For decades, most women have had the same experience when it comes to bra shopping: They enter a dressing room and try on a variety of bras until they find one that fits (or is the least uncomfortable). And while bras come in different styles (push-up bra, sports bra, strapless), size options have remained relatively unchanged.
“It’s an industry that hasn’t been innovated very much until recently,” says Veronique Powell, vice president of operations at ThirdLove, an online startup that specializes in bras. “We’re talking about an industry where the latest major innovation was the push-up bra, which was introduced 30 years ago, yet it’s a product category that women wear every day.”
ThirdLove is the brain child of Heidi Zak, an MIT-educated former Google executive, and her husband David Spector, a fellow MIT alum and ex-Googler. “I saw a need in the market,” Zak tells Forbes. “I was in my early 30s and still shopping at Victoria’s Secret. But they never had a bra that fit me, because I discovered I was a half-cup size.”
Zak had a hunch that other women faced similar fit issues and set out to fill the void. In 2013, Zak and Spector left their jobs and launched ThirdLove. They worked with lingerie designer Ra’el Cohen, who became the San Francisco-based company’s first hire, to research bras and the women who wear them. They analyzed the fit of various brands, organized bra-fitting focus groups with hundreds of women, and even developed a computer-vision-technology app to help women find their bra size.
From their research, they concluded that over a third of women fall in between standard cup sizes. Armed with this insight and others, Zak and Cohen focused on creating bras with a better fit using half-cup sizes and memory foam, among other details. In spring 2014, ThirdLove launched its first online collection with seven different prototype bras.
To ensure customers were shopping with the right measurements, the ThirdLove app, which was built by an in-house team of computer vision and image recognition engineers, used a machine learning algorithm to analyze photos that a user took of herself in a tank top to recommend the brand’s bras tailored to her exact size. It wasn’t long, though, before other brands began imitating ThirdLove and offering bras in half-cup sizes. The company had to keep innovating to stay ahead of its competitors.