This lingerie company thinks it can win women's hearts -- and chests -- with technology

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on February 13, 2014

From The News Desk

ThirdLove entered the hotly contested lingerie startup market with a bit of a bang -- a boob-shaped bang. After it launched in November the headlines screamed "take a selfie of your breasts and send it to this company!" Creepy marketing hook? Just a little.

The company had developed an app for measuring a woman's bra size with merely a couple of photos. The pictures could be taken in a tight tank top or a bra, but that didn't stop netizens from wondering how long it would take for hackers to hack ThirdLove system for bare titty photos.

The gimmick overwhelmed the significance of ThirdLove's real power: it combines the best of its underwear competitors' worlds.

A bunch of companies have appeared in recent years to take on the lingerie industry. True&Co was the first to market, with an online questionnaire that fed women's answers into an algorithm to tell them their size and shape. Then women would receive a sample box of the types of brands and bras that might look best on them.  I have a friend who swears by it, and says she was never able to find a comfortable, pretty bra that met her needs (wide rib cage, medium chest, thin shoulders) before it.

Then there's Ampere, a company that has created 28 unique sizes so that women can order a bra that fits their person body, even if they're really a 31 B- instead of a 32 B.

When you look behind ThirdLove's gimmicky breast-picture-sizing app, it turns out the company combines True&Co and Ampere's value adds. Its technology helps you find an exact bra size (True&Co) and it produces and sells bras that fit a range of sizes thanks to half cups (Ampere).

Its sizing app, which I saw demoed for the first time yesterday at the company's offices, is remarkable. A video walks you through the process, and the app uses the phone's inner gyroscope to make sure it's being held at the right angles. That way the photo can measure the phones' size (iOS only) and use it to determine the bra size.

It calculates the information in real time and gives you your "ThirdLove" bra size. Just like with Ampere, ThirdLove does half cups to meet the needs of women who are in between.

Lastly, ThirdLove manufactures all its own bras, so it's able to build bras of all the interim sizes (up to a DD, G come March). Women can size themselves automatically on the app, pick from four bra types, and order them immediately.

This is in contrast to True&Co, where you would receive sample boxes to test which brands and sizes fit you best, shipping it back until you have a match. The same goes for Ampere.

I've been meaning to try True&Co for ages and never got around to it because the idea of getting bra shipments, sending them back, then waiting for more exhausted me. But with ThirdLove the process could be finished instantaneously.

ThirdLove has one big drawback. Its bra collection does not yet take into account body shapes, like oval breasts versus round ones. So even if you get a perfect ThirdLove size that doesn't mean the bra you order from them is going to feel quite as right as a bra picked for you through True&Co's algorithm.

All these lingerie companies that are making their own products have big hurdles ahead of them. They aren't pure marketplaces -- they're vertically integrated e-commerce experiences. And as we've learned, very few e-commerce companies can compete with the likes of Amazon and Zappos on price. To beat these giants, e-commerce startups must develop niches. Product curation is key.

Even with a strong product brand and design, in retail there are still scaling challenges. We've seen Fab face those in recent months with its doomed, rapid international expansion, its overspending on marketing to acquire new users, and its reliance on its unpredictable lead tastemaker.

Managing clothing production, balancing supply and demand, dealing with shipments, and acquiring customers are by no means simple processes. If it's not done right, the profit margins can diminish or disappear entirely. E-commerce has not proven to be a safe, easy realm for startups.

By being a vertically integrated company, ThirdLove faces all of these risks. It has to spend money to acquire users, but also spend money on production. It has to try to match what users want without overproducing. It has to ensure great operational systems.

With $5.6 million in venture money it will eventually need to expand, but will need to go at a steady rate so it doesn't overextend itself. Meanwhile, it will be competing against its competitors, trying to win the hearts of women online before True&Co or others do. The challenges are much higher than if ThirdLove were simply a technology marketplace, pairing women to other bra producers after helping them find the right size. That would be the safer, far less disruptive bet.

That said, ThirdLove holds a power position by being vertically integrated. The company can offer customers something special that is dramatically different from the traditional brick-and-mortar experience, like the half cup bra sizes. They can also test new colors and designs, iterating rapidly as the market demands. Co-founder Heidi Zak has decided the risk is worth it to attempt to unseat -- or at least annoy -- the big lingerie businesses.

Lingerie isn't the only e-commerce clothing industry seeing a trend towards personalization. Companies are hoping they can use technology to scale tailored fits for the masses. There's a handful of men's clothing companies doing exactly that, like Threadmason, Stantt, and Vastrm. We haven't seen it in woman's outerwear yet, but the lingerie companies are all tapping into it.

ThirdLove appears to be doing the best job of making it an easy, seamless process from start to finish for the user, but I won't know until I buy one of their bras myself and see how it fits.

Stay tuned.

[image via ThirdLove]