Summersalt co-founders Lori Coulter and Reshma Chattaram Chamberlin consider speed to be their biggest competitive advantage in the entrepreneurial world. Given the brisk rise and early success of their clothing company, it’s safe to say they might be onto something.
Whether it’s expeditiously expanding their clothing line to include more categories or picking themselves up swiftly after an investor turns them down, the duo said they’re out to set new industry standards by providing women with the products and marketing they want.
They started their St. Louis-based, direct-to-consumer company in 2017, selling women’s swimwear designed to be comfortable, practical and stylish so that women could enjoy their adventures while traveling — or, in their words, “owning her suitcase.” Two and a half years later, Summersalt and its products have been featured in such national publications as GLAMOUR, Refinery29, People, Forbes and Elle.
The company’s initial concept began more than 10 years ago when Coulter, Summersalt’s CEO, launched a separate business with an in-store partnership with Macy’s. She worked in the ladies clothing department and used digital body scanning to provide made-to-order swimwear and eventually other apparel.
“So we were one of the first concepts to go from a body scan, through the CAT system, to the factory and back in as fast as 10 days,” Coulter said. “. . . Essentially that business evolved into manufacturing and designing for other brands, mid-sized retailers and e-commerce sites.”
In June 2016, Coulter got together for lunch with Chattaram Chamberlin — who was running a marketing agency — and began to sketch out what would eventually become Summersalt. The two weren’t friends at the time, but they were business acquaintances after running into each other on several occasions at events in the St. Louis entrepreneur community.
“In that lunch [Chattaram Chamberlin] really challenged me hard to look hard at the business model, and I went away from that conversation inspired to write the initial business plan and strategy for what is now Summersalt,” Coulter said. “I developed a collection. I think Reshma and I are unique in our ability to actualize both brand and product rather rapidly.”
Once Coulter began outlining her business plan, she knew she wanted Chattaram Chamberlin’s agency to help get her idea off the ground.
“We serendipitously ran into each other in January 2017 in New York,” Coulter said. “I had been interviewing PR firms, had the deck and line sheet in my hands and literally cornered her and said, ‘Let’s look at this.’”
The timing was critical, as Chattaram Chamberlin’s life had changed a bit since the two had lunched together.
“When Lori approached me to work on the business from an agency perspective, I was in a transition. In January of 2017, I had made the decision to shut down my agency, so it was perfect timing when I bumped into Lori at that dark bar,” said Chattaram Chamberlin, who is the company’s chief brand & digital officer. “She shared with me the incredible strategy of what is now Summersalt, and I got excited for three big reasons.”
The first reason, Chattaram Chamberlin said, was the gap she saw in the market, where no company was addressing a true direct-to-consumer experience by providing “the best possible product for an amazing price.” The second involved the quality of the garments and their exceptional fit, based on 1.5 million measurements collected from 10,000 bodies while Coulter ran her previous business. The third was the prospect of what the two entrepreneurs could accomplish together.
“You know, we had such incredibly complementary skill sets. I knew that together — both understanding product and marketing — we were able to take this business to the next level in a really exciting way,” Chattaram Chamberlin said.
At that point, she asked Coulter if she could join Summersalt as a co-founder. A few months later, on May 23, 2017, they two launched their clothing company, selling swimwear directly to online customers.
From the start, the company earned traction and attracted an abundance of national and local media coverage. The company sold out of many products multiple times, and Chattaram Chamberlin said she and Coulter remain excited about exceeding their consumers’ expectations.
Investors and funding
Early on, Coulter said, Summersalt struggled to raise funding in angel round investments as well as initial seed round investments.
Even so, Coulter and Chattaram Chamberlin said that together they have a unique ability to quickly execute on their strategy and vision.
“Speed is one of our distinct competitive advantages and one that we are very proud of, and then separately, sheer hustle,” Coulter said.
“Just really being able to get out there and talk to 100 different investors [in] each round and to really see it as an opportunity to find the right match — it’s just like job interviewing, really,” she said. “And then we evaluate those investors, not only with regards to their financial support but also to what they bring in value to Summersalt.”
The pair raised $625,000 in March 2017 during an angel investment round, two months before they officially launched their company. One year later, they were able to raise $2 million during a seed round, and in October 2018, they secured a $6.1 million Series A round investment.
