Female Founders: Michelle Huie of VIM & VIGR On The Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder
An Interview With Candice Georgiadis
Data Not Drama. Start tracking data as early and as possible and use this information to make decisions. I know this seems simple, but it does take discipline to set up processes to track data. Early on in my business, I targeted a particular retail segment and was seeing some success, but when I looked at the data, I noticed another segment that had higher order values and revenue. I then shifted my focus and double downed on this other segment which really propelled my business. I would have never had any indicators to change course if I didn’t track and look at my data.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Huie, Founder & CEO of VIM & VIGR.
After 15 years in the pharmaceutical and healthcare industry, Michelle Huie founded VIM & VIGR in 2013. A stylish compression legwear brand, VIM & VIGR is sold in over 1,300 locations throughout the US and internationally. In 2018, VIM & VIGR was named one of the fastest growing private companies by INC 5000.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Prior to starting VIM & VIGR, I was in Corporate America and worked in marketing and sales in the healthcare industry. When I moved to Missoula, MT, I took a sales job that required me to drive throughout Montana and Idaho and I noticed the negative physical effects of my sedentary job. A friend, who is a physical therapist, recommended that I start wearing compression socks — the options that I found were uncomfortable, poor quality, and made me feel like I had a medical condition. This inspired me to launch VIM & VIGR by infusing great designs, fabric, and quality into compression socks.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
I think one of the more interesting things that always comes up is the fact that my company is completely bootstrapped without any outside investment. A year after I launched, I was approached by two investors who wanted to partner with me and buy 50% of VIM & VIGR. I went to NYC to meet with them, but at the end of the day, I just didn’t feel like having investors was the right move for me or the business at the time. It can be very flattering and validating to be approached by investors, but you ultimately need to do some critical soul searching to narrow down on the type of business you really want to run.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
My first inventory order sold out in a few months and when my second order came, one of the bestselling styles of my knee-high compression socks was too long and pulled up to my mid-thigh. I was freaking out because I was sold out of product and the retail customers that I just secured were anxious for more. I was able to work closely with my manufacturer to reproduce the product. I learned a few lessons from this. The first lesson confirmed the important relationship you have to have with your manufacturer. If I didn’t take the time to develop that relationship, they would have unlikely worked with me to fix the product. The second lesson is to never think twice when it comes to the quality of your product. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable using or wearing your product, your customers wouldn’t either. The negative long term ramifications would have been much greater than the short term loss.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Absolutely — I have had so many people play a critical role in various parts of my life and career. When I first started VIM & VIGR, one of my mentors encouraged me to fly to Taiwan to meet my manufacturer immediately. I was hesitant because I felt it was premature, but he told me it was the only way if I wanted to start a product-focused manufacturing business. I took a few days off of work and flew to Taiwan for a long weekend. This initial visit really solidified and built trust with my manufacturer. They took a chance on me and worked through countless iterations of the product. It is deeply critical that all of your partners uphold the same values and quality that you have for your brand.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
I think there are several factors here. I think that women play an overwhelming and demanding role within a family, and this became extremely evident during COVID. Studies have shown that COVID dealt a major setback to women in the workforce. A recent study showed that during COVID, 1 in 4 women have considered leaving their jobs or downshifting their careers and it’s these competing demands that are forcing women to choose. I also think the expectations placed on women and the expectations that women place on themselves are high. Another component that I often see which is supported by research shows that women are less comfortable with self-promotion relative to men. In my experience, I have seen extremely smart women with great ideas, but they second guess themselves or they feel that things must be perfect before they can launch.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
It’s often assumed that because women are less comfortable with self-promotion indicates that they are less confident or less capable and I don’t think that’s the case at all. These are assumptions that people make based on certain behaviors that emote aptitude. I think employers and society have an opportunity to re-evaluate certain behaviors as positive or negative. These types of subjective markers can be pregnant with conscious and unconscious assumptions and stereotypes that can hurt women in the workplace. Rather than looking at subjective behaviors as an indicator of performance or promotability — employers can create more objective measures to evaluate performance to reduce unintentional biases.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
As a society, I think it’s important to have diversity in business and this could come in the form of gender or racial diversity. Founders have a lot of power in terms of the type of people they hire and it’s human nature for people to hire others that are “familiar” to them, which breeds this vicious cycle of homogeneity. I think diversity of thought is critical and can often come from a diversity of lived experiences that need to be authentic. I think it creates a better company and better product.
