Sometimes a company has an “oh no” moment that can cause it to fall by the wayside. How it responds speaks volumes about the organization’s potential longevity, as well as its leadership. For Avid Life Media, the company behind the infamous dating site Ashley Madison, that time is now.
After a huge public crisis that led to one of the biggest digital security breaches in history, the company is now trying to rise from the ashes. Last week it announced new leadership, this week it rebranded; “Avid Life Media” is now “ruby.” The question is: Is this enough to regain the trust of its users?
Ashley Madison, the storied dating site for people looking to cheat, has been in the spotlight for the last year when a hacking group claimed it had breached its system. The saga culminated in the attackers posting a database of every user on the website and the company spending months to figure out how best to regroup.
But changing a parent company name does not a new organization make. And when a website known for bucking social mores falls even further from public grace, it’s more than an uphill climb to become solid brand again. The two new executives at the helm believe they know what to do, and they explained the new “ruby” plan to me.
Rob Segal and James Millership[Photo: courtesy of Avid Life Media]
Last week the company announced that Rob Segal would be the company’s new CEO and James Millership would take the helm as president. Both men have worked with large companies and helped facilitate big turnarounds or rebrands. And, after talking with them about their plans for Ashley Madison and the like, it seems they both relish the challenge of repositioning an embattled company.
This project will be no easy feat. Indeed, the company has been in disarray for months, with users being outed and revelations that many accounts on the site were robots, or “fembots,” which were computer programs coded to chat with lonely men. A site like Ashley Madison is built on a strange form of digital anonymity and trust that was unceremoniously yanked last year.
Last year the company decided to regroup, and probably the most important part of that equation was finding new leadership to steer the way. Both Segal and Millership were approached by ALM and spent months considering whether or not they would take the plunge. According to Millership, the two worked together performing due diligence to figure out if and how they could save the company. “We didn’t take the decision lightly,” he said. Ultimately the two figured there was an opportunity to be had and accepted the roles.
Following their appointments, this rebrand is the first important move the company makes to try and reclaim its territory. Now, “ruby” needs to reprove itself. Segal believes that what originally differentiated Ashley Madison from other sites could actually help rebuild the company. As he sees it, these sites have the “ability to operate at a level that most other dating sites can’t.” Sure, Ashley Madison was considered vulgar because of the kind of activity it facilitated, but he believes it looked at relationships in a markedly different way than every other dating platform out there. During our conversation Segal waxed philosophic about how human sexuality in 2016 is very different from even ten years ago. As Millership put it, he saw an opportunity to market to even more of Ashley Madison’s “adventurous clientele.”
What’s most interesting is that Avid Life Media is rebranding itself and not the infamous Ashley Madison name. This, says Segal, is because the site is a “huge brand.” The opportunity isn’t starting from scratch, but making something better from what is already there, he says. For one, the site will be “a lot more female-friendly.” Moreover, there will be a new emphasis on being both “tasteful” and “respectful.” The whole rebrand, says Segal, is to make now-ruby “a little more elegant.” The focus won’t be on cheating, per se, but on those excited moments that exist outside of monogamy and everyday monotony. Segal described that moment you first see someone that excites you; “you get butterflies,” he said. One ad in the company’s new campaign shows a woman in a boring job and tired relationship, and then seeing an attractive mystery man at a hotel counter. The new emphasis, from what I understand, is on facilitating that moment.
Also, the company says it is learning from past mistakes. It is take security more seriously than ever, say the two new leaders. They say the plan is to rebuild the technology and bring on new names to the roster. Ruby is “investing into new technologies,” says Millership, adding that it’s also looking for new brands and potential acquisitions. They are also trying to show how much they care about security and privacy—indeed, there’s a very prominent link on its home page to a section titled just that.
Rebrands are hard, and crisis public relations is even harder. The company remained silent for almost a year, ousted its CEO, and began trying to figure out a new path. It seems after months of boardroom discussions and leadership searches, it has crafted a new plan. The rebrand is part of it, along with a slew of new advertising like the one described perviously. The two executives also referred heavily to its global user base.
This is all in line with how companies believe they should respond in times of crisis. The Avid Life Media brand was significantly marred when news hit of the breach. It needed to craft a plan and create a congruous positive message post-crisis it could disseminate to the world. Most importantly, If the company is to survive, the one thing it would have to do is regain the trust of its users while maintaining the individuality that it had.
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Crisis PR experts heavilyrefer to the strong “ties” and “relationships” organizations have with their customers. If that relationship is diminished, all bets are off. Companies have been able to do this in the past. For instance, 23andMe was in the spotlight three years ago for potentially giving erroneous information from the home DNA tests it offers. After months of bad press and fallout with the FDA, the company shifted slightly to still offer tests but focus more on the raw data provided, as well as ancestry information. The company is now back in good graces.
Of course a health-tech DNA testing company is a far cry from a website for people to cheat on their spouses. But Ashley Madison did have a fallout with its clientele and is trying to shift in a somewhat similar way. The rebrand and new focus on being “tasteful” is a way to offer a carrot to those who were scared off by the site before. Perhaps even those who don’t want to technically cheat; another ad shows a tired couple becoming excited about the addition of a possible third. Of course, the company isn’t swearing off the kind of services it offers. Instead, say Segal and Millership, ruby wants to show people that it wants to listen and be more amenable to what its customers want.
Photo: courtesy of Avid Life Media
As Segal describes it to me, ruby’s new intent is to build dating sites “that people relate to.” The ads feature women prominently, and tell stories of people in known relationship quandaries (tired of their partner, bored, etc). Part of that is changing the inherent culture of the site, he says, and being more inclusive. Before, Ashley Madison was perceived as an outlet for disgruntled men to find affairs, now the hope is to include more people in the mix. “Ruby is reflective of where we want to take the company: feminine, multifaceted, sensual.” This refocus mixed with the new ads is a way the executives hope to bring in a more diverse user base. The company says it’s trying to make the ratio of men to women (and not men to robots) more even.
In short, Ashley Madison isn’t changing what it does, but is trying to show its customers that it cares about them by reframing its services, focusing on more global customers, and pledging to be more secure.
The next year will show us whether or not the rebrand works and customers once again trust the site. For Segal and Millership it’s about explaining to people that they listened to their concerns and changed they handle things. At the same time, they feel they have to “stay true to the edginess of the product itself.”
For Ashley Madison, it’s not a new name. Instead, says Segal, “we just feel that she can be repositioned.”
Some of the world’s largest banks and insurance providers just signed a pledge aimed at getting more women into leadership at their organizations. The likes of Barclays, HSBC, Deutche Bank, and Morgan Stanley, among other firms, agreed to set goals to diversify their upper management and report on their progress annually. Failure to meet the goals will be tied to the bonuses of their senior executive teams. According to Catalyst, women make up nearly half of all employees in the financial services industry, but only 25% of senior management roles.
