Megan Grassell will finish her senior year of high school in Jackson, Wyoming, this week, but her summer won't exactly be a carefree last hurrah before college.
Last year, Grassell founded Yellowberry, a company that makes cute, comfortable bras for 11- to 15-year-olds, an idea she had after taking her 13-year-old sister Mary Margaret shopping for her first bra and finding that all the options were ill-fitting and over-sexualized. Earlier this month, Grassell raised over $41,000 in a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign, and after a Lingerie Talk post about the campaign went viral, sold out of her first stock of product in days. The Yellowberry site is currently taking pre-orders for fun new styles such as the Bug Bite, Tiny Teton, and Tweetheart, which will ship in May.
Grassell is deferring her admission to Middlebury College for a year to see how far she can take Yellowberry, for which she also gave up Olympic dreams as a nationally ranked competitive skier. The ideal of standing up for young girls against the lingerie industry has helped Grassell gain support, and she was even cited in a 12-year-old girl's scathing open letter to Phyllis Schlafly this week as an example of a new generation of feminists. But looking at the actual brand she's created, it's clear that Grassell's success is also based on a strong product vision and intuition for branding and marketing, things in which she had zero training or experience before launching the company.
Fast Company talked to Grassell about what inspired Yellowberry, how she approached diving head first into unknown territory, and what lessons she's learned as a new entrepreneur in an untapped market.
You explained in your Kickstarter campaign that you got the idea for Yellowberry from shopping with your younger sister. Did you remember having the same lack of options when you were younger, or at that age had you just accepted it out of fear of the whole bra-shopping process?
The first time I went bra shopping it was very uncomfortable, it was just my mom and me, I don't even remember what store, and this woman who was very tall and beautiful measured me and handed me a box of bright pink bras and said, "Okay, see which ones fit!" And at the time I just thought that's the way that it was, here are the bras you have to buy and that's it. If I hadn't gone shopping with Mary Margaret that day with a more distanced perspective, I'm not sure it would have clicked, but I realized it doesn't have to be that awkward.
Once you got the idea, what were your first steps, having no idea how to start a business or make a bra?
First I just thought "OK, to make a bra you need fabric, and thread." I found out that if you call fabric companies and just want one yard, they'll just send it to you because it doesn't really mean much to them. So I just got a bunch of different samples of fabrics and straps from companies in L.A. and Seattle primarily. And it's funny, because the first couple of prototypes I made—and I didn't learn this until later thanks to my inexperience—but they were actually made out of sailing fabric, used to make sails for boats. It was kind of a disaster, and looking at that now I realize how far I've come.
How did you approach designing your first bras?
The first couple of bras I did, I did a lot of research—and when I say research I just mean bra shopping—and looking at what else is out there. I like the straps on this one, I like the way the stitching looks on this one, and I just drew it on a piece of paper and took it to a seamstress and we went through several different prototypes. Now I'm working with a production facility in L.A. with a professional pattern writer who can take it to the next level with the lines and other aspects of quality.
What have been your biggest challenges in getting the company off the ground, as both a busy high school student and a first-time entrepreneur?
At first, because I didn't know anything, and I still have so much to learn, but it was hard to get people to take me seriously. I was talking to someone the other day who's been a great mentor to me, and he said "Megan, when you first came to me with that bra, and you thought you were ready to go, I thought, 'Who is this high school girl?'" So I think I've been able to prove my place and make it clear that this is something I want to make happen. But there's been a huge learning curve, really a crash course in how to start a business. There's a ton that has to happen, and when it doesn't all come at once, that's sort of frustrating for me because I'm not very patient all the time. But I love waking up at five in the morning and starting work, and then coming home from school to keep working until I go to bed. I'm so excited for high school to be done this week, because more than anything I can just have the time to keep moving forward.
Your website is very well designed, and instantly gives a good sense of what the company is about, with very professional imagery. Did you build it yourself or get help?
The website is one of the things that I hired someone to do a lot of. However, I designed and took all the photos myself. And it's great because all of the girls that you see, they're just my friends and my sister's friends around Jackson, they're not models. Just normal people wearing Yellowberry bras.
How did you come up with the name Yellowberry?
As cliché as it sounds, I came up with the name just through an epiphany of, "Ooh, that's great name." But the more I thought about it, if you think about a berry, before you pick it, it goes through these yellow stages of life. And when you're a tween or in your teenage years, that's when you're going through those stages, you can't really be rushed. That's when you're changing and becoming who you are, it's a natural process. So that's what Yellowberry is for, to just help you along, not rush anything or pressure anything, just get you there. Support—no pun intended.
Were you involved in other extracurricular activities before you founded Yellowberry, and have you had to give them up?
I was a very competitive FIS (International Ski Federation) ski racer, and I competed at a very high national level, and that was my dream for a really long time, to make the U.S. ski team and go to the Olympics. And I think that had I kept racing and training, that would have been a possibility for me. However, Yellowberry started about a year ago back in March, and over the summer I was pretty burned out after my last season, I didn't really accomplish what I wanted to and I was really frustrated. And there was no way I was going to be able to do senior year of high school, applying to college, racing, and Yellowberry. So I decided, you know what, it's my last year in Jackson and I really want to see what can happen with Yellowberry. At that point I wasn't even thinking about a Kickstarter campaign, so now I'm really happy with my decision. I miss skiing, but I can still go to the mountains on weekends and have a good time.
What have been some of your favorite responses of girls and their parents to Yellowberry?
I get so many emails, and I don't think I've ever had as much passion about a company as some of these customers have. From all over, every state, so many continents and countries. There was one that stood out to me, I think her name was Ginger, and I don't even know where she's from. But she sent me an email saying that she's also 18 years old and she wanted me to know how great it is to see someone our age doing this. And it was great because I've never really had a ton of confidence in myself, I don't see myself as an egotistical person at all, but this has been a way to see that the story of Yellowberry, even more than the product really, has resonated with people who aren't just my friends and family. There's also been negative feedback, usually about the price of the bras ($29.95 to $42.95 currently), which I've addressed and explained that it's high quality and made in the U.S., and that it's a small startup. But it's been incredible to hear from people I've never met willing to support what I've done so far.
The other day, Madison Kimrey, a 12-year-old girl in North Carolina wrote an open letter to anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly and cited you as a feminist role model for her generation. How did you feel about that?
I saw that and I didn't even know how to react. It's very humbling for another young girl to see me that way, but I guess in a way I'm trying to change the world a little bit.
What are your next steps with the company, and what will the next year look like before you go to college?
I think the next step is that with the bra, there will also be underwear, but it will take some time to get that in place. I think one great piece of advice I've gotten from my mentor Steve Sullivan (founder of Jackson-based outdoor apparel company Stio), is he said "You know what Megan, just let it come to you. Don't get super ahead of the wave and run yourself out of business." So I'm trying to just stay calm, contain my excitement a little bit and see what happens.