It isn’t hard to see why Lynn Le was nominated for the Forty Under 40 by the Portland Business Journal. Le graduated from the University of Portland in 2011 with a double major in Global Business and French. Forbes sat down with her last August to ask her some questions about her successful startup, Society Nine.
Here is part of the conversation with Amy Feldman, reporter for Forbes Trep Talks – Where entrepreneurs discuss life in the trenches.
Lynn Le had an idea for a boxing-glove business that wouldn’t just offer women athletes the dreadful pink-colored, men’s-sized gear. Le, 27, who had studied krav maga, the Israeli self-defense practice, and taught kickboxing, started the business on the side while working full-time designing sports retail environments for Nike. But when she won a $15,000 grant from the city of Portland for the venture, she quit her job – and sold almost all of her possessions to make a go of it. Two years later, helped by a Kickstarter campaign, an appearance on an Oxygen network television show and a first round of angel funding, Le is hitting her stride. While Society Nine (the name is a play on Title IX) currently has less than $500,000 in revenue, she hopes to reach $1.5 million in 2017 as the startup rolls out more gear and clothes. In an interview that has been edited and condensed, Le spoke about what finally got her to quit her job and say, “Screw it. It’s cheaper than an MBA.”
Amy Feldman: How did you decide to start this business?
Lynn Le: I had the epiphany in 2013. I was at happy hour with a friend. I was working my full-time job, and on the side I was teaching kickboxing and training in krav maga. I was training pretty heavily at the time, and I was griping. I was trying to find new gear, and I was so tired of all the pink s***. I was tired of wearing men’s stuff that doesn’t fit me. That’s when I realized, I should look into this. The only things being marketed to women were men’s sizes that were turned pink or neon purple. They never fit. Women were risking injury by wearing things that didn’t fit them or wearing youth larges that weren’t designed for high performance.
Feldman: How did that idea become a business?
Le: Working nights and weekends didn’t seem like work to me. Combat fitness has changed my life. It’s changed how I perceive myself and how I carry myself. It’s really powerful. When I came up with the name and the philosophy and the brand value, I knew I could rally women around it.
Feldman: So you funded Society Nine yourself?
Le: I didn’t come from a family of generational wealth, but I did come from a family that was very entrepreneurial. My parents immigrated from Vietnam after the Vietnam War, so they were refugees. I’ve taken that work ethic and that grittiness and applied it to Society Nine. I basically took my salary, and deducted what I owed for student loans, rent and liabilities, and put it all to Society Nine. I also had some savings that was supposed to be for my first home, and I wiped that out. I gave myself a timeline of two years from when I had my epiphany. If in two years, I didn’t have a working prototype and funding, I’d wrap it up. I looked at it as an endurance test, like in boxing or krav maga. You’re sparring for an hour, and you feel like your nose is going to get broken, and if that is the worst feeling you’re going to have, you can face that challenge.
Feldman: How did it go?
Le: In 2014, we started prototyping what would end up being our women’s boxing gloves, and got feedback from 100 athletes, from everyday fitness moms to pro fighters. We took that information on sizes and preferences and designed what would end up being our women’s gloves. A year and a half after my epiphany, I was able to say I am quitting and going all in. We were getting very close to our physical prototype, and we got a $15,000 grant from the city of Portland in a startup competition. At that point it was all self-funded by me with savings and credit cards and I was like, screw it, it’s cheaper than an MBA.
Feldman: Fifteen thousand dollars isn’t that much to quit your job.
Le: Yeah, it’s a little sadistic. Some people will say it’s crazy. I wanted to prove to any doubters that I could achieve a lot on very little. The idea of serving a community of fierce empowered women was all I had. There were many times I wanted to quit, but then I would ask myself if I quit and had direct deposit again would I be genuinely happy knowing that I had given it my all.
Feldman: What did you do?
Le: I sold everything I owned. My apartment was just a mattress on the floor and my shoe collection. I’m kind of a sneaker head, and I love fashion. I had a pair of vintage Chanel pumps that were in pristine condition. I called them my boss lady pumps, and I was like, ‘I’m not selling those.’ I ultimately had to sell them. So my apartment had a mattress and a storage bin on the floor, and I put my monitor on top of that storage bin. That was my office. I sold my TV. I got rid of everything. If you looked at this apartment, you would have thought I was Jason Bourne. I am now renting out a room in my close friends’ house.
Feldman: Once you sold everything and had the $15,000, what did you do?
Le: We locked in our manufacturers. Our sporting goods are made in Pakistan. We sourced those manufacturers at a convention in Las Vegas. Our apparel was done in L.A. at first. We built those relationships, and we set up production timelines that we thought were reasonable. I could tell you production nightmares. We were making progress.
Feldman: You say “we.” How many employees do you have?
Le: We have four team members, two full-time, including myself, and two part-time. The director of sales and marketing is the other full-time person.
Feldman: You turned to Kickstarter for funds pretty quickly?
Le: From August 2014 to January of 2015, it was all prep for Kickstarter, all the nuts and bolts for the campaign. We launched our Kickstarter in January for $50,000. That was the minimum I needed to cover the production, materials and labor. I emailed over 2,000 people in those 30 days. I talked with anyone who would listen. If I didn’t close that campaign I would have had to go to Plan B, and to be honest I didn’t know what Plan B was going to be. I told people, ‘I don’t care if you only give me a dollar.’ We raised $58,000, which was great. Then I needed to get the production schedule back on track.
Feldman: At this point, have you fulfilled all the Kickstarter orders?
Le: We have, we’re very proud of that. Not all Kickstarter campaigns can say that. We delivered in 11 months.
Feldman: Where is Society Nine gear for sale?
Le: We sell direct, and we do some wholesale on the boxing glove line, to independent shops and pro shops, which can mean retail space that gyms have to sell apparel. We curate our list of resellers because we want to make sure that the people we are partnering with support women.
Feldman: Have you bought back the furniture and the shoes you sold at this point?
Le: No. I drive a Honda Accord, and everything can fit in my Honda Accord. I don’t even own a mattress.
Feldman: When you can afford it, what’s the first thing you’re going to buy for yourself?
Le: The first thing I’m going to get – you’re going to laugh – is laser surgery. I am so over contact lenses and glasses. My eye doctor told me it’s $4,500, and insurance doesn’t cover Lasik unless there’s some platinum deal. That’s the very first tangible thing that I would blow money on.
The Portland Business Journal Forty Under 40 Luncheon will take place on Friday June 23, 2017 at 11:30 a.m. at the Nines Hotel. Tickets to the event – Click Here.
Photo credits: Isaac Lane Koval, Ill Gander and Tom Bender.