Inspirational Women Leaders Of Tech: Deanna Meador of Couture Technologies On The Five Things You Need To Know In Order To Create A Highly Successful Tech Company
Spend Responsibly — Acquiring the funds needed to run a venture is obviously important, but mindful stewardship of those funds once you have them is just as important. This is something that inspires confidence from investors. I understand pouring fuel (money) into a venture as you work to scale, but I have never been the type of entrepreneur that wants to run a business with no pathway or an extremely long pathway to profitability. The same kind of mindful spending you might apply to your personal finances should also apply in your business!
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Deanna Meador, the CEO and Co-Founder of Couture Technologies, the leading virtual fitting technology that helps apparel businesses reduce returns, increase conversions and enhance their customer experience by ensuring customers get the right fit the first time. Couture empowers direct-to-consumer fashion and workwear apparel brands with virtual fitting technology, 3D garment creation services, and enhanced data analytics.
Deanna is a successful serial tech entrepreneur and inventor who has never met a challenge she didn’t like. She started her first company in graduate school and sold it less than a year after graduation. She then spent 7 years conducting education and juvenile justice research for Vanderbilt’s Peabody Research Institute. This work led her to develop two different educational technologies. She is the recipient of the Young Alumni Achievement Award from her undergraduate university (the highest honor the university bestows on an alum under 40) for her innovations and the first woman founder to raise over $1M in just 8 hours.
Beyond her work at Couture Technologies, she is Deputy Director at the Wond’ry, Vanderbilt University’s Innovation Center. Over the last 6 years, she has taught over 15 cohorts of aspiring entrepreneurs and supported over 500 teams in the early stages of their ventures. Deanna really enjoys working with creators, inventors, and entrepreneurs that dedicate their lives and talents to making a positive impact in the world.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I’m lucky enough to have seen women standing in their power from an early age — my mother was actually the first female deputy of the Macon County Sheriff’s department, one of the most rural and conservative counties in Tennessee. She raised me to believe women can do anything they put their minds to, and for me that became entrepreneurship! My love for entrepreneurship stems from a deep love for problems. I don’t care what industry they are in. If there is a problem in the world impacting people’s lives, I want to be a part of bringing a solution to life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
For me, there have been so many interesting moments of learning, and there is so much to be thankful for. Most new companies don’t survive and we’ve been able to not only survive, but keep growing for almost 4 years now — through a global pandemic.
From the beginning, Couture Technologies committed to being a company that would use our actions to help drive forward the message that the South is a great place to build a venture. We formed as a Tennessee company even when people told us we would have to be a Delaware C-Corp and to date, all of our funders are in Tennessee.
When it came time to start planning our next capital raise in late 2022, we were planning to wait until summer of 2023 to begin. Our mentors advised us not to wait. Not knowing what turn the economy might take, they said, “If you know you are going to raise money in 2023, you might as well go ahead and get started.”
This started a crazy idea that began taking shape in my head in late December 2022. I checked the calendar and verified that entrepreneur week is always in November so that would be too late in the year in 2023 based on our runway at the time but International Women’s Day was going to be on March 8th for 2023. I went to my C-suite team for Couture and said, “what if we try something different for this raise?” The initial idea that I presented as we were calculating how much we would need was to raise over $1M in a 24-hour period on International Women’s Day. I explained that there are reasons this isn’t the way raises are typically done and that with that tight time frame, we increased our chances of failing to hit our target but if we could pull it off, we could intentionally play a part in changing the narrative about the struggle for women-founded and women-led companies to get the funding they need. We’ve all heard the stat about less than 2% of venture capital going to women-led companies. I believe deeply that knowing the stats is an important first step but once you know you have a decision to make about what role you will play in creating change.
The Couture Tech leadership team was supportive of my crazy plan so I went to work updating our pitch deck and our financials, as well as putting together a plan for what amount we needed to raise based on the key hires we needed to make and the actions we needed to take to position the company to scale. I got a list of investors that I wanted to approach and started planting seeds that we would be raising funds in March.
On March 7th, I barely slept; the excitement about what we were going to try to do was mixed with nervousness and a little fear. We scheduled a Signing Party beginning at 3p on International Women’s Day and the original idea to raise in 24 hours had gotten shortened to just 8 hours over the course of our planning. I got started at 6am and made my first investor call at 7. As I was walking into the venue for the Signing Party, the last legal agreement was signed by one of our investors.
