Galyn Bernard and Christina Carbonell met as executives in the marketing department of Quidsi, the parent company of Diapers.com. There, they learned the ropes of e-commerce and bonded over their hatred of shopping for kids’ clothes, which felt cheap for the price, leaving them to chase sales and sold-out items. They left Quidsi in 2014, convinced they could build a go-to brand for kids with affordable, high-quality essentials. The twist? The vibrantly colored T’s, pants, pajamas, and more would all be gender-neutral. Arming everyone they knew with a promo code, they launched Primary as a direct-to-consumer brand. Seven years later, Primary has over one million customers. –As told to Jill Krasny
BERNARD: The idea for Primary came as much from our experience at Diapers.com as it did from our own experience shopping. We couldn’t figure out why things were gendered. I have twin girls who don’t like pink, and ended up buying them an orange jacket meant for boys.
CARBONELL: We left our jobs, wrote a business plan, and raised a $2.5 million seed round, which we used to launch and buy the site. Initially, we tried marketing Primary as the place for “brilliant basics all under $25.” The response was good but not great. We realized we needed to lean into what was truly different about our business: Our clothing had no logos, no slogans, no sequins — which became our tag line. We knew we were on to something when we ran an ad on Facebook that said, “Not all babysuits need to say ‘Lil Slugger.’ ” It resonated with parents who were tired of silly, stereotypical sayings.
CARBONELL: The conventional wisdom was that customers had to have girls’ and boys’ sections. So we launched that way, but we quickly heard from customers asking why we needed gendered sections when our clothing was designed for everyone. So we changed the site to babies’ and kids’ sections, and never looked back.
BERNARD: At the beginning of the pandemic, we had a lot of inventory and no visibility into demand. We knew everything was going for us — we’re not selling party clothing, and kids grow, which is helpful — but we really had no idea.
CARBONELL: We did recognize that value was more important than ever during Covid-19, especially around essentials. This was not a time when families were leaning into discretionary spending.
BERNARD: We applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan, but we returned it once the uncertainty of those initial months passed and we understood what parents were looking for: clothes for Zoom school that would last and be comfortable all day, and not cost a lot.
CARBONELL: We ran a 50-percent-off essentials sale from April through July 2020. We saw a tremendous response. Categories that have always been strong for us, like pajamas and sweats, did better than ever. It hurt our margins in the short term, but it was worth it to keep our customers engaged. We learned to stay flexible and know what we’re optimizing for — customer loyalty at a difficult time and monetizing inventory, rather than worrying about margins.
BERNARD: A lot of why we have been able to survive this pandemic has to do with our product development team, which is led by Marienne Hill-Treadway. She’s had more than 35 years running some of the biggest brands. Marienne is always able to see a few steps ahead. Pre-pandemic, she knew that it was important for us to be approved in multiple factories. So we were able to flex between Vietnam, China, and India, depending on where things were getting difficult. She also found a new partner to augment our freight capabilities. We had late deliveries, but the impact was much less than it could have been.
CARBONELL: For us, 2020 was a big year. We had $74 million in gross revenue, up 40 percent versus the prior year, with about two-thirds coming from our loyal customer base. We had plans to launch our first store in the fall of 2020, but we paused as soon as Covid hit. We’re excited to test our own retail stores, where you can touch and feel our fabrics, see the beautiful rainbow of colors, and shop for babies and kids.
BERNARD: We want to be a brand that stands for kids living their true colors. Clothing is a way to accomplish that mission. Early Gap was about authenticity. It never felt like they were trying to check the boxes on what culture was expecting. Patagonia, too, speaks to the things that are most important to them, but not because they think it’s going to make them look good.
CARBONELL: They weren’t afraid to stand up for their values. It was who they were, and we very much aspire to that.
From the October 2021 issue of Inc. Magazine