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Foundations of a Winning Business Plan

The winner of the 2005 Business Plan Contest at Harvard Business School used personal experience for inspiration. Now she's taking her idea for a better bra to the venture community.

The winning entry in this year's Business Plan Contest at Harvard Business School was unique in several aspects. First, there had never been a plan for a bra business in the nine years of the contest's existence. Another unique aspect was that the entry, for a company called Uplift, was not created by a team but by an individual, Karen Grajwer, an MBA student in the class of 2005.

Grajwer envisions Uplift as a venture that will use both retail and Internet channels to offer expert fitting assistance as well as sophisticated, fashionable bra styles for fuller-sized women. The bra market is a $4.7 billion a year market, and her research shows that at least 15 percent of women wear a size D cup or above, so Uplift's potential market could be an $800 million per year market. Currently, lingerie stores in the United States only offer one or two different styles for this segment of shoppers, and the styles available in the United States are not properly engineered for the larger cup size. Plus-size women also contend with a boring palatte of colors—white, beige, and black.

Grajwer presented her plan before an enthusiastic audience of students, faculty, and venture capitalists on May 5, and as the winner in the contest's traditional track earned $10,000 in cash plus $10,000 in in-kind accounting and legal services. "I am moving forward with my plan and am currently speaking to VCs and angels about funding," she says.

The prize for the Business Plan Contest's Social Enterprise track, which includes nonprofit or for-profit business plans for enterprises with an explicitly social agenda, went to India Info Village. This venture intends to enlist entrepreneur-owned community centers to enhance access to market and government services in rural India.

In this interview with HBS Working Knowledge, Grajwer discusses the future of Uplift.

Sarah Jane Johnston: Your concept for Uplift is so unique and creative. How did you come up with the idea?

Karen Grajwer: I am my client. I know, I know: Rule number one of marketing is that you should not think of yourself as the client. I had a very hard time finding bras that fit. Growing up in Florida, my mother used to take my sister and me to these awful specialty shops that sold beige, white, and black bras. We would buy these full coverage bras that were huge. It was always really depressing and all of us left the store unhappy.

In college, I discovered, in this little store in Northampton, MA, one hot-pink bra that fit better than anything I had ever tried. I was in shock. The store, unfortunately, had ordered it only because of the color and did not carry any more of those bras. The first time I wore it people kept asking if I had lost weight or had new clothes on—it just fit so much better. From that moment on, I became hooked on looking for better-fitting bras.

I started doing research, which led me to a world of bras that existed in Europe. I started mail-ordering bras, but because each manufacturer sizes a bit differently, I often had to send them back. Still, I was thrilled that anything existed. But I also realized that my sister and many of my friends did not feel comfortable buying bras online.

When I came to HBS I realized what I wanted more than anything else was to open a store to serve people just like me. I wanted to offer great fitting advice, beautiful colors and styles, and a fun and pleasant shopping experience—everything people like me have never had.

Q: How did you demonstrate the viability of your business model?

A: I spent one semester working with Professor Mike Roberts evaluating the plus-size market. I read hundreds of articles; looked up National Institutes of Health and census data about population, sizing, and shopping habits; went to conferences and trade shows organized by the National Retail Federation (NRF); spoke to mom and pop lingerie stores in Boston, New York, and Florida; and cold-called every member of the NRF's Intimate Apparel Council. I did many formal and informal interviews with women and friends at HBS. I even took one woman I met to a specialty store to try to find her a bra; needless to say, it wasn't perfect—and still was beige—but at least the store gave her a few options. Through all these sources, I was able to quantify and better understand the market.

Uplift will be focused on getting customers into the store at least once.

This all helped me understand the problem in the United States, but what helped me prove the concept was a store in Europe that was doing the same thing. I began trying to get this store to expand to the United States, but the owner was focused on European expansion, having opened nine stores in six years.

The idea that a store exists that focuses on this market and thrives was really a compelling argument for this market's need.

Q: How will you introduce your service to the female market? Is it an online or retail store company?

A: Since these women currently have nowhere to shop, word of mouth and PR exposure should carry Uplift's message and purpose to most women who need it. Uplift will work with women's organizations and listservs to continue to gain exposure.

The company will be both online and in-store, because by its very nature the retail space cannot be everywhere. However, since this is a "fit" business, Uplift will be focused on getting customers into the store at least once to try on the products and determine their fit across different manufacturers, which they can then re-order through the Internet.

Q: Most HBS Business Plan Contest participants are in teams. How did you find the experience of tackling this on your own?

A: It was really difficult at times, especially at the end when there was no one to bounce ideas off of. The belief that this store needs to exist, though, kept me going, as did an ever-increasing number of women who heard that I was working on this and approached me—and continue to do so—to express their excitement and ask me when the store will open because they also have this problem and need Uplift.

I am lucky to have incredibly supportive faculty, friends, and family that were always there to keep me going. Professor Roberts was instrumental, since he gave me constant support, advice, and a sounding board on how to structure the argument. Professor Myra Hart, Professor Jim Heskett, and Professor Walter Salmon all were incredibly supportive as well.

At the same time, my family helped substantially, financing all my trips and ensuring that the rest of my life could go on smoothly. My friends and my sister were up with me the nights before each stage of the process, proofreading and listening to me practice. One of my friends even flew to Europe with me to check out the store!

Q: How are you moving forward with your plan? What are your next steps in making it happen?

A: I am moving forward with my plan and am currently speaking to VCs and angels about funding. I am also working with Web site designers to ensure that I can launch both channels at the same time.

Q: Is there a single lesson or skill above all others that you will take away from HBS? Do you have any advice for future entrepreneurs?

A: Surround yourself with a good team. That might sound strange coming from me, since I worked on it by myself, but I think of my team as my section, my friends, my family, and the faculty at HBS, who came together to really keep me going on this. HBS is the most supportive environment I have ever encountered. It is easy to explore ideas and pursue your dream when you know that you are surrounded by amazing people who are willing to help you in any way they can.

My other piece of advice is to know your market. Whatever it is you are selling, you should understand every aspect of it. I see many of my classmates quoting statistics, but that isn't enough. To be successful you must truly understand every aspect of the psychology and the implications of what you are selling or providing. To do this right, you have to get out there and talk to everybody. There are subtleties to every number and every research organization that only industry insiders know, and they will tell you if you ask the right questions. Only by understanding what the numbers don't tell you can you really gain the insight necessary to succeed in a particular market.

Sarah Jane Johnston is a Content Developer at HBS Working Knowledge.