Frustrated by the lack of choice on the market for women’s underwear, Lisa Mullan (along with her friend and co-founder, Natalia Martorell) founded Uwila Warrior; a Boston-based underwear company selling comfortable, functional, beautiful underwear. Lisa’s background comes from investment management and marketing, and combined with Natalia’s extensive fashion expertise, they now stock their underwear with leading clothing brand, Free People, while continuing to gain a presence in stores across the US.
The business is growing at a steady rate YOY, both for returning customer rate and revenue. In a typical period, 40% of purchasers become repeat customers which is great, and currently they are experiencing huge customer growth following the launch of pop ups and new stores. These numbers really offer an insight into how big this underwear brand is becoming and what the future holds.. We’re really impressed with how she’s managed to achieve this and are incredibly keen to find out more.
Who are you and what brand did you start?
Hi, I am Lisa Mullan - the founder of Uwila Warrior. We make comfortable, functional, beautiful underwear so that our customer has fewer wedgies and a kicking ass!
After years of working in investment management and later at HubSpot, I founded Uwila Warrior with the help of a college friend and co-founder, Natalia Martorell. Natalia’s career in fashion started as an early employee at Marc Jacobs and continues today at Proenza Schouler. Natalia’s fashion expertise combined with my business, finance and marketing background, plus a frustration with the lack of choice out there for women’s underwear, set the stage for the launch of Uwila Warrior.
Uwila Warrior is a Boston-based underwear company. Our mission goes beyond simply giving women another option for their nether regions. We believe all women deserve comfortable, functional underwear, and are proud to include sizing up to a 3X in all of our silhouettes.
For those who still love the experience of a store, we have an atelier at 15 Charles Street Boston MA, USA, plus customers can purchase at any of the local and national wholesalers who stock our products, including Nieman Marcus and Free People. For those who like to shop from the comfort of their own home, you can find us at uwilawarrior.com.
How did you come up with the idea, brand name and logo for Uwila Warrior?
For years, I was a customer of Mary Green, a San Francisco designer and manufacturer of super comfortable silk underwear. Annually - around New Years Eve, I would upgrade my underwear drawer with a new assortment from her collection. In 2015, I went to Mary Green’s online store to discover she had closed her business.
I was in a panic… and turned to my long-time friend, college and NYC roommate, Natalia Martorell for help. Could we make comfortable functional underwear ourselves? Afterall, the other choices for women were bleak — Victoria’s Secret’s tone deaf “angel” marketing no longer resonated with women like Natalia and I, and we felt everyday underwear should be more than shapewear or poorly-designed mishaps that lay dormant and wasteful in our underwear drawers. We decided not to suffer bad underwear days any longer and launched Uwila Warrior.
The company name was originally “The Intelligence Bureau”; a name we trademarked and loved. When we launched a splash page, “The Intelligence Bureau, Coming Soon” it attracted all sorts of crazy, bad cyber traffic. We dug a little deeper and realized this also was the name of the Pakistani intelligence agency. We had one weekend to change our name as underwear was coming out of the factory at that very moment.
We decided to keep our owl logo, representing a wise, intelligent, woman who has solved the underwear drawer challenge. We then we came up with the name “Uwila Warrior”. Uwila means “owl” in old German, and “Warrior” is self-explanatory as woman are warriors wearing multiple hats and getting sh*t done.
Describe the process of launching Uwila Warrior?
Natalia’s connections in the fashion world were invaluable to taking our underwear ideas and designs to development. A group of early female employees from Marc Jacobs, whom Natalia worked with, spun out to form Angora Group, a team that specializes in launching new products.
We were fortunate to work with the Angora team to not only launch Uwila Warrior, but to build out our inclusively-sized collection, which includes the following styles: 1) No Brainer Stretch Brief, 2) VIP thong, 3) Happy Seam Brief, 4) Silk Brief. These four pieces are the cornerstones of what every woman needs in her underwear drawer. We also rounded out the collection with matching silk and happy seam camisoles.
Start up costs were significant. An experienced team like Angora can open the doors to quality factories and talent to take an idea to conception. However, building a quality product from scratch takes capital. While Uwila Warrior took a great deal of capital to start, I was able to self-fund the business using savings from my prior career in Investment Management and later working at HubSpot through its IPO.
By self-funding, we have controlled the development process to develop the best products we could imagine, rather than having to work to the demands and timelines of a venture partner. However, our growth is limited by our capital - the downside to going it alone. While we could be larger with the help of venture capital, we are happy to stay the course and to achieve modest growth in order to bring a quality line that offers comfort and functionality to women in their daily lives.
In the beginning, friends and family (particularly those in our Boston community) helped to spread the word about our brand. Local Boston retailers like For Now, Ouimille, Dress and Forty Winks were wonderful partners who carried our line or offered pop up events to share Uwila Warrior with their networks.
