On June 17, 2021, Carta’s head of Inclusion, Equity, and Impact, Mita Malick, talked to Melanie Travis, founder and CEO of Andie Swim. Melanie started her career in the film industry. Later, she moved into a marketing role at Kickstarter, then became Director of Brand at BarkBox. Andie launched in 2017 with the mission to make swimsuit shopping easier and more comfortable. It’s now a global leader in the swim industry known for its inclusive designs.
Mita talked to Melanie about her journey as a founder, inclusivity as good business, facing gender bias from investors, what it’s like to have Demi Moore write your first check, and marketing to the LGBQIA+ community. The discussion was part of Carta’s monthly Carta Conversations series with founders about their journey.
An uncomfortable trip sparked an idea
Mita: What was behind your decision to start your own company?
Melanie: I was at BarkBox for a couple of years. And then, finally I was like, “You know what? I’ve got to do it.” At that point, I had learned: You have a vision. You raise some capital. You sell your vision—to investors but also to people, to come and help you build whatever that is. I just needed the idea.
And the idea came, I went on a work retreat with my company at Bark to a lake in upstate New York. Struggled to find a swimsuit. Commiserated with a lot of the women on that trip about how annoying and difficult it was to shop for a swimsuit. And I was like, “Aha! I will do a swimsuit company. At least I’ll have female BarkBox employees as my customers.”
That was back in 2016. I launched the company in 2017. I thought I’d make a couple hundred swimsuits, call it a day, and move on to the next thing. Five years later, we’ve raised over $10 million. We are doing many, many, many millions more than that. And every day I’m like, “How did this happen? This is cool.”
So that was the journey. I also forgot the original question. I was a little rambling.
Mita: No, it’s a great story. I’m curious: It was at that work retreat where you couldn’t find a swimsuit. What’s the moment that you said, “I’m doing this full time?” What was that moment like?
Melanie: So I started thinking, “Okay, maybe this is something I could do.” I got back from the retreat. It was July of 2016. I got married in August of 2016. And my wife works in finance. So the story, if you don’t hear the details, sounds like that trope—like I married someone in finance and then quit my job. But it wasn’t that. It had many layers of nuance, and I worked really hard. And it was the right decision. Her parents laugh at me about it, in a kindhearted way. We got married in August, and I started basically splitting my time in the fall.
At a certain point—in maybe November—one of the founders of Bark called me and was like, “Look, we love having you at BarkBox. But between your wedding and the swimsuit idea you’re kicking around, can you just decide if you’re going to work here or if you’re going to do something else?” And it was a kick in the pants. It was not a rude or hurtful conversation; it was a good sort of kick in the pants: You can spread yourself a little thin, but at a certain point you stop being productive on anything.
And so I talked to my wife and I was like, “Look, I’m going to give this a shot. My last day at Bark will be December 31, 2016. And I will be full time on Andie on January first, 2017.” And she agreed. She gave me one year to try to make a salary, to make enough money in order to start paying myself. I didn’t make it that year, but by that point, it was obvious that I wasn’t going to give up the company. We finally raised a real round of funding in early 2018. So I didn’t start paying myself until 2018. But you know what? I’m happy I didn’t give up, and got to where we are today.
Mita: That’s incredible. And you also have the films you directed.
Melanie: Fun fact about the films, actually. This was like 10 years ago—more than that, 15 years ago. I was posting on Craigslist to find actors who would work for free. And one of my short films has this handsome young actor named Antoni Porowski, who is now the star of “Queer Eye.” He’s all over everyone’s screens all the time. And I’m like, “That’s Antoni! We used to get noodles together in Union Square before shooting my little films.” So that was my brush with fame from back in the day.
Mita: Made him a breakout star. There you go.
Melanie: Yeah. It’s on his IMDB.
Inclusivity as good business
Mita: That’s amazing. Well, you have experience in films, and then also, you have experience in marketing and branding. How did you take some of those lessons into creating Andie?
Melanie: When you’re creating a company online, an e-commerce company or B2C company, it’s like you have a storefront on a street that no one walks on. You need to be able to get people to come to your store. And that’s where my training at Bark, and also at Kickstarter, to a certain extent, played in. How do you build a brand online? How do you create a community online? (And obviously, COVID has also changed and accelerated a lot of the trends around that.) So I really just was like, “Okay, this has to be a community-based or a community-first thing.”
