Alicia & John Vargo, Pampered Passions Fine Lingerie: Balancing Passion With A Passion For Business
Like many entrepreneurs, Alicia and John Vargo practice what they preach. Pampered Passions Fine Lingerie, the Englewood, Colo.-based company they founded in 2000, has a romantic bent -- and the couple are pretty romantic themselves.
Ask them what their anniversary is and neither seems to know. "We got married in 2000 -- I think," says Alicia, 47. "Every day is our anniversary."
"Every day is Valentine's Day," adds John, 46. "We don't need days like Valentine's Day or Mother's Day or an anniversary to express our love, because we do that every day."
They may sound sappy, but they're sincere -- and their recipe for romance and running a business seems to work. It also helps that both John and Alicia had lengthy business backgrounds before starting their business. John worked for a couple Fortune 500 transportation and distribution companies, covering everything from loss prevention to sales. Alicia held positions in the wine, beer and spirits industries and even spent a couple years as an adviser in the Colorado governor's office.
Theirs is the typical love story with a few unique twists -- boy meets girl online, girl has a bad experience at a lingerie store and decides to start her own, boy quits job to help girl's business, boy and girl get married and become successful entrepreneurs.
Today, Pampered Passions employs 11 and has received a number of awards from Best of Intima, a trade magazine devoted to lingerie and beachwear. For Alicia and John, it's been a successful partnership in every sense of the word.
Alicia, the idea for Pampered Passions came about because you had a lousy customer-service experience at a lingerie shop. Tell us about that "aha" moment.
Alicia: I had a really bad experience in my 30s that began this whole thing. I walked into a store, and this size 2 18-year-old ran up to me and asked, "Do you want to be measured?" I said, yes, so she took me into the dressing room, and after she pulled out the tape measure, she gasped. She literally gasped. So I asked, "What's wrong?"
And she said, "You're a 38 in bandwidth and a 'B' cup in the cup size. I have nothing to fit you today." I was going to be speaking that night to an audience of 2,000 on Coors Field, and I wanted to feel pretty underneath, and I walked out, happy with my body, but not feeling nurtured or cared for. I just felt very empty. That night I began researching the finest lingerie in the world.
Which ultimately resulted in you starting a website, selling lingerie. And in the span of about 12 months, you two met, got married and started a business. Did you ever think that you were moving too fast?
John: We joked about how much and quickly our lives were changing. We were still relatively young, mid-30s, but we were old enough not to be ignorant about what we were getting into. We also had a lot of energy, where we were working 14 hour days, seven days a week. Now that we're 46 and 47, we don't have the same amount of energy, so we desire a more simplified, streamlined business. We've hired more staff to help us do that. We have an amazing store manager, and that's been a big help.
But one reason we began this business is that we wanted to spend time together. We didn't want to leave each other for eight hours a day. We knew, from a quality of life standpoint, that we wanted to be together all the time, 24/7. We've heard about a lot of couples who have problems working together, but we haven't had any issues. Not that we're in lockstep every moment, but we like to bounce ideas off each other and debate things, and I think that's helped us make it through Great Recession.
What was the biggest challenge in starting your business?
Alicia: We were blessed in that there wasn't as much competition as there is these days. Our biggest challenge was getting the website up and running. We actually had someone building our website for us, and it took them six months to get us up and running, but we weren't happy with the quality of the site. So John took a six-month sabbatical from his job to learn how to run a website, and he became our webmaster and our first employee. He never went back.
John: By Christmas of 2000, the website wasn't completed, and so after we missed the Christmas season, I got involved and we took the ball into our own hands. I read everything I could about e-commerce and shopping carts and SEO. But once we had our website up, we quickly found out we had two problems. One, it looked pretty amateurish, and two, if you typed in "lingerie" on Google, you'd come to our site on, I believe, page 303. We quickly realized that even though we had a website, people have to find us.
And you specialize in giving customers the exact opposite experience that you had that day, Alicia? For instance, what's the largest size that you carry?
Alicia: We go up to 50H in a bra. We cover from petite to 5X, and we love our plus-size following. Our tagline is "nurturing the female spirit." This is something we're not in for the money -- it's just something we both wanted to do. But soon after we opened the store, we had a cancer patient come in, and we didn't have the knowledge or products to help her. And so we put together a mastectomy department for breast cancer survivors.
John: She travels around the country, doing pro bono work, fitting cancer survivors who are less fortunate, in bras. It's been very meaningful, and that's where our core strengths come in. I focus solely on the money aspect of the company, and she focuses on the people.
So what advice would you give a married couple who would like to start a business together?
Alicia: Having mutual respect is super important and talking to each other and not at each other is very important to our relationship. What else, Johnny?
John: They really need to have a very strong relationship, period. It cannot be a couple who is petty or points fingers. You have to understand, first and foremost, that there are differences between people, and those kinds of core values carry over from your relationship into the business.
So since you have an often romantic business, do you have any good stories?
Alicia: Well, we met on Match.com. I had been separated for about five months. I hadn't even told the CEO of our company that I had separated. I was embarrassed that maybe I had failed at something. I told a girlfriend who worked for me, and she asked if I was dating anybody. I said, 'Gosh, no.' Well, this was 10 or 11 years ago, and it was a lot easier to have someone else write your bio and put you on Match.com, which is exactly what she did. I was very, very happy to be on my own, and I didn't need a man in my life. But I reached out to one person, John. We met on our first date at Dave & Buster's, and I shook his hand and felt an energy -- and thought, 'Oh, shoot, I'm going to marry this guy.'"
Name: Alicia and John Vargo
Company: Pampered Passions Fine Lingerie
Ages: 47 amd 46
Location: Englewood, Colo.
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 2/13/11.