Whether you love to #freethenipple or use a booster bra, there is no one-size-fits-all. Priya Downes is the co-founder of Nudea, a disruptive lingerie brand sustainably catering to every shape and size. Nudea don’t do Plus Size or Petite categories, because each piece understands fitted form and function. The brand has raised over £1.1m in equity funding, and is heavily backed by Cornerstone, a leading seed fund for diverse founders in the UK.
Could you tell us a little more about your background and how you came to found Nudea?
My first job after university was as an Actuary and although it was great start for getting comfortable with data and numbers, I knew it wasn’t going to excite me enough to spend my whole life doing it. Eventually after a few years of finance, I moved into the Luxury Fashion industry which I was much more passionate about.
After 8 years working for the some of the big houses, including Chanel and Burberry, I felt the itch to try something new that married my head for numbers with a love of great product. I knew straight away I didn’t want to create yet another fashion brand, it was important for me to create a product that served a need as well as being made with care and passion.
Why are you passionate about solving the problems in this space?
Working in luxury fashion instilled in me a huge appreciation for quality, craftsmanship and authenticity, all of which I felt was missing in the world of underwear. This felt so counterintuitive given the frequency we wear our Bras and Knickers, why shouldn’t the same love, thought and desirability exist in your foundation wear as it does in what you wear over the top. The choices available pre-Nudea were disappointing and always felt like a compromise. I wanted to help bring some inspiration to bra-wearers who were clearly underserved.
How did you find completing your MBA helped you to launch your company, as opposed to solely opting for practical experience?
I was very fortunate to have studied my MBA at INSEAD – one of the top 3 MBA programmes globally and universally regarded as truly multinational with respect to the diversity of candidates it attracts. For example, you have to speak 2-3 languages just to be admitted.
My biggest gain was the people – my INSEAD classmates are some of the smartest and most accomplished people I know, many of whom are now my best friends. The alumni network is immense, and they have been my first point of call for investment, board advisors and talent. In fact I have a few INSEAD alumni on my cap table, many of whom have just written me an investment cheque on the basis of the INSEAD connection alone.
How was Nudea affected by the recent pandemic?
As an online brand with a vision to disrupt bra shopping by bringing the whole process – from measurement to try on – to people’s homes, we were already well placed for growth when the pandemic hit.
The pandemic only served to give us a tailwind to grow even faster than we could ever have predicted. Whilst we had started to experiment with pop-ups and physical fit parties pre-lockdown, we were very quickly able to pivot to bring the best of these physical interactions to the virtual space. For example, we launched our program of virtual fit parties on Instagram and our virtual one-to-one fittings have been hugely popular since lockdown started and are now a permanent feature in our customer experience.
As we emerge from the Pandemic, I do believe that retail has permanently shifted. Industry experts predict that online shopping space has accelerated by 3-4 years in the space of 6 months. We truly believe customer behaviour has permanently shifted to online first, with physical being much more about social experiences, and our fit parties are great example of the new balance of virtual and physical.
How have you found the fundraising process, especially as a woman in the space?
Fundraising has been the steepest learning curve. As a first time entrepreneur nothing quite prepares you for the rollercoaster and strong emotional stomach needed to fight for what you’re passionate about no matter the timing or industry you operate in.
We aren’t in the tech space but in the consumer/retail space and I would say that being a fashion brand today is even tougher. Retail has had a major shock with the pandemic and that has made many investors nervous about the sector. Look what has happened to the likes of Topshop and House of Fraser. Never has it been harder to predict consumer behaviour which naturally spooks investors, so timing of raising money through a pandemic has been a major challenge for us.
Interestingly, I have been surprised by the lack of female investors, particularly for a female-founded business which you would expect to easily attract women investors as they would more easily identify with the problem we are trying to solve.
We have just completed a crowd fund round which despite it being more targeted at retail investors has still resulted in 80% of the 670 new investors being men. I would love to have more women on my Board and also on my cap table. For me that is a challenge I would to continuing trying to evolve for Nudea.
What tools and lifestyle changes have you found both have, and have not worked for you in your holistic health journey?
The pandemic with all the lockdowns and WFH has added a whole new dimension to stress and anxiety that never existed before. My best outlet has been taking regular walks and exercising to relieve stress and anxiety. I took up beekeeping and it has given me something entirely non-work related to escape to, also bees are absolutely fascinating. And, I’ve started to explore cognitive brain hypnotherapy to help with compartmentalising stress and anxiety.
What are Nudea’s goals for growth?