One of the key insights that I had is that, when a woman is wearing a swimsuit, it is the most naked she will ever be in public. There are things like lingerie, but that’s typically worn behind closed doors. So swim is a particularly vulnerable shopping experience. That’s something that I felt a lot of the big retailers, and even the indie swimwear brands, weren’t picking up on, or were missing the point. I hate shopping for swim. It makes me feel so bad, inside a tiny dressing room in a retail store.
I really wanted to focus on solving for that vulnerability and making swimwear shopping enjoyable. It wasn’t just about the styles. It was about making it accessible, and building a brand that women could trust, and that didn’t feel like some anonymous corporation led by some guy in Ohio or whatever. Sorry, that was inappropriate to dig up L Brands. Anyway.
So, that was the key insight I had, and I built around that insight. For all the lack of marketing dollars that I had, when you’re really building something community first, and you understand your customer, I think that can help propel you a lot farther than millions of dollars in Facebook ads can do.
Mita: I have spent some time on your website. There’s so much care that goes into it, from scheduling a consultation to thousands of women you’ve talked to. Why was it so important for you to get the inclusive sizing piece right?
Melanie: A lot of reasons. There are cultural reasons, and business reasons. The business reason is easy, so we can tackle that one first: It’s a huge market. And for entrepreneurs and fashion space to ignore inclusive sizing, they’re literally leaving so much money on the table. And that just boggles the mind. Like, don’t you want to build a successful business? That should be part of it. A significant part of our revenue comes from sizes that are beyond what a lot of traditional retailers carry. So it’s not just the right thing to do—it’s a good business decision.
But then going back to that first key insight about the vulnerability of swimwear shopping: If you look online at swimwear stores and brands, or go in-store, a lot of them stop at a size large or XL. And the majority of women are just not that size. That’s like, I don’t know, size 10 to 12, something like that. And I don’t know. It just never even occurred to me to be so restrictive. Obviously we were going to create this for everyone. And so we would go up to size XXXL. And then we just did a partnership with Dia & Co. where we started producing sizes up to 5X, which is significantly more than other brands do.
It’s just part of our DNA from the very beginning. I do think that nowadays you’re seeing a lot more brands go into inclusive sizing. (Although sometimes they call it stupid things.) But overall, it’s good that brands are doing that. Obviously that’s good for the ecosystem. But it’s really like a marketing band-aid that brands are doing. At Andie, it’s just very different because it was there from the beginning. And that also means that it’s not something that will ever end. You see a lot of retailers slap on this plus-size band-aid for their image, and then they kill it quickly. And that’s horrible.
A conscious decision about sizing
Mita: Can we talk a little bit about labels, since you brought that up?
Mita: Looking at the labels out there, what should we be using? What should we be talking about? There’s inclusive sizing, there’s petite, there’s plus size, which I have a really hard time understanding.
Melanie: Yeah. There’s “missy.”
Mita: Yeah. So help us understand what your view is, the history of these labels, and why there’s still so much tension between using “plus size” versus saying “inclusive sizing.”
Melanie: Yeah, there really is. So we don’t use the term “plus size” on our site anywhere. You won’t find that anywhere. We don’t use it internally, either. I remember, as a kid, going into stores and you would have sections of women’s wear. And then in the back corner, you’d have something called—really just crazy labels; I don’t even dare to venture what they were called back then. I was so struck, remembering how bad I would feel if I had to go to the back of that store. I just never wanted to be involved in something that would be so exclusive.
When I started Andie, I was like, “Look, we’re not using these terms.” And it can get difficult, because we work with the manufacturer to make our swimsuits, and they are so steeped in the historic labels that people use: missy sizing, petite sizing, plus sizing. I don’t want even my product team saying that, because then it’ll eventually bleed out to the front-facing side. And so everything is one style, whether it’s XXX or XXS. And we just don’t use those terms.
Mita: How do you actually help change consumer behavior? I’ll use myself as an example. Now, everyone at Carta will discover. I am five foot one and a half. I have been so trained to look for petite sizing. So if I go to your website, I think to myself, “I don’t actually know if any of this will fit me, because I don’t see these labels that have been put upon me.”
