“I love math, and I love clothing. They go together really well,” says Liz Kammel, ZipFit CEO. I know–what? I promise this will make sense in a few sentences.
ZipFit is a mens-only custom-fit jeans company. Now strictly e-commerce, Liz and her team make sure every pair of jeans they send to their customers fits like a glove. We met at Water Tower Place to talk about what it’s like to start a company, be a math nerd and do cool things such as write for Forbes.
People with Panache: How did you come up with the idea for ZipFit?
Liz Kammel: I was carpooling with a bunch of guys from The University of Chicago Booth School of Business who all hated shopping—shocker—and we were discussing startup ideas.
We probably went through like 20 or 30, and we landed on the idea of ZipFit, which is mathematically finding you the best fit. I had built a similar tool when I was a consultant, so I understood the structure of it, and I’d worked in retail—my first job was at the Gap selling jeans. So I knew how to sell and I knew what variables went into fit and what determined whether or not something fit well. After that, it was marrying those two things. So I did write the first algorithm. But I’m not as advanced as I should be, which is why we have a Chief Technology Officer. He took it to the next level.
PWP: You wrote the first algorithm? How did you know how to do that?
LK: I am a math nerd. I love math.
“The hardest thing is probably the first time you tell someone you’re an entrepreneur. Because you’re actually admitting that you’re a little nuts.”
PWP: I’m surprised you came to the idea of better-fitting jeans with a group of guys. I can’t get my guy friends to talk about clothes for more than 10 seconds.
LK: If they have problems with fit they’ll talk about it a lot. Because it’s a big pain point for them and that’s what you’re searching for when you start a business—a big pain point. Men hate shopping…
PWP: …and apparently they also hate ill-fitting jeans!
LK: And especially the women in their lives hate ill-fitting jeans. So it fits together.
PWP: Funny how that works. Do you have any advice for other startups?
LK: My first advice is just go for it. If you actually believe in something, you have to try, you can’t just talk about it. The hardest thing is probably the first time you tell someone you’re an entrepreneur. Because you’re actually admitting that you’re a little nuts. But take that first step. If you actually believe in it and you think it could happen, you don’t know until you start. You have to dive off the cliff head first.
People always said the hard part of a startup is cash flow, and I really learned what that meant the hard way. It is tough. You can manage your personal finances totally fine but when it comes to business cash flow for a startup, it’s hard. It’s really hard. You’ve got a lot of things you’ll juggle, and you put yourself last.
PWP: I know you had a couple of pop-up shops in Chicago to get things going. But now that you’ve switched to e-commerce only, what sets ZipFit apart? And why the decision to do only e-commerce?
LK: One of the biggest things that differentiates us is we do alterations on the jeans before we ship them out. You don’t see that from a lot of the mass retailers. Also, I think a blessing of being in an early stage startup company is that you can react quickly to the market. And more of the market is moving online than is going to a physical store, so instead of waiting for that to slowly die out we moved fast and moved into e-commerce. That doesn’t mean we won’t have challenges with it of course, every company will, but I think it’s a bigger opportunity for us.
PWP: How do you think not having a storefront will affect business?
LK: The difference between an e-commerce store and a brick-and-mortar store is that with e-commerce you pay per click for people to find you online. In a brick-and-mortar store you pay for the traffic there, so you pay for the location, for people to walk by. It’s still very similar. You’re just paying for different traffic.
PWP: What’s in the future for ZipFit?
LK: I do look forward to fitting women one day, so that is part of the game plan. But the future is also that anything you buy from us head to toe fits perfectly. So you can buy a suit, a dress, jeans, a casual shirt, and it will fit. It’s like your own personalized shopper, everything works. If you can do that head to toe, it’s a beautiful thing. That’s what math does for you. All kids should study math.
PWP: What’s it like being in business for yourself?
LK: It’s wonderful. I’m very hard on myself and probably harder on myself than any boss has ever been on me.
You have to be motivated, or no one working for you will be motivated. And as a woman there are ups and there are downs. The perk and challenge is that you stand out in the room because you’re usually the only woman, and there are definitely sexist people out there. So you just have to sort of brush it off and ignore them. There are a lot of them. I love being a woman, so I’m not upset with it.
I understand the numbers behind it, that there is a small percentage of women CEOs. But at the same time you can change that by becoming one.
PWP: Is this your dream job?
LK: Yes. I’ve always wanted to create something and make an impact, and I feel like I’m doing that. It’s not just create a company and create some jobs, which is a wonderful thing to do, but helping people find clothes that fit so they feel good about themselves.
To spread the ZipFit love around, anyone who refers a customer who buys jeans gets a pair of Saxx boxers, which Liz raves over. Refer five people who buy, and you get a free pair of jeans!
Maybe Alysse and I will have to start referring people and hand out our hard-earned boxers to guys who need to “stay out of trouble.” (Watch the video and you’ll get it.)
[Photos by Kate. Featured image sent in from ZipFit.]