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."
Lori Coulter and Reshma Chattaram Chamberlin are the founders of Summersalt, the direct-to-consumer apparel brand best known for those swimsuits you’ve probably seen all over Instagram. Their goal was to make shopping for a swimsuit a less miserable experience for women and produce pieces that their customers could actually move in comfortably. Since then, they've expanded to activewear and loungewear, too.
Coulter and Chamberlin spoke to TMRW about starting a swimwear company in St. Louis — a city that’s not exactly known for beaches — and shared their advice for raising capital as female entrepreneurs as well as their thoughts on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the retail industry.
TMRW: Where did the first idea for Summersalt come from?
Lori Coulter: My mother and I were discussing her annual trip to Florida and she said, “If we could just make a swimsuit that fits, we’d have a gold mine.” That was the genesis for me.
What was so problematic about swimsuit shopping?
Coulter: I think a swimsuit for many women, no matter their size, brings up all sorts of thoughts and insecurities. It shouldn't be that way. Our goal all along with Summersalt has been to inspire joy in the lives of our consumers, particularly that childlike joy we all felt at the beach as children.
Swim so far has been done in this oversexualized, antiquated way for so long. We thought it was really important to reposition around joy and engaging with life and playing with your children and diving in wherever life might be.
Reshma Chattaram Chamberlin: We were also seeing an empty white space (in the market). On the one hand, there was the cheap swimwear that would disintegrate after a couple of wears. And then on the high end, you have beautiful swimwear that we all admire, but it was very cost prohibitive for a consumer — $300 for a one-piece. Most of our swimwear is $95.
You raised over $600,000 in initial investments — and much more since then. What tips do you have for other female entrepreneurs looking to raise capital?
Coulter: Getting off the ground was really touch and go. It was hard to convince conservative, Midwestern angel investors as two women founders selling a female-oriented product out of the Midwest, with the closest beach being the Mississippi River, that this was an opportunity.
- Just paint the biggest picture of what you’re doing and make sure you’re not underselling. I think women founders tend to be a bit more realistic and it’s just not the right thing to do. You need to really show what (your company) can become.
- Don’t take the nos personally. It’s usually not about you; it’s about the investor’s portfolio. If someone tells us no, we almost always maintain a great relationship with them. And I can’t tell you how many people we’ve had come back to us and say, "You know, I really should have done your deal." And we say, "Yeah, you should have."
Women founders tend to be a bit more realistic and it’s just not the right thing to do.
Lori Coulter, founder of Summersalt
Chamberlin: The other thing we were up against was that we had to educate our investors about why swimwear had to be disrupted. Oftentimes we were speaking to people who didn’t wear swimsuits themselves. Only 3% of venture capital funding goes to women, but there are also few women at senior levels at investment firms. That was a hurdle because that meant the person we were speaking to didn’t have first-hand experience.
What is a moment that you knew Summersalt had made it?
Chamberlin: I was in the middle of Botswana with my husband at the end of 2019. There was another family where we were staying; they were from Chicago. On the last day, we were all getting ready to get packed up, and they said, "Oh, what do you do?" I shared what I did and one of the daughters-in-law said, "Stop. I bought a Summersalt suit for this very trip." They lived in Germany so she had bought the suit and sent it to her mother-in-law’s house in Chicago to bring with them to meet them on this trip. For me, it was like, gosh, we’re in the middle of nowhere and somebody knows Summersalt? That was a very rewarding feeling.
Summersalt has been going strong even during the pandemic. But how do you think the past year has affected retail and fashion on a larger scale?
Coulter: Essentially, COVID-19 accelerated the disruption due to e-commerce and the consumers’ behavior around discovery. And shopping in general has changed forever. We know that she’s more willing now than she ever has been in recent history to try new brands, and that she’s actually sticking with those brands.
Chamberlin: I think fashion had a reckoning. And I think COVID-19 and the other environmental and political pieces have accelerated that reckoning. We believe that sustainability and inclusivity need to be foundational elements of a business of the future. That doesn't mean we’re perfect, by any means. We always believe there’s more to do. We can strive to be better every day. But (the pandemic) has not just accelerated the industry, but the messaging, the marketing, the way we communicate with the customer.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.