MARLO THOMAS
10/17/2012 10:17 am ET Updated Oct 26, 2012

Their Desire To Look Slimmer Made Them A Multi-Million-Dollar Smash

One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about two women who felt uncomfortable in their tennis wear and decided to take charge. With little direct experience in the fashion industry, the friends developed slimming sportswear that is now sold online and at country clubs throughout the United States. -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com

By Lori Weiss

It was a wardrobe problem that Jayne Drew and Kelly Daugherty knew all too well. As much as they looked forward to their weekly tennis matches, they weren’t quite as excited about the little outfits they had to wear. Kelly’s skirts always felt too short for her six foot frame and Jayne’s tops seemed to rise up, each time she’d reach for the ball.

“Those little tennis shirts are adorable if you’ve never had kids,” Jayne laughed.

“And when you’re worried about your skirt rising up all the time,” Kelly added, “it tends to change the way you play the game.”

As the two women sat courtside, nursing their wardrobe wounds and pomegranate martinis, an interesting phenomenon struck them. While their friends over forty could keep up with just about anyone on the court, they didn’t look quite as cute. And the problem was right there, front and center -- what Jayne and Kelly refer to affectionately as muffin tops.

“We wanted something that made us look like tennis players,” Jayne said with a little bit of sarcasm, “like professional tennis players -- we wanted something that made us look thinner.”

“And we wondered out loud,” Kelly recalled, When is Spanx going to come up with something for us? "Then it hit us -- what are we waiting for? We can do this."

But there was one little glitch. Neither of the women had much experience in the fashion industry. Kelly had spent a few years after college as an assistant buyer for Lord & Taylor, but then moved on to a career in advertising. And Jayne had built a career in banking and finance.

“When people would ask what my fashion background was,” Kelly said with a grin, “I’d show them my Nordstrom charge card.”

What the two stay-at-home moms did have though, were years of early success in the business world and a yearning to get back in the game, but this time, on their own terms. So while the kids were napping or off at school, they’d rummage through their closets, pulling out everything from summer skirts to evening gowns, looking for shapes that made them feel good when they were out on the town -- and thinking about ways they could adapt those looks to work on the tennis court.

“We knew that you couldn’t actually wear Spanx while you're playing tennis,” Janye said, “not if you wanted to breathe. But we thought if we added in a compression fabric, which is much lighter, it would keep things in place and make you look five or ten pounds thinner.”

“But neither of us was very good at sketching more than a stick figure,” Kelly continued, “so we knew we needed to find someone who could draw.”

The women searched their hometown of Chicago for a pattern maker and brought her pieces they’d pulled from their closets and styles they ripped from magazines. And once they had samples of skirts and shirts and dresses they loved, they took them straight to their core audience -- the women in their tennis league.

“We didn’t do the years of testing other companies do,” Kelly explained. “We’d come up with a style, have someone try it on and take it out on the tennis court to see how it moved. We wanted to get it out there fast, before someone else did.”

“We knew there were some people who thought this was just a hobby,” Jayne said, “who were referring to it as the cute little tennis thing we were doing, but we were all in. And we knew we were on our way, when we had a dress that worked on a friend that was a size two, on me at 5’ 7” and on Kelly at 6 feet.

Story continues below slideshow.

PHOTO GALLERY
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BEFORE YOU GO
It Ain't Over: Smashing Golf & Tennis
PHOTO GALLERY
It Ain't Over: Smashing Golf & Tennis

“Remember that movie, 'The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants?' Somehow that same pair of pants fit all the girls. Well, we felt like we had found the secret of the traveling tennis dress -- everyone that tried it on looked great in it.”

But before their athletic wear could travel very far, they had to find a factory. With limited resources and their hearts set on keeping their work close to home, the fledging entrepreneurs found they had only three choices.

“The first place we went,” Jayne recalled, “the owner told us to park by the door and honk our horn -- not to park on the street or let anyone see us. I think there might have been a drug deal going on just around the corner.”

“And then there was the factory owner,” Kelly added, “who tried to prove to us that the stretchy thread we wanted to use wasn’t any better than the kind she sewed with. So she ripped our sample in half! We were like deer in the headlights. Each sample cost us nearly a thousand dollars and she just destroyed it!”

Fortunately, the third place the partners visited had experience in athletic wear and was based in a neighborhood where the women felt more comfortable getting out of their cars. And most importantly, the owner was willing to take a chance on the two women who had much more experience wearing tennis clothes than designing them. He allowed them to go into production with only 500 pieces, in the hopes that their cash flow would soon reach the level of their confidence.

And with their first sale, that’s exactly what happened: “A buyer at a country club saw something that we hadn’t considered,” Kelly remembered, “an even bigger opportunity in the golf market. So during that meeting, what began as Smashing Tennis, quickly became Smashing Golf and Tennis.”

It also became a smashing success. Today, a year and a half since their first piece came off the line, the idea that two-stay-at-home moms came up with over martinis, is now approaching half a million dollars in sales. Country clubs from coast to coast are stocking the slimming wear in their boutiques and the business partners are spending more time racing across the city, than on the courts, to keep up with the sales that come in through their website.

“I do a lot of conference calls in my car,” Jayne laughed, “while I’m waiting to pick up my kids at sporting events. My youngest son has gotten so used to it, he’ll ask in a whisper, 'Can I talk yet?'"

“There was a time when I thought if I had children, I’d just excuse myself from a board meeting, have the baby and come right back. I thought I could do it all. I still believe I can do it all, but the definition of all has changed. Now it’s about finding all the things that make me happy.”

“When you’re young,” Kelly added, “you get into things because you think it’s going to make you a lot of money. But as you get older, you realize if you’re not having fun, it’s time to try something else. If it’s not fun, it’s just not worth doing. It’s the fun that keeps you going.”

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