New technologies and ideas are often met with equal parts excitement and skepticism, but more often than not, you’re only able to understand how truly game changing they were in hindsight. For instance, if Airbnb founders Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia came to you in 2007 with their idea, you could probably find a million ways to pick it apart. What do you mean people are just going to let strangers into their homes? What about liability? What if those “guests” are criminals?
Knowing that others have faced skepticism for their ideas is cold comfort when you’re betting big on your own. After all, you don’t know how everything will turn out — will this technology truly disrupt your industry, or will it disappear faster than it came to market?
The Ridiculousness Of Fit Kits
My company, Rebel Athletic, provides couture uniforms for cheerleaders. As the name implies, we are the upstart in a category dominated by one player, and for those unfamiliar with this roughly $400 million market, one of our biggest challenges is precision sizing.
Traditionally, cheerleaders figured out their size with the aid of a “fit kit,” a sizing run of each style that ranges from Youth 3SX to plus size. To determine their most accurate size, cheerleaders try on each garment in the kit until they find a match. As you can imagine, it’s a time-intensive process. Not only did every athlete have to try on multiple garments, those garments also needed to be washed after every fitting.
These kits were a major expense, costing our business some $300,000 a year, and that’s on the low end because we manufacture the kits in our own factories. At the end of each sales cycle, nearly half of the items are unusable because they stretch out of tolerance, an unsustainable reality for any emerging business.
The waste and expense of the fit kits were among the reasons why I initially looked for an alternative. It seemed archaic that with all the retail technologies focused on enhancing the customer experience, we were still using this very analog form of fitting. There had to be a digital solution.
The Tech Alternative
About two years ago, I began mapping out a new approach. I reasoned that there must be a way to use a smartphone to achieve the same thing as a fit kit, only without the waste.
Now, I’m not a tech person. I’ve never built an app, but I had a vision for what I wanted it to do. So I contacted tech firms to see if this was possible. While many said it wasn’t, I found one, Seven Tablets, that said it was. Seven Tablets likes to solve hard problems. As it turns out, retail sizing was a tough nut to crack and had been attempted unsuccessfully by a number of firms around the world.
As partners, we were able to devise an app that uses augmented reality and machine learning to create a real-time 3D model of a person to be used for precise size recommendations. Fit Freedom supports any smartphone and the entire process is completed in less than a minute. I expected the app, Fit Freedom, to be accurate, but not as accurate as it turned out — 100%.
We’re one season in, after adopting the technology before our most recent sales cycle, and no one is returning their uniforms because they don’t fit. After its success, we believe the retail industry can benefit too, which is why we’re sharing the technology with others outside the athletic apparel industry. There’s a reason why consumers return some 40% of items they buy online. In the near future, consumers can get a profile from Fit Freedom that will let shoppers everywhere know if any given designer’s size 6 is a “real” size 6 or is actually an 8.
Committing To Your Idea (When Everyone Thinks It’s Crazy)
That’s a happy ending for sure, but there has been nothing preordained about Fit Freedom’s success. When I first proposed the idea, many people thought I was crazy. I know that’s a cliché, but when you’re betting a big portion of your company’s capital on an idea, it’s disquieting.
Some of the critics were in my own family. They correctly pointed out that I had already created a profitable business, so why spend more money when the old way was working just fine? But I had to trust my gut. There was a better way out there and I was going to find it. After all, if you were starting a business in 2019, would you add $300,000 in annual expenses related to clothing or invest in app with the potential to transform the industry?
Looking back, there was really nothing crazy about what I was proposing. What was crazy was expecting any industry to be immune from the forces of technology. That’s why I’m now looking closely at other aspects of retail that don’t make a lot of sense. There are better ways to do business out there and if we, as an industry, invest in solutions that solve the real-world problems our customers have, we will find them.
Karen Noseff Aldridge is the Founder and CEO of Rebel Athletic and the visionary behind Fit Freedom, an innovative sizing technology designed to simplify the shopping experience. A serial entrepreneur, Aldridge also founded Fortune Denim in 2007, a global brand carried by over 300 US boutiques and a private label fashion company before the recession. She attended the University of Texas at Dallas and SMU’s Dedman School of Law. She is the recipient of multiple business awards, including Dallas Business Journal’s “25 Women to Watch in Business”, and has been featured on CNBC, Good Morning Texas and NPR and in Inc. Magazine.