Where Bras Meet Software: Zyrra Raises Money From Jess McLear, Jean Hammond, & Local Angels For Its Bra Industry “Revolution”

10/19/10Follow @xconomy

Derek Ohly is known as the “bra guy,” both around the office at MassChallenge, the startup accelerator and entrepreneur competition, and throughout the Boston-area investor community, he says.

“I didn’t expect to end up in the world of bras, and here I am,” says Ohly, a graduate of Babson College’s MBA program (a likely story). “I have designed them, sewn them, fit them, and sourced them. As I like to put it, I have a PhD in bras.”

This isn’t just a weird hobby for Ohly. He’s CEO of Zyrra, a MassChallenge finalist company that’s using computer-aided-design (CAD) software, a patent-pending bra measurement system, and Tupperware-style parties to get custom-fit bras into the hands of women who just aren’t happy with how theirs currently fit.

“Bra guy” is a relatively new gig for Ohly, dating back to about 2004, when his MBA classmate and now Zyrra co-founder Christi Andersen mentioned that there was a pervasive problem with bra fit. So Ohly, who says he was overwhelmed by the number of women sharing Andersen’s gripes, set out in the bra business. He started by taking a sewing class at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.

“I said, ‘I’m here to learn how to make bras.’ It was a good moment,” he says, noting that he was the only guy in the class. The group of women responded, “Sign me up,” when he explained his aim to make better-fitting bras—early market validation for the company’s product, he says.

Zyrra incorporated in late 2004 and spent a few years designing, prototyping, and building the bra models and the sizing system to plug into the CAD platform in order to design them in a more individualized way, and came out with its first bra model around 2007. The startup worked out of office space in Boston’s Chinatown neighborhood before moving to MassChallenge for the accelerator and business plan competition phase this summer.

Ohly and Andersen’s company isn’t just unique in that it’s applying software that’s typically been used for architecture and product development in the electronics, engineering, and furniture sectors to lingerie-making. The startup also has a different makeup of investors than most others in the tech space. The lead investor for its Series A financing, which is expected to close later this month in the range of $500,000 to $700,000, is angel investor Jess McLear, a member of angel group Golden Seeds and also a mentor at MassChallenge. Jean Hammond, another Golden Seeds member, has also backed the company.

“The angel community is about 90 percent men,” Ohly says. “We will have a slightly different breakdown.”

The company sells its bras (as well as matching underwear) through a direct sales model, mainly through “fit specialists” that Zyrra trains to go out to sell to women through parties and group events. It’s a model used by many brands catering to women, like Tupperware, The Pampered Chef, and Mary Kay.

The idea is to take a task that is traditionally frustrating and time consuming—bra shopping—and turn it into a more of a girls-night-in, fun event, Ohly says. Zyrra also holds sales events with local stores and spas, and even has a fitting booth in the MassChallenge work space. (Don’t worry, it’s away from the building’s giant, floor-to-ceiling windows.)

The fit specialists gather women’s measurements at these events and plug them into a CAD program that designs the bras and sends them off to the manufacturers. “We could make a big impact in an industry that hasn’t seen a lot of real innovation in many years,” Ohly says. “The bra sizing system was invented in 1920. And it doesn’t work very well, so we’re throwing it out.”

Indeed, the traditional bra sizing system takes two measurements and assumes the remaining proportions based on those numbers, Ohly says. Zyrra specialists, on the other hand, take close to 10 different measurements for a single bra, better accommodating the different variations in bra fit that are ignored under the current model, he says. “We do plan on revolutionizing the bra industry,” he says, “which is in a different space than most innovation today.”

The company has about 1,000 customers in the Boston area, but is planning on using its new money to finance a bigger operation, Ohly says. He’s looking to expand to three new markets in the next year: Chicago, New York, and Washington, DC. Prior to this round, Zyrra had raised about $350,000 from friends and family, founders, bank debt, and the Babson College seed fund, Ohly says.

The company was looking to raise a funding round before entering MassChallenge, but the program definitely sped up the process, he says.

“The term ‘accelerator phase’ was appropriate,” he says. “We accelerated the round while we were here in MassChallenge.”

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