How did she do it? A Q&A with Fran Dunaway, CEO & Co-Founder at TomboyX
By Peggy Wallace, Managing Partner of Golden SeedsJuly 25, 2019
Fran Dunaway started TomboyX after coming up empty handed while looking for the perfect shirt. The company was an instant hit, with its comfortable, gender-neutral clothing and undergarments resonating especially well with the LGBTQ community. They’ve since been named one of Inc Magazine’s 5000 fastest growing companies and continue to see 2x growth year over year.
Golden Seeds’ Peggy Wallace sat down with Fran to discuss her company’s journey from Kickstarter campaign to raising more than $25 million to date.
PW: Tell us about the origins of your company.
FD: The company started after I was unable to find a button up shirt made for a woman’s body. My then girlfriend, now wife, Naomi, and I decided to make our own as a side project. We launched a Kickstarter campaign and successfully raised $76,000. Soon after, we started hearing the same struggle and complaints from people around the world. It became apparent that we had an opportunity to which we should pay attention. After several requests, we set out to make a comfortable boxer brief that would fit every body type.
From the beginning, inclusivity was important to us. We didn’t start out as a gender-neutral apparel brand, but that has turned into our sweet spot. Timing is everything and we hit that at exactly the right time. As such, TomboyX has been able to expand from underwear to loungewear, swimwear, sleepwear and accessories.
PW: How has your background in previous jobs, such as your work with political messaging, helped you build TomboyX?
FD: I was a partner in a media strategies firm and produced political ads for Democratic candidates and campaigns around the U.S. I’ve also been an active member in the Human Rights Campaign and was part of the original steering committee. We brought Howard Dean to the Board of Governors dinner one year, signing him a week before he became wildly popular.
I remember saying to Naomi during the Kickstarter campaign, “The energy and excitement around this brand is like Howard Dean fervor.” It was palpable. We realized we had not only an opportunity, but a responsibility.
PW: Why do you think TomboyX successfully captured today’s zeitgeist?
FD: Timing is everything. We happened to launch during a time in which the whole notion of tomboy, gender neutrality and #metoo was coming to the forefront. We are delighted to be a brand that reflects the energy of today’s climate and the work this generation is doing to move the needle.
PW: What market need are you solving, and how is your approach different from how others have addressed this need?
FD: When we started, we saw a need in a few categories, like athletes wearing our clothing under their uniforms, firefighters who strip down to prepare to go fight a fire, or people in the medical industry who want something comfortable to wear when they change out of their scrubs. They feel much more comfortable and confident doing these things wearing boxer briefs that fit their bodies well.
We also find that a lot of companies treat the LGBTQ and plus size communities differently or ignore them entirely. We didn’t want to have a separate plus size category or cause the subtle shaming that comes with that. We’ve stepped into a white space of the fashion industry that has been ignored for a while.
PW: What challenges have you encountered along the way? How have you overcome them?
FD: One of the hardest challenges was raising money, especially as female entrepreneurs who are disrupting their space. It was an uphill battle to educate potential investors about what’s wrong with traditional retail brands and to find people that believed in our vision. In the end, we wound up with great investors who understand that we aren’t necessarily a niche brand.
PW: What’s coming up next for your company? Any big milestones on the horizon?
FD: Until recently, we’ve been lean and have stayed largely under the radar because we haven’t had the resources to push it as far as we could. We just closed our series B round of financing, so we’ll be focusing on growing our team, our technology and brand awareness.
PW: What advice do you have for early-stage founders about raising money, growing a team, fostering company culture or other issues you’ve had to address?
FD: It’s important to find a great mentor early on: someone who has been in the space and knows the pitfalls, trials, and tribulations. A mentor can provide positive reinforcement during your incredibly challenging, difficult entrepreneurship journey.
PW: Tell us about your experience with Golden Seeds.
FD: Golden Seeds came at a critical time for us on our fundraising journey and we were delighted to have them join us. They have been a great champion of the brand and provided incredible networking opportunities as well.
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