While COVID-19 forced the startup to fly by the seat of its innovative adventure pants, SheFly Apparel has ironed out supply chain issues and is now delivering its first orders.
Like so many entrepreneurs, the company's founders saw a need for a product that didn't exist and developed it. In this case, they developed and patented -- now in 30 countries -- a zipper that makes it easier for women to go to the bathroom outdoors.
The double-zip system has a fly like traditional pants and then a secondary zipper from the crotch to the back of the pants, making for an experience comparable to what men's pants and bloomers have delivered since they first had flies in the mid-1800s.
"We launched the company from our dorm room at Middlebury College in Vermont," says co-founder and COO Charlotte Massey. "My co-founder, Georgia Grace [Edwards], first came up with the idea because she was working as a glacier guide in Alaska and she was one of the only female guides. She was constantly frustrated at having to take off her pants to try to find privacy when up on a glacier. She and her high school friends would sew secondary zippers into their adventure pants.
"Everybody on our team has experienced similar struggles. I grew up mountaineering in Washington State and climbed all the volcanoes with my dad when I was in high school. I was frustrated at having to remove my harness in order to go to the bathroom when all the men didn't have to. It was literally putting my life at risk. And then we have other team members who have gotten UTIs from not being able to go to the bathroom easily."
SheFly began working on the designs in 2018 and launched their first crowdfunding campaign in spring 2019 for their Go There Pant in a wide range of women's sizes. They more than tripled their original goal of raising $15,000 on IFundWomen, raising $54,824 for the first production run.
Massey says the company worked with a fair trade manufacturing facility in Dharamshala, India, for their first run. Then COVID-19 hit. "We did not anticipate a pandemic coming," she says. "The [facility in India] unfortunately went bankrupt at the start of COVID and completely shut down. It was in the middle of our first production," Massey explains. "We lost all of our fabric and hardware that we had stored there and had no way to get it out of India because they banned the transport of non-essential goods. So we had to start over and rebuild our supply chain."
Things started looking up when SheFly got into the Moosejaw Outdoor Accelerator in Gunnison, Colorado, then won a $50,000 loan through the Greater Colorado Pitch Series. The company relocated to Colorado in late 2021.
"We came out and spent six weeks there learning about outdoor industry and business, and really loved the community that we found here and the support in the valley," says Massey. "We've been really lucky and have gotten a lot of support from Colorado. We got a $75,000 grant from the City of Gunnison for moving our headquarters, then we also got $156,000 in hiring incentives from OEDIT, and we've also gotten support from Greenline Ventures."
SheFly's work with the accelerator and the ICELab helped it rebuild its supply chain and secure funding for its first actual order of 6,000 units, which are being manufactured in China. "We will be in stock soon and we are open for pre-orders so people can order online and those will be shipping in July," Massey says. "We have another 6,000 coming this fall, and then that's gonna be it for this year. So we are definitely anticipating selling out."
After the company won an Outdoor Retailer Innovation Award in early 2022, demand remains high. "We had over 6,000 people on our waitlist before we relaunched pre-sales," Massey says. "And we did about $60,000 in revenue in the first 48 hours after we opened it again. There's huge demand and people are very, very excited about getting the pants."
Looking ahead, SheFly plans to increase its order size and offerings. "We're definitely going to be ramping up production. Our main focus is on increasing our size range right now. We're not able to offer every color and every size as we can't meet our factories' minimums. Then we're also adding additional products. So that's where a lot of our growth is focused," Massey explains.
To give the company's production more stability, it's also diversifying its manufacturing base to Vietnam and California.
"We definitely launched an apparel brand at one of the most difficult times to be in manufacturing," explains Massey. "That has taught us a lot. And I think going forward now, we have a much more realistic idea of timelines and the challenges that we could encounter. And that is definitely shaping our strategy where we're diversifying our supply chain and focusing on simplifying. That way we can make sure that we can always have product to sell, even if one part of the world shuts down."
Challenges: "Our biggest challenge is the global supply chain right now. There's so much that's outside of our control and we're doing our best to minimize those challenges," Massey says.
Opportunities: "We see a huge opportunity in the number of different products that need a zipper so that people can pee," Massey says. "We can design for the outliers and for people who have been historically excluded from access to the outdoors. And we see other brands not catering towards groups who are not fitting the mold of your typical cis white male outdoors is our opportunity to create products that are specifically designed around inclusion."
Beyond SheFly's catalog, licensing presents an opportunity. "Our mission is to make this design as accessible as possible so that everyone who could utilize the technology is able to have access to it," says Massey. "We get requests for new products almost every day, ranging from fishing waders to ski pants to kids pants and anything that you could think of. There are tons of different uses also for adaptive athletes and people who utilize wheelchairs and people who have catheters."
Needs: "We are going to need everyone possible to support our growth and spread the word about the brand and explain the way that the zipper works," Massey says. "We need more people to have access to the product and then also buy the product."