What happens when you build a community first, then launch your product? What if you decided to build that community without even letting members in on what product you’re eventually going to launch?
Some investors might balk at that strategy. But that’s exactly the approach Michelle Cordeiro Grant took when she launched LIVELY in 2016. After years of working at Victoria’s Secret, she realized that there was a $13 billion category being dominated by one brand and one point-of-view. So she set out to launch a brand that inspired women to live purposefully and confidently through experiences and products, which now include everything from bras to loungewear, swimwear and activewear. Wondering how that crazy launch strategy worked out for her? As LIVELY’s five year anniversary approaches on April 1st, Cordeiro Grant is able to look back at how she built a network of 140,000+ ambassadors, opened four stores, started a podcast and led her empire through an acquisition by Wacoal for $105 million.
Michelle Cordeiro Grant, Founder and CEO of LIVELY
Amy Shoenthal: How did you come up with the idea for LIVELY?
Michelle Cordeiro Grant: It came to me while I was working at Victoria’s Secret. it wasn’t one single moment, but towards the end of my tenure, I began to notice that I didn’t feel confident or comfortable in the product I was working with. I wanted to create a brand that catered to real, authentic women who felt more like me. We simply weren’t being spoken to with what was being offered in the market.
Shoenthal: What obstacles did you face as you were starting out?
Cordeiro Grant: LIVELY’s biggest obstacle was that we grew way faster than I could have ever expected. When we launched we did something completely backwards. We took a concept and then focus grouped our decisions. We had 10-12 women focus groups for every image, every tagline, every word. That’s why we don’t say panties or underwear, we say ‘undies.’
When we launched in 2016, there were no Instagram stories. We were all living in the grid. We saw people who were creating really great content, so we reached out to about 100 women, mostly in the middle of the country, who were the mouthpieces of their communities.
We also mimicked the Harry’s Razors model and decided that every person who submitted their email address before launch would get a credit towards their first purchase. They didn’t know what the product was or what it cost. We emailed 250 people and asked them to share it with their friends. I was in disbelief when we received 133,000 email signups in the first 48 hours. The servers crashed, the whole thing blew up. My initial reaction was that the system must have been hacked, but our team quickly assured me that it was real. That was a moment where I knew we had something. And that’s the story of how LIVELY shipped to every state in the country in the first 45 days with no paid media.
Shoenthal: Explain to me how you got so many people to sign up without even knowing what the product was?
Cordeiro Grant: We said we’re a brand that’s launching in April and that we believed women should be wild hearts and boss brains. Then we sent them some images they could share on Instagram and said this brand is going live on April 1st, feel free to post this image — and they did it! And they also bought the product. We still get 200-300 UGC images a week from our community.
Shoenthal: At the end of the day, your message resonated. What was it like to take such a risk and watch it succeed beyond what you ever thought was possible?
Cordeiro Grant: When I launched LIVELY, I went at it from a very utopian lens. I set out to do all the things I was told not to do. I was happily surprised that the brand took off pretty immediately, but that rapid growth also presented a lot of questions I didn’t expect to be faced with so quickly — should we go international? Do we want to be in department stores? On Amazon? Should we increase distribution? All of the decisions were coming at us, but we knew from the beginning that LIVELY was always going to be a community-first brand. That anchored all of our decision making and put into perspective that above all else, we needed to be disciplined and consistent with our messaging, narrative and experience. This helped me take everything one step at a time and get it right.
What we planned to do in the first year we did in the first three months. We were lucky that our first investor was our supplier. It was the smartest thing I’ve ever done. Gelmart International is a 70 year old lingerie manufacturing company. It’s a third generation family-owned business. The owner is Yossi Nasser and he and I literally see the world in the same way. He saw Warby’s, Casper and those companies coming up and he saw dusty categories being disrupted. So when I met him in 2015 and he said he wanted to figure out how to launch a direct to consumer brand, and I said I’m trying to get an investor, it was perfect. They were our first investor and our main investor until our company was acquired in 2019. Gelmart is still our supplier. They even have a factory in the Philippines called We LIVELY.
Shoenthal: How has the pandemic forced you to pivot your business?
Cordeiro Grant: When the world came to a halt last year, we were in the final stages of launching a huge marketing campaign for our swimwear line which was going to be our main focus for the following months. Clearly, travel wasn’t happening and swim just didn’t make sense anymore. We took a beat to make sure our employees were safe and settled and checked in with our community to see what they needed from us to feel comfortable. Words that came up a lot were home and cozy, so we quickly pivoted to loungewear, eventually seeing 10X growth in that category year over year. We also pivoted events to digital with our #LivingLivelyAtHome series in order to continue engaging with our community. We transitioned our retail associates into customer service roles and virtual fit stylists to keep up with demand and to keep employees on staff. We took advantage of lower TV advertising costs and launched our first-ever TV ad, which has allowed us to widen our reach across the country and engage with demographics we wouldn’t normally have access to.
We’ve also leaned into shifting consumer trends, such as sustainability and an increased demand for transparency in how products are being made. In May 2020, we made our first-ever foray into the sustainability space with the launch of our eco-friendly swim line, which has been the first stepping stone to becoming an increasingly sustainable company over time.
Shoenthal: I’m a little hesitant to bring this up, but I feel like women aren’t really wearing bras so much anymore.
Cordeiro Grant: Me included! I was so excited to wear pajamas more. Even before the pandemic, I noticed that women were wearing sports bras on weekends, even if they weren’t working out. We called this Leisurèe. So those bralettes are what we launched with. If you have a cup of soup and your body extends, those bralettes extend with you. You don’t want everything hanging out on a Zoom call, so wear the bralette, wear loungewear and you’re good.
LIVELY’s Harbor Green Bralette
We sold loungewear prior to the pandemic but it was like a droplet of our inventory. We have some base fabrics that help us shift from category to category. Modal is the all-day fabric that’s in our bralettes and our loungewear is made of the same fabric. So we asked our suppliers to just produce more of the loungewear we already created. We didn’t have to recreate anything.
My greatest lesson in all of this is that my team is my absolute greatest asset and that has given me the clarity to know where I’m willing and unwilling to make compromises.
Shoenthal: What advice would you give to others embarking on a new venture?
Cordeiro Grant: Don’t let your fear get in the way of enjoying the journey! There will inevitably be highs and lows and in the early days every mistake will seem like the end of the world, but in actuality life is just a series of moments. Try to remember in those tough moments that it will pass and there is always a lesson to be learned.
If you have the itch to start something now is the time. You don’t have to have all the answers.
Amy Shoenthal writes about extraordinary women who are making an impact on culture and society. A marketer by trade, she is passionate about helping brands find