The right partner goes a long way in business
TAKING A LEAP OF FAITH. Being an entrepreneur is not for everyone, that’s for sure, says Fran Dunaway, CEO and Co-founder of TomboyX, a gender and size-inclusive clothing brand. Prior to starting TomboyX with her wife Naomi, Fran had been a director of production at various media companies for nearly two decades.
“I had great perks and a great paycheck that came with my previous job, and giving all of that up was perhaps insanity mixed with a dose of stupidity. But if it had not been for my then-girlfriend and now wife, Naomi Gonzalez, I’d never have been able to make it,” she says.
The inspiration for TomboyX came in 2013, when Fran complained to Naomi about how hard it was for women to buy a button down shirt that fits. It’s surprisingly hard for women to find a shirt that has high quality fabric and buttons up comfortably while not gaping at the chest, Naomi says. They didn’t start out intending to create a big empire, but were simply two determined people who saw a white space in the fashion industry that they had the opportunity to change.
Of course, starting a venture with family can be fraught with challenges, Fran notes. “Naomi and I divided up operations. I did more of the front-facing fundraising and marketing, and she worked more on shipping, customer service, and website UX” she says. It is important to demarcate who does what in the business and not to overstep boundaries. “Many times we had heated disagreements and conflicts, but we make it a point to fight fair and never make it personal,” Naomi says. ”It probably also helps that neither of us has a good memory for these sort of things!”
HALF THE POPULATION, LESS THAN HALF THE BARGAINING POWER. Fran spent the first four years fundraising, which was fraught with a lot of rejections and vague answers. Women investors comprised 95 percent of TomboyX’s seed round. “I’ve had men say ‘I don’t get it, what’s wrong with Victoria’s Secret?’ and ‘Why should we invest in a business that is only for half of the population?” Fran recalls.
Women have to take extra steps to be on equal footing as men, yet women-led companies perform better, Naomi says. Without access to the usual networks and resources, it was a challenge to start out, and even to grow. “I couldn’t even afford to hire talent to take us to the next level. We had to hire people who had to figure it out,” she says.
“Even though our core customer is within the LGBT+ community, even those outside of it recognized the DNA of our brand,” Fran says. “Women of all sizes who were welders, firefighters, police officers appreciated that our clothing was designed for functionality rather than conforming to gender. They appreciated that we were authentically trying to create something for the community.”