Melanie: Oh, interesting. And what is my reaction to that?
Mita: Yeah. How do you change, right? I mean, I know some of the things that you’re doing. But how do people start to go up against these labels and change consumer behavior? I mean, we’ve placed these labels on consumers, and now they look for them.
Melanie: That’s true. And it’s an interesting point because there are folks on my marketing team who have said, “We need to just put this label to make it easy. Conversion will go up because it’ll just be easier.” But you just have to start making baby steps in that way. One thing that we do on our site is that we always list the model who’s wearing the suit, what her size is, how tall she is, her bust, waist. Just everything, to make it really easy for the consumer. We have also worked and reworked our size guide. So we have the actual dimensions of the garment. We also have the dimensions of it when it’s on versus when it’s laid flat. We’re just finding as many tools or offering as many tools as possible for people to be able to take it into their own hands and figure out what fits.
We also have an AI-powered fit quiz on our site. That was something we launched about six months after the beginning of the company. And it really helps women to find their own size. We’ve been really careful with the language we use, the questions we ask. Because it’s not just like, “What height and weight are you?” It’s really qualitative questions. This may be getting too granular on size, but how you want to use a swimsuit also impacts the size that you should buy. Like, if you’re going to just be lounging around in the sun, you might size down to keep it snug on you. If you’re doing a lot of activities, you might size up a little bit. It’s a little bit subjective, so we do a lot of that. And then we have virtual fit consultations. I think we get around, say, plus or petite in those ways.
Mita: Absolutely. And then, of course, you’re minimizing your returns?
Melanie: Oh, exactly.
The “anti-sexy” trend
Mita: So your buyers are happy with the product that they got. I have one last question in this space, and then we’ll turn to fundraising—since you brought up Ohio and L Brands. Maybe my phone was listening and knew we were talking (which is likely), but I saw this morning that Victoria’s Secret [an L Brands company] launched their big campaign today. There’s been this rise of the anti Victoria’s Secret brands—I would include Andie in this. So, loaded question: What are your thoughts on Victoria’s Secret and their responsibility around labels that they’ve put on women, especially with their Angels show. And then what do you think about what they’re trying to do now, which is trying to be anti-sexy? I believe that it comes from pressure from competition and seeing amazing brands like Andie feature real women, so they’re trying to do this thing.
Melanie: Oh, interesting. Well, first of all, I clearly need to pay more attention to Victoria. It’s probably a good sign that I’ve stopped paying so much. I used to be just obsessive about fashion news and what’s happening in the lingerie, swim, and intimates space. Now we’re doing our thing, so I’m a little bit less up to date. I should be anyway, so I’m excited. After this, I’ll go see what that campaign is. It sounds like they’re going in a different direction. I’d be very interested to read that.
Look, I don’t know, time has passed. What they did with the Angels show was so male gaze-oriented. I’m 35. I grew up occasionally watching them and thinking, “I would never wear this. Like, who is this intended for?” And I guess shopping behaviors have obviously changed, and women just don’t have to take that anymore. We don’t have to see that and be subjected to that. I will speak for myself: I can buy from brands that are much more reflective of me and my values.
I think it’s good that they’re changing now. Probably better overall, for the world and for them, to change. But it’s probably too late. I mean, we’ll see, I don’t know what their stock price is, but my guess is it’s a bit too late. (I should venture carefully when I talk about these things, my PR team likes to yell at me.)
Mita: Well, let’s see if they’ll be the Blockbuster of lingeries. I don’t know anyone who remembers Blockbuster. I’m dating myself.
“You’re not solving any problems”
Let’s move on to investors. I’d love to talk about what you have said—that you were really intentional. You wanted to find strategic investors who believed in the long-term viability of the business. What was that process like for you, as you were looking for allies, looking to fundraise? What sort of early feedback did you get? Did you feel that there was any bias that you faced in the process?
Melanie: Oh, absolutely. I would say it was a painful process, if I had to use one word to describe it. But ultimately I landed in a good place. It’s rewarding to be intentional about the investors on your cap table. If you’re building a company that starts to have some amount of success, you do have a responsibility. Who are the people that you’re going to be making wealthy? Who’s on your cap table? And you want to be intentional about that.
