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Building Brobe: How Allison Formed Powerful Partnerships with Tory Burch, Kendra Scott, and the Susan G. Komen Foundation by Providing Feminine Luxury Apparel for Life Transitions

Tuesday, July 25th, 2023

Before she became an entrepreneur, Allison Schickel was balancing three jobs while being a caretaker to her daughter and late husband. Her idea initially had one use case: improve a robe by adding a built-in bra to combat boob sweat. This idea morphed into a source of support and healing as Brobe took on its new use case of providing solutions in post-surgery apparel to facilitate recovery. After she left her jobs to found a temp. agency and eventually Brobe, she’s won countless awards and honors and holds 7 patents in the U.S., U.K., and Germany. She’s formed partnerships with the Susan G. Komen Foundation, Kendra Scott and the Breast Cancer Research Foundation among others. In this case study, Allison demonstrates her perseverance and her commitment to Brobe’s mission.

Our favorite quote

"If you are a founder, your #1 characteristic is that you must have perseverance"

Financials

Funding
Raised $16.5M

Case study

HSS: How did you acquire your first customers for Brobe?

Allison Schickel: Building brand awareness was a bit different back then because Facebook and Instagram did not have much influence on consumer behavior patterns. My initial positioning of Brobe was a product of convenience because I wanted a robe that provided support for my breasts and there was nothing on the market that met my needs. I then found new meaning for Brobe when it helped my friend Wendy during her recovery from her breast cancer procedures. Her testimonial along with qualitative breast cancer recovery research helped open a new customer segment for Brobe that addressed post-surgery needs. Positioning Brobe as a solution to facilitate recovery, allowed me to find more use cases to develop new products.

I partnered with Susan G Komen because at the time that was the only foundation that focused on breast cancer, which was the main focus of Brobe. Brobe only had one product and we now have multiple products for more surgeries, but the first customers were women battling breast cancer. Some of the methods I used to build brand awareness were donating Brobes to big galas or fundraisers to get the word out. I would also go to oncologists' offices and pass out marketing material. I tried to network as much as possible.

From an e-commerce standpoint, I actually remember the very first order that ever came through. It was on my website, and I called her and said “You're my very first customer." From then I expanded my ecommerce presence and became a top seller on Amazon. Insight: Identify your product market fit and find ways to expand your SAM.

HSS: And then how did you and how do you retain your customers?

AS: Brobe has a dedicated community. We provide a lot of resources, especially on the breast cancer side. Whenever somebody orders the product, they get a series of emails every other day for the first 7-8 days. We show customers how to prepare their home for their surgery recovery, what to pack for the hospital, what their loved ones need to know, you know, and information like how to take care of drain fluid.

It boils down to the support they are receiving from Brobe, and because we are there during that emotional time our solutions are a bit more sticky than traditional apparel goods. We have loyal customers who recommend it to friends who will go through surgery.

  • Insight: Ensure your customers feel cared for by your solutions, especially if your target market addresses a vulnerable population.


HSS: What is your growth strategy?

AS: I’m looking to take Brobe into the B2B space so selling to hospitals and distributors, mastectomy boutiques, and entities that order in a larger volume. I then eventually want to work with medical distributors overseas. I am just in the beginning stages of starting to reach out to VCs. I would use additional capital to hire a bigger team and order more inventory.



HSS: Was there a time when you thought this was not worth pursuing?

AS: Girl, every week. Owning a business is hard and it takes a lot of work. Sometimes you feel like you hit rock bottom. Then, once you get past it, you think to yourself it still sucks, but I can keep doing it. It's like this roller coaster.

I sometimes get to a point where I think “That's it. I'm throwing in the towel. I can't do this. This is too hard. I'm going to start working on my resume.” Then, 100% of the time I get a phone call, an e-mail something in the mail that reinforces why Brobe is so important. The messages I get from our customers remind me that women need to be supported during their most vulnerable times and Brobe provides that support.

 

  • Insight: Examining your solution through the lens of your customers can help motivate you when you hit a low point.


HSS: What are your lessons learned so far?

