Updated: Oct 13
We’ve got Michelle Cordeiro Grant, the founder of LIVELY, talking us through how she founded and sold her company within 3 quick years for 105 million dollars.
I. know. It’s crazy but the story is even crazier. I don’t want to give too much away but we talk through her unique launch that was a combination of strategy and luck, generating 130k emails in 48 hours.
LIVELY is a brand that empowers women and provides a sense of community. They deliver lingerie, activewear, swimwear, loungewear, and self-care that take the best elements of high-style and ultimate comfort from each category to achieve a brand new POV of lingerie called Leisurée.
But it’s more than its product — since launching in 2016, LIVELY has built an Ambassador network of 150,000+ members, opened four retail stores, developed several sustainable product collections, maintained its commitment to “Price Equality,” hosted hundreds of IRL and virtual events, launched a podcast, provided a platform for its community to share their passions and projects, and developed retail partnerships with Nordstrom, Madewell, and Target (launching a diffusion line called All. You. LIVELY with Target.com and select stores).
Growing from its concept stage, to $15m in funding to fuel its growth, all the way to an acquisition of $105M by Wacoal in 2019, LIVELY is poised to grow even more and make bigger and bolder strides towards its mission of inclusivity, community, sustainability, and accessibility. LIVELY is an experience and mindset that reminds, inspires, and enables its customers to live life passionately, purposefully, and confidently, doing what they love, with the people they love.
Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Okay. So I am Michelle Cordeiro Grant and I'm born and raised in rural Pennsylvania. A town called new Smithville. A girl who would get on the bus and go to New York city during the week because she was just looking for energy and more and more. And my elevator pitch is I'm unapologetically optimistic visionary, I think big and I've learned the power of manifestation. I think that if you believe it it will come. I live a life of field of dreams and I would say that my goal now in life is to inspire women to do what lively stands for which is to live life passionately purposefully confident. Oh I love all of that. You said so many things that resonate with me. First being, I grew up in kind of like the middle of nowhere bush and was able to kind of use my inner something to dream big and change my like circumstances and also the manifestation piece of that story where you're able to kind of visualize and think about what you want and go for it.
00:06:23 I love that, that's so cool. I'd love to start this story by just circling back to where your entrepreneurial story actually got started and what was kind of leading you towards starting your own business. Sure. You know, I didn't grow up grow up with the word entrepreneur, it wasn't really in my vocabulary, my parents had very steady jobs and they had the one job my entire life right? So I thought doctor, lawyer, investment banker, indian immigrant family, that's what you did uh turns out when I got my degree in finance, I was born to tears doing things that were intangible. So I went and got a job in fashion, doing something more tangible for big corporations, after being in big corporations for over a decade, what I started to realize is there's all these amazing brands out there, but there wasn't a brand for me and I love the power of brand, I love how a brand to make you feel and impact your human psyche. Whether it's ralph Lauren with luxury and prestige or victoria's Secret with Angel fantasy push up.
00:07:29 I realized in my mid twenties there wasn't a brand that celebrated human uniqueness and individuality and I have lived my life for the 1st 25 years. She's trying to conform, trying to fit in and new smithfield pennsylvania, trying to look like candace swap now. And all of a sudden it dawned on me that Our, our superpower is our uniqueness and so why isn't that being celebrated now? This is you know, pre metoo movement. This is back in 2012, that's kind of when my entrepreneurial journey started, I had been at victoria's Secret for about five years. I met my husband and I was like this guy loves me for who I am and all my faults that's super interesting. Like why can't I do the same for myself and I decided that I needed to change the way that I was going to live my life for two reasons. One, I love my job and when I looked at my bosses that were female powerhouses, they were amazing network, not so great in the personal lives, marriages were not doing well, didn't see their Children.
00:08:32 Women were choosing you either had a great career or you bring on your family and then secondly the rise of social media brands were not being built by utilizing what people had to say via community and so forth. And so my journey started when I decided I wanted a brand that celebrated human uniqueness and that would not be built in new york city but would be built by women all around gosh, wow! So many things, so cool! And so just to be more specific, you're at victoria's Secrets and you decided to launch a brand around bras for women with different messaging with different pictures with different, all that kind of stuff. What was your actual vision for like the brand at that point? And what I mean by that is were you already manifesting where you are today or was it kind of like side hustle vibes? Let's start this thing and see how it goes. Yeah, I mean I'm a pretty risk adverse human. So I wish I was risky enough to say that I quit victoria's secret and started lively, I quit victoria's secret and when I worked at a start up for three years to understand what started life was then I realized, okay, so this is how it is from the beginning and this is how it is through that early growth phase.