One other reason why women should be founders is the flexibility and wealth they can create for themselves. The wealth that women create for themselves contributes to society in a substantial way. Women as a whole tend to donate more of their money to charitable causes — so the more women make, the more others benefit as well.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I think people often think that founders and entrepreneurs are risk takers. I actually disagree with that — I don’t think you have to be a risk taker to be a founder. I see two characteristics from founders — the first is that a founder sees risk in a very different way because they’re so optimistic and convicted on their idea. The second characteristic I see is just the sheer determination and effort entrepreneurs put towards making their dreams a reality. I think more than risk taking — it’s a combination of optimism and determination.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
No and that’s okay. I don’t think everyone is meant to be a founder and in fact, I have seen some people start businesses and go back to working for others because they realize they don’t have the correct characteristics to make them a founder and that they hated the process.
When you start a business — it becomes all consuming. It’s also a lot of work — more work than you can imagine. So you have to be a very obsessed person to be a founder because there isn’t anyone holding you accountable other than yourself. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to think about work after 5 PM, don’t be a founder. If you’re the type of person that needs external pressure to complete a project, don’t be a founder.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, what are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Focus on what YOU really want. When starting a business, you’re constantly barraged with comments from others on what you should be doing and even now, I receive unsolicited “advice” on my business. I actually notice this mostly from men and I do think it’s linked to a paternalistic instinct that men have with women. Early on my business — I was overly focused on growth at the expense of profit. Though I was growing, I was constantly stressed about cash and payroll and I realized that I wasn’t happy in my business. It became a beast that constantly needed to be fed. A few years ago, I shifted my focus by creating a healthy business that was focused on healthy growth and profitability. I learned so much from this experience and feel lucky that I was able to realize this before it was too late.
- Data Not Drama. Start tracking data as early and as possible and use this information to make decisions. I know this seems simple, but it does take discipline to set up processes to track data. Early on in my business, I targeted a particular retail segment and was seeing some success, but when I looked at the data, I noticed another segment that had higher order values and revenue. I then shifted my focus and double downed on this other segment which really propelled my business. I would have never had any indicators to change course if I didn’t track and look at my data.
- Cash is King. When I started my business — I definitely focused much more on marketing and sales than my finances. After I launched, I realized that I was over leveraged and needed to get the business out of trouble fast. I started to develop weekly metrics based on performance and financials and reviewed my P&L and balance sheet on a bi-monthly basis. Now we’re doing better than ever and this would have never happened if I didn’t focus my energy on increasing my cash flow which can be difficult in a manufacturing business.
- Develop a Community. I distinctly remember having a conversation with one of my mentors early. I shared with him how the “highs can be high, and the lows can be low.” He corrected me and said, “the lows can be lonely.” I have felt this loneliness time and time again throughout the eight years of owning my business and this is why I have a strong community of people I talk to on a regular basis. When things get bad, you can feel like a complete failure and like the walls are caving in and you will need to rely on that community and your mentors to reset your mindset.
- Don’t be Afraid to Ask for Help. This can be hard for some people. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness or failure. It’s a sign of strength and the realization that you will do what you need to do to make sure the company and your employees are successful.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The first is simply through my product. We hear tons of comments every day from our customers saying that our product helps them live a healthier life everyday just by wearing our compression socks. At VIM & VIGR, we also donate our product to people who need it the most. Over the past 18 months, we have donated over $200,000 worth of VIM & VIGR to front-line healthcare workers. We have also partnered with various organizations that help promote women entrepreneurs by providing education and mentorship.
On a personal level, I dedicate a lot of time to support and provide guidance to other entrepreneurs. I’m a big proponent of “pay it forward.” So many people have helped me along my journey and I’m equally as eager and encouraged to help others.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would say one of my biggest mantras is “why not now.” One of my dear friends and mentor made an analogy that really resonated. He said when you’re five years old — one year of your life represents 20% of your life so it seems like eternity. As you get older, one year represents a smaller and smaller percentage of your life and it’s easy to allow one year to flow into the next. I don’t want to “wait” to start living my life and doing what I love. If it makes you happy, start now, everything will fall in line.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I would love to have lunch with Mickey Drexler — the former CEO of J.Crew and GAP. He has been through so many ups and downs in business and I’m sure he has the most fascinating stories.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.