AS: I’ve made mistakes when it comes to money and it’s important for me to share them. When I started Brobe I was a widow and a working mom running a small temp. business. I couldn’t get funding from a VC, so all my funding has come from loans and profit. From a money perspective, it's a difficult road to navigate.

Some partnerships worked out well:I was able to get loans from a woman who worked with Susan G. Komen who gave me a 3% interest rate on about $50k.

Some never came to fruition: I went out and started raising like with Angel groups, which was very difficult. I was the only woman, I was the only one in the consumer product goods space, I was the only one bringing in revenue, I was the only one with patents and I would get skipped over and looked over. They would say “You're too small. You need more revenue.” So then I would get more revenue. They would say “Well, you're still too small” or “You don't have a team” or “Well, you’ve been in business so long you're not new.”

Some were exploitative:Some were exploitative: I had given a talk at UT's Macomb School business. This guy came up to me and tells me that I’m not going to raise money if I don't have a team in place. He told me “I can help you raise.” That was when I started going out and pitching. He played the middleman between the investors and me because I was running the business and just trying to grow it.

I eventually got a term sheet from three Angel investors that were all part of this Angel group. I didn't know what I was doing, but I was so desperate for money. They told me that they would give me a convertible note, and I didn’t know what that meant. I found out later that they did not give me a convertible note, but rather a loan that was at 10% and compounded quarterly. That meant I would end up paying over $100k in interest for a $150k loan. It was a harsh reality that brought me and my small team to tears. When my bookkeeper brought it to my attention, I went to get a loan from a bank to quickly pay off the loan from those investors.

 

  • Insight: Ensure you understand everything before entering an agreement. Though it might not seem feasible at the moment having a lawyer review agreement should be your first step before signing anything.


HSS: Do you have any advice for female-founded businesses?

AS: (1) It’s probably cliche but if it doesn't feel right in your gut, then don't do it. If something doesn't feel right, you need to listen to that.

(2) Do not compare yourself to other female founders. Do your benchmarking and your competitive analysis but realize that almost all successful founders are marketing themselves. They will have similar struggles, but talking about business struggles is not a very compelling story to listen to. When other businesses are seemingly perfect with no obstacles, it’s easy to get trapped in negative self-talk because we are the hardest on ourselves. If you're passionate about something you're going to keep going and you are going to grow. It might not always be at the rate that you want it to grow, but you will get there. (3) Decide early on what kind of business you want, (Is it a lifestyle business? A business that you want to make $100M off of?) Ask for help. Be vulnerable, be humble, and surround yourself with people who are way smarter than you. (4) If I reflect on my experience with Brobe, I also would have kept pursuing raising money early on. I feel like more people are open to raising money when you don't have as much revenue. They see potential, but if your revenue is not growing at a fast enough pace, even if there are reasons behind the slowdown, investors are increasingly hesitant.

(5) I would have brought on a partner because doing it most of the time by myself has been exhausting and lonely. Especially as a mom with three kids.

  • Insight: Trust your gut.
  • Insight: Decide early on what kind of business you want
  • Insight: Decide if a co-founder is right for your business.
  • Insight: Don't compare yourself to other female founders


HSS: When was being a female advantageous for you?

Being a female is advantageous for me because of the support that I get from other women who genuinely want to help and want to support me. There's a whole bunch of very successful women out there who are just willing to give all the advice that they can. Women who really want to help other women, they will.

 

HSS: Thanks much for taking the time.

Insights

  • Insight: Ensure your customers feel cared for by your solutions, especially if your target market addresses a vulnerable population.
  • Insight: Examining your solution through the lens of your customers can help motivate you when you hit a low point.
  • Insight: Ensure you understand everything before entering an agreement. Though it might not seem feasible at the moment having a lawyer review agreement should be your first step before signing anything.
  • Insight:Don’t compare yourself to other female founders.
  • Insight: Decide early on what kind of business you want.
  • Insight: Decide if a co-founder is right for your business.


How We Met: Cold LinkedIn Message

I saw Allison's name as a Tory Burch fellow and reached out.