STEP USA is a 5-day startup boot camp launched and organized by the German American Chamber of Commerce New York (GACC NY). A highly successful program, STEP USA focuses on facilitating U.S. market access for young innovative companies and takes place four times a year. It also exists in a virtual format. STEP USA prides itself on having created a network of more 300 STEP USA alumni, more than 60 U.S. incorporations, and 35 investment rounds. It is tailored to the needs of startups who intent to scale their business internationally.
The GACC NY is featuring selected STEP USA Alumni, calling these founders “STEP USA Ambassadors”.
“Thinking big: STEP USA inspired us to define a greater company vision!”
STEP USA Ambassador Jennifer Schwade is CEO and founder of SHAPE ME GmbH. SHAPE ME GmbH currently employs 5 people and is located in Munich. In March 2020, Jennifer joined us for our STEP USA program in New York. Today she talks with us about her U.S. market plans, her most valuable take-aways from the STEP USA program, and explains how a pivot in her company’s history changed her as a founder.
GACC NY: Jennifer, it’s great to see you again! How are things working out for SHAPE ME in the current economic crisis?
Jennifer Schwade: Good to see you as well. I can’t believe how lucky we were to be able to participate in the last STEP USA program that took place just moments before the Corona crisis outbreak. We flew back to Germany on one of the last flights…The economic crisis has had its effect on us as well. Our business has a strong seasonal focus such as weddings or the spring and summer season. We, therefore, experienced a massive fallback in sales, and in addition to that, we had panic returns from customers who had purchased our products before the pandemic and now did not have a need for them anymore.
But over time, our situation has improved. We expected to have a long dry run during COVID. With small events and parties being possible again, our sales went up.
GACC NY: Jennifer, what does SHAPE ME exactly do?
Jennifer Schwade: We are the number one leading brand and online shop for shapewear in the DACH region. It’s a great story: When I attended a friend’s wedding, I realized that a lot of ladies did not really feel at ease wearing their fancy dresses. They did not seem to be truly self-confident. In the U.S. it is totally normal to wear shapewear and it was only at this wedding when I realized that shapewear wasn’t common in Germany at all. Just think of all the big red-carpet events, when famous stars are presenting themselves in dresses that are not easy to wear. They wear these dresses and shapewear with such confidence. That’s precisely the feeling I wanted to bring to Germany. So, in 2018, I decided to introduce an online shop for shapewear in Germany and it has been widely accepted since then. We have clients from Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, and of course, we are planning on expanding our business.
GACC NY: What do you consider the greatest success in your company’s history?
Jennifer Schwade: That’s easy to answer. In the past, shapewear was considered being unsexy, boring, and even embarrassing. With the introduction of SHAPE ME, we changed that perception and gave it a young, fresh, positive swing. I am very proud of that.
GACC NY: Looking back, is there ‘a lesson learned’ that you can share with us?
Jennifer Schwade: Absolutely! At the beginning of SHAPE ME, we focused on one niche product only. If we had done proper market research in the DACH region, we would have known about the negative connotation of shapewear. The market was not ready for it yet. So, we learned it the hard way and after burning a lot of cash, we had to pivot or else close the business down. We decided to go for the first option and changed the brand into a platform for shapewear: Spreading knowledge, finding cool testimonials, changing the image from ‘grandma underwear’ into a well-accepted lifestyle product that women use as automatically as their bras.
GACC NY: Thanks for sharing this Jennifer! What impact did the pivot have on you as a founder?
Jennifer Schwade: Needless to say, this was a difficult time in the company’s history, but also in my own life. You ask yourself many questions, decisions need to be made. Looking back, I don’t want to miss that time, it turned me into a more flexible and persistent woman. This experience also helped me during the Corona time, when sales broke down massively.
GACC NY: Please tell us why the U.S. market is important for you?
Jennifer Schwade: The U.S. is the birthplace of shapewear. Sara Blakely and her brand SPANX are absolute role models for both my company and myself. I admire her as a female founder, the way she opened up the market and introduced the product. The U.S. market is just so much further along when it comes to the social perception and acceptance of shapewear. It inspires us to keep going. We are aiming at changing the DACH mindset when it comes to shapewear and we have achieved our first success in doing so.
GACC NY: Is that why you joined our STEP USA program in March 2020?
Jennifer Schwade: Yes, absolutely! Taking part in the STEP USA program was very important. New York City is a hotspot for fashion and lifestyle. We were so happy to travel there and see these developments with our own eyes. The atmosphere in the Big Apple is rejuvenating, exciting, and full of energy. We needed that boost for our business!
GACC NY: What is your most valuable takeaway from the STEP program as an entrepreneur?
Jennifer Schwade: My biggest takeaway from the STEP USA program is the motivation and inspiration that rolled over us like a big wave. The U.S. business mindset is extremely different from the German one. After these two years of pushing our brand into the DACH markets, it was so refreshing to see different approaches to things and hearing from other companies how they handled certain situations. A program like STEP is great for any type of founder wanting to get new input. It’s not necessary to start your own subsidiary in the U.S. in order to take part in the STEP USA program. The most important aspect of building a successful company is exchanging knowledge with people from different fields, industries, and cultures. Learning from other people’s experiences is key.
GACC NY: In your opinion, what do startups generally underestimate when coming to the U.S.?
Jennifer Schwade: I guess, it is underestimated how different business is done in the U.S. and Germany. It begins with different networking methods. Germans tend to have a hard time opening up about business when they are at a reception for example. Americans, however, talk to many people they don’t know and they share their ideas because they want to get feedback on them. Germans tend to keep their ideas a secret. Also overselling seems to be ok in the states, whereas in Germany we stick more to reality and try not to overdo certain marketing methods. One has to be aware of the differences in order to really evaluate business potentials.
GACC NY: Could you share a success story that has its roots in the STEP USA program?
Jennifer Schwade: After completing the STEP USA program, we got back to Munich and were very inspired and motivated. We thought our brand-building methods over, adapted them, and built a new brand vision for the DACH region. And let me also mention that the STEP USA program had a relaxing effect: After two years of extremely hard work, we simply enjoyed the atmosphere in New York, the meetings with industry experts and successful entrepreneurs and had a great time!
GACC NY: We are happy to hear that! So, what are your next steps?
Jennifer Schwade: Our next big milestone is to expand business within Europe, though this is still two to three years down the road. First of all, we are continuing to change the image of shapewear locally while at the same time building SHAPE ME as a brand. We are in midst of the process here in Germany. So, once we are ready to go into new markets, we will take numerous aspects into consideration, such as cultural perception of shapewear, market size and female population ratio, competitors, cultural and language barriers as well as logistics. We are planning on raising our Series A round at the end of 2021. The U.S. serves us as a source of inspiration for the time being.
GACC NY: Jennifer, thanks so much for taking the time for this interview and all the best for SHAPE ME!