“It’s good to have a goal,” Mindy Grossman tells Fast Company. But the CEO of interactive multichannel retailer HSN, Inc. (you probably know it as the Home Shopping Network) says, “A mandate can create a falseness,” as opposed to working toward achieving diversity as sound business decision. Grossman, who says her passion for diversity extends back more than 15 years to her tenure as global VP at Nike, believes that the more voices and minds you bring to the table the greater the degree of problem solving and innovation you can have. “I’m also talking about a diversity of thought and experience,” she points out, not just of gender and race.
Under her direction since 2006, HSN has made gains in both market share and diversity. Revenues have been on the rise since 2011, going from $3.18 billion then to 3.6 billion in 2015. Currently, she presides over a staff that boasts 61% female representation at the director level and above. Forty-five percent of HSN’s vice presidents and 50% of its executives are women. “What’s happened here is the fundamental foundation of who we are,” she maintains, “We are naturally diverse as an organization.
With last week’s appointment of Fiona Dias to HSN’s board of directors, the company achieved gender parity there, too. But Grossman insists this wasn’t about driving toward a percentage, but creating the best board for the company. A company that, she underscores, has a customer base who is 85% female.
Grossman says that she’s been looking at the board composition for the past number of years not only through a gender lens, but also through one of competency. Having experience relevant to the e-commerce business was necessary, but she wanted to bring in another woman. It’s a challenge because currently, women only hold 19.2% of S&P 500 board seats in the United States, according to Catalyst.
“What I am finding is that you really have to be much more aggressive to stick to the fact that this is what you want,” she explains. “I’ve seen too many instances where a board makes a profile so narrow,” she recalls, that it turns into a pipeline problem. If you are looking for a female CEO of a Fortune 500 company, for example, how many are out there? ( Only 20)
To find the right person, Grossman says they worked with a consultant who has partnered with a lot of companies in the tech world. They looked for relevant experience, she asserts, but “we definitely had a focus.” The result, she contends is that the combination of personalities and insights creates a more stimulating dialogue. “That’s more thought provoking for management,” she adds.
As Grossman points out, diversity isn’t just about race and gender. Generational differences can create a similar chorus of disparate points of view.
At Everbridge, a global software company that helps government agencies and businesses warn people about severe weather, mass shootings, and cyber attacks, they’ve achieved a workforce split of 44% millennials, 44% Gen Xers, and 12% boomers.
The Massachusetts-based firm observed media coverage of the age bias heavily present in tech companies in Silicon Valley. But Everbridge’s CMO, Joel Rosen, tells Fast Company, “Fortunately, our team did not need to make any concerted effort to equalize any generational splits.”
He insists it’s been an organic occurrence that came as a result of the company’s culture. “Our focus on transparency, accountability, and opportunity, as well as our ability to “make a difference” in the lives of the communities and businesses that we serve,” Rosen says, “naturally appeals across generations.”
The staff has regular access to all Everbridge’s financial results and quantitative goals. On the HR side, says Rosen, core competencies and success metrics are established each year, and teams are given internal training, education resources, mentors and benefits. “This focus on providing clear direction and objectives appeals to both younger and older workers,” he says.
Everbridge’s workforce grew by 50% this year, but eliminates bias by hiring through a behavioral interview process. “This technique was adopted to improve our ability to assess candidates and to further focus on identifying candidates that have the competencies that we believe make an individual successful at Everbridge,” Rosen explains. Competencies include adaptability, collaboration skills, resourcefulness, and passion or drive.
For example, he says that when assessing someone’s passion you could ask the question: “Tell me about a time you set a really ambitious goal for yourself. What was the goal, how did you go about achieving the goal, and what was the outcome?” Rosen contends this question doesn’t factor in age or experience.
The company credits its generationally diverse staff as one of the reasons its revenue is over $50 million.
Jellyvision, an interactive software company, has just over 300 employees. Though they haven’t tracked progress over time, the workforce in total is currently made up of 51% males and 49% females and their leadership team is 55% male and 45% female.
Mary Beth Wynn, the vice president of people at Jellyvision, says getting close to gender parity wasn’t a direct initiative as much as a byproduct of the company’s values, leadership, and an intentional recruitment process.
Wynn also acknowledges that diverse staff can help the business succeed, and says Jellyvision is continually working to achieve diversity in as many aspects as possible, whether it be through gender, sexuality, race, etc.
If Jellyvision had made 50/50 a conscious initiative, though, they would have risked the reverse. Deserving individuals might not have the opportunity for a role because their gender wouldn’t fit the company’s goal. Wynn says they do work with recruiters who are directed to bring them diverse candidates.
For their job postings, Wynn says, “We lead with the characteristics that we’re looking for and leave “requirements” to the end of the posting.” She says this serves not to knock out candidates with requirements, but rather “give them a well-rounded perspective on what the job is and what characteristics we’re looking for.” The hope, she says, is that applicants will self-select based on those rather than a degree or years of experience.
Jellyvision’s hiring team really pays special attention to cover letters. “We give folks the opportunity to tell us why they’re a fit, which may highlight things we won’t see in a resume,” she explains.
All candidates must also pass through an audition, which is a skills test for people to show what they can do, rather than count on their background and previous experience alone. Wynn says, “We make the ‘audition’ part of our hiring process identity redacted to avoid any subconscious bias that might be associated with a name.”
Wynn also notes that the company’s FAQ page addresses questions around transgender and disabled candidates and their needs. “This supports our position on welcoming individuals of all backgrounds.”
Wynn notes that Jellyvision is still small enough for senior leadership to see who’s accomplishing what. “We move people into leadership positions based on what we’re seeing,” she says, which also occurs organically rather than through mandates.
Grossman underscores that there is still much work to be done. “Given the disparity, we are not going to get where we need to go if senior leaders don’t embrace this as a business imperative.”
Copious amounts of research have indicated that diversity quantitatively and qualitatively improves business performance. A recent study revealed that an even gender split at one company contributed to a 41% increase in revenue. Catalyst found that companies with higher female representation in top management outperform those that don’t by delivering 34% greater returns to shareholders. Although only 5% of Fortune 1000 companies have a female CEO, they generate 7% of the Fortune 1000’s total revenue and outperform the S&P 500 index during the course of their respective tenures. “If you are not diverse,” says Grossman, “you are saying: ‘I don’t want to be successful.’”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that their revenue was approaching $100 million. The company has since revised that estimate and tell Fast Company that their revenue is over $50 million.
Pop quiz: How many companies were looking for people with a background in cloud computing in 2014? So few that it didn’t even make LinkedIn’s list of the most sought-after job skills by U.S. employers. Just two years later, cloud computing tops that exact same list.
So how can you possibly prepare to stay ahead of changes you don’t even know are coming—changes not just in the skills you need to be competitive but also in the way we work, search for jobs, and get ourselves hired? For everything else that’s shifting unpredictably, a few things are staying pretty consistent, and some of that may surprise you.
Not too long ago, I started a company that focused on using data to help people get hired, and I’m now head of product here at LinkedIn Talent Solutions. I’ve had a front-row seat to some of the latest shifts we’ve seen in the job market and a few others that are on their way. Here’s what you need to know in order to stay ahead of the competition in 2016 and into the next few years.