On March 8th, I became the first woman to raise over $1M in 8 hours. On International Women’s Day, I raised $1.5M and did it entirely from investors in my home state of Tennessee. It took 193 texts, emails, and phone calls to make history. It certainly would have been easier to do a typical raise but I wanted this story to start to break the cycle of funding gaps for women. We can change the narrative by using intentional actions to instead write the stories we want to be the norm for the next generation of founders.
It has been said that our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. 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?
The U.S. has these amazing Small Business Innovation Research grants (SBIR), often referred to as America’s SEED program, that provide non-dilutive capital to startups that are developing novel deep technologies. The major mission of the SBIR program is to get more discoveries commercialized where they can make an impact in the world. As an entrepreneur, having access to this type of non-dilutive capital is amazing. You get a significant amount of funding, you get to say you were funded by a federal agency, such as the National Science Foundation (NSF), in my case, and you don’t have to give up equity to get it.
My team submitted our first SBIR grant application in 2020 and with NSF, it is typically about 6 months after you submit before you know for certain that you are receiving the grant. Historically only 10–20% of Phase 1 SBIR applications get funded. So it is a real accomplishment and a testimony to the novelty and potential impact of what your company is building if you get an SBIR award.
On August 19, 2020, we received the official NSF award letter. It was real! We had done it! This was our first funding into Couture Technologies that didn’t come from the founders. We were so excited! We are a distributed team that works mostly virtually. We have people in Nashville and Miami in the U.S. Montevideo, UY, and Jaen, Spain, so I decided to call an all-team Zoom call so I could reveal the news and celebrate together.
Once we had everyone on the call, I said a few words, thanked everyone, and gave a dramatic pause before revealing that we received the grant. Once I made the announcement, it was dead silent. Nothing. No cheering, No applause, nothing. I had just made what I thought was an extremely exciting proclamation and nothing. I waited for well over a minute, which felt like an eternity, especially in the early days of the pandemic when we were all still getting used to Zoom. We had video off to conserve bandwidth for our team members abroad. I don’t remember how I broke the ice, but it turns out, everyone on the team was on mute and they were cheering and celebrating and clapping and dancing around but I couldn’t see or hear any of it! It is still a running joke amongst our team that gets brought back up anytime we celebrate.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I knew from the beginning we had a steep technical hill to climb to bring a virtual fitting technology to life that could provide a real solution. As with many emerging technologies, we’ve seen a lot of similar companies come and go over the last few years. When I say we help people find the right fit for their body, it sounds so simple, but bringing this to life has been anything but simple. Human bodies are beautifully diverse and our technology hinges on being able to accurately and easily capture a user’s body dimensions. In addition, we also have to be able to authentic capture the look and dimensions of clothing so that when we combine these two things together, an end user can see exactly how an item will look and fit on THEIR body. There were many moments early on when I questioned whether we would be able to overcome the technical challenges and whether we would be able to do so quickly enough to edge out any competition. I have an amazing team. People that have given up other opportunities and stuck with me from the beginning. I feel a deep commitment to them and we have validated the need in the market so it has never been an option to give up.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My go-to quote is, “Find a group of people who challenge and inspire you, spend a lot of time with them, and it will change your life.” When I look back over almost 2 decades now as an entrepreneur, it has always been the people surrounding me that have played the most beautiful and pivotal roles in my journey.
The first technology innovation I ever brought to life was while working for an amazing and tough woman named Dale Farran. I was new to doing research and just 3 months into a position working on her research team when I had an idea to use existing hardware and software in a new way to allow us to collect any type of research data digitally without needing to hire a developer (this was prior to all the low and no-code platforms that exist today). A key part of her research centers around discovering what classroom practices teachers engage in and exploring which have the most beneficial impact on children’s self-regulation development and academic achievement gains. I wanted to be able to get results out into the hands of teachers more quickly and I wanted to minimize the amount of time members of my team spent entering data. I built a system at home and prototyped a couple of the assessment and observation measures we used.
I brought it in, showed her what I had built, and she could have easily shut me down and opted to stick with research processes that were tried and true. At that point, she had only known me for 3 months and I hadn’t done anything in that short period to really impress her. Instead, she looked at it with an open mind and was excited about the possibilities. She gave me the confidence and the tools to pilot it on one of her large studies. She asked hard questions. She brought others to the table. After that pilot, it became the standard across all of the studies at the research institute and got adopted by other universities across the world. I was very early in my career. Without her support, I don’t know that I would have moved that system forward and it was that experience bringing a new innovation to life that brought me to where I am today. She has continued to play a pivotal role in my life ever since. That’s just one example of the impact the people around you can have on your journey. It’s important to find the ones that challenge and inspire you.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
I started Couture Technologies with my Co-Founder Marcelino Rodríguez-Cancio, who I met while working on an innovation project for a large fast fashion company. Through that experience, we learned everything we could about the apparel industry and the challenges its leaders faced. When the project concluded, the challenges we saw along the way stuck with us. At that time, most apparel brands received less than 20% of their revenue from e-commerce with high rates of returns caused by issues with sizing and fit keeping them from expanding their e-commerce presence. We could see this would need to change if brands were going to be able to not only survive, but also thrive.
