Conversation with Galyn Bernard, Co-Founder, Primary.com
Designing a Beloved Kids’ Clothing Brand Featuring Simplicity
February 7, 2018
1. What is your business?
Our business is Primary, a children’s clothing line of better basics for babies and kids size 0-12. My co-founder, Christina, and I worked together at Diapers.com for over four years, and when we started there, we were focused on building the best experience for busy parents to shop for diapers, wipes, and formula. We, of course, shopped the site a ton for our own kids and found ourselves feeling frustrated that there wasn’t a similarly great shopping experience available for kids’ clothes–where we could easily find quality essentials at prices that made sense or easily repurchase the next size up as our kids grew. The second frustration we had was that it felt generally hard to find great, simple clothes without logos, slogans, characters and sequins all over them.
We started Primary to address both of those things, and we wanted Primary clothes to be the foundation of every kid’s closet. All of our styles are under $25 (and 40-50% less than quality competitors). The clothes are much softer and more durable than any brand at this price point. We are investing in quality rather than trend, and focusing on classic styles that parents and kids will want for the next 5 years–not the next 5 weeks.
2. What made you decide to start your business and/or switch careers?
We had been at Diapers.com for a while, and then at Amazon for 2 years after it acquired the parent company Quidsi. After the acquisition, Christina and I started talking about what we might want to do next. We had amazing entrepreneurial role models in Marc and Vinit, the founders of Diapers.com. We also had this idea that was starting to come together for Primary: within the massive kids’ clothing market, the biggest brands didn’t feel relevant (let alone magical) to us and buying kids clothes was a personal pain point.
But it was still hard to decide to leave a known thing for something totally unknown. We had good jobs at a company that was doing really well and we were considering leaping into something that statistically speaking had a pretty high likelihood of not working. You often hear about people starting companies when they get laid off or get pushed into entrepreneurship because of circumstances. I completely get it now. It’s really hard! For me, the fact that I had a partner made all the difference in the world. We are both really motivated to bring this brand to life, and it has been a ton of fun to do it together.
3. Was there one moment that gave you the confidence that this was a good idea?
The first moment we knew we were onto something was when we ran the idea by Marc and Vinit, the founders of Diapers.com. They both thought the idea was really solid, and, given their success, we took that as serious validation. That was the first check to push us along and that encouragement from our former bosses and mentors was a really important milestone. Raising a seed round of funding was also really validating. It was a grueling process, but, in the end, having some money in the bank and quality investors gave us a ton of confidence. Those initial seed round investors trusted us from the beginning to execute, and that reinforced our confidence in ourselves.
But I think the most meaningful moments have been hearing from customers. The personal stories we hear about how Primary has been able to help parents and their kids – even in small ways – are what give us the confidence to keep going.
A customer recently wrote to us describing a shopping session with her daughter at a big national chain. Her daughter didn’t like the glitter, sequins stuff and tight t-shirts that were available in the girls’ section, so they went to the boys section instead and grabbed some stuff there. But once they returned to their car, the daughter started crying because she thought that people would make fun of her for wearing boxy t-shirts. So they looked online that night and the mom was so happy to find Primary because she could immediately tell that it was a brand that her daughter identified with. She said the look on her daughter’s face when she saw kids on the site that looked like her was priceless. And that made us feel amazing. I think half the team was in tears when we read her note.
So starting Primary was about us seeing an opportunity to build a brand that we wanted for ourselves in a really big market. But the emotional connection that our customers are having to the brand is what this is all about. The product is kids’ clothing, but the mission of Primary is support a label-free childhood. We want kids to have the confidence to be proud of who they are.
4. What obstacles did you face in getting started and thinking of yourself as an expert in a new setting?
The biggest one was that we had no experience making clothes and completely underestimated how hard it would be to make great ones. Even though we knew exactly what we wanted, we didn’t understand sourcing and production well enough to know that getting our designs made well really required in-house expertise. We were trying to be scrappy and didn’t want to over-invest in something that didn’t require it. But this was an area where we waited way too long to hire a big gun to manage our supply chain.
