Michelle Lam's "a-ha" moment struck in the fall of 2011 in a fairly unlikely spot: a department store fitting room.
"I had to replace my bra," Lam explained to CNBC in 2015. "I tried on about 20 bras in this trial-and-error process all the while thinking, 'Wow, every single bra makes me look like the worst I could possibly look.' And not only that, 'Why doesn't somebody do something about this?'"
She never considered that she might be the person to bust up the intimate apparel market. A self-described technology investor and data geek, Lam had worked at Bain Capital Ventures, Microsoft Corporate Strategy and the Boston Consulting Group. But a few months before Lam stepped into that lingerie changing room, she quit her job at Bain, moved to San Francisco with her husband and decided to change careers. She simply had no idea what she wanted to do.
The answer was staring back at her from that dressing room mirror: bras. Those beautiful but often ill-fitting undergarments could use some major alterations. "I realized maybe I could be the person to do something about it," she said. Her idea was to reinvent the product by gathering information from millions of women on the pros and cons of their current bras.
She said she immediately plunged in, bought 500 bras with her credit card, brought them home and invited friends over to try them on and give her feedback.
While her career change wasn't entirely seamless, it was relatively fast. She quickly developed a list of pertinent questions about how bras fit and feel, ran a series of "fitting" tests on women and discovered over 6,000 different body types with eight basic breast shapes.
Lam determined that this new "shape" factor would help bras fit better than simply using a cup and band size. Three months later, she found an investor. Three months after that, she launched her online company, True & Co. complete with a "fit quiz" for customers to fill out and find bras for their particular shape.
"Today, over 1 percent of American women have completed the True & Co. proprietary quiz," Lam told CNBC. "And so we have over 60 million data points about her body, her taste, her lifestyle and what really matters to her."
Considering that the U.S. market for intimate apparel is reported to be worth more than $13 billion, it looks like Lam has found a perfect fit for a new business.
Top tips from Michelle Lam's career change
- Follow your heart — it can lead you in the right direction.
- Recognize a problem and figure out how to fix it.
- Play to your strengths. For Lam, that meant collecting hundreds of millions of data points to help improve bras.