But it’s hard. It is really hard, especially when I was first starting Andie. The feedback that I consistently got—certainly from male investors—was, “Well, you’re not really solving any problems. You put out a pair of swim trunks. It’s super easy.” And I was like, “Do you not understand?” It is so different for men.
I understand that there are apparel categories that probably are not that different whether you’re a man or woman or whatever. But for swim, it is an extremely different shopping experience for women. Just everything I said before about it. And fit is also super important. A lot of the male investors that I went out to just could not understand that. And so they didn’t believe that there was a problem to be solved. That was issue number one.
Issue number two is that they didn’t believe the market was big enough. Simple research can tell you that’s wrong. I think the swimwear market is something like $26 billion. And the grooming market is like, what is it, 2 billion or something? And you have companies like Harry’s and others that I’m blanking on. Very, very large successful companies built inside of a much smaller market. And so to say that swim is small, that’s just wrong.
And that also means it doesn’t have to be a winner-take-all market. There are a lot of swim competitors out there, which is another thing. But in such a massive market, it does not need to be winner-take-all. And there can be multiple multi-billion dollar brands built inside of a large market. I definitely don’t want to sound bitter because, in the end, I was able to raise. I was successful. And I have an incredible cap table, and an incredible group of supporters. But it’s really very, very difficult out there—especially, I think, if you’re a woman raising money for a product that’s designed for women.
Finding ally investors
Mita: Who was one of your first allies—one of your first conversations where they believed in it as much as you did?
Melanie: Not a traditional investor, but the actor Demi Moore. I managed to get a meeting with her through a bunch of mutual contacts. I was scared out of my mind, trembling in my shoes, when I went to meet with her. And she got it. She believed it. She was one of the very first checks into Andie. Having a name like Demi Moore really helped legitimize it. When you’re building a company, it’s a lot of hard work. You have to do it at the right time. But you also have to get a little bit lucky. And having Demi Moore come in as the first check into Andie—it was not a large check, but it was a check nonetheless—was one of the very first lucky breaks. And then I got a bunch of follow-on checks after that, from both angel investors and small funds that were like—maybe they don’t care about Demi Moore, but if I’m able to get a check from her, they felt like I’d be able to do something else.
So she was one of the first ones. And then there’s a fund in New York called Trail Mix Ventures. They’re a small fund. I think they have between $10 and $15 million in assets under management. That is not a large fund. And they wrote a small check. It’s a group of female partners that totally got it. Their thesis is actually well-being for their fund. They actually were the first people to be like, “Yeah. Having a brand that believes in helping women feel confident and comfortable in their authentic selves—that has to do with wellness.” And so they invested.
Mita: So how do you balance the tension of raising money, getting capital, so you can build your company and build a vision, and being intentional about who you’re taking money from, and who’s on your cap table, and who believes in the mission? Have you been intentional about who you’ve chosen to take money from?
Melanie: Oh yeah, definitely. Maybe in the very beginning, I would basically paint broad brush strokes, go out to everyone. You need the practice of talking about the story, selling the vision, all of that. But then, I was really pretty narrow and curated in who I would even talk to, or take interest to—which is not the advice they typically give to starting entrepreneurs. But after I had done a first round of it, I just knew. Because it’s not just about who’s on your cap table. It’s also like, you’re going to have a relationship with them. I say I’m my own boss, but technically, the investors are my bosses. I just didn’t want a bunch of straight white men as my bosses. Nothing against that. Just: That’s not what I wanted to build. But there’s a mix. It’s a diverse cap table.
Mita: That’s great. And is there anybody who said no early on who’s said yes now? Or any conversations that have been revisited?
Melanie: Oh my god. Yeah. I have tons of people, most of them men, who email me with some degree of frequency saying like, “Wow, I really messed up. If you’re ever raising again, I’d really love to get in.” Or, “How can I get in?” Or I’ll go to panels and I’ll hear them talk. And sometimes they’ll say, “I missed Andie.” It never gets old.