Our latest research shows that the number of professionals actively looking for jobs has increased steadily during the past three years, from 25% in 2014 to 36% this year. At the same time, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 5.5 million jobs remained open in May 2016.
That suggests many companies are holding out for “A” players with all the right skills at the same time that more and more professionals are looking to change employers. But they don’t seem to be finding each other—which means we may need smarter ways to get connected.
When we surveyed more than 500 people in North America who changed employers between February and March this year, 40% said they were referred by one of the company’s employees. But only a little more than one-tenth (11.7%) of respondents had one or more first-degree connections on LinkedIn at the company six months before they started working there.
That means most of these professionals scored that referral from second- and third-degree connections, not from people they were connected with directly. As our economist Guy Berger puts it, “It looks like it’s not who you know, it’s who you know knows.”
So while I wouldn’t downplay the value of a first-degree connection as a valuable “in,” it’s important to pay close attention to that second layer if you’re in the market for a new opportunity: Who you know who may be linked to a company that interests you—albeit by a matter of several degrees. A former colleague from a big accounting firm might not be able to offer you a direct path to the tech company of your dreams, but they may know someone who knows someone on the inside who’d be willing to make an introduction.
The top two hottest skills in 2016—cloud computing and data mining—didn’t even exist a few short years ago. The world is simply changing too quickly for even young professionals to rely on the hard-won skills from their college years. You may choose a well-researched major or what looks to be a stable career path, but there’s no guarantee those skills will be in demand in 10 years’ time—sorry!
But there’s an upside to that. Today, a number of once-steady careers face the threat of automation, from well-documented declines in manufacturing and certain facets of health care (a growth field overall) to retail and education. Still, many of the same forces that are automating some jobs out of existence are creating new fields and industries out of nothing—like artificial intelligence, the Internet of things, self-driving cars, and virtual reality to name just a few.
In such a world, it’s difficult to predict which industries and jobs will face decline and which will be the next wave. How many companies employed a chief data scientist or an economist in 2011? Now some companies (LinkedIn included) have both.
For employees, that means everyone should be thinking about developing new skills right now in order to keep up, or how they could adapt their existing skills to a new specialty. Job seekers who will come out on top will be those who stay curious and are lifelong learners. For companies, it’ll mean arming existing workforces with new knowledge, getting creative with job requirements, and keeping an eye out for skills that could transfer well into newly imagined roles.
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We’re about to see more power shift away from companies and into job seekers’ hands as technology makes it easier than ever to find or change jobs. The rise of gig-economy players like Uber, Lyft, and Upwork is just the latest evidence of a trend that’s set to continue, with technology empowering people to take more direct control over their careers and livelihoods—even if the world that ultimately creates isn’t something we’ll still call the “gig economy,” as though it’s something distinct from the job market overall. Because increasingly, it won’t be.
In the process, job seekers will not only enjoy more connectedness and company transparency than ever before, they’ll also become savvier about promoting their professional brands online. We’re already seeing these trends today, so if you’re in the market for a new gig, it’s worth polishing up your online profile right around now. And as the gig economy and remote work options expand, professionals are finding more and more opportunities available to them. Traditional 9-to-5 work is no longer the norm; it’s just another option.
Finally, the most powerful job seekers in the market will also usher in a new era of reduced complexity, as technology continues to advance and employers, hard-pressed to find great people, leverage those advancements to simplify their hiring processes. Soon, job seekers will have new ways to signal their interest in a job, sending companies to them rather than the other way around. What will be more important is that those employers can readily find you online and see an accurate snapshot of what you offer, making it easy for them to knock on your door.
Beyond that, professionals need to keep doing what they’ve always had to do: Work your connections. Keep learning. Stay flexible. And always keep an eye on the market, because new, never-before-seen opportunities will be waiting around every corner.
Eddie Vivas is Head of Product at LinkedIn’s Talent Solutions.
But even as these companies build up their chatbot armies, we’re probably not headed for another bitter ecosystem war, like the one that led to the dominance of iOS and Android. Instead, we’re likely to have lots of bot-infused messaging services living together in harmony for years to come. Here are a few reasons why:
At least for now, the best chatbots don’t try to accomplish too much, says Brendan Bilko, head of product at Dexter, a company that offers bot creation tools and also builds some bots on behalf of larger clients. Bilko believes that chatbots should focus on being good at a single task, which in turn makes them easier to port across different messaging services.
“Because they’re simple enough, we have the flexibility to go cross-platform,” he says.
It helps that compared to building an app, making a chatbot is fairly simple, Bilko says. Bot developers don’t have to worry about creating full menu systems, artwork, and animations because a lot of that overhead is replaced by a messaging window.
“When you’re building an app for iOS . . . it’s a blank canvas,” Bilko says. “With these messaging platforms, everything’s very much templatized, so the content is what’s speaking to users more than the UI is.”
While chatbot platforms will inevitably become more complex, most of the work to create them may still happen outside of any particular messaging service. That’s been the case with Mosaic, a chatbot that controls various smartphone devices through Slack, Facebook Messenger, SMS, and Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant.
Sumang Liu, Mosaic’s CEO and cofounder, says most of the company’s efforts go toward building those integrations and correctly interpreting natural language. So when the user saysm “I’m hot”—a statement with several potential meanings—Mosaic knows to turn down the user’s Nest thermostat.
“From our experience, the heavy-lifting work is on the back end,” Lui says. “Plugging into chatbots is just creating an interface. Interface is very important, but Facebook makes it relatively easy for developers to do that.”
With smartphone apps, developers gravitated toward iOS and Android—and away from alternatives like Windows Phone and BlackBerry 10—because of market share. Messaging is different because there are so many large-scale platforms already, and as developers experiment, they may discover that some messaging platforms are better suited for their bots than others.
Bilko discovered this himself while working with a business client to build a set of bots for Slack, Facebook Messenger, and SMS. Going in, the client assumed that the Slack version would see the most use. In fact, usage on Facebook Messenger was seven times greater. That client is now investing entirely in building bots for Messenger.
“Initially, it’s kind of figure out what works, see what piece of pasta sticks to the wall, and then go from there,” Bilko says.
Even if the same bot is available on multiple platforms, the experience on each one may differ. With the group shopping bot Kip, for instance, the Slack version focuses on coordinating purchases with a team of employees, so they can purchase lunch together or have an office manager authorize a supply order.
But with the messaging app Kik, users are much younger, and tend not to have any purchasing power. As such, Kip’s chatbot highlights the wish-list function, which users can fill out for their parents.
“It might be the same technology, but . . . we’ll highlight different sets of features,” says Rachel Law, Kip’s cofounder and CEO.
Some chatbots, like Kip, are collaborative by nature. And in those cases, requiring all users to work with a single messaging service would be a major limitation.
Beyond group shopping bots like Kip, Law points to gaming as one example. A multiplayer game, played via text, might not be as popular if it’s confined to one platform. “You’d be limiting yourself to one group of players, as opposed to having players on Facebook, having players on Line, and having players on Kik,” Law says.