00:09:49 And so I left and decided to start a brand and did so with one key ingredient which is I had my supplier as my investor so that I could focus all in on customer and brand story. And so the vision that I manifested was I'm going to build a brand that is truly brand and community first. It's not about the retail, it's not about the sales and the markdowns and all of that. I'm going to build a brand that has purpose. And then if you think about the category of lingerie, it's one that women wear every single day but hate it. Like what we love dress shopping. We love shoe shopping. Like why don't we love bra shopping? Like why is not connected to fun and like a girls day after brunch And so that was the vision. I'm going to take this category that is so dirty, just dark and dusty and not fun and make it awesome and celebratory and instagram mobile and not about being provocative.
00:10:51 It's not about the category for others. It's about the category for yourself. Mm I love that. That's so interesting when you actually think about that. That like the bra shopping experience isn't more fun and more celebrated and it is this kind of like typically linked to my partner might like this etcetera etcetera etcetera. Yeah, yeah. That's weird. You feel weird. Yes, I agree. You do. You definitely do. I want to talk about two different things. Both the kind of community thing and the investor as your kind of manufacturer. Let's start there and then let's work to the community piece because I really want to focus a lot of time in that, especially in your early stages of building the brand when it came to getting your manufacturer on board as an investor, what does that actually look like? Like how did you get that to actually happen? Yeah, I mean, look, there's luck and strategy. Right.
00:11:53 And so I was fortunate enough that I worked at victoria's secret and was connected to someone that was connected to this person that was the ceo of the largest manufacturing company for intimates for walmart. And what I knew is that our category is very complicated. And if you're going to create something that's really awesome and different and also accessible, you have to have a good supply chain. So when I saw this opportunity to meet this gentleman, I went all in and the great news is the luck was that he was looking to start a digitally native brand to hedge his company. You know, and diversify as he saw Warby parker Casper and Harry's disrupting really dated categories. Right? So the world to line now was I his first choice? No, because the first time I met him, I had the flu and I looked terrible and I had my husband catapult pulled me to a meeting because I didn't want to cancel and I literally was just like shivering and try not to just lose. It and he got up in 15 minutes and was like great to meet you I guess.
00:12:59 Yeah. And so I was not you know, going to have this opportunity. And so what I did was I emailed him and I said I'd love to have a second meeting And I locked myself in our apartment and I told my husband to take our one year old out for 48 hours and did like literally business plan for dummies. Never did a business plan in my life. Googling using other people's templates and shells and put together a business plan that I understood from top to bottom, went back in the super confident showed up in terms of everything I knew about the industry, what I believe and most importantly my vision didn't ask me anything about the business plan because he knew I knew it and he was like yeah this girl's got fired, she's got vision, we're going to do this. And so he basically commits some money. Are you able to share how much he kind of puts into the business at that point? Yeah, so it's it's pretty wild. He committed with a group of other people a million five in a convertible note precede.
00:14:01 Didn't even have a name lively was brand X. But he saw that I had the fire and the vision for what this could be. I also had the experience in the category and had 10 years in corporate fashion, right? So we could speak the same language, wow, that's amazing. And so impressive and terrifying and terrifying. That's a lot of money because I signed up for something totally and that's a lot of responsibility. Especially you know, first time founder, first time, like going through this kind of thing, I imagine that's a lot on your shoulders and alone. Like sole founder. I remember walking out of Chase bank having received that money on my 35th birthday and I was like, oh okay, I guess we're doing this, I guess this doesn't go, I guess I'm onto something. So it's like such a vague question, but like what happens next? Because obviously all this stuff kind of happens for you. I've read about your story, you build this community, you have this crazy marketing launch thing that goes wild, but like I just want your kind of what happens next before we get to that.
00:15:13 So August 3, 2015 was my 35th birthday and when the money hit the account and August four was my loneliest day because I went to an office, there was nothing there. It was three, you know, glass wall and three white walls and I sat at a desk with a notebook and was like, hey, let's let's start a company, Michelle told everyone you were going to start a company, let's start a company and it was terrifying. Um so I was at that desk for about 30 seconds before I was about to cry and I started just walking around new york city was like, get it together, you can do this one ft in front of the other, step one what step one? Take away the fear. So I went back to the desk and I wrote a list of everything I was afraid of. I was like, I don't know anything about digital marketing, but I'm starting to digitally native brand warehousing, who knows, customer service, who knows? And wrote all the things that I was most fearful of and then started calling everybody, I knew that was really good at those things and literally just set up a ton of coffees, juice states, walk and talks anything that I can do to talk to people about the things that I was most concerned about.