Pride flags in the office vs. rainbow marketing
Mita: Never gets old. That’s great. Now, I’m going back to the marketing space. Happy Pride Month! We don’t just support the LGBTQ+ community this month. It’s 365 days a year. I wanted to get your perspective on what we’re seeing. It comes up every June.
Mita: And lots of pieces in the marketplace on companies and brands slapping on tokenistic symbols like rainbows. And yet they have political action committees and they’re funding anti-LGBTQ legislation. What are your thoughts—I would suppose as a consumer, but then also as you’re building Andie—about that tension you see? You want to support the community, but you also have to have your own house in order as well.
Melanie: Totally. Yeah, absolutely. First, my thoughts as a consumer. I mean this year, especially, it feels like it’s everywhere. I see rainbow flags everywhere. It’s on every logo. It’s on every Instagram profile. And part of me is annoyed because I know that some of these brands doing this then turn around and donate to folks that are actively against equal marriage rights or whatever the case may be. So, sometimes I feel angry about it because I know it’s not authentic. It’s like they’re trying to get my dollars, but they’re going to turn around and give those dollars to something that hurts me. But those are extreme cases when I feel angry. I’ve been thinking about this a lot this last week, because I live in the West Village in New York, and I go out to dinner and it’s just like you’re walking under rainbow flags on every storefront to get to dinner.
At the end of the day, this is overall a very good thing. Even if your house isn’t totally in order, as they say. I have always known that I was gay. It’s never been an issue or a question. I haven’t faced a lot of the hardships that I think some folks do in coming out. But I think that a lot of people have, and some sort of normalizing it is really important. My whole family is gay. (Topic for another time.) But my father is also gay. I am sure that, growing up, he didn’t see that. And so, I think that’s overall a really great thing. Now I’m in the West Village of New York City. Are they doing that in downtown Kansas or wherever? I don’t know. But exposure is good. And normalizing things is good. And I think it’s still really hard for a lot of people. So I come out on like, okay, it’s not hurting anyone as long as they’re not trying to steal your dollars to go hurt you.
And then as a brand, I guess I come out the same. We have an HR person, which is a new thing for Andie, which is great. It makes me feel like we’re a real company, which we very much are. And she sent around rainbow Andie logos for us to put in our email signatures. And I saw it. And I was like, “Oh my god, we have become so corporate.” You guys probably do that, but you’re much bigger and very much a real company. And I was hesitating as to whether or not to actually put it in my email signature because I couldn’t decide. I was like, “What am I actually doing? Is it real? Is it authentic?” So I have not come up with a decision yet. So I don’t know. I welcome thoughts. But that’s where I land on it.
Mita: We actually don’t have Carta rainbow logos here. But what I would like to do, and I did in my past life, is just have it in my signature permanently. Or if I have office space, someone once told me, having a pride flag in your office is a welcoming sign, and a sign that you’re an ally.
Melanie: There you go.
Mita: So those are things that we will do as we look to return to the office.
Melanie: That’s great.
Rapid-fire founder questions
Mita: So yes. So as we get into our rapid-fire questions in a few minutes, wanted to ask what’s next for Andie? What should we look for? Are you going into lingerie? What can you tell us? What’s the future?
Melanie: A lot is next. It’s been a big year. It’s been a weird year. Coming out of COVID, there’s this voracious appetite for travel. And we did well, during COVID, because we’re an online D2C company. But, combined with more people shopping online, and what I expect will be a big summer for travel, we’re expecting a really big summer. In that vein, we have a ton of exciting, cool swim stuff coming up. So people should check that out. And then, intimates: We actually launched it. We soft-launched a small Intimates line of underwear and bralettes a couple of months ago. And we’re going to build on that in the fall, and just listen to our customers for what comes next. What do they want? We could go in different directions, but always being customer-first.
Mita: That’s exciting. Great. We do have a question from the audience. Jenny asks, “I know you talked about specializing in marketing for Andie to distinguish the brand. How do you break the high entry barriers of swimwear? There are huge brands like Nike, Lululemon, Athleta, and then dozens of Australian swimsuit brands.” Great question.
Melanie: It is. Probably hundreds of Australian and also smaller American swim brands. The question is how do we break out?
Mita: Yes. In swimwear. Yeah.