The same is true, she adds, with bots that involve scheduling. Requiring everyone to use Skype, for instance, would be a poor strategy for a chatbot that’s trying to coordinate meetings with multiple people. “You need it to be cross-platform, otherwise it won’t work, because you’re limiting your user base to one group of users,” Law says.
There may even be some scenarios where a single user wants to interact with a chatbot in different apps. That’s one reason Mosaic has supported Facebook, SMS, Slack, and Alexa.
“There are a lot of differences between platforms in terms of chatbots—their form factors, their interaction, their power varies a lot,” Mosaic’s Liu says. “But from a customer’s perspective, they just want to access the most convenient entrance at their most convenient moment.”
Still, all this work creating chatbots across different messaging platforms does introduce some unique headaches. As Law points out, all of the major chatbot platforms are constantly adding new features for developers to take advantage of. And with so many platforms to deal with, making sure they’re all running properly can be a hassle.
For that issue, Kip has come up with a novel solution: Every morning, a bot runs a quick check on every platform Kip supports, asking if each respective bot is alive or dead.
Renee McGhee, a 59-year-old grandmother of nine, was at home recuperating from a bicycle accident when she opened her neighborhood newsletter and saw an advertisement for home-cooked meals. A few clicks later, she learned that the neighbor who posted it had joined Josephine, an online marketplace that helps home cooks coordinate small takeout-food businesses. McGhee’s last job as the manager of a cake bakery had required heavy lifting. After breaking bones in both hands, she’d crossed anything like that job off of her list of potential employment options, but cooking for Josephine sounded like a way to pay her rent once the disability payments stopped—work she could do at home while she babysat her grandkids. She filled out the online interest form.
A few days later, two Josephine employees visited her apartment—part of a “four-plex” in the Loris Neighborhood of Berkeley, California—and she made them pulled pork sandwiches on ciabatta rolls. They inspected her kitchen using a checklist: Did she keep all food six inches above the ground? Was her refrigerator set at the correct temperature? Did she have a California Food Handler Card? Josephine, she learned, provided training, advertising, and insurance for up to $1 million in liability. Everything seemed too good to be true. “I said, let’s just cut to the chase,” she remembers, “What is it going to cost me to be able to do this?” Josephine would take 10% of her sales, they said. McGhee couldn’t believe it: “I almost fell over. I was like, I’m in.”
Every Thursday for the next nine months, she cooked lasagna, pulled pork, lemon chicken, and a variety of desserts for Josephine while she babysat her 7-year-old grandson. Most of her customers were neighbors. “They would just pass before,” she says, “and now they were coming into my home and having conversations.” One 79-year-old customer walked from six blocks away to pick up her meals. Another woman drove from Emeryville, usually arriving 30 minutes before the serving window, at 4:45, so she could “beat the traffic.” A friendly couple regularly showed up with a bottle of wine to share. “It was like family,” McGhee says.
Josephine had signed up about 75 cooks in the San Francisco Bay Area and, like Renee, many of those cooks’ customers had warm feelings toward the startup. “When I opened the door, it really did feel cozy, like I was entering into a warm home, full of laughter and good music,” one user wrote on Yelp. The Atlantic called Josephine meals “utterly reliable generators of smiles and warm feelings” and Business Insider declared the company one of the “50 coolest new businesses in America.”
The team at Josephine
Then, on a Monday morning in April, everything changed. For McGhee, the news came with a knock on her door.
Two men on her stoop explained that they were from the health department. Making and selling food from her home, they said, was illegal and punishable by a fine.
McGhee closed the door and sat down, cease-and-desist letter in hand. “My first thought was, ‘I committed a crime,’” she says. “It felt icky. It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.”
She wasn’t the only one who felt this way. That morning, Josephine’s founder, Charley Wang, had woken up to his ringing phone. Traci, one of Josephine’s most successful cooks, was calling, panicked, from a coffee shop. She’d been warned by a visiting friend that three health department officials were waiting in her living room. “I’ll be there,” Wang told her. “Don’t do anything yet. Just stall.”
By the time he returned to the office—the three officials had left Traci’s house before he’d arrived—Lisette Silva, who both cooked Josephine meals and worked as the startup’s creative sourcing and product development leader, had also received a cease-and-desist order. In the next 48 hours, Josephine heard from about a dozen cooks who received similar letters.
Wang and Josephine’s other 10 employees spent the week, as Wang puts it, “learning crisis management 101.” They planned a “resilience celebration” for their cooks. Silva cooked the Ecuadorian Seco de Pollo that she had been planning to sell for her next Josephine meal and shared it with her disheartened coworkers. And then, on Friday, Josephine received two cease-and-desist letters of its own, one from the City of Berkeley and one from Alameda County, for “facilitation” and “aiding and abetting.”
A cooking and gardening program at Willard Middle School funds itself by selling meals with Josephine’s software tools.
Most states—with some exceptions for baked goods, granola, and other “non-potentially hazardous” products—require that food sold to the public be cooked in a commercial kitchen. In California, the retail food code specifically lists home kitchens as a place where commercial food facilities cannot operate. But that has not stopped food startups like Josephine from bringing food into the sharing economy.
Feastly and EatWith facilitate pop-up dinners in people’s homes. Mytable, MealSurfers, and Umi Kitchen deliver meals from home chefs’ kitchens. Homemade, a similar concept, acts like a Shopify for food, providing software to enable anyone to sell their empanadas or jerk chicken dish from their apartment. Even Etsy has a fairly extensive homemade food inventory.
As startups launch in heavily regulated industries such as food, health, transportation, and housing, clashes with the law have become as common in Silicon Valley as office ping-pong tables. The most common approach to these regulatory battles—successfully embraced by lodging site Airbnb, ride-hailing app Uber, fantasy football site FanDuel, and DNA testing and analysis company 23andMe— is to ignore the troublesome law as long as possible. “For a long time, the advice was, just keep your head down, build the kind of network you need to be viable, and then once you have viability, nobody is going to be able to shut you down,” says Julie Samuels, the executive director of Tech:NYC, a recently founded industry advocacy organization with more than 300 member companies. “If Uber had gone to the regulators first, the entrenched interests would have crushed them in seconds.”
Innovation outpaces regulation, these startups reason. If we want to progress as a society, what choice do we have but to ignore archaic regulations?
“Sharing is great,” fires back critics like Sarah Desmond, the executive director of Housing Conservation Coordinators, “but not every law is ‘outdated’ just because it gets between a startup’s CEO and his payday.” These critics warn of a “a two-tier system of justice” in which startups like Airbnb and Uber “create their own regime of privilege for themselves and power over others.”
Josephine intended to try working with government. “It doesn’t even seem like they’re trying,” Josephine’s COO, Matt Jorgensen, says about the typical startup attitude toward regulation. And so, against the advice of potential investors and other entrepreneurs, Josephine decided to engage with politics.