In 2019, I came to Marcelino with an idea that could completely change the way people shop for clothing online by building an accurate and authentic virtual fitting experience. We assembled a team and talked to over 300 brand leaders to find that reducing returns was a consistent challenge and an accurate virtual fitting technology would be a “holy grail” for them.
There have been many companies that have tried since the early 90s to develop virtual fitting technologies and most have failed. The Couture team knew we would need to develop novel, cutting-edge technologies and methods from the ground up if we had any shot at success. This can be a daunting proposition for founders planning to bootstrap knowing they will need a highly skilled technical team and likely a couple of years in R&D in order to deliver. Based on all the evidence from our customer discovery, we decided it was a risk worth taking. When we had our first prototype of our technology, a brand partner said, “I want in!” The brand saw no returns when customers used Couture’s technology to virtually try on the brand’s signature Flux jumpsuit. It was this early proof of concept that drove Couture forward.
Imagine being able to visit a brand’s website and see exactly how clothing will look and fit on your body. No more guessing about what size to buy or getting the right size but the fit is all wrong for your body profile. No more buying multiples of an item in different sizes only to plan to return most of what you’ve purchased. Or being an employee and being able to take two quick photos and easily get the right uniform so you can confidently and safely go about your work. That’s what we do.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Unlike some deep technologies, the problem Couture is solving is something that almost everyone has experienced; being unsure what size to buy when shopping online or having to return items that just didn’t fit your body well after they arrive on your doorstep. This has led to our technology really speaking to both brand leaders and their customers. Couture was on a call with a brand CEO and after seeing a demo of the solution, she got really quiet then said, “This is going to change everything.”
We’ve worked diligently to understand the challenges we needed to overcome all along the way while building this technology. From studying what elements about an avatar make a user pay more attention to the fit of clothing to not telling people what size to buy and instead empowering them to choose for themselves, our attention to detail and evidence-based decision making really set us apart.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, always! Couture is pioneering a new technology to be able to create a 3D avatar of a person that accurately reflects their body measurements without the need for the person to take photos of themselves in tight-fitting clothing, which is the requirement for the current competitive technologies (even those that say it isn’t). This development will make it easier for a brand or uniform company’s customers to find the right size and get into their perfect fit.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
We’ve all heard the stats about how 2% of venture capital goes to women-led companies. Now that we know that stat, we need to use our stories and intentional actions to play a part in changing that narrative and writing a new one. This is the reason we structured our latest raise in just 8 hours on International Women’s Day. We could have raised a regular round but I wanted to use our story to share the message that women have investable companies and that capital is out there to fund our ventures. Women founders are unstoppable and it’s time we write a different narrative. And create some FOMO for those that haven’t traditionally focused on investing in women.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
Not necessarily just about women in tech but women in general. Often we get in our own way. Would it surprise you to hear that as women, when we are asked to rate ourselves on our performance, we are not nearly as generous with those ratings as men? We rate our own performance more than 33% lower than men rate their performance. We are less likely to apply for a promotional job until we feel we’ve checked off almost all the skills listed in the job description whereas men say, I am close enough and I’ll learn what I don’t know. We can change this. These numbers do not define us.
We consistently rate ourselves less confidently than men until we hit our 40s. Once we hit our 40s, there is something magical that happens and our confidence ratings grow more than 3 times that of men. So watch out for all the over 40s — they are on fire and they are not afraid to tell you about it. We can push this number lower. It doesn’t need to take 40 years before we come into our own and unapologetically move through our lives.
We can recognize ourselves for the immense talents that we bring to the table each and every day. We can give ourselves permission to share our wins. We can share our sisters’ wins. We can grab the hands of those coming up behind us and teach them it’s okay to be amazing. That it’s okay to be authentically you.