Melanie: An honest answer is that when I was first starting Andie, I didn’t do my research in that way. And I didn’t do it on purpose. I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by swimwear brands. I knew that if I started googling and went down a rabbit hole, I would find so many and I would be too scared to start my own. I would just think, “This is out there.”
But you know what I did do? I saw that it was a big market. And I had my own experiences and feelings of shopping for swim, and the stories that my friends and family and colleagues were telling me. And so, I just decided to turn a blind eye to the Nikes, the Lululemons, the indie swim brands, and just focus on my thing, be super laser focused.
So we started with literally three styles—three one-pieces—that I thought were the perfect quintessential one-pieces for every different type of body, and then built very slowly and methodically from there. And now, a lot of those brands that—had I googled back then, I would have been too scared to start Andie—a lot of them have either gone away or Andie has leapfrogged them. Sometimes not doing competitive research can be to your advantage.
Mita: Awesome. Well, in our last few minutes, I have to pivot and ask you about Carta. We hope you’re a happy Carta customer.
Melanie: Very happy Carta customer.
Mita: And we’re here to listen. And we’d love to hear what you love about our product, how it’s helped you in your journey, and what advice do you have for us? And what would you like to see us doing next?
Melanie: Wow. Cool. Okay. So, I love using Carta. It’s obviously a no-brainer. Everyone should use it. I’m not just saying that. And it’s funny because a lot of early-stage startup employees don’t really understand equity. They don’t understand what it means. They don’t understand how it’s a part of your compensation package. So, on Tuesday this week, I gave a little equity one-on-one to all the new employees to explain, “This is what an option is. And this is what a vesting schedule means.” And the punchline of the whole presentation was basically like, go to Carta. Play around. You can learn about it. You can see what you have. You can see your vest. You can understand all of this. And that’s something I never could have done before using Carta.
And then afterwards, every single person emailed me saying, “Can you tell me how to get into Carta?” So everyone at the company is really excited to go in and poke around and see what’s involved. It’s a great platform. And it simplifies my life as a founder. And then people can exercise and use their credit cards, I think. I’m not even involved because it’s so easy, which is the dream.
Mita: That’s great. Well, Anthony, who is my colleague, runs our Equity Essentials initiative. So I’ll connect you over email because we have lots more resources.
Melanie: Well, great. That would be even better.
Mita: As we wrap up, tell us one piece of content that you’ve read or a book that’s still on your mind, you’re thinking of.
Melanie: Because I’ve been talking about her, working with her. Demi Moore’s “Inside Out.” I’m in the middle of that. Very good book.
Mita: All right. What’s a business idea you wish you had started if you weren’t the founder of Andie? And don’t say the iPhone, please.
Melanie: And don’t say what?
Melanie: I was going to say Carta.
Mita: Oh my god. The best compliment. What’s a brand that we should be watching? Maybe they’re a Carta customer, maybe they’re not. But who are you watching?
Melanie: Good question. I should have thought about that. There’s a lot of really interesting brands popping up right now. I guess I should give a little, my cousin in law’s starting up an outerwear company called Harper Coats. Great coats. Ethically made. Check them out. Harper Coats dot com. That’s a personal plug. But they’re good coats.
Mita: What are you binge-watching? If you have time to watch TV, what do you watch?
Melanie: I’m actually re-binge-watching, for the tenth time, “Friends.” Obviously propelled by the reunion. It’s such a good show.
Mita: Okay, good. And last question. What’s the advice you would give your younger self?
Melanie: “Don’t be so scared. Don’t be so worried. Everything’s just going to work out.” I mean, that’s coming from a place of privilege, I guess. But I had a lot of anxieties about whether things would work out or not. And I think if you just focus and do your thing, whatever “it will work out” means will end up being true.
Mita: Yes. And that you will find confidence in your swimsuit. That’s how we started the conversation.
Melanie: And “You can wear a swimsuit and feel great.”
Mita: Thank you so much. We hope that we can host you in One World Trade Center for lunch, if you’re up for that, since you’re East Coast, or if you’re traveling to the West Coast. We’ll have you come visit us live. But thanks, everyone, for joining us.
Melanie: Yeah. Thank you guys so much.
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