In October, six months before the wave of cease-and-desist letters, the City of Berkeley had first inquired about Josephine’s illegal operation. After meeting with health officials from the city and county, Josephine’s leaders believed the startup could find a compromise that would allow it to continue operations. In the process, it sponsored a bill which it hoped would legalize sales of home cooking. “We thought,” Jorgensen remembers, “this is armor, because it’s proving we can do the right thing.”
If you want to sell food in California, your kitchen needs to have a sink—at least 18 by 18 inches in length and width and 12 inches deep—exclusively for washing and preparing food. It needs another sink with at least three compartments (“with two integral metal drain boards”) for washing, rinsing, and sanitizing dishes. Countertops must be “nonabsorbent,” typically stainless steel, and the lightbulbs above where you prepare food should be “shielded, coated, or otherwise shatter-resistant.” Your can opener must have a “piercing part” that can be removed and cleaned. “It’s about a $50,000 effort,” says Peter Ruddock, the coordinator of the California Food Policy Council. “It would be a significant investment to turn your kitchen into something that you wouldn’t want [in your home].”
As of August 2013, all but nine states had some version of a “cottage food law” that allows some home-cooked food to be sold to the public. Wyoming, which has one of the most permissive policies, permits sales of almost all home-cooked food, with the exception of poultry. But in most states, including California, cottage food laws apply only to specific “non-potentially hazardous” foods such as baked goods, dried fruits, and popcorn. Wisconsin does not even allow sales of homemade baked goods.
Proponents of expanding these laws to permit more commercial home cooking argue that scale matters: While a dishwasher in a restaurant kitchen might not have time to properly wash every dish with soap and water, thus necessitating an extra sink bin for bleach water, a home cook who is selling 10 meals per night isn’t in the same time crunch. From a safety perspective, these proponents see the risk as being similar to having friends over for dinner, hosting a potluck, or pitching in money to cover your share of a potluck if you don’t have time to cook. “If the first three are clearly legal, it’s not clear why the last one should not be, if your concern is food safety,” says Jacob Gersen, the founder and director of Harvard’s Food Law Center, who also advises home-cooking startup Homemade. “It would expose you to just as much food safety risk.”
According to the CDC, about 48 million Americans get sick, 128,000 are hospitalized, and 3,000 die of food-borne diseases every year. The question is not so much whether food illness is a serious issue, but whether our current system of restricting public food preparation to commercial kitchens is any more effective at preventing it than would be legal guidelines for operating a cooking business at home. Typically, health departments audit restaurant health safety once or twice a year. “If they know [a health inspector] is coming, which they often do, they’re on their best behavior,” Ruddock argues. “If they’re going to get sloppy or mean, there are 364 days of the year.” By contrast, in a home customers can see the kitchen and the person who has prepared their food, which creates some personal accountability. Online reputation systems can augment the accountability of direct sales, because cooks build reputations and customers easily inform each other when they see something questionable.
These home-cooking businesses exist whether or not they are legal. Homemade, for instance, finds many of its cooks because they are already advertising their home-cooked food using Instagram. Dispersed and offline, these tiny businesses are not easy for regulators to locate and shut down. But like Airbnb and Etsy, startups make an existing piece of commerce both easier and more visible—which from a food safety perspective, Gersen argues, could be a good thing. “The loophole model, where regulators look away for a while and allow people to do it in the worst way,” he says, “does not seem like a great state of affairs.”
“They’re bolt cutters,” Wang tells me. We’re sitting at what used to be his dining table, in a shared workspace and gallery for socially minded companies and artists in Oakland, and Wang has noticed me noticing the long image that stretches down the inside of his left forearm. “I got this tattoo after [raising] the seed round,” he explains. Wang pulls up the sleeve of his black T-shirt to show me another tattoo, a word written in Chinese calligraphy that looks like it has been painted onto him with a thick brush. “It means subversive.”
Wang wears his hair in a high ponytail and sometimes walks around the office in bare feet. His employees, who often hug each other goodbye, drop the phrase “justice” as frequently as most other startups use the word “disruption.” Bolt cutters or not, Wang’s brand of subversive has an immediately perceivable softness to it. “When I think of Charley, it makes me smile,” explains Josephine Miller, the 57-year-old woman for whom Josephine, the company, is named.
Josephine’s son, Josh, introduced both Wang and his cofounder Tal Safran to his mother when they were new to Los Angeles. She invited them to her Santa Monica home. “I was just being a mama, opening the door, and saying, you’re always welcome,” she says of the dinners they frequently shared together. Wang at the time was launching a branch of the trade school General Assembly and Tal was working as an engineering consultant at SpaceX . Aside from their meals at Josephine’s house, they lived on convenient food options that were only getting more convenient. A mess of tech companies—Uber, Postmates, DoorDash—had focused on bringing food from restaurants to doorsteps. Startups Sprig, Maple, and Munchery, meanwhile, had cut out the restaurant completely, routing food directly from their kitchens to busy (or lazy) people at the push of a button. “What would happen to home cooking?” they wondered, aloud, around Josephine’s table. “Would it be crowded out by ultra-convenient, ultra-commoditized food?”
They moved to Oakland to answer the question themselves. With proximity to Silicon Valley’s sharing economy and Berkeley’s food movement, they started to experiment using their own homemade food (“I called my mom a lot and asked for recipes,” Wang says). They tested combinations of sit-in dinners, deliveries, pickups, and guest chefs.
At the end of the process, they concluded that home cooking was about relationships: “How many restaurants say that they have homemade or home-style food?” Wang says. “It’s still restaurant food.” Offering meals for pickup seemed like the best way to both preserve the personal connection that made homemade food homemade food while also making cooking from home a repeatable, scalable business and keeping the price of meals down (typically meals cost about $12). COO Jorgensen—at 25, already a former ski patroller, Bain consultant, and entrepreneur (he cofounded a company that makes “slim-cut and beautifully styled overalls”)—joined soon after, excited by “the evolution of the economy, and what the peer economy could do as part of that.” Not only would Josephine be a distributed economic opportunity, but, its early employees hoped, it could change the way people eat.
To recruit cooks, Josephine brought meals and baked goods to PTA meetings, made inquiries on contractor websites, and posted to Craigslist. The resulting batch of chefs were disproportionately women, mothers, immigrants, and people of color. By this point, Wang looked at Josephine as a social enterprise. “A lot of people think that you can have too many values— they’ll keep you from making the hard decisions, or keep you from succeeding in what is a cold, hard business world,” he says. One investor asked Josephine to spend less time with cooks. “He told us we didn’t have killer instinct,” Wang says, “and I was like, I don’t want to be a killer.”
County and city health officials were not amused by Josephine’s efforts to show some respect to the regulations it was violating while continuing to facilitate sales of home cooking.
They had first met with Josephine in November. In the meeting, the city officials informed Josephine that its operations were illegal and asked for a list of its cooks. Josephine declined to provide its cooks’ information and made some changes to its website: It required people to become members of Josephine before buying a meal and clearly indicated that the food had been cooked in a home kitchen. “Josephine is working with local health departments in Berkeley and Alameda County as well as California state legislators to determine how our model fits into the broader regulatory landscape,” the Josephine website now stated. “While this collaboration develops and we explore permitting options, we are asking our cooks to use commercial kitchens for meals.”