To be the online go-to brand for great underwear. The M&S for a new generation of bra shoppers who demand more from their everyday staples; comfort, style and sustainability. As an online brand in 2022 we are visible globally and our growth is not just focused in the UK but we have plans to scale our business in Europe and US as well in the next few years.
What difficulties have you faced and how did you get around them?
In a start-up every day is a new challenge because inevitably you will face something you have never had to do before. I have always been a problem solver. I have been able to change careers from finance to fashion and now my own business on the simple belief that everything can be learnt, you just need to have the motivation to want to learn. I try to break things down and anything I can’t do or don’t have time to, I ask for help. I am lucky enough to have a brilliant team who challenge and support me to get through the toughest challenges.
What social challenges have arisen, and what sacrifices have been made?
Interestingly the emergence out of the pandemic has brought about as many challenges as during the dark days of lockdown. In lockdown, it was about getting the work/life balance correct as I just found myself working all the time with no clear line between home and work time. For Nudea, we have know nothing but the pandemic and WFH as we launched right before the first lockdown.
With lockdowns hopefully behind us for good, it’s now trying to return to a more physical world that’s challenging. I personally struggle to get myself to commit to 2-3 days away from home (remember when we all did 5 days), but I force myself to do it as human interaction is so important and doubly so when you are building a start-up. Physical connection is crucial and we all have a lot of catching up to do!
When you first launched, what brought the most traction and momentum for you?
Fit parties interestingly. I think the days of building a website and then hoping people will come are truly behind us. It’s hard work building customers and reaching people particularly as a new brand on small budgets. You have to growth hack it and it takes time to build momentum – in the early days the opportunity to talk to people directly about the brand, and for them to feel and touch the product was crucial.
The word of mouth then created the first wave of momentum, which then snowballed into the pandemic. We also built a community of 600 bra wearers through our workshops pre-launch who formed our first customer base. Referrals are still an important way for us to acquire new customers.
What’s the smallest change that’s given the biggest return?
For my business, it was bringing customer fulfilment in-house. When we first launched, we had a third party warehouse picking and packing our online orders, which was fine until lockdown happened. I personally was worried about what that meant for staffing at the warehouse and didn’t want to risk not being able to fulfil orders.
Despite it being a tactical move rather than strategic, bringing customer fulfilment in-house was the best thing that ever happened. We were able to offer a personal service and a real luxury touch to our packing, for example, little uplifting notes, which really helped to boost our customer service and retention.
What motivates you?
Personal growth, I want to be able to challenge myself to try something new or do a familiar thing better. I think of my children (I have 3) and I’m motivated by the legacy I want to leave for them – one where they are never afraid to try something new or persist at doing something better, even if it’s hard.
What has been your biggest lesson, fear, or failure?
Empathy. Being a career-driven person my whole life, I historically was quick to judge or label people who weren’t like me. Running your own start-up can be really humbling in so many ways, but I have truly embraced a much more open mind to people’s situations.
Do you have a mentor or people you ask for advice?
YES absolutely. It’s so important to surround yourself with mentors who have your interests at heart but aren’t afraid to ask you the difficult questions and challenge you. That’s how you grow and I am so grateful to have such great advisors both personally and for Nudea, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do without them.
If you did not have your own company, what would you be doing?
Having spent almost 20 years working for big corporates, I feel like my days of working in big corporate structures are behind me, I wouldn’t change it for the world as it has given the solid grounding to start my own business, but I now I am much more passionate about building small businesses from the ground up. So it’s pretty likely I would be either working for another start-up or freelancing on start-up projects.
What are your strengths and weaknesses?
One of my strengths is my willingness to be flexible, I am more than happy to roll my sleeves up and pack orders as much as I am presenting strategic ideas. This is a useful skill to have as a founder, as you do have to spread yourself across a lot of roles especially in the early days. My weakness is that it’s hard for me to say no, as someone who is willing to try anything, I often find myself with too much on my plate. Fortunately my own personal growth over the past few years has taught me the importance of smarter time management and I am getting pickier at what I choose to take on both personally and professionally.
How has what you do changed you as a person?
It’s made me more resilient. Your own business is correlated to your own passion and drive, and you need to feel motivated everyday even when the going get’s tough, like being rejected for investment or having a bad sales week. You need to have the motivation to keep going and believe in your vision.
If time and money were no object – what would be on your to do and to see list?
I would love more time always! For me it’s simple to spend more time with my kids. I would love to have more time travelling with them and exploring new countries and adventures together.