StartOut Spotlight Feature: TomboyX

Entrepreneur Thrives by Giving Customers What They Want — Stylish Underwear that Fits

By Andy Smith

Created in partnership with Edge Media Network

Seattle’s Fran Dunaway is an accidental entrepreneur who understands the magic of the pivot.

The former media strategist launched startup TomboyX in her garage to fill one void in the clothing market (button-downs for women) only to realize an even bigger niche was waiting — Stylish, functional underwear for women with a premium fit.

Hitting a bull’s-eye in branding and market niche, her soft, comfortable boxer briefs that fit women of all sizes became TomboyX’s “hero product.”

“We started this underwear company because I wanted a shirt. I was frustrated for lack of cool shirt offerings for women,” says Dunaway, who runs the thriving startup with her wife Naomi.

“We asked ourselves, ‘How hard can it be to make good underwear?’ And by that we meant underwear that fit regular bodies and fit how we saw ourselves. And underwear that any woman could feel comfortable in, regardless of where they fell on the size or gender spectrum,” she says.

“In trying to fill a need, we unwittingly unleashed an outpouring of emotion,” she says. “About a week into the Kickstarter campaign we realized the name was resonating in such a powerful way with girls of 12 and women of 75 around the world.”

Emotions are so strong that in three years her thriving startup has grown from a part-time endeavor to a serious business with over a dozen employees and sales in 44 countries worldwide. All of this without a PR firm or overseas marketing budget.

“It’s been rapid growth,” Dunaway admits. For now, underwear and loungewear rule; button-downs have taken a backseat.

“We make a fine pair of underwear from bikini through boxer brief,” she says. “We’re sticking with underwear and loungewear because of popular demand and our belief in building a brand around a core product.”

Prizes & Publicity

TomboyX received a boost when it was named winner of San Francisco Demo Day 2017, hosted by StartOut, the leading LGBTQ entrepreneur nonprofit, where it was chosen from a competitive field of companies by a panel of top-tier investors.

“Demo Day is highly competitive. Fran and TomboyX stood out with their crystal clear value proposition, and the total match among the products, the founders, and the company’s culture,” said Andres Wydler, Executive Director at StartOut. “That was essential for both angel and institutional investors in the audience and helped get them funded.”

Word-of-mouth and social media buzz has proven so strong, this grassroots phenomenon has earned local and national media attention without the efforts of a publicist or PR firm. Seattle TV’s Evening Magazine featured a segment on the brand, which has also been covered in Curve, Go Magazine, Inc and Bustle magazines, among others.

Fran & Naomi — The Beginning of a Brand

The happy history of TomboyX should begin with the history of Fran and Naomi, the committed couple behind the brand.

When the couple met, Dunaway, a media strategist who produced political campaign ads for Democratic candidates,. split her time between Seattle and Washington, D.C.

At that time, a weekend athlete and sports fan, she met and fell in love with Naomi, an A-list massage therapist who had traveled with the U.S. Olympic Women’s Soccer team, including when they won gold at the Athens Olympics. Naomi was based in D.C. and Fran was bicoastal when they got together. “She was running her business in D.C. and decided to move to Seattle and be with me.”

For their wedding, they invited all the couple’s friends to a flag football game, which ended up including a surprise “Flash Wedding,” attended via FaceTime by Dunaway’s family in Mississippi, where Fran’s mother was more formally dressed than the brides.

The Business & The Brand

Launched in 2014, TomboyX transitioned into a full-time business in 2016. The past 18 months have seen phenomenal growth, boosted by the redesign of their website in 2016.

“We’ve seen an incredible spike in sales and awareness. Our focus last year was getting a handle on digital operations. Now, we’re drilling in much more, into different channels and strategic growth,” she says.

Two key contributors to this growth spurt include Julie Nomie, a product development professional with more than 30 years of experience, and Courtney Loveman, TomboyX’s innovative branding partner. Courtney helped Fran and Naomi move their brand away from shirts (a highly competitive market) to underwear.

“When they did the branding work, we realized you could build a whole brand around boxer briefs and underwear.”

Creating for All Shapes & Sizes

With so many brands shunning petites and plus-sizes, Fran knows TomboyX’s enthusiastic approach resonates with her customer base. “We’re the only apparel company that is all-inclusive, offering product in extra small through 4X. It’s really making a difference.”

They’ve also fully embraced and designed to fit the needs of the trans community, she says. “Our mantra is to be above, not anti. It’s about being accepting and being unapologetic about who you are. We’re moving more into a gender-neutral space.”

She adds, “A big part of our brand is about being comfortable in your own skin. Be unapologetic about who you are every day. When you’re comfortable in your own skin, you’re naturally sexy.”

“We don’t show women lying around in bed in their underwear. We show them doing things in their underwear.”

TomboyX’s product and message thrive on Facebook, Instagram and other social media with enthusiastic support from its fans, who love its product and messaging in equal measure.

As a brand and online presence, TomboyX represents a healthy backlash against ads featuring active men and passive women admiring them, including surfwear ads with a man catching a wave and a woman in a bikini lying on the beach. As a counterpoint, Fran’s brand showcases women surfing and a homemade video from a fan — a musician performing in TomboyX bra and underwear.

“We’re not about telling people they can be cool, it’s about telling people they’re cool just as they are.”

Giving Back

Despite the long hours and financial constraints involved in launching a business, from day one TomboyX has made a commitment to give back to the LGBTQ community. Promoting and donating to causes Naomi and Fran care about is part of their mission, with support balanced between local organizations (they supplied free uniforms for a Seattle-based softball team) and organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Human Rights Campaign.

The proceeds from sales of their Rise Up line were donated to Planned Parenthood and the next push will send donations to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Next Steps

The brand is constantly introducing new products, usually a few items every month and short-term plans include greater expansion into the overseas market, which makes up less than 6% of TomboyX’s revenue today.

As TomboyX grows, Dunaway works to find a balance between healthy growth and letting things grow too fast and get out of control. She keeps a mental checklist of two key goals: 1) Not running out of money and 2) not f — king it up.

“We’re offering new products every month. We’re ready to scale and we know how to scale,” Dunaway says. “I’ve been compulsive to build a solid business and getting ahead of ourselves could be dangerous.”

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