That’s not quite how health regulators saw the relationship. On December 18, Kathleen Pacheco, Alameda Deputy County Counsel, sent a letter to Josephine’s lawyer. “This language implies that the county and city are ‘in collaboration with’ Josephine and are not requiring permits or inspections at this time,” it said. “While the Department of Environmental Health is willing to work with Josephine’s cooks to apply for permits, as has been explained to you and your clients, they do not have the authority and in no way have granted any type of exception…to complying with legal requirements.” Josephine, a for-profit company, would not be exempted just because it was now a “private club.” She reiterated the request for names and addresses of Josephine’s cooks and included a “notice to Josephine cooks” that she requested the company send to its users. The City of Berkeley sent a similar letter the same day.
Josephine had attempted to rent commercial kitchen space on behalf of its cooks. Even when the startup paid the rental fee, almost no cooks showed up, and even if they had, it would still have been illegal for them to serve the food from home. Moving to a commercial kitchen would be the end of Josephine’s mission of bringing home cooking into the future.
Health regulators at the local level, meanwhile, had no authority to compromise with Josephine and no legal discretion about whether to enforce the law. “As city staff, we don’t write the laws or create the laws,” says Matthai Chakko, a spokesperson for the city of Berkeley, “and if the laws changed, we would implement them accordingly.”
So Jorgensen looked into changing the law.
“You mean we just write it ourselves?” he asked a lawyer at the SELC’s legal advice clinic.
He was astounded to learn that, yes, most bills begin with a draft written by an interested party. He opened a Word document on his computer, pasted in the existing language of the food code, and started highlighting what he’d like to change.
In February, two months before Renee McGhee and other Josephine cooks received cease-and-desist letters in April, the startup sponsored a bill in the state legislature that proposed removing commercial home kitchens from the list of facilities beholden to all of the requirements in the California Retail Code.
Renee in her gardenPhoto: courtesy of Josephine
What Josephine didn’t realize then was that, possibly at that very moment, officials from the California Department of Public Health were covertly ordering meals from Josephine cooks in order to prove they were violating the existing law. Eventually, county officials would say their action had been prompted by a customer report of illness (Don Atkinson-Adams, the acting chief at the department, declined to provide documentation of the report). A cease-and-desist letter sent to one of Josephine’s cooks would cite a customer report of nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, but that cook would not yet have signed up to serve Josephine meals on the date the report was made. The cook who did serve a meal that meets the description in the cease-and-desist letter says she has not heard anything about illness from her customers, and on the Josephine site, two of them left five-out-of-five-star reviews of the meal.
Jorgensen and Wang would learn all of this bad news a few months later, after they’d been effectively shut down in the Bay Area. But for now, they were heartened by their first brush with lawmaking. “This was totally, totally new to us, and we felt like we were muddling our way into it,” Jorgensen says. “But it was exciting: It was like, wow, we can just show up, and have a voice.”
The bill Josephine had sponsored in February popped up on the bill-tracking software of Justin Malan, the executive director of the California Conference of Directors of Environmental Health (CCDEH), on the same day that Representative Cheryl Brown, who had been attracted to the bill’s potential economic impact, submitted it. Broad and simple, it would have permitted anyone to sell pretty much anything cooked at home.
The CCDEH’s members are Environmental Health Directors from 62 state jurisdictions in California. Malan imagined improperly handled raw sushi. He thought about how easy it would be for a cook to come home from the grocery store with raw chicken, leave it on the counter for hours while distracted by something else, and then re-refrigerate it. Any restaurant, he feared, could use a law like this one to skirt health codes.
“It had none of these food safety requirements that we require of even the smallest restaurants, even the cappuccino cart,” Malan says. “What we don’t want to see is a small restaurant that has to have all of the equipment and pay the fees and then somebody a block down in a residential area, serving almost as many people with none of those public health protections.”
Malan filed a letter of opposition immediately.
Representative Brown pulled the bill shortly later, but the CCDEH had agreed to work on a version of a new law that its members might, if not quite support, at least not oppose. Malan was optimistic that a new bill was achievable. “This isn’t world peace,” he told the Josephine team.
Any concern I may have had for my health dissipates with the heavenly smell of slow roasted beef as I follow a sign that advertises “Eating Vietnam!” to the second floor an Emeryville apartment.
Hai, a smiling Vietnamese man wearing a Josephine apron, is cooking Banh Mi Hap, a Saigon-Style steamed bread wrap. I’m with Simone Stolzoff, Josephine’s head of communications and business development (the startup is still small), picking up two of the 28 orders he has prepared for the evening. Joe, Hai’s partner, greets us from a laptop set up on a card table. “Miss Debbie!” he exclaims a beat later. A woman with short hair and a pink pullover has appeared behind us. She pauses, as though for a photo, with a peace sign.
In Saigon, Hai’s family runs a restaurant. In California, he worked at a grocery store before beginning his home-cooking business. His meals look like a more authentic version of takeout (but “way better than any Vietnamese food I’ve had in a restaurant,” according to one testimonial on his website). He hands us two cartons each. One holds beef over slices of baguette. The other is an assortment of greens. Hai opens the latter with gloved hands and lifts the leaves to show us tiny tubs of chilies and fish sauce nestled beneath them. “Careful with fresh chili,” he tells us. “Is spicy.”
After Hai packs our meals neatly in a paper bag, we carry them down the block to a dry patch of grass wedged between sidewalks and sit down in the dirt. We pour the tiny tubs of sauces over the beef and bread, top them with sliced fresh cucumbers, and use the larger green leaves like tortilla shells. The beef lives up to the savory smell in Hai’s hallway. Neither of us is confident that our lettuce burrito method is the proper way to eat the dish, but the joggers and cars that pass us don’t seem to mind.
After enjoying the next two days in perfect health, I meet Wang back at the Josephine offices, where he has spent his 26th birthday pinpointing locations outside of California where Josephine might launch next. Seattle, Portland, and Denver all look promising. The company had already started accepting cook applications globally around the time that Berkeley and Alameda delivered the cease-and-desist letters, and hundreds of cooks have submitted interest forms.
The night before, Wang and Jorgensen had gathered a group of activists, nonprofits, and leaders of economic development programs to consider the options: Josephine could petition for a county-level pilot, but it would still require state-level approval. It could attempt to have California agree to a stay of action that would effectively de-prioritize enforcement for a period, but since enforcement had already occurred, that seemed like a moot point.
Josephine had no shortage of support. Even Wyoming state representative Tyler Lindholm, who had co-sponsored that state’s food freedom law, had called to weigh in with advice. (“I know it probably seems weird, giving my home phone number, but here in Wyoming,” he noted in a message on Jorgensen’s voicemail, “It gets a little more personal.)” Even so, the startup’s future was uncertain.