Mentor, support, and collaborate with one another. Together, we can create a world where women and their businesses thrive, and where we can all achieve our dreams. We can create businesses that not only drive profits, but that also make a positive impact on the world around us. Let’s lift each other up and build a community of empowered, successful women.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
For me the first answer is always to turn back to customer discovery when you hit a standstill or you aren’t certain why your customers are responding in a certain way — or not responding at all. True, initial customer discovery is about one-on-one conversations, not mass surveys or focus groups. It is about getting to know what keeps your customers up at night and what challenges they are trying to solve. Before starting Couture Tech, I did over 300 customer discovery interviews with brand leaders, manufacturers, stylists and their customers. Once the pandemic hit, I went back out and did a whole new round of problem-focused customer interviews to see what had changed. Were there new shark bite challenges that emerged? How did they talk about them? Was our value proposition of reducing returns still in their Top 3 metrics to improve? Problem focused interviewing is something a lot of people misunderstand. Often I see people go out and put their solution in front of a customer or a potential customer for feedback. This doesn’t help you understand that customer’s main challenges and it doesn’t help you make sure you are offering the right solution. It only gives you feedback on your solution you’ve already developed or the products or services you’re already offering or planning to offer. To truly restart, you have to take a step away from what you offer and get to know your customers’ pains. Once you know their pains and the words they use to describe them, you can take that knowledge and develop solutions to end or ease their pain.
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
We recognize that apparel businesses need to differentiate themselves to stand out in a crowded segment. Some of the most important trends we see our customers looking for are:
- Test Your Experience. Never get too far away from your customers. Let them tell you in their own words what they need and once you build a solution gather and adapt based on their feedback. You have to keep this practice up over time. Never get comfortable. There is always someone else that would love to persuade your customers to leave you and buy from them.
- Personalization Required. Customers have access to every possible fit, style, color, and cut at their fingertips. If the brand they’re browsing doesn’t have exactly what they want, they’ll move on to the next one. If you are able to show customers exactly what a product would look like on their body, this personalized experience will be something that encourages them to confidently purchase an item and builds loyalty when they realize they’ll receive an item that fits exactly as they anticipated. Personalization is expected from the upcoming generations of buyers.
- Automate Responsibly. If there’s one thing I have learned since the world experienced a global pandemic, it’s the value of meaningful connections. At the same time, we’ve seen an explosion of powerful automations that can handle all types of both simple and complex tasks. For your customers, consider carefully what parts of your business are ripe for automation and what parts will suffer without a human touch. For your employees, think about where their time and talents are best spent. Automate tasks, when possible, that do not inspire employee engagement or help you retain talent.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Customer Discovery is a Requirement — Before launching, we talked to over 300 brands to make sure the problem we planned to solve was actually a major issue. Only once we confirmed the need did we feel confident that the time it would take to build the actual solution would be worthwhile.
- Mentors Matter — Being on both sides of the mentorship equation has proven invaluable in my personal story. I’ve been lucky enough to learn from some of the best and most inspirational entrepreneurs, and I’ve helped to mentor hundreds of entrepreneurs through my position as Deputy Director of the Wond’ry, Vanderbilt’s Innovation Center. On either side, I’m learning new perspectives and approaches to business that I can assess and add to my own strategy.
- Soft Skills are Key — Since Couture officially formed, it has grown from 3 people to 26 and our people-first culture has allowed us to attract and retain top talent from across the globe. A lot of entrepreneurs will say qualities like grit, curiosity, determination, resiliency, and so on are the most important in order to be a successful entrepreneur. I don’t disagree that those are important, but as a serial entrepreneur with several ventures under my belt, I have grown to recognize and appreciate that it is really strong soft skills that can make or break a venture. Founders must be able to genuinely connect to their customers, their team, their investors, and the list goes on. To make anything big happen in the world, it takes a lot of hands working together and that doesn’t happen without putting people first.
- Explore your Funding Options — As I previously mentioned, Couture started as a bootstrap company. Then we pursued non-dilutive grants and received funds from pitch competition wins. The reality is that most founders do not pursue venture capital to fund their ventures although an outsized number of news articles and speakers on panel discussions are dedicated to this ‘sexy’ topic. There are many ways to fund a venture, so find a mentor or someone that has walked the path before you and find funding options that work for you and your venture.
- Spend Responsibly — Acquiring the funds needed to run a venture is obviously important, but mindful stewardship of those funds once you have them is just as important. This is something that inspires confidence from investors. I understand pouring fuel (money) into a venture as you work to scale, but I have never been the type of entrepreneur that wants to run a business with no pathway or an extremely long pathway to profitability. The same kind of mindful spending you might apply to your personal finances should also apply in your business!
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 :-)
A dream come true for me would be to meet Tory Burch. Aside from having a company in the fashion space and it being a dream to learn from her experiences with her own brand as well as her history with Polo Ralph Lauren, Vera Wang and others, I deeply admire what she’s doing with her foundation. The way she is supporting other women is everything.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!