything else comes easier, looks better, and your experiences feel better.
8. What was the best and worst piece of advice you have received as you were starting your business?
The best piece of advice I received was to start small and test our concept in markets we knew well. But when we executed on this during our beta, soft-launching in only our home markets of Bay Area and New York, we realized this was actually the worst piece of advice! We tried to launch a controlled market test and were very focused on the geographic areas we were testing in. What we didn’t expect was that our first Stylists, in our test markets, would not adhere to our test parameters – they were so excited they shared with friends all over the country. Before we knew it, we were actually launched across the country in areas we weren’t even ready to ship to! We had to scramble to make it work. The lesson is that geography does not matter when you have a viral product on your hand. Be prepared to scale whether you are ready or not!
9. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
We have a big audacious goal, and it is to be the biggest direct retail company in the apparel space ever. I can’t think of another company that offers women such unique products in such a beautiful way filled with friendship and personal service.
Our success comes out of empowering women through education and mentorship. We have fantastic training that outlines for how to start their businesses, get their first customers, stay in contact, and really everything that has to do with being a small business owner. We succeed when we help our stylists realize their objectives and their potential. As we have gotten bigger, we have been getting better at job training. Last year we started a program called Ruby Ribbon Academy 1, which ensures that any woman who decides to represent Ruby Ribbon can, at her own pace and in her own way, learn the skills of starting a business.
We have found that women are so serious about it they need more skills about managing bigger businesses, managing teams of women and managing their time as they achieve more success. So we’re about to bring out Ruby Ribbon Academy 2, and I believe that one of the things that will help us go to the next level is the supporting of women.
10. Are you willing to serve as a mentor to others interested in your sector?
Mentorship is one of the core values of Ruby Ribbon. I am not able to do much mentoring personally because of the demands on my time, but we offer it at Ruby Ribbon. We have tons of coaches on our corporate team who do nothing but coach women to be successful in their business. If a woman came to us as part of Ruby Ribbon, she will get ample coaching and mentoring that will be applicable to many parts of her life.
Date of conversation: May 1, 2018
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