When she was about 10 years old, Katherine Homuth recalls her grandmother – frustrated by a snag in her nylons – telling her: “Someone in our family needs to reinvent pantyhose.”
Ms. Homuth, now 27, just “brushed it off” at the time, but the idea continued to percolate in her brain even as she launched two successful businesses of her own. The first, e-commerce platform ShopLocket, sold in early 2014, making her a millionaire at 23.
The second, Female Funders Inc., launched in 2015, offering paid access to an online network for angel investors and entrepreneurs in search of funding. But even as she was running Female Funders, Ms. Homuth was contemplating her next business, and she kept returning to her grandmother’s words.
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“I wanted to solve a real hair-on-fire problem,” she says. Creating a pair of indestructible pantyhose fit the bill. “With most pantyhose, you can’t even get out the door without the product breaking,” Ms. Homuth says. “I had no idea if this was a problem I could solve. But I knew if I could solve it, it would be a worthwhile invention.”
She began to explore the idea in January, 2017, and quickly became “obsessed” with fibres, fabrics, knits and yarn. “I fell down a rabbit hole,” Ms. Homuth says. The problem she faced was that hardy fibres also tend to be dense, and hence they’re not sheer.
After many trials, Ms. Homuth finally hit on something similar to Kevlar (the material used in bullet-proof vests), but much finer. By June, she had created a prototype pair of pantyhose made with the synthetic fabric that was “ridiculously strong and still reasonably sheer.”
“There was still a ton of problems,” she admits. The fabric was white and couldn’t be dyed. It wasn’t stretchy and it “broke every knitting machine we put it on.” Even more crucial – it was too thick. “I wanted to make sheer pantyhose,” Ms. Homuth says. Still, she was convinced she was on the right track.
In July, she sold Female Funders and that summer launched a round of seed financing to focus on research and development for the company she would call Sheerly Genius. A Kickstarter campaign followed in February, 2018. It featured a giggle-worthy video of various people, including an irate robber using a stocking mask, struggling with pantyhose breakage (“Sometimes I don’t have time to shave, and the nylons get stuck in my whiskers”). There were also illustrations of Sheerly Genius’s strength (think Ms. Homuth hanging from a pantyhose harness).
The 45-day effort raised US$190,000 from almost 1,600 backers. Each pledged US$89 or more for the privilege of having one of the first pairs of the patent-pending hose – due off the production line in September. Ms. Homuth followed up with an IndieGoGo campaign this March.
Crowdfunding seems an odd choice for a woman who built a business on bringing together angels and investors, but Ms. Homuth sees it more as a marketing tool than a financing tool. “Quite honestly, the amount of money we raised through crowdfunding would never have brought this product to life,” she says.
But she did get valuable feedback. For example, she nixed the original opaque control-top version in favour of all-sheer pantyhose. To address the problem of the fabric’s thickness, a new version was developed that could be dyed as it was being manufactured. The crowdfunding campaigns also “enabled us to do some early test marketing to see what messaging worked; what resonated with people about the brand; and to get customer validation that people wanted the product.”
Joanna Griffiths, chief executive of Toronto-based Knixware Inc., used a similar strategy to raise financing and buzz around The 8-in-1 Evolution Bra – her answer to the discomfort of underwire bras. But, she says, crowdfunding campaigns can be tricky.
“You have a customer base that loves to experiment,” she says. But converting those early adopters to loyal consumers means going “above and beyond,” and making the preorder process as pain-free as possible. “We were one of the first campaigns to offer exchanges on sizes,” Ms. Griffiths says. “That was unheard of at the time, but it was important to do whatever we could to make our backers happy.”
Ms. Homuth understands the importance of satisfying those initial customers. “We know they’re taking a leap of faith, so we’re offering a 30-day guarantee for anyone ordering from Kickstarter,” she says. “Once the pantyhose get on the market and you can read the reviews, we’ll start treating them more like a regular intimates product with no guarantees.”
Given the price point of US$89 or more for the pantyhose, executive brand and marketing strategist Livia Zufferli sees a potential issue with that strategy. Although the product is hitting on a very real pain point for consumers, she says, “that’s a big ask. They need to make the math simple so that the value for money is evident.” An app that allows users to track product wears would be a playful way to emphasize the pantyhose’s staying power, she suggests. “And I think a money-back guarantee would take away some of the barriers to purchase.”
For her part, Ms. Homuth believes consumers will come to see her pantyhose as a wardrobe staple “like a pair of pants or leggings.” The price point is high, she says, because although “you can produce a regular pair of pantyhose for $1 at the most, ours uses about US$40 worth of fibre.”
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The first batch will roll off the line in Toronto, but production will later move to Port Carling, Ont., near the Muskoka home the newly-wed Ms. Homuth shares with her husband, Zac, (also an entrepreneur). She has settled on a direct-to-consumer sales model for the pantyhose using a Shopify-hosted website and relying on word of mouth, social-media marketing, referrals and PR to drive traffic.
Eventually, Ms. Homuth sees the fabric she created being used for other applications, such as active wear. “I see this as the next big thing,” she says. But in the meantime, “I’ve never had more fun running a company. It’s one thing to be trying to convince people to buy software; it’s another to be in a problem space where people get it right away and they understand the value.”