Welcome to Scaled and Failed! My name’s Amil Naik and I’m an aspiring VC and founder at The University of Texas at Austin. I write about startups that scaled and startups that failed to draw insights about the patterns of startup failure and how to avoid them. Everything is clearer in hindsight, so it’s worth looking back.
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Today’s Topic 👰: Wedding Dresses
Scaled 📈: Anomalie; Challenges status quo on bridal dress shopping with customized D2C offerings at competitive pricing versus mid-market bridal retailers.
Failed 👎: Brideside; Hybrid offering of online and in-person bridesmaid dress shopping that shut down facing lack of demand during the pandemic and accompanying lack of weddings.
Lessons Learned 💡: A core product offering should be essential to a consumer experience or event rather than something up on the chopping block. A narrow scope of focus and strong execution are often preferable to a hedged focus providing different offerings to different customers.
Today’s Topic: Wedding Dresses 👰
The wedding dress market has undergone a significant upheaval in the last few years due to both longer-term trends and shocks from the pandemic. David’s Bridal, which once cornered over half of the wedding gown market, had a bankruptcy reorganization late in 2018, the number of weddings each year in the US has fallen, and the pandemic has shaken bridal retail as a whole with an initial slump and now a surge in demand; times are certainly changing and new players are entering the market. D2C, customization, and nontraditional looks are all gaining momentum though the traditional wedding dress and shopping experience are going nowhere. Plenty of startups are riding the wave of change shaking up wedding fashion.
Anomalie is one of these startups focused on making custom D2C wedding dresses. You find some inspiration for dress features and styles you like, chat with a stylist online, go through some customer sketches and fabric/lace swatches, and then give a thumbs up on production when the design modifications meet your expectations. After sending in some measurements and trying a fitting shell, the wedding dress arrives at your door in about 3 months; Anomalie also covers the cost of alterations $500+. Brideside was another startup in the wedding space but focused on bridesmaid dresses initially with hopes of expanding to bridal gowns as it grew. The startup lived between a purely online presence and the traditional bridal salon with both physical showrooms, an online shop, and in-home dress trials shipped to you for fitting. It closed its doors late in 2020, another Covid casualty. The dream of doing the same for actual bridal dresses never came to fruition. Was the pandemic the deciding factor differentiating the two startups’ paths, or was there more to it? Let’s dive in.
Scale: Anomalie 💒
Founded in 2016, Anomalie takes aim at the mid-market of wedding dresses; it isn’t a replacement for the highest-end brands and boutiques nor is it the cheapest option among all wedding gowns, but it aspires to take the hassle and mispricing out of its niche in between. It’s hard to imagine buying something like a wedding dress online without trying it on, but the value Anomalie provides outweighs that experience for many. Customization in the comfort of your own home is an attractive offering, and given the lower price point relative to other wedding dresses of similar style and quality, many are willing to give it a shot. One article cites that between mid-2018 and mid-2019, 13% of US brides made an Anomalie account (275,000 out of 2.1M in that period). The number of eyes on the startup is certainly promising traction.
The idea for Anomalie came through one of the cofounder’s struggles in getting her own wedding dress at a reasonable price. Putting her background in overseas logistics at major brands to use, she tracked down workshops that made the dresses herself and cut out the middle man boutique to get her dress directly. When her friends all wanted the same done, she realized there was a startup to be built. She and her husband decided to start Anomalie and the growth story began, with revenue doubling each month in those early years and $4.5M in seed capital raised in 2017. The company raised a $13.6M Series A in 2019 amidst a shakeup in the bridal industry and has weathered the pandemic successfully. Traditions are slow to break down, especially surrounding things like weddings and death. Bridal salons will remain the go-to option for the foreseeable future. However, D2C customization for wedding dresses isn’t going away any time soon either, and it isn’t just a product of Covid restrictions; Anomalie is well-positioned to ride the wave as these tech trends accelerate in the wedding dress.
Fail: Brideside 🔔
Brideside was launched in 2014 after some years of ideation following one of the cofounders planning her own wedding (which seems to happen a lot in this space). Looking to streamline the process, the company aimed to be a hybrid boutique serving both customers preferring an online, at-home experience for buying bridesmaid dresses and those who wanted a traditional in-person experience at a showroom. Brideside boasted a robust online platform for managing a wedding party and their dress orders and dedicated style consultants to help clients get just what they were looking at. Groups could also be shipped try-at-home boxes to get a sense of styles and sizing on bridesmaid dresses. And if you weren’t looking for an unorthodox bridesmaid dress shopping experience, you could always visit their in-person showroom. The hybrid model allowed Brideside to serve different customer segments with the same infrastructure.
Brideside grew more slowly over time, which makes sense given its larger overhead in running physical showrooms. By the end of 2019, it had raised over $13M in funding and was gearing up to expand its services into 2020. Moving into actual bridal dresses and opening more showrooms were on the docket for the expansion. Unfortunately, the pandemic threw a wrench into those plans. It was the worst time to be hitting the gas on growth, especially on in-person locations; nearly 2/3 of weddings were canceled and Brideside didn’t see a path forward. In just a few short months, the culmination of years of disruption was thrown off track and shut down.
Lessons Learned 💡
The pandemic and the 2008 financial crisis had similar effects on a number of startups; a lot of great ideas died due to bad timing. Brideside undoubtedly was very unlucky on the timing when it decided to pursue physical retail growth, but several other factors limited its potential in relation to the pandemic and accelerating trends in wedding dress shopping. First, Brideside’s product wasn’t essential to a wedding, especially a pandemic wedding. Even without the possibility of large wedding ceremonies with tons of guests and bridesmaids, the brides themselves likely would still be interested in dresses for their smaller ceremonies. Anomalie did just fine and continued selling to brides; it probably benefited given its digital-first infrastructure in a time when many physical retailers were struggling to adapt. In this case, Anomalie was ahead of the curve on the opportunity that the pandemic accelerated. That’s the core of a successful startup; riding a wave earlier and better than others when it comes by.
Second, Brideside had its feet in both the physical and online domains. While the hybrid experience gave it a wider audience, the investment in the physical retail locations became worthless early in the pandemic. Its online business may have held potential, but the resources to pivot and hold it together likely weren’t there at that point. Entrenched wedding retailers are still around, and the fully D2C Anomalie survived as well. Both of these had a narrow scope of focus that let them execute well. Startups in particular usually don’t have the bandwidth to do multiple things really well, especially during a black swan event like the pandemic. Make sure you’re focused on doing what you can better than anyone else rather than hedging your vision.
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Thanks for reading! I didn’t realize how expensive wedding dresses are until I researched this newsletter; the entire cost of a wedding is starting to scare me. If you found this interesting, consider sharing it with friends and subscribing if you haven’t already!