Reaching a compromise with the CCDEH would appease only one stakeholder, environmental health officials. In addition to violating current health regulations, Josephine cooks use residential property for commercial purposes. The original cottage food law in California deals with potential traffic issues by capping such businesses at $50k of annual revenue, and at least a couple of Josephine’s cooks have sold more than that limit. The Sustainable Economies Law Center, meanwhile, believes the law should include some provision to prevent for-profit companies from acting as middlemen between cooks and consumers (it is unclear whether the center would characterize Josephine this way).
“How can we decriminalize neighborhood-based sales of homemade meals in a way that disrupts corporate control of the food system,” wrote Christina Oatfield, the nonprofit’s policy director, in a blog post, “rather than simply adds a few tech giants to the map of corporate control of the food system?”
Even without opposition and with all state representatives on board, an updated bill has almost no chance of passing this year, as the California State Legislature’s last session of the year begins next month.
And barring an urgency provision, if a bill passed next year, it wouldn’t go into effect until January 1, 2018.
Meanwhile, Josephine, which raised money last fall, has enough money in the bank to keep running the business for about 10 months.
The Scorched Earth Approach had taken some hits—though none so fatal as they would have been when these startups were nascent. Shortly after Airbnb lost its campaign in New York, the New York Times reported that it was in talks to raise another round of funding at a $30 billion valuation, which would make it the second-most valuable private company based in the United States, behind Uber.
And if not Scorched Earth, then how should startups and government work together? “Nobody has figured that out,” Samuels says. “There is no answer. Regulators are grappling with this. It comes up at every conference, every panel discussion.”
Samuels, who says that the Scorched Earth Approach “is no longer feasible for a vast majority of startups,” believes that sunset provisions, which require that legislative bodies actively renew laws, could in theory help ease the clashing of tech and government by forcing legislatures to address changes in the world. Bradley Tusk, the political consultant who helped orchestrate Uber’s campaign against De Blasio, recently proposed “innovation lanes,” in which governors would grant a handful of dubiously legal startups yearly permits to operate under trial regulations. “The fault, I think, is on both sides,” he said while announcing the idea. “On the tech side, I think sometimes we’re arrogant. We always choose to beg for forgiveness rather than ask for permission and when we beg for forgiveness, we’re not very nice about it. On the government side, they’re doing the bidding of entrenched interests and campaign donors.” Restaurants theoretically might oppose competition from food startups, but the current political opposition is from health regulators, who would see experimentation as risking people’s lives.
Nick Grossman, a general manager at venture capital firm Union Square Ventures, sees Silicon Valley’s current legal struggles as a signal that the way we regulate should change. Currently, he says we emphasize permission. You need permits to run a food business and a license to drive a car. But because granting permission is resource intensive—think of the line at the DMV—it might be easier to think in terms of accountability when it comes to regulating small businesses that sprout up on platforms like Airbnb and Josephine. In a white paper published this April, Grossman argues for “alternative compliance mechanism” in which startups could monitor equity, access, performance, and safety of the operators who use their websites and allow the government to audit that data in exchange for reprieve from traditional regulations.
It has become trendy for government officials to espouse their concern for innovation. Cities have, for instance, sprouted “innovation officers” and launched startup incubators. “Governments are by their nature slow moving,” D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser recently explained on an episode of Andreessen Horowtiz’s podcast. “I think what you’re going to find is that most elected officials want to have the best services that are available that are affordable and safe for their residents. The more they know about your business and your service and what it does to make your jurisdiction the best, you’re going to have a lot of support.” On another episode, Congressman Greg Walden said that, “We can’t afford to lose that innovation, that incredible capacity to improve human life, because we’ve got some silly regulation out there.”
Of course, there’s another option, which is to simply accept that government and change are supposed to clash. “It’s too difficult not to be subjective on that,” Malan says when I ask him what he thinks of some sort of “innovation lane” solution. “Taxes, gay rights: Whatever your issue is, if you feel the system is moving too slowly, you will revert to something outside of the system.”
Food trucks and farmers markets have endured long legal battles in order to operate legally. Maybe innovation is supposed to move forward, not like a sailboat on a gusty day, but like a bowling ball clanking back and forth between the gutter bumpers of an alley. Not efficiently, but in a way that covers most ground, with plenty of time to think before the pins fall. “This is all a negotiation,” Malan says. “Some people bluff. Some people lead strong and capitulate. Other people collaborate right from the beginning. To some extent, it’s a strategy thing. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the system.”
Jorgensen and I meet for at a New York City deli a couple of weeks later. It doesn’t look at all like a restaurant, lacking not only chairs and tables, but also a letter grade from the health department. Inside, there’s a refrigerated buffet bar filled with vegetarian Indian food. “Two,” the man behind the counter tells us, holding up a small Styrofoam bowl in his left hand to indicate it comes with two entrée items, or “three,” as he holds up a bigger bowl in his right hand. The vats are labeled with numbers. I choose number 1, a spinach dish, and 5, yellow spiced vegetables for my small bowl. Matt chooses 2, 5, and 6, chickpeas, daahl, and the yellow vegetables for his large bowl. Each bowl takes a turn in the microwave above the counter. Together, they cost $10.
The restaurant has been operating for more than a decade. How much longer, I wonder, could Josephine have flown under the radar if it had tried harder to be ignored?
Since Wang’s birthday, an Oakland economic development group has committed to working on a white paper with Josephine to demonstrate the economic impact of home cooking businesses. The CCDEH has held its first statewide committee meeting on home food policy, and Josephine received more than 250 applications in June alone from potential cooks globally.
After Uber and Lyft left Austin, a rush of ride-sharing apps filled the space they left. And the odds are good that, if not Josephine, some startup will create a successful online marketplace for homemade food. Josephine plans to target its national expansion in Seattle and Portland, but it doesn’t plan to take quite as proactive of an approach when it comes to working with local government agencies. Instead, it’s hoping that California’s state legislature will set a precedent.
“I still think that there’s a more inclusive way we can do this,” Jorgensen says as he scoops the last of his spiced Indian food from its Styrofoam bowl. “If we survive.”
A new study shows that today’s youth have overthrown the yoke of body-poking wire bras for seamless and activewear alternatives. According to the NPD Group, 41% of millennials say they wore a sports bra in the past seven days (compared to just 21% of older women). “Comfort has always been—in the modern era of the past 50 years—a key driver for bras,” explains Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst of the NPD Group. Nowadays, however, women expect every part of their bra to be comfortable—”comfort has changed from slightly to completely,” says Cohen.
In 2015, the American lingerie market generated $13.2 billion, and industry growth is expected to increase in the next five years, especially since more traditional retailers—such as Topshop, Aritizia, Mango, and Forever 21—have amped up their intimates sections.
The athleisure craze transformed how we used to think of sports bras: gray, thick, and strictly for gym class. Today, women wear their “gym clothes” at all hours, no longer distinguishing workout wear from other categories in their closets. That’s partially because exercise is very cool these days.
“There is such an awareness around fitness trends, whether it’s going to a cycling class or a boot camp,” says style expert and Today Show contributor Lilliana Vazquez. “Sports bras have almost become women’s badge of honor from their workout and having a body that’s fitting of just wearing a sports bra.”
