It’s Female Founder Friday, and I’m excited to introduce you to Francie Wasser, the woman entrepreneur behind FranciePants. FranciePants is a line of beautiful, stylish 100% cotton women’s underwear that is handcrafted by local Sewing Artists (U.S. residents) and offered in an extensive range of sizes that fit the entire market (0-32).
I recently watched Francie at a D.C. pitch contest, and she is passionate about her product and committed to her vision for disrupting traditional manufacturing. Francie Pants Sewing Artists are taught in an apprentice-like model that not only teaches time-honored skills, but allows them to earn a generous wage for their work, on a flexible schedule, working as much or as little as they choose. Francie’s business model empowers people to take control of their careers and incomes while balancing other priorities.
So, if you’re curious how a trip to the doctor resulted in an underwear company with a mission to improve women’s health and body image, don’t miss Francie’s candid and thoughtful answers to my questions below.
What inspired you to create your company?
Like so many founders out there, I was inspired to create FranciePants because I was looking for a product which did not exist. Based on my doctor’s recommendation, I sought 100% cotton underwear to help prevent recurring vaginal infections – and I know I was not alone. Seventy-five percent of American women experience at least one vaginal infection in their lifetimes and 20% will this year alone. That’s at least 33M women who would benefit for wearing 100% cotton underwear regularly. Despite that, the 100% cotton options on the market have dwindled. Most women’s underwear is made of synthetic blends. The cotton out there is often not 100% and that which is falls into the “granny panty” category. I wanted cute prints and modern styles and I was unwilling to sacrifice on style in order to wear the fiber my body needed.
My second major inspiration is an idea that will revolutionize manufacturing in the United States and create thousands of well-paid flexible jobs. I call it crowd manufacturing. All FranciePants are sewn by members of our community who work from home. They are paid generously to work as much or as little as they want on a weekly basis. This opportunity is important because there are so many Americans who want to work and need flexibility so they can take care of the things that matter to them, whether that is caring for family, starting a business, or serving their communities. There are already 68M Americans who work contract jobs and 4.8M who do gig economy jobs. That number is expected to grow to 9.2M by 2021. However, these jobs are not accessible to everyone. Women, retirees, those with physical disabilities, the formerly incarcerated, and the economically disadvantaged all have a difficult time finding flexible well paid work. FranciePants provides jobs that work for everyone without the encumbrance or inflexibility of a traditional work schedule.
Since founding the business I add a third inspiration to the list, that keeps me going, even when the going gets tough. FranciePants is a brand about helping women feel confident, beautiful, empowered, and like themselves, at all points in their lives, and at all sizes. While there are several new brands who are offering extended sizes, there are still far too few. It is exceptionally difficult for many women to find their size and to find styles that fit them the way they want. It is also exceptionally difficult for many women to feel good about themselves and the way their body looks when they see so few women who look like them confidently and joyfully expressing their personalities and style. FranciePants seeks to flood our consciousness with new images of diverse women, thus helping us to retrain our brains to see the beauty that has been there all along.
What was your biggest obstacle and failure in going from idea to business?
By far the biggest obstacle for FranciePants is efficiently finding and communicating with women who are inspired by our products and who value our mission. Part of that obstacle includes educating women about the benefits of 100% cotton for them personally, and sharing our vision for how we can support each other by buying products made by one another. Marketing is difficult, as some of our target demographics are not as easy to reach through social media as others. We seek customers who are eager to pay a little more for products that make the world a better place and we are actively exploring many ways to meet and inspire them.
I generally focus on gratitude for l have learned when I make “mistakes,” and so I also rarely identify and name “failures.” That said, one failure I now understand held back the business was a failure to plan for and seek outside investment early on. I started out, like so many entrepreneurs, thinking I would “bootstrap” the business, i.e. finance the business using my own money rather than seek investment. There are many folks who advise entrepreneurs to bootstrap for as long as possible. Indeed, there are several benefits to doing so. However, in my financial situation (some savings, but not enough to sustain the business for years) I wish I had planned for investment from the start. While most business loans are only available to businesses that have been generating revenue for at least two years, there are some who help specific target demographics who are pre-revenue. By the time I learned this I was already in debt from my business and no longer in a good position to apply for those loans. Furthermore, more cash available upfront enables bigger and more effective investments to help grow the business more quickly, which I cannot manage without outside investment.