For the first 18 months of Primary.com, our in-stock rate was 55-60%. That is really low, especially for a brand that was trying to establish itself as a go-to for busy parents. We needed to have things available whenever parents needed them and we just didn’t. It was really rough.
We talked to everyone we could about how we could start to do sourcing and production better and ended up (very fortunately!) getting connected to our current chief supply chain officer. We started working together on a consulting basis. As a general approach, I don’t love to hire consultants, but this experience taught me that in special situations, where you have a shot at getting guidance from someone who knows everything and can feel each other out a bit before investing in a full-time role, it can really work well.
5. Was there ever a particularly tough time that in retrospect was a priceless learning moment?
After the in-stock levels debacle, I would say that the other toughest times have been around fundraising. It’s just a lot of work to find the right partner (people say it’s a lot like dating, which I think is true!), but it is so important. So far we have been really lucky: Our investors are amazingly passionate about our vision for this brand and have complete trust in us to run the business day today. And at the same time, they are available at a moment’s notice – literally – if we ever need anything.
It’s also important during the process to be confident in your vision and focused on finding the right partner who believes in it as much as you do. A lot of different ideas come up during conversations. For instance, during our seed round, we had someone suggest that we put “really big #@%!-ing zippers” on everything so that moms would recognize the brand right away on the playground! Stuff like that can be really distracting if you let it be. When you have a lot of people offering a lot of advice, it’s hard to maintain conviction in your original vision, but it is so important.
6. Were your family and friends helpful or obstacles in launching your business? How so?
So, so helpful. There was definitely some cost of living math that had to be done before deciding to start a business, and Andy, my husband, and I had to hold hands on some assumptions like when do I think I can start paying myself and what are future school costs for our kids that we will need to cover. These things are a big deal.
Our investors have also been really helpful on this front, basically encouraging us to pay ourselves enough so that we don’t have to worry about paying the bills. It’s a lot easier to focus on running the business when those concerns aren’t part of the mix.
7. Was outside funding/cost a challenge to getting your business off the ground?
We left Amazon in February 2014 and raised our seed round that June. We were looking to raise $750,000 to get to launch, which included hiring a very small team and buying into initial inventory. It was Christina and me and some Powerpoint slides, but we were passionate about our vision and confident that our experience would be really relevant to this space.
We just met with everyone we could – and took any introductions that people were willing to offer. I think we did over 50 meetings! You just never know what those could lead to and so we are always excited to follow the breadcrumbs. We were also really lucky to have Marc and Vinit as early informal advisers – their guidance on fundraising and the introductions they made for us were invaluable.
8. What are some successes you have had with your business that make you proud?
The numbers are good and we definitely feel proud of the growth we have been able to achieve so far (2017 was 2.5x the year before), but what makes me most proud is less about the numbers and more about the team.
I think the team we have now is the most special thing about the company. We have 35 people now, and they all care a lot about each other and this company. They are all just really good people, and we have a great work environment. Culture has been really important to us from the beginning, and that was a page out of in Marc and Vinit’s book at Diapers. They felt strongly about not hiring anyone with sharp elbows, even if they were the smartest people on the planet. A favorite interview question was “would you rather be a smart asshole or a nice dummy?” We like that one.
9. Do you use social media for marketing your business?
Yes, heavily. Social media has been a really effective marketing channel for us, but it has also been really important for feedback and learning about our customers. You put something on Facebook or Instagram, and people tell you exactly what they think really quickly. It is awesome to be able to put things out there and get immediate feedback. We also have a lot of fun talking to customers about everything from Halloween DIY how-tos to how their kids are wearing Primary today. We get so many photos from customers – it is the best to see Primary out in the world!
10. What are your hopes for your business for the next five years?
The market for children’s apparel is massive – $32bn just in the US. And given how universal our styles are, along with the incredible quality we can offer at really accessible price points, it doesn’t feel crazy that we would be able to capture a point or two of market share over the next 5 years.
But even more than hitting a sales target, we are excited to build a brand that means something to this generation of parents.
Date of conversation: August 23, 2017
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