Our largest breakthrough came about when we received an inbound email from Free People, inquiring about carrying Uwila Warrior. While at first we thought the email was spam, we later realized it was a huge opportunity to bring Uwila Warrior to thousands of women through a wholesale relationship. We have continued to grow with Free People, even co-branding their Free People Movement Underwear. Additionally, on the larger wholesale front, we have since launched drop shipment through Neiman Marcus.
Since launch, what has worked best to attract and retain customers?
Once a woman wears our product, she is hooked. Getting Uwila Warrior underwear on women is our number one focus. We have a high repeat customer rate as women who try Uwila, wear Uwila Warrior.
In the last year our repeat customer rate is over 20% (21% through November 4th 2019). However, in a period where we grow by adding new customers, that rate declines as there is a greater number of new customers in the denominator of the repeat customer equation. You can see this effect in the chart below. In the past month we launched our new store in Beacon Hill, which is added lots of new first time customers (in purple), which actually lowers our average repeat customer rate. However, in a steady state, our repeat customers are over 40% (as seen in 1Q19, where we do not have acquisition channels like pop ups and new stores in motion). In conclusion, I would say that over 40% of customers become repeat customers for Uwila Warrior.
If we look back at repeat customer rates in quarters you have a better sense of the repeat sales by installed base. For example, in 1Q19 we had no pop ups, or store openings and you can see our sales from repeat customers was: 46.5%
Most recently, we moved the business out of my home and into a studio with a small retail footprint in the front. While we do not have a vision to open multiple retail locations, our atelier shop on Charles Street in Beacon Hill allows us to hear first-hand what customers want in their underwear drawers.
We have also bought our heat press machine into the studio and now offer customization. Our customers love personalizing their underwear through customizations like “Kickin’ Butt”, “World Domination”, “Give ‘em Hell”, or simply adding a heart or ice cream cone patch to their underpants. Additionally, Boston Belle offers custom embroidery for in-store Uwila Warrior customers.
How is the business doing today and what does the future look like?
We are three years into selling Uwila Warrior (five years in the business if you include the two years spent in development) and see accelerated revenue growth each year. The product speaks for itself and we see a good amount of momentum from our direct and wholesale customers. As of today, we now have a team of three full time employees at Uwila Warrior, up from a team of one just a year ago.
In 2019 we were fortunate to be named one of 50 Tory Burch Fellows, an organization which recognizes and supports women founded startups, like Uwila Warrior.
While we have done a great job saturating Boston and landing key wholesale accounts, we can see sales demand coming from key cities like Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York and Dallas. We will continue to work with our wholesale partners and to directly engage with customers through word of mouth to share our brand.
Our goal is to reach all women with Uwila Warrior’s life-altering underwear. With this in mind, we are not looking for a two year exit, rather a long term engagement with our customers, where we continue to craft beautiful, comfortable undergarments for her to enjoy for herself.
What’s been the biggest learning experience since starting your own brand?
This journey has not been without stumbling blocks. From name change challenges, to finding the right factory partners after costly misadventures in Sri Lanka and Italy, we are on our way.
My biggest learning is more the humbleness brought about by launching a business. As an investor, I could evaluate how others ran their companies but I lacked an appreciation for how hard it really is to create a successful business. Today, I will sweep the floor, drive trucks of inventory where they need to be, and stay up to all hours of the night heat pressing logos on underwear to serve our customers and to get the job done. The reward is the happiness we bring to our customers through our carefully crafted underwear. Knowing that one less woman is having a bad underwear day fuels our fire to soldier on.
What marketing tools do you use to run Uwila Warrior?
We cannot say enough great things about HubSpot, my former employer. Our team at Uwila Warrior uses HubSpot’s free CRM, sales and marketing tools, and drive all sales, marketing and email through our portal with one login. In addition to making a great product at affordable pricing for Startups, we are grateful for the endless support and coaching from HubSpot employees and senior leadership every step of the way. The culture of HubSpot is truly remarkable. Outside of working at Uwila Warrior, it has far been the best place I have ever worked.
*Find full list of tools/platforms at the bottom of the page.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts or other educational resources?
Definitely the Podcast- “How I Built This”.
Who have been the most influential people for you during this business journey?
1) Mary Green, 2) Brian Halligan (CEO), JD Sherman (COO), Kate Bueker (CFO) and so many other employees from HubSpot, 3) Sarah Blakely from Spanx — she built a great product that grew like wildfire without any outside capital. What an inspiration!
Any advice you’d like to share for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Make sure your personal finances are in a place where you can support yourself for a good chunk of time to give your business time to get its footing.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now or open to new investors?
We just hired our third employee, a Marketing and Retail Coordinator. For the next few months we are going to adjust to a team of three. However, with growth, we do foresee growing the team.
Where can we go to learn more about your current offers/promotions/programs?
Our website - https://www.uwilawarrior.com/
We are super excited to launch this underwear intervention gift box, which includes one of each of our four styles our customer needs in her everyday rotation. We also include education and instructions on which underwear works with what outfit and why, so it is educational and informative in addition to a combined offer at a discounted price compared to purchasing each pair of underwear independently.