Trina Spear first discovered the sleepy but lucrative scrubs market when she did a private equity deal for a large U.S. scrubs maker. Then a mutual friend introduced her to Heather Hasson, a fashion designer who was working on scrub designs that featured high-tech fabrics and trendy silhouettes. The two started Figs, the first e-commerce site to sell scrubs directly to consumers. They weren't the only ones who saw a smart idea--early investors included Lululemon's ex-CEO Christine Day and actor Will Smith. They expect revenue this year to top $100 million. --As told to Lindsay Blakely
Trina: Scrubs are a $10 billion industry in the United States-- $60 billion worldwide. The beauty of this industry is that it's stable. Thousands of medical professionals enter the workforce every year and 90 percent have to buy their own uniforms. But the product has never really changed.
Heather: My first experience with scrubs was when I was premed in college. I'm 5'8" and 116 pounds, and there I was, working on cadavers in these extra-large, boxy, unisex scrubs. Medicine wasn't my strength, so I went into design. After seven years of running my own high-end handbag company in Italy, I decided I wanted to do something that would give back. I started a couple of philanthropic ventures, outfitting kids in school uniforms and then making and donating scrubs to doctors and nurses in Africa.
When I came back to the States, I met up with a nurse friend, and she was wearing big, boxy scrubs, and I said, "Wait. They're still like this?" She had a closet full of these things that she had picked out from a cardboard box at a medical supply store--which is also, by the way, where you buy things like knee braces and walkers. All of the traditional scrub makers sell only to retailers. The experience is terrible. I altered her scrubs so they fit better and soon heard from friends of hers who also wanted alterations.
That's when I knew there was so much to change in this industry.
Trina: The fabric isn't functional--scrubs are typically made of cotton, which absorbs liquids and smells. You can find advanced fabrics at Lululemon and Nike, but no one was developing them for the medical profession. Ours are antimicrobial, comfortable, and stylish. We had this idea by the tail. We just needed to execute.
Heather: We developed our own fabrics, down to the yarns, in L.A. before approaching factories. My 10 years in fashion helped me develop a network of factory contacts, but it was really important to me to find factories that knew how to make technical performance-wear, not scrubs. Now we have an innovation lab in Taipei and 27 factories where we are the only customer. We designed a core set of scrubs, but we also have trendier pieces that come out each month on a limited basis, such as a jogger pant. One of our bestsellers is a sleeveless top with a mandarin collar.
Trina: I was like, "A sleeveless top? Are you out of your mind?" But it's Heather's job to know what our customers want, even if they don't.
Heather: The first year, we were very scrappy. We went to where our customers were. At 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.--that's when shifts change--we put on our scrubs, parked a coffee cart outside of a hospital, and passed out free cups of coffee. The doctors and nurses would notice how cute the scrubs were and we would pull a set out of my car to sell.
Trina: There was a viral, word-of-mouth effect. A hospital is a lot like a college campus. We know where our customers are eating, sleeping, and working.
Heather: Actually, it's stronger than on a college campus. At college, everyone wants to look different. At a hospital, everyone wants to look alike. When a new nurse joins the team, she'll ask, "Where do you get your scrubs?"
Trina: We also went to medical conferences and set up a beautiful booth. Over three days, we'd see more than 20,000 nurse practitioners, and we'd be the only medical apparel company there. We were also the first in our industry to interact with customers on social media. We feature medical influencers on our Instagram.
Heather: People started to catch on. We have 24/7 customer service, so we listen to our customers and know them well. They're working 12-hour days. They work night shifts. We learned they needed a specific pocket for wedding rings. The head of fetal medicine at Cedars-Sinai told us she was on her fifth wedding ring. Doctors lose them because they're pinning them to bra straps or tying them onto their scrub drawstrings.
Trina: Our relationship with our customers helped us diagnose a quality-control problem early on. We started getting these emails from our male customers saying their pants were too tight. They included pictures that were, um, probably not safe for work. One guy used the subject line "My package."
Heather: Our technical designer checked some of the returned pants and figured out that 12,000 pairs had been constructed with a women's front sewn to a men's back. That was when we realized we needed a quality-control team on the sewing side at all of our factories. We ended up donating the whole lot of pants--that was more than $100,000 in inventory.
Trina: When you're growing fast, those consistency issues can happen. Our biggest challenge is to keep meeting our own high standards. Today, we have over a half-million customers, each of whom buys eight to 12 sets of scrubs a year.
We're just getting started. Within five years, I could see us expanding beyond medical. We're solving problems, and the uniform industry overall is broken.
Heather: A uniform is a symbol to tell the world, "This is what I do. I'm here to care for you." That's true around the world. And when you put on something you like, it changes the way you feel and do your job.
Diagnosis: The scrubs market is comatose. The cure? Add fashion and function.
What's the biggest danger in growing too fast? Missing the opportunity to learn the lessons worth learning. From an operational and financial perspective, making sure that the infrastructure scales with sales.
Number of vacation days taken in the past year: 0
Have you ever turned down VC funding? Yes. Figs has never accepted capital for the sake of capital. Aligned goals, values, and ethos are important for any successful arrangement.
What are the biggest obstacles to your company's growth? Managing demand. Finding and retaining good staff. Difficulty securing suppliers or materials.
How many hours do you sleep each night? <5