00:16:22 So I could take the fear out and then start working on the brand, which is what I So first few weeks willie building confidence by just talking to people. The second two weeks was I always building a mood board in my office that you'll, you can still see it's three dimensional, but it was the vision of what I saw the brand to be. So once I got over the fear hum and started building the brand, I sat down and said, ok, I can't do this a lot, right? Like who am I going to bring into the fold. And the first thing was Sarah Sullivan, who's my creative director to this day, shout out to Sarah Sarah is the best. My vision was like, okay, I need a designer, right? I know what I conceptually see, but I'm not actually a fashion designer, I never went to school for it, I couldn't do a tech back, you asked me to to this day, but what I did decide was if we're going to create something truly different, actually don't want anyone from the laundry world. After meeting people in the laundry world, we're just gonna end up creating what already exists. And so I used a strategy of 2° of separation to find Sarah and my next three hires which was the idea that if I'm really going to have fun doing this, it needs to be people that I have a like mindedness with.
00:17:38 And so my thesis was like friends and family, what's one layer next because I bet we have similarities in how we see the world and live and that's how I met Sarah, she was friends with my best friend's neighbor in Brooklyn wow friend. Um but we met at a coffee shop in Bryant park and um, she was willing to work three days a week with me and we decided, let's build a brand more together and if we have fun doing that, let's keep going six years later, here we are. Well that is so cool. I also read around that time is when you started, you know it was like the time when instagram was popping things were happening that's like where everyone was focusing their efforts. I read that you were finding women in random places in America and building out content to build a community. Do you want to talk about like that kind of part of the story and what was working then? Yeah, yeah. So this is Instagram three stories right?
00:18:43 Like this, that's where Instagram was at that time, still not as saturated as where it is today. But again, the idea of lively was let's build a brand with the world right? Like let's not build a brand then try and sell it to the world. Let the world help us build a brand. And so that was two fold, let's build a community digitally and let's also bring women in physically. So in parallel we were having focus groups of women, 10-12 people at a time. You were helping us choose images and words and taglines those women's choices through several sessions which collectively created data said this is the best image and this is the best tagline. Now let's take that to instagram and find women who feel the same way and want to share it. And so the image was a girl on a fire escape on the bowery with a lively leisure, a brawl and a fur coat like super random, but people loved it. And the tagline was inspired by wild hearts and boss brains meaning like the passion and vulnerability of women, the thing that makes us cry, you actually like channel that with business, it's fire, wild hearts fall spring.
00:19:50 And so we went to instagram and what we actually tactically did was we looked at brands that we felt were very similar in mind. So at the time it was like Soul Cycle and Saqqara and Sweetgreen and scanned their followers and then found people that didn't have a lot of followers, like 500 to 100 followers, but great content and said now these are the people, they know how to take content, They're passionate about how they show their personal brand, let's reach out to them in the middle of the country and we built a community of 100 women to help us launch, Do you mean like you were reaching out to them being like, hey, come and join this private facebook group or come and join this something online or you're being like, hey, here's this picture, do you want to share it and like be part of our community via that mechanic? Yeah, I mean people ask me a lot about how that worked and I'm like we were very human about it, you know, we dM them and said, hey we're a bunch of women in new york launching this brand called lively, This is what it looks like, this is what it stands for, we love you to be a part of it.
00:20:56 And then we realized that we would try to get them over to email and then, you know, like doing the transaction, little conversation DM wasn't working once we got them to email, that was better and then we would figure out, ok, she's going to be great at taking content, we're going to send her something or she's not comfortable taking content, we're going to send her content. So I think like where people mess up if they try to create this machine out the gate were like, no, no, no, just be like a human. Just It's not the same for everybody. Don't overthink it. It's only 5200 people relationship building. Yeah, build a relationship and then build a machine. We didn't build a machine for a year and a half until we had over 1000 people in our community, wow, okay, so you had 1000 of these women that you had directly built relationships with online and then this is you gearing up to go to launch, which is a great segue for us to slide into this part of the story, which I'm super excited about, is that right? We had 100 people at launch. Once we saw it launch, how explosive it was, we kept going with the program and ended up having 1000 and now we have 100 and 50,000, Oh my God, 100 50,000 is such a wild number.