Victoria’s Secret and Victoria’s Secret Pink still enjoy the biggest piece of the lingerie market pie, but more and more companies now cater to millennials’ underwear needs. Perhaps one of the biggest brands of the Instagram generation is none other than Forever 21, which has witnessed a huge interest in sports bras. Their collection features design details such as graphic prints, plunging necklines, mesh overlays, and unique straps.
“Our customers want an edgy look going to and from the gym or even on a casual day,” says a representative for the company. “With the current street-to-gym trend, we have seen many of our customers gravitate toward athleisure pieces, and [millennials] are looking for novelty that is sexy and functional.”
Even C9 Champion, the athletic brand Target produced in collaboration with Hanes, has ramped up its offerings. Earlier this year, it unveiled its reinvented sports bra category—and it looks nothing like Jane Fonda’s workout attire—with fresh cuts and fun colors like “aurora purple” and “deep sea coral.”
“Recognizing the importance of the category, a significant amount of product testing was conducted and several styles were invented to better serve consumers,” a spokesperson tells Fast Company, noting the goal was to marry comfort and style at affordable prices.
These brands are heavily investing in fabric quality, relying on high-end materials that can withstand a woman’s long and busy day. Aritzia, for example, uses breathable, organic cotton-modal jersey—with spandex added for stretch and shape retention.
“We search high and low for soft elastics and fabrics that are comfortable to wear,” says Aritzia merchandise director Erin Meadows. “Our selection of lifestyle bra tops are made from many of the same great fabrics we use for our leggings.”
The sport bra’s more feminine cousin, the bralette, has also seen a dramatic uptick in popularity. The latest fashion fads show off a lot of skin, and for that, a cool bra is necessary. Bralettes are nearly everywhere now; it’s the “it” undergarment. You can blame models for this trend.
“So much of what’s trending is open back and super low-cut in the front, and while that’s fine for Kendall Jenner or Gigi Hadid, for the average woman you need coverage to wear that day-to-day,” explains Vazquez, who looks to brands like Michi, For Love and Lemons, and the activewear e-commerce site Carbon38 for underwear options that can be worn under such body-bearing outfits. “A bralette is a great way to participate in that trend and have a tiny bit of coverage for all of us non-supermodels.”
Aeropostale’s activewear line, Live Love Dream, has “grown exponentially” in the past two years, according to the company, with bralettes especially popular with customers looking for lace styles reminiscent of more traditional intimates. The brand’s wireless bras, featuring unique cuts like high necks and strappy details, can be incorporated into everyday looks: You’ll definitely see them peeking out of backless T-shirts, crop tops, or oversized dresses this summer.
While millennials might be driving this trend, plenty of companies see a similar movement in the market with older generations.
“I call this the equivalent of sneakers gaining share versus dress shoes in the shoe market,” explains True & Co. cofounder and CEO Michelle Lam. Her company relies on consumer feedback to adjust its collections, such as its recent push away from the Jessica Rabbit staple, the push-up bra.
True & Co.
According to the company’s findings, four out of five women now say they’ve ditched that sexy style. True & Co.’s push-up sales dropped from 24% to 15% in a single year, while unlined bras—wire-free styles and bralettes—were the company’s biggest growth area with its customers. Within that category, nearly half of True & Co.’s customers wanted “lightly lined” bras—which means the bra features slight molding (read: nipple-coverage), but no full-on pad.
It’s a change documented by Helena Stuart, founder of lingerie brand Only Hearts, who has seen it all throughout 38 years in the lingerie business—the vintage John Kloss era, the aerobics fitness craze of the ’80s, the Madonna molded-cup fad of the ’90s, and the introduction of the Wonderbra. The late ’90s, she explains, saw a move into demure sensuality, one that embraced a seamless silhouette.
“I truly believe we’re embarking in the next huge shift in trends where we’re celebrating the natural female silhouette,” says Stuart, who notes that women are shedding the notion that breasts need artificial padding. “So many factors—comfort, practicality, social climate, fashion trends—have led customers to embrace the ‘barely there’ look.” Only Hearts, available in more than 300 stores worldwide, has experienced a 40% increase in demand for bralettes and soft cup bras in the last two years.
“The thought process is shifting to feeling our natural shapes are sexy and beautiful as is,” she stresses.
The wire-free movement has extended beyond established brands—and even inspired some new startups.
Michelle Cordeiro Grant, a former senior merchant for Victoria’s Secret, only last year began scheming about how she might create clothing that melded sexiness with a healthy dose of confidence.
“I felt like I was always choosing between a comfortable, basic, boring bra or something super stylish,” she says, “but I didn’t feel good in it.”
Last August she launched Lively, which features a hybrid of high style and comfort that Grant calls “leisurée.” It takes “the inspiration behind athlesiure, and the cool-handed boldness of swimwear, and the functionality of lingerie” to create bralettes with substantial support.
“We look at ourselves as being the athleisure brand within lingerie,” explains Grant, whose largest demographic is women between 25 and 34 years old, followed by the 18- to 25-year-old bracket. Her company’s direct-to-consumer website went live on April 1 with a grassroots marketing strategy: a referral program for 250 of Grant’s friends and family to earn points toward future purchases for every person they got to sign up for Lively’s email list.
“We were hoping for maybe 5,000-10,000 email [sign-ups] over a three-week period,” said Grant, “and we got 133,000 in two days. Our servers crashed” from all the traffic those emails sent to Lively’s website. The message that style and comfort no longer need to be mutually exclusive concepts had struck a chord among shoppers, which certainly didn’t surprise Grant.
“You wear a bra for 14 hours” a day, points out Grant, who compares the ideal bra to that one pair of jeans you love to live in. “That’s what your bra should be,” she says.
What’s next for the future of bras? Likely even more comfort. True & Co. has witnessed a great surge of interest in a product called the Snuggle Bra, a breathable, all-day wear product marketed as “like wearing no bra at all.” It’s been been hard for the company to keep the Snuggle Bra in stock.
“We observed that women, especially new moms going back to work, were wearing sports bras under their dress shirts versus going back to figuring out their bra size,” Lam says, explaining the inspiration behind the the Snuggle Bra. “Many of these women intended for it to be a stopgap measure until their bodies returned to normal, but they were often wearing full compression for six months or more.”
It’s listening to that type of consumer feedback that will help lingerie companies evolve and grow. For example, as the NPD Group points out from their research, seamless styling needs to be part of every female underwear brand’s merchandising strategy. “Seamless bra styles are increasingly top of mind for consumers of all ages, especially millennials, and can no longer be an afterthought for manufacturers and retailers,” says Cohen.
With all these new options, women can say goodbye to the days when taking off their bra was the first thing they wanted to do when they got home. As Grant notes, it’s almost like we’re living through a wardrobe revolution.
“We have [Lively customers] who have bought more than four times already without making one return,” she says. “They’re literally swapping out their drawers—and for me, that’s a dream come true.”
Slideshow Credits: 01 / Photo: courtesy of Lively;02 / Photo: courtesy of Michi;03 / Photo: courtesy of Only Hearts;