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How 2 women are changing the frustrating process of shopping for a bridesmaid dress

"I think you just have to wake up and ask, 'What problems am I going to solve today?'"
Tyler Essary / TODAY

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By Courtney Gisriel

We are all works in progress; even the successful women you see owning it on Instagram faced stumbling blocks along the way and continue to work hard to stay at the top of their game. In this series, we're sitting down with the people that inspire us to find out: How'd they do it? And what is success really like? This is "Getting There."

They're unnecessarily expensive, pretty much disposable and never seem to fit the way they should. That's right, we're talking bridesmaids dresses.

After years of working in fashion journalism and financial consulting, best friends Grace Lee and Monica Ashauer decided it was time to disrupt the fraught process of buying a bridesmaids dress. Enter Birdy Grey.

With styles under $100 that can be delivered within seven days, their goal is to help bridal parties focus on friendship rather than frustration. Launched in 2018, the company has quickly become a go-to for brides who prefer ease and efficiency. Here's how they got there.

Was there anything that intimidated you about starting this company in the beginning?

Grace Lee: The biggest roadblocks were, and it sounds cliché, but overcoming the mental roadblock of actually doing it. Everyone has so many good ideas, but we come up with a million reasons why not. What if I fail? What if I can't get another job if I fail? What if I run out of money? Or what if I don't want to make changes to my lifestyle? I think it was getting over some of those challenges.

But I was at a place in my life where I was like, "This is a good idea."

Was there a time when you almost gave up or a roadblock that you faced that felt insurmountable?

Lee: In the early days, it was very physically demanding. I was hauling dresses, from my car to my living room, Ikea bags full of things being sent out to the post office. Hand-cutting swatches until my hands bled. It was really hard.

I'd say now our challenges are different. The things that you never expect to happen will happen. What can go wrong will go wrong. So it's really about attitude and how you problem-solve. There's never been a point when I was like, "You know what I don't want to do this anymore, it's too much." But there have been times when we've both been very tested.

Grace Lee worked as a fashion journalist before launching Birdy Grey. Tyler Essary/TODAY

Monica Ashauer: I would say start-up life is unique in that it is so relentless. I think you just have to wake up and ask, "What problems am I going to solve today?" And look at that as an exciting privilege — you're in a seat where you get to actually be the person who's responsible for solving those problems.

Is there a trick you have for maintaining that mindset of kind of opportunity rather than a problem? Is there something that you tap into?

Ashauer: At Birdy Grey East, as we call it, we work from my living room, so it's my happy place. And every morning when I turn on the computer and get ready to login for the day's challenges, I light a really beautiful candle and I play really soothing classical calm music and I have my whole Zen base set up and then I crack my knuckles and I'm like, "Go!"

It's an expensive candle, too, which I would never do, but I feel like I deserve this candle.

Lee: For me, it's a morning ritual as well. I make myself what I call the "Beauty Coffee" or the "Founder Coffee." And it's basically black coffee with a scoop of Moon Juice Dust and it gives me so much energy. Without it, I would not be able to take on the day like I do.

Was there a moment or any feedback that you received that really encouraged to keep going down this path?

Lee: You know, it's something small but it's had a huge impact. In 2018, we didn't have dusty blue or sage and almost every single day a customer would email us or DM us and ask, "When are you launching dusty blue? When are you launching sage?"

Then we started the process and came up with a range of shades and I would just take an Instagram poll and be like, "Do you like this shade of sage or this shade of sage?"

We developed it and sage is now our No. 1 bestseller. It's our bestselling color, period. It keeps the lights on at Birdy Grey.

That becomes really important: You have to listen to your customers.

What experiences recently have helped challenge you or help you grow as an entrepreneur?

Lee: It's so crazy because I feel like our business is growing so quickly that everything changes month over month. Challenges that felt so major three months ago are nothing now.

We just recently put together a brand book, and we put together our long-term vision and our goals for 2020. That was so insanely helpful.

For more like this, follow TMRW on Instagram at @tmrwxtoday.

We started the business, and it was just this scrappy idea and I was like, "Let's see if it sticks." And it felt like I was just going, going, going and I was kind of afraid that I wasn't building a foundation or a culture. So recently, Monica and I, based on feedback that our employees gave us, sat down and decided, "OK, let's get alignment on who we are, what our values are, what our goals are. And then let's share that with the team."

It wasn't easy because you start to really dig deep into: What drives me? What is our North Star? How are we going to do this? But once we did that exercise, it became crystal clear who we are as a company and where we want to go.

Monica Ashauer's background includes time consulting for large corporations on strategy and operations. Tyler Essary/TODAY

Ashauer: Putting it on paper and then asking, "OK, so what does this actually mean for our 2020 goals?" actually changed the direction for the year.

For example, we are a female-founded company, we have an all-female team. We know in our gut that we want to do things that are about female empowerment, but we weren't being very strategic about it.

Now that it's on there — we are a company that cares about women and about rising them up — we had a brainstorming session about how else we can do this. Now we have three different workstreams that are all about supercharging that value and bringing it to life in a more tangible way.

I would imagine that exercise also impacted the things that you decide not to do at the same time.

Lee: For sure. We do bridesmaid dresses, but do we do bridal party stuff? Do we do ancillary categories? Are we ever gonna do men's? Are we ever going to do wedding gowns? Are we going to do things for the bride?

I think sitting down and really thinking about what we want to be, which is to be the No. 1 destination for bridal party needs, it really helps keep that focus.

Ashauer: When we look at a lot of our competition, they offer a lot more variety and breadth. But one of our principles is "less is more" because the woman that we target cares more about the gift of time and not about like nth degree of variety.

We just have to make that decision and hope that we can still continue to grow with this core customer that we believe in.

What motivates you to kind of keep going on this path?

Lee: It's almost like being a parent. You love it so much and it's a product of all of your hard work and you've put in so much passion and energy and time into it that like the option of not caring for it is not even on the table.

Ashauer: It's really hard and it sucks most of the time and everyone says, "You're crazy to do it." And yet something is compelling you to do it. And once you do it, you're like, this is the best thing ever. That sense of accomplishment and teamwork is a total high.

I think there's also a healthy dose of fear, to be totally candid. This is our livelihood. We've sunk everything into this, so failure is not an option. For two children of immigrant parents from Korean American culture, where you have to deliver and perform and be a doctor be a lawyer or whatever, yeah, success matters a ton.

So I feel a lot of pressure to prove to myself, to my family, to my peers, to our investors, to our friends who have been so helpful along the way, that we were smart enough and hardworking enough to really knock it out of the park.

What advice would you give to somebody who wants to turn their idea into reality?

Lee: Just go for it. Do it.

I see a lot of entrepreneurs who get analysis paralysis. They are their own worst enemy. They are their biggest roadblock. When we first started, someone told me, "Don't quit your day job."

I had to get out of my own head and decide, "I'm just gonna do it."

Ashauer: I would also say the thing that's kind of lovely and egalitarian about this brave, new economy is that no one really has that much experience. And a lot of people succeed with zero experience and having no idea what to do. You are just as incompetent as the other 50 entrepreneurs who then built a company and are laughing from their yacht in St-Tropez.

You are completely entitled to go for it as much as any other Joe Schmo Tech Bro that did it and is "crushing it." So don't be held back.

For women, especially, who are a little bit more risk-averse: You're just as qualified as the next person and you have to believe in yourself.