00:22:10 Mhm. Hey, it's doing here. I'm just popping in to bring you a quick message in every episode of the FSC show. You'll hear women who were just like you trying to figure it all out and hustled to grow their business and I would know a lot of you might be sitting there asking yourself, but how do I actually scale my revenue and get to that next level from where I am now. You also know that so many of the entrepreneurs I speak to have mentioned facebook and instagram ads as a crucial part of their marketing mix from today onwards, I'm really excited to be able to offer our fSc small business owners and entrepreneurs and no strings attached. Our long chat with leading performance marketing agency amplifier, who you might also remember from our D. I. Y. Course, Full disclosure amplifier is my husband's business. And what's really important to know is that I've been able to witness first hand the transformation of so many businesses going from as low as $10,000 a month all the way to $300,000 a month.
00:23:23 And in some cases upwards to seven figures. So if you're listening in and you feel like you're ready to take your business to the next level, Jump on a no strings attached call with amplifier where you can ask all the questions you have about performance marketing and whether it's the right time for you and your business to get started, go to female startup club dot com forward slash ads. That's female startup club dot com forward slash a. D. S. And booking a call today. Let's go back to the 100 women. Then around this point, I know you guys had a crazy launch that was totally unexpected from what I read. I want you to tell it in your own kind of words, what happened and why you think it led to that craziness and what that time was like? Yeah. So you know, we had the physical focus groups that helped women tell us this is the image, this is the tagline, this is the product. We had 100 women on instagram saying yes, love the image, love the tag. Then we read about Harry's the Razor Company who got 100,000 emails and four weeks in 2011 when they launched their Grand Prix launch.
00:24:37 And the whole idea was, hey, if you get your friend to submit their email address to Harry's flash sale or flash page, we're going to give you a point towards your first razor were like amazing. They got 100,000, we're gonna get like 20,000, maybe over four weeks. So 5000 emails a week, March one, it's a month before we're going to launch, quote unquote, launch lively and start selling physical products. And so my team and I sit down on a friday. My team being three of us in the office, sit down on a friday and say all right now we're gonna email is to everybody we know And it was about 250 people that we found through scanning our emails. We only knew more people to be honest. Apparently so and I mean we were like literally emailing like customer service at so and so company like the guy that did my mortgage, everyone got the email that we knew and what we realized is Social media has changed since 2011 because that night we had 500 emails which was amazing.
00:25:41 The next morning we had 1000 which was more than we expected because we want 5000 a week. Then we have 70,000 by dinnertime. We had 50,000 that night. We had 90,000 emails and I literally thought it was hacked because we did not create like any type of system that showed how much credit we were giving because we didn't even tell people how much the bras were were just like, hey if you got, you know 10 people you got a credit of $10.20 dollars and $50 and then $100. So it's like just 90,000 people have $100 credit to this company that hasn't made a dollar. I had no idea does it though what happened then? No, thank God the math works out. Thank God. But long story short, everything blows up from a technology standpoint, the developers are trying to shut this thing down to figure out what is going on because By the next morning we have 300,000 sessions globally, like on a Google analytics map the whole world who's like firing blue 280,000 unique sessions which is 280,000 individual humans around the world came to our little splash page called were lively.com 133,000 emails were in there and the developers like Michelle it's real and so I was like turn on customer service.
00:27:04 I tell people this is the gay lively launched because this is the day that people cared and so we launched email and phone and chat and all we were doing was fielding questions. Girls from Australia, England all over the United States and where's my lively email and where's my dashboard were like, we don't know but why do you care? We don't have any answers for You. We have nothing but like why do you like us and why do you care? And we collected all that information and built our first emails to eventually launch lively on April one and We ship to every state in the country within 45 days without any paid media just press this email list and marketing around what these women and girls were telling us humans sharing with human, weight. what? This is so crazy. I still don't really understand like What did the email say that you sent to these 250 people?
00:28:06 You know to this day, I've personally tried to recreate things like this and it was a viral moment. You know, again lock and strategy, right looking strategy hit the right friday night, the right person or people started the snowball. But I fundamentally believe because we took the time to focus group and really, really narrow down to the perfect image, the right tagline and like have confidence in that content that people were emotionally women were emotionally grabbed. They were like what is this? Must understand this, who is this? I want to be a part of this, wow! All of that sounds obviously so incredible. Life changing moment. Crazy. Good stuff. But I also feel like that brings on all these challenges that you wouldn't have expected known about uh thought was possible.
