Kerry O'Brien – Founder, Her Look Enterprises
Could you and your sweetie work together – without killing each other? Kerry O’Brien makes it work.
By Taylor Mallory
Kerry O’Brien and her husband, Ed Biggins, are partners not just in life and parenthood, but also in business – albeit a uniquely feminine one.
O’Brien always knew she’d become an entrepreneur, but it wasn’t until September 11th, 2001, that she decided to leave her role as senior vice president of a major New York PR firm and take the plunge. Today, O’Brien’s company, her look enterprises, is responsible for a host of innovative undergarments – including its headliner, commando, the first elastic-free, “invisible” underwear to hit the market – sold in bright pink packaging in more than 1,200 up-scale department stores worldwide (think Saks, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom).
Celebs, customers and the media jumped on board, and soon business was booming. So Biggins left his job to join the company, and the couple moved their family to Vermont, “to have the more laid-back, family-centric lifestyle we’d always dreamed about,” says O’Brien.
So how does the couple make the dual-relationship work? “With this company, we’re working towards the same goals – providing for our family and having a higher quality of life,” says O’Brien. “I know people who have gone into business with friends and ended up hating each other, because they had conflicting goals, and then spouses get involved, and so on.” Another secret to their success: understanding each other’s role. “He’s primarily responsible for the financials, and I’m responsible for marketing and product development. But we overlap a good bit. People told us husband and wife teams work best when each has his or her own area and stays out of the other’s way. That’s not the best way for us.” And disagreements about business decisions never get too heated or follow the couple home, she says, because they use the communication skills they’ve honed in their marriage (i.e., compromising and picking battles) at work as well. “If he feels strongly about something I only care about a little, we do it his way – and vice versa. It’s not about who is right or wrong or who wins or loses. We’re a team. You just have to respect each other.”
Here she talks to PINK about the innovation – and why she never hired a sales rep.
PINK: What are your best tips for innovating?
Kerry O’Brien: It’s about understanding your customer. My tests for new products are whether there’s a need in the marketplace and whether I’d buy it. When I created the commando line, it was because I couldn’t stand underwear that dug in and gave me muffin hips. It was uncomfortable, and it looked and made me feel bad about myself. I wanted underwear with no elastic or trim. So I started a new trend by inventing some. And we just became the first company to introduce them in cotton. We were told you couldn’t raw cut a natural fabric like cotton like this. But we did. And it’s been very successful. And two weeks ago, we launched a hosiery line, using the commando waistband with ultra premium legs, so nothing digs into you. I came up with the idea because I bought some very expensive, nude fish-net tights for an event. And they hurt. I wasn’t used to underwear digging into me anymore, and I was upset that this expensive leg wear was so uncomfortable I didn’t want to wear it. So our hosiery line passed my test, because there was a need in the marketplace – and I’d buy it.
PINK: How has the recession impacted your business?
K.O.: Like the rest of the industry, our sales are down a bit. But it has gotten us back to basics. Business was absolutely booming for so long that we got really focused on sales and marketing and other functions – and innovation was taking a back seat. During this time, we’ve come up with some of our best products yet. The recession is making smart companies re-evaluate their core competencies, and that’s been a good thing for us.
PINK: What were the best decisions you made in the start-up process?
K.O.: I was proud of my ideas, not tentative about how “out there” they were. My first product was takeouts, a medical-grade silicon bra insert that comes in a pink Chinese food take-out container. It might seem hard to believe that would be a success, but if you don’t believe in your product, no one else will. Second, we decided to stay in direct contact with our customers. They give us the best feedback and help us come up with new ideas. So we decided not to hire a sales rep. That’s very unusual in this industry, and maybe we’d have done better if we had, but I like knowing our customers. They know they can always contact me or Ed. It instills loyalty and keeps us in touch with what’s going on in our company.
PINK: What mistakes did you make in the beginning?
K.O.: I don’t have a problem with mistakes, unless they’re recurring. Inaction has always bothered me more. As a leader, I’ve never gotten upset with someone who made a mistake. At least they made a decision and thought it was the best one. And most all mistakes can be remedied pretty easily; they won’t ruin your business forever. In the beginning, we didn’t understand what was expected from us around deliveries and timetables for new products. Most people who go into the fashion industry understand that need to plan ahead. I thought I just needed one great product to have a successful business. Now, we know innovation is the most important part of this business. It’s all about your next product, not what you have now.
PINK: How do you manage your Life/Work balance?
K.O.: Balance is a funny word. I don’t know if I balance work and family. It’s all mixed together all the time. We have three children: 15-month-old twin girls and a six-year-old boy. It’s not uncommon for him to be in the office with me during the summer. He knows all the girls in the warehouse and enjoys telling them big stories. I get to spend an enormous amount of time with my kids, even if I have to break away to check e-mail or talk on the phone. I can leave work at 2:30 to pick up my son, but my cell is always on, almost without exception. Everyone knows they can call at any hour or even if I’m on vacation. It’s a trade-off, but balance is a double-edged sword. And this is the way I like it.
PINK: How do you relax and rejuvenate yourself?
K.O.: Being home with the kids. Sometimes it’s relaxing; sometimes it’s not. But it’s certainly the happiest time for me, just being with them. I don’t feel exhausted. I have enough pleasure and relaxation in my life. And I love our family beach holiday. We go to Lake Champlain here in Vermont sometimes, but we also love the seaside in Maine and the Caribbean, where we’re going sometime this winter.
PINK: What do you do just for you?
K.O.: Nothing. (She laughs.) Any mother of three that is working will probably answer this question this way. I exercise, if I can escape, for half an hour three to five times a week. Some of my best ideas come from that time.
PINK: What is the best business advice you’ve ever gotten?
K.O.: Once our business was established, there were times I felt things weren’t moving as quickly as I’d like. Our friend Brian, who is an operations management genius, said, “You have to find your Waldo. Who’s the one holding up the process? Is it the manufacturer, a vendor or someone in the company?” That has been a recurring thing. If the company isn’t keeping up with momentum of the brands, I find my Waldo and then I can get the ball rolling again. Right now, I’m the Waldo. Everyone keeps asking about our spring collection, and I’m still trying to figure that out.
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