“We ended up with a fantastic group, and once we were properly resourced, we moved incredibly fast. Our traction is best in class, and investors have recognized that and have continued to support Summersalt’s growth going forward,” Coulter said.
Added Chattaram Chamberlin: “I think the seed angel and seed rounds are always incredibly hard because you’re being evaluated on a dream and someone potentially believing that you can execute that dream. I think it’s really, really important to have more women who have the ability to write checks. That happens as we continue to fund more women-owned businesses, and they have success because we are building a brand for women and usually most women can understand that. We also have some incredible men who understood the vision and really are mega-supporters.”
The two said together they’re able to move on quickly from investors who say no and get to those who are willing to invest in their vision.
Defining a brand
So how did Coulter and Chattaram Chamberlin come up with the name Summersalt?
It’s all about the feelings and memories the word evokes in them, they said. They went back and forth a few times in brainstorming sessions before landing on the name. Some that didn’t make the cut? “Deep Dive” and “Cannonball.”
“We really wanted a brand name that inspired that child-like joy,” Chattaram Chamberlin said. “When we were younger, we were always summersaulting — happy, toes in the sand, salt in our hair — and we wanted a brand name that felt like we were standing in the sun and really experiencing joy. That’s where the name came from.”
Their brand is centered on two intentions: Creating an exceptional product and speaking to women in the way they want to be addressed.
“Summersalt is very authentic to our consumer and authentic to who we are as founders,” Chattaram Chamberlin said. “Lori grew up in rural Missouri, and I grew up in Bombay in India. For both of us, diversity is at the heart of the business — both diversity of size and expression — and we wanted to make sure women like us felt heard. We encourage them to be sexy on their own terms.”
Coulter said she and Chattaram Chamberlin work hard and live their brand day-in and day-out. She said her life’s work is about building on those 10,000 body scans to create garments that serve women and are inclusive about everything from size and race to age and ability.
“So much of swimwear had been done in an oversexualized, traditional way from a male point of view,” Chattaram Chamberlin said. “And so for us, it’s two things again working in complete harmony: an exceptional product
. . . [and showcasing] the product in a way that women want to be spoken to. And those two things get really exciting because, again, it’s incredibly authentic to who we are and who our consumer is.”
They’re also striving to set a new tone and new standards for the women’s clothing industry at large.
“Our ‘Every body is a beach body’ campaign [last] summer was completely revolutionary,” Chattaram Chamberlin said. ”We featured 30 different women . . . and we wanted all of these women to be a reflection of us and create a true community and a true experience, and that’s what we have done at Summersalt.”
Summersalt aims to enable each of its consumers to “own her suitcase” every time she travels. Most of its swimsuits are priced under $100 — typically much lower than the full price of suits sold in retail stores. The company attributes its ability to charge that price to its practice of cutting out middlemen in its operations.
“So we often talk about the joy and the journey,” Coulter said. “The joy of getting there, being there and coming home. And how we want to join [their customer] on that journey at every stage to make her travel more comfortable and more joyous or more fun.”
If its success is any indication, Summersalt will continue to grow as both brand and industry movement.
It now offers travel pants, pajamas and bodysuits in addition to swimsuits, and Coulter and Chattaram Chamberlin said they plan to continue expanding their product lines.
“Think about everything you want to put in your suitcase when you’re heading out on a trip. We are ready and excited to do all of those things,” Chattaram Chamberlin said.
They’ve put together a business forecast and will implement that with their product development team as well as their fashion designers. Coulter said their content platform focuses on creating all things geared toward millennial life and those who travel, while also pushing the boundaries of sustainability. The company currently uses recycled materials to create some of its fabrics and product packaging, and it stresses sustainability in development and manufacturing processes.
“I think the big thing for us is moving rapidly to additional categories to own her entire suitcase, as far as what she takes with her on those journeys. I think you’ll see lots of additional content from us as well,” Coulter said.
Given their successes to date, how would they advise other would-be entrepreneurs?
“It isn’t always easy but it’s always worth it. The highs, you know, are never as high as you think they are, but the lows aren’t as low, either,” Coulter said. “So just understand that every challenge, for the most part, is stage-appropriate. And if you can, just stay true to your vision and who you are, both as the founder of the company and the brand. When it’s working, it’s working. And just keep going.”