Most entrepreneurs tend to think of themselves as special or unique, and given the fact that vast majority of business a fail within their few years of life, that is probably a good thing. In the face of long odds, an entrepreneurial spirit requires a firm belief that one is likely to be one of the 10 percent of businesses that goes the distance over time instead of the 90 or so percent that go down in history’s footnotes as also-rans.
But Brayola CEO and founder Orit Hashay is a very, very different sort of an innovator, right down to the observation that helped her build Brayola — an eCommerce marketplace that has been called “the OKCupid of bra shopping” and “the world’s first social networks for boobs.” Hashay realized that she is not special.
“I love to think I am so unique. But I am not unique. There are other women just like me when it comes to what bras they have in their drawers — what style, what fit.”
The observation led her to build Brayola — the world’s first crowdsourced eCommerce platform for bras in specific and lingerie of all kinds in general. Because while most women wear bras, Hashay noted, finding a good one is actually kind of hard. At a minimum one is willing to go for a specialty fitting, Hashay noted, and often getting that fitting isn’t really all that helpful, since knowing exactly what size one is doesn’t really much matter if the store doesn’t carry it.
“My passion was to help women of all sizes, shapes and ages find bras of a variety of styles and at a variety of price points. The problem is every brand, even huge brands like Victoria's Secret, has very specific sizing, so they don’t do plus size and they have pretty narrow prices. And I realized I need everything so I can help women to buy bras they’ve never bought before or would have thought of buying before.”
The journey has been long, eventful and in some ways as unique as its founder claims not to be.
Finding The Right Problem
Before Hashay was making the world a better place for breasts, she worked as a software engineer-turned-entrepreneur who built and sold her first company in her twenties. It was a platform for weddings in Israel.
She learned two things about herself: She liked building technological solutions for problems, and she wanted the next business she founded to operate on a bigger stage than Israel alone. In PYMNTS’ interview with her, she said she was looking to build a bigger solution for a bigger problem.
So she decided she needed to learn more about how those solutions got built and decided to learn about the other side of being an entrepreneur by working for a venture capital (VC) firm for a few years.
“I knew that I was going to start a big company someday, so I needed to learn how to approach a VC, how to raise money and then also what to do with your company after raising the money,” Hashay said.
During her tenure in the world of private investment, she learned all of those things and something else. In the hundreds of pitches she watched purporting to solve commerce problems for women, she saw lot of ideas for accessories, handbags, shoes and cosmetics — and not a single one solving her problem as a female shopper. That being, she hated buying bras.
“Everyone is trying to help women buy shoes, but no one is solving the problem I hate the most: I don't like to buy bras. I don’t want to go to the fitting room. I don’t like salespeople touching me and measuring me. And I said to myself, why is there no innovation for women to be able to buy online bras simply and privately?”
Around this point, it occurred to her that she wasn’t unique — and that through the magic of crowdsourcing she could help women discover a wide variety of better-fitting bras by helping them find others in the world with the same measurements and taste.
“Maybe you don’t look the same. You don’t dress the same. You have a totally different face — but your breasts and bras taste are identical. We use an algorithm to help you find that person and borrow their best ideas on bras,” she said.
The (Baby) Bumpy Early Days
With a problem to solve, a technological solution and the technological aptitude to build it, Hashay was ready to go out and seek funding. She ran into two big issues immediately.
“After a few weeks searching for seed money, I found out I was pregnant. But you aren’t supposed to tell anyone for the first few weeks. So I think it is OK if I don’t tell them right now — I didn’t tell my brother and sister yet.”
Potential investors didn’t know she was pregnant — but they could see she was female, which meant she spent a lot of time hearing from investors who loved her concept, thought her technological solution (as presented in slides — she still didn’t have a product) was great and loved her creative vision. They also thought she could use a cofounder.
So she tried to find one. She ran into two problems.
