Update: Frill’s founders won over the Shark Tank judges March 6, making a deal with sharks Barbara Corcoran and Kevin O’Leary to hand over 30 percent of their company in return for a $100K investment. They also earned national headlines in Entertainment Weekly, Upstart Business Journal and Page Six.
This Friday night, we’ll witness a pair of unassuming young Raleigh fashion entrepreneurs try to convince the world’s most famous Sharks that sorority recruitment and bridal fashion is big business.
Their company is Frill, a made-to-order dress and skirt making startup that launched three years ago while founders Sharon Bui and Kate Steadman were students at North Carolina State University and Appalachian State University. More than 40 sororities around the country have hired the company since then to design custom dresses or skirts to outfit hundreds of members, each paying $60 to $120 an item. Now, those women are visiting Frill to buy monogrammed jewelry, bags, hats and other accessories, or dresses for their weddings. The founders envision Frill will become the one-stop shop for sorority recruitment and gifting year-round.
At least that was the pitch to Shark Tank during the filming last June. The women can’t reveal much about the show, besides that they nailed the questioning—a tougher tank was a gathering of friends and family who grilled them prior to the event, leaving them in tears but ready for their national television debut.
I sat down with Bui and Steadman two weeks ago to talk Shark Tank and learn about their business and entrepreneurial journey. Our videographer also filmed the pair at their workspace in Raleigh—the highlights are in the video below:
Many things are striking about the women, considering trends today in entrepreneurship. They have surprisingly few advisors. While Bui was a member of the Garage at NC State, the founders didn’t go through an accelerator program or work out of an incubator. According to NC State’s Entrepreneurship Initiative, they entered the lulu eGames but didn’t make it past the first round.
They funded the company with $850 from their own bank accounts, and are profitable today with salaried employees and a line of credit from a bank.
Their idea was born from a problem Bui witnessed firsthand as a member of Chi Omega sorority. She spent hundreds of dollars every year on expensive dresses that didn’t fit right. She thought there had to be a better way to give sorority girls a contemporary and memorable look, while factoring body types, personal style and budget. She wasn’t a designer, but was working toward a degree in fashion textile management. She paid extra attention in her required entrepreneurship classes at NC State. And she taught herself to sew.
Bui and Steadman met as interns for a now defunct local designer named Austin Jade. Bui handled marketing and customer relations there and Steadman, an advertising major with a minor in apparel at App State, worked in production, sourcing materials and developing relationships with pattern makers. The business struggled and they learned some lessons in what not to do as entrepreneurs. But the key realization was that they worked well together and had complimentary skills.
They joked about starting a business together, but it wasn’t until Bui recognized the problem of dressing for sorority recruitment that they had a viable idea. In January 2012, they pooled their money to register the business with the state and open a bank account. Bui’s sorority was their first customer, and four other sororities signed on soon after an article ran in The News and Observer that year.
A year later, the business took off in an unexpected way when a photo of three sorority girls wearing coral Frill skirts went viral on Pinterest.
“All the sudden, brides all over the world wanted our skirts for their weddings,” Bui says. “We didn’t spend a penny on advertising.”
Bridal soon made up 40 percent of the business and caused some unique challenges. For example, the women didn’t have a website, so they had to take orders via email and collect checks through the mail. They also struggled to find seamstresses that could fulfill all the orders in the time promised, forcing Bui and Steadman to sew long into the night to complete dresses. No factory would take the business because the orders weren’t quite large enough.
They also hadn’t yet finished school—Steadman graduated in May 2013 and Bui in December 2013.
But by the end of 2013, they’d made items for 18 sororities and dozens of weddings. They’d earned enough money to launch an e-commerce site (which Steadman designed herself in Photoshop) and hire their own seamstresses to complete bridal orders. They also had enough business to convince a California factory to handle the sorority orders. In 2014, 22 bridal stores carried their dresses or skirts. And, with buzz from a story inTotal Sorority Move, they outfitted 42 sororities around the country. This year, the goal is 100.
Why Shark Tank, and how they prepared
Anthony Pompliano, a Triangle tech startup founder who sold his company and now works for Facebook in Silicon Valley, has served as Frill’s advisor and talks over the business on weekly phone calls. It was only after Shark Tank was a done deal that the women told him about their decision to appear (They’d already completed 15 rounds of paperwork, submitted videos and received the casting call). That shows a bit about their character.
“I already knew they were pretty good entrepreneurs but this was the first time I saw them with little to no help convince somebody else that this is a real business,” he says. “I saw that next-level focus—we want to build this into a multi-million dollar business.”
The women paid a special visit to Pompliano last summer to practice their Shark Tank pitch. He was impressed.
“They are silent assassins—they get shit done,” he says. “That is their best quality.”
Before recording the show, the women watched every episode and studied the Sharks, the types of investments they made and questions they asked. They decided to target Barbara Corcoran—her portfolio companies got the most attention from Shark Tank after the fact. They decided who would answer each type of question (Bui, marketing and sorority; Steadman, sourcing & production, design and bridal). They studied the market—3,129 sororities exist in the U.S. today and they spend thousands of dollars each year on dues, apparel and gifts.
They discussed what sort of deal they would entertain—how much cash they would take and equity they would be willing to give up to an outside investor. Bui especially struggled with the thought of giving up a portion of the business.
“The best advice I received is that they want to make as much money as you want to make,” Bui says. “When I heard that, I said, ‘Done deal.'”
Since the filming, the women rebuilt their website to be able to handle the traffic likely to come later this week—they researched e-commerce back-end software most likely not to crash after a Shark Tank episode and decided to go with Shopify due to its perfect record.
They added products from 10 vendors to provide more options for sorority and bridal shopping. They have the capacity to scale up to six seamstresses from the two working for Frill today.
When I asked what the future holds for Frill, the women had an uncommon response for an aggressive young company. They won’t project sales or set big multi-year goals. They just want to grow.
And they think Shark Tank will help make it happen.
*A correction is reflected in paragraph after the video. The original paragraph stated that Frill did not participate in the lulu eGames. In fact, the company applied but didn’t make it past the first round.