What are you afraid of?
I find that my fears fluctuate over time. In my strong and confident moments, I feel powerful and my fears fade. In weaker or weary moments fears creep up. My true biggest fear is one of personal financial ruin. I have invested so much in this business that I am already more than “all in.” I temper this feeling by reminding myself that I have an exit plan if I face a true financial emergency and that my personal value is not determined by my bank account level. I have made money before and I can do it again in the future.
I also worry about failing to overcoming challenges quickly enough. For example, I need to improve our conversion rate of website visitors. (I need a higher percentage of people who visit the website to decide to make a purchase.) Ultimately, even if I can overcome any obstacle with this business, I also need to be able to do it quickly enough, with the level of funding available, until the business is organically and profitably growing.
As soon as we wrap up our successful Kickstarter campaign on July 13, 2018, I am excited to use the proceeds to open a new Pod of Sewing Artists in Baltimore at Open Works. We already have a waiting list of women who want to work for FranciePants and I cannot wait to train, certify, and start paying them to work as much or as little as they want as we fill our Kickstarter orders. I also thrilled for our new customers to receive their orders later this fall.
While I cannot go into detail about it, FranciePants is excited to grow our team, marketing efforts, and business overall, with the support of new partners later this year. We will also showcase at DC Swim Week, July 26-27, at the French Embassy, and be available for sale for a limited time at Femme Fatale starting August first.
What is a life or business hack that you recommend to help other female founders?
When you find that you are experiencing friction with a task or a personal matter, rather than ignore it or continue to let the task go undone and wear on you, confront it! Figure out why you are so [fill in emotion here] about the task. Then figure out a NEW way to address the task or challenge that helps you feel better about it. Often that might involve outsourcing the task. If you hate accounting, or sending payment reminders to clients, or making power point decks, find totally new ways to do them. It is a waste of precious energy to fight yourself into doing things that are not your special gift (the gift that inspired you to start this business and is the reason you have already gotten as far as you have).
Sometimes hiring a contractor to do a service part time is the answer and easily worth the money because it is a more efficient choice. For example, I hired a bookkeeper and removed a lot of stress for myself. As another example, I find Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator almost impossible to use. Even after taking classes I am still overwhelmed when I try. So, now I contract a graphic designer sometimes and use the online tool Canva which is much easier to use and good enough for a lot of small graphic design tasks.
I also recommend finding a good task management platform. You need somewhere to dump all your ideas and lists of things you have to do, for the business and personally, so you do not feel pressure to keep them all in your head at once. I like to use Asana, because I can make nested lists, organize tasks by project, and assign tasks to team members. It works great from my phone and online and is free for the basic service.
If you had a theme song what would it be?
“Can’t Hold Us,” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. This song energizes and inspires me every time. It aligns with my personal commitment to putting everything into what I do, succeeding together, with and for each other, doing it our way, and celebrating our authentic selves as we do.
Please share your best piece of advice for aspiring female founders.
Develop an inner circle who will encourage you in the tough moments. This might eventually be a board for your business, but more likely I imagine it is a group of close friends. No matter what, there will be moments when you doubt yourself, question your convictions, and even your sanity for passionately pursuing your goals, despite the obstacles. Most people will NOT understand why you do what you do. Many people, even those who love you, sometimes especially those who love you, might not understand why you pursue your business either. Thus, those who are normally our inner circle might not be the best suited for the role of cheerleader. Consider people who are not family, have no ties to the business, know what you are capable of, and are confident and steadfast in their personal convictions. These are the ones to reach out to when you feel weak, weary, or scared. Do reach out to them. Do not keep these feelings inside because they will distract and sabotage you.
Also, read the book Playing Big by Tara Mohr, if you have not already.