00:29:09 What was the flip side of the coin? Like what was the not so great stuff that's happening now that you've launched and you have like hundreds of thousands of people who want your product and they want it now. I mean first of all high class problems but so many so you know, launched a right like everyone thinks launched days like glamorous. Like I literally, I got all dressed up and we're like, oh, it's launched it. Well, guess what I get to the office and the warehouses like we can't ship all of this. Like what? We don't even know where to start through. All my sneakers grab the team. Us three went to New Jersey and literally just started packing boxes. Like I have a picture of myself drowning in boxes because we were so unorganized. And we also thought we were going to write a handwritten note to everyone, Which we try to do for like 50 hours. And then our hands were hurting and we, we had to literally ship for the first couple of weeks, our whole team and you know, but we learned and taught our fulfillment, amazing women at the fulfillment center, like our expectation and how we can improve the process, et cetera.
00:30:14 The other problem was again, high class problem. Well, I'm selling out. And you know, for me, I was like, well, no, no, no. We have to understand what the true demand is by style and like what this could be. So luckily my first investor was our supplier. So I kept taking orders. We put the site on preorder. So like you bought a bra, you would normally get it And you know, within a week, we would literally be physically emailing each customer and saying, hey, Uh, so we're kind of sold out. Do you, do you want to wait 30 days, maybe 16? And they were like, yes, actually, yes, no problem. Like you guys just launched congratulations again, being so human. And just saying like this is what's happening, we're so thankful for you, if you're patient will get it to you, You know, etc. And we thought we would have a 50% return drop off. It was like 90% yes wow. People were really, really excited about the bread. I mean that's just amazing. And so I guess it's kind of safe to assume that following that, you know that 12 months, it's kind of like you're probably just growing quite organically.
00:31:24 Did you need to be doing anything else to keep that momentum going? Yeah, yeah, of course. Right. So you know, you start to fatigue your list at some point, right? And you've got to keep growing and you know, acquisition retention, right. The math tells you that you have to keep growing. And so by, you know, after six weeks we started launching paid advertising. I didn't know idea how to do that. I was like changing budgets on my phone for facebook thinking it was like the stock market and and then we started to dip a little bit too right come august in september and you're mentally, I was like, wait what this is in a straight uphill, Like that's how all these SAS companies show their model. It's always a straight uphill and I'm like, no, no, no, no, this is retail Michelle of course it's a roller coaster ride. Like Whether the ride and that first year was really hard for me. I'm not gonna lie. First of all, I found out I was pregnant with my son Jack two months after launching a company. So was fundraising well pregnant. And also like literally telling myself every day that it's okay when sales were coming down, right?
00:32:28 And then, you know, we re launched our website because it was too slow. I didn't know that all of your organic information is lost and relaunched it right before cyber week. And like what's quote unquote the biggest time of the year. I did so many things wrong. But I think the biggest thing that I did wrong was I was really hard on myself. Like every mistake that I made. I thought the company was folding. Looking back now, I'm like, man, those are peanuts compared to the mistakes I made now. But I'm just much better at, you know, recovering. It's like an athlete, you just get much better at recovery. And it's kind of like, it's like you sometimes don't realize that you're in this scarcity mindset and everything feels like the end of the world when actually like you could have been objectively being like, okay, well, you know, this is shit. But like it's going to be still okay and we're still in abundance in terms of everything else that's going on in the big picture, right? It's called the learning tax You got to pay the tax paid earlier. Pay it early.
00:33:31 Exactly. I want to fast forward. I think it was 2019 when you start going through the process of being acquired and you sell your business for $105 million, which is crazy. Congratulations. How big was the business at that point? And were you actively looking for a buyer? So the short answer is no, we were not looking for a buyer and our business was growing triple digits year over year. At that point in 2018 we also launched our first brick and mortar store in Soho. And we also launched our partnership with Nordstrom. So we had become this, you know, omni channel company so fast. Like you know, our Soho store had 500 people on a wait list to come in for opening night from our ambassador program. Everything was just on fire. So what happened was I closed my series around that summer and was gearing up for, you know, expansion. And I remember my partner Yossi, who's our supplier that believed in this idea, so much pre launch that he did a million five with his network, right?
00:34:42 Says Michelle, you got to come to my office. Uh, there