This Founder Sold Her Home to Fund Her Startup
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
Lara Mead loved her job. As a talent agent in London, she’d spent years working with some of the biggest names in entertainment, at a nonstop pace that kept her busy around the clock. But as the 24/7 nature of her work started to weigh on her, she considered other opportunities. When inspiration struck on a vacation to Santa Monica, Calif., where women were wearing workout gear to lunch, shop and, yes, work out, Mead -- a longtime athlete and marathon runner -- returned to London with an idea to launch Varley, a simple, affordable athleisure brand, with her now-husband and co-founder. The two didn’t let anything get in their way. Here’s how.
1. Do what you must for seed money.
Mead’s husband was quick to quit his job as a trader, an occupation he had come to loathe. But Mead was a little more nervous about taking the leap and held off until the couple did something drastic to support their entrepreneurial dream: They sold their house. “It sounds crazy, but at the time, it felt like now or never,” she says. “But we sold it during the housing boom, thankfully.” With a sense of security, she handed in her resignation at the talent agency, but even then knew it didn’t have to be a final goodbye. “I always knew that I could go back,” she says. “We were brave, excited and naive -- we had no idea how hard this was going to be.”
2. Figure out how to set your brand apart.
Mead and her husband were both athletes and had even met while training for the London marathon. But while the athleisure revolution was taking off stateside, it hadn’t yet traveled across the pond. During a vacation to Los Angeles, walking along the beach in Santa Monica, Mead was struck by the brightly colored gear, à la Lululemon, women were wearing to both work out and simply go about their day. “There were so many neons, bright colors --that was not going to translate to life in Europe.” So Mead set out to make a function-first product that was stylish but understated. She also wanted to make it affordable. “Other products on the market were selling for, like, 200 pounds for a pair of leggings,” she says. “We wanted to be more accessible than that.”
3. Find the right partners for your present needs.
The co-founders knew what they wanted their product to feel like -- as athletes, they could quickly identify a good performance textile from a bad one. But finding quality manufacturers who were willing to work with a small startup was a bigger challenge. “It was such a headache,” she says. “The best factories have such huge minimums -- we’re years in, and we’ve only recently been able to start working with them -- so we ended up working with factories that would go bankrupt and stop production,” she says. To find the best partners willing to take them on as a client, Mead and her husband visited countless manufacturing expositions to make introductions. “They’re quite big, and we went to quite a few that were three or four days long,” she says. “But from there, we were able to meet, understand their terms, visit the factory, talk to other brands they worked with and understand the market.”
4. Pitch, pitch, pitch.
“We launched in 2013, and the environment was so different,” Mead says. “Instagram wasn’t around, direct-to-consumer wasn’t what it is now, so in our heads, the traditional wholesale model was the only approach.” Mead and her husband traveled to more expos, this time as exhibitors trying to pitch their product. “It went…very unsuccessfully,” she says. But meetings in New York with retailers Bandier and Carbon38 proved a turning point -- they became Varley’s first major stockists, and then a bit of luck happened: “I was approached by a sales agent who said she wanted to rep our brand in the U.S.,” Mead recalls, noting that she, herself, was “heavily pregnant” at the time of this introduction. “She said she could get us into every major retailer, and I honestly didn’t believe her, but because I was so pregnant, I basically gave her a sample and wished her luck. Within 12 months, we had every major account -- Neimans, Saks, Bloomingdale’s.”
As the company -- and Mead’s family -- grew, she had to build a team and give up tasks that she held close to her heart. “As non-designers, we figured out how to design every piece, but as we grew, we obviously had to hire a team,” she says. “But handing that off felt like leaving our baby.” As they remained scrappy, Mead and her husband focused on hiring generalists -- people who could learn quickly, multi-task and be jacks-and-jills-of-all-trades. “Our first hire was this twenty-something single guy called Harrison with expertise in marketing,” she says. “But because of where we were in those early days, he’d spend days packing boxes, going to DHL. The day I gave birth, actually, we had 20,000 units to ship out, so Harrison and my husband spent the day in a storage unit.” While Harrison has since moved on and Mead and her husband don’t have to be quite so scrappy, those lessons still stay with them. “We still stay lean, and we work smart.”