“I couldn’t find a good fit cofounder. I found many, many guys who wanted the job but didn’t get it. And most of them wanted to be the CEO and I would be responsible for the vision — and I said no, I wanted to be the CEO and responsible for the vision. And people and investors kept telling me to get a guy to be the CEO and you can be in charge of all the vision — behind a guy. And I said no. And it is difficult to raise money — but you only need one to say, ‘I believe in you, and I think you're going to do it.’”
And she eventually found a group of three investors who were willing to give the seed money. Eventually, after a lot of back and forth, and over the course of a few months, during which time Hashay was moving past the point where she had told her brother and sister she was pregnant.
“So my plan was if they said yes, I was going to say, ‘Thank you very much, and by the way, I am pregnant.’”
They said yes, so she told them she was pregnant. Her investors didn’t back out — but they were clearly nervous and wondered if Hashay needed to “giver herself more freedom” in case the experience of becoming a parent convinced her that she didn’t really want to be a CEO.
At that point, she thought, “I don’t want to be responsible for their money — and I think maybe they have something, I should listen,” Hashay said.
She turned down the first offer of seed funds — and decided that she would work very slowly through the end of her pregnancy to fully build out the technical side of Brayola by writing all of the code necessary for the crowdsourcing algorithm. She even stuck with that plan for about two months. Then a future investor came knocking — and she explained that she wasn’t going to look for seed funding until after she gave birth in case the experience turned her into a different person.
The future investor was unimpressed with this logic.
“He said, ‘What, are you kidding? It is all about the momentum, you need to go fast, you need to take the money now. Like right now.’ And then he offered me the money,” Hashay told PYMNTS. “So when the money was on the table and the guy was standing there, saying, ‘You know what it is like — if you don’t do it now, someone else will do it.’ And he didn’t ask about a cofounder, and I was clearly six months pregnant, and he said nothing about it. So I took the money.”
Hashay built the site and hired staff, and four weeks after her daughter was born, Brayola was being written up in TechCrunch — something that didn’t end up quite the way Hashay had hoped when she agreed to the interview.
“It was the picture. They put a girl in a pink push-up bra, and they put the story on the main page, and for three days our servers crashed. I had to beg them to remove it.”
An Ever-Smartening Algorithm
Before Brayola could ever sell a single bra, it needed data, and lots of it, about what women were currently wearing and why they were wearing it. Gathering that data so it was even minimally useful, Hashay noted, took two years and a lot of technological tweaking.
“Today we have 50 million recommendations. When I started, I had no data — I wanted women to answer a very personal question: Tell me what bras they had in their drawer.”
To use the service, a shopper enters in her vital information — her sizing, her preferred styling and the Brayola secret sauce: information on as many bras as they have in their drawer right now that they like. The Brayola algorithm takes that information and matches consumers to their bra soulmates, such as it were. After it inspects other women with similar lingerie tastes, the system is ready to spit back a recommendation to the user on what her next bra purchase should be — and, of course, it gives them an option to buy it.
“Right now there are maybe 5,000 women who are just like you when it comes to bras. You’re not their friend; you don’t want to be their friend. But imagine they have the same bra in their drawer, same sizes, same colors, and they just purchased new bras that they love and are willing to share the brand name and the size. And this is the recommendation you get. You get the window, with your recommendations, your price points and, of course, your fit.”
And the algorithm is designed to learn — the more a customer shops, the more the computer can factor in her choices against the crowdsourcing algorithm. The algorithm also learns from the conversions from recommendations to make sure that it is always sharpening its ability to match consumers to lingerie.
Brayola’s path is smoother than it once was — but, its founder noted, it is by no means easy, and eCommerce is a constantly evolving business.
But, Hashay noted, she is used to hard and pretty good at it at this point.
“When you're pregnant and you have a goal, you don’t think about what is happening or if it is even difficult — you just kind of do it,” she said.
And though the baby has been born, Brayola is still just kind of doing it to this day — and doing it pretty well.