June 1, 2007, 12:00 AM

Working the Web Angle

Underwhelmed by store shopping, a retail entrepreneur creates a web shop—and web tools.

What exactly is an entrepreneur? Wikipedia says it is a person who undertakes and operates a new venture and assumes accountability for the inherent risks. If one wanted to delve into the social aspect of the online encyclopedia and add a picture to this definition, a snapshot of Tomima Edmark would be an excellent example.

The CEO of the Andra Group, a privately held company that founded and operates twin underwear web sites HerRoom.com and HisRoom.com, Edmark has what powers most entrepreneurs: a drive to see if her version of a better mousetrap can make it as a business. For Edmark, some of her ideas have succeeded wildly, some less so.

But the uncertainty of an outcome has never stopped her from trying what she deems to be a good idea. Uncertainty might be a good word to describe a person with dyslexia writing and selling an instructional tome on the art of kissing. But that’s exactly what Edmark successfully did to fund her first start-up.

To confidence in the face of uncertainty add high levels of energy and creativity and a willingness to follow a Big Idea into uncharted territory and you might get a history that looks like Edmark’s. Elements as diverse as a knack for knitting, a knowledge of injection molding and an early vision of what the web could be made to do all played a role in getting Edmark where she is today-the head of her own Internet retailing operation.

Edmark’s first site, HerRoom.com, launched in 2000, partially as the outgrowth of her frustration over the experience of shopping for lingerie in stores. The site’s patented Try it Under feature enables shoppers to mouse over a menu that appears at the side of a product image to change that image and show how a bra style would look under different blouse necklines, such as a scoop neck or V-neck.

The in-store alternative would be dragging several different styles of blouses and dresses into a dressing room. The tool has been cited as one of the web’s most creative approaches to online apparel merchandising and exemplifies one rule of what distinguishes successful selling online. “I was thinking of how the Internet could give you information that you couldn’t get in a store,” Edmark explains.

How that feature came to be on the site illustrates another rule of successful entrepreneurship: just do it. Though she’s not an I.T. professional, and the Try it Under brainchild came long before Ajax and similar technologies worked their way into retail to make such functionality more feasible, Edmark had a clear idea of what she wanted the feature to do. So she worked with a programmer who developed the code that would execute her vision-or perhaps, more appropriately, X-ray vision-and patented it before the site even went live.

Beyond its ability to solve the neckline question, she reasoned further, a web site and its limitless shelf space would make it possible for women to not only find exactly the right fit and model of bra, but also be able to buy multiples without having to drive from store to store to collect them. “My goal was to make it possible for someone to go to one place, find exactly what they wanted, and then get exactly what they wanted,” Edmark says.

Try it Under was one of several site features Edmark conceived when she set herself to the task of sketching everything she could think of that could be done on the Internet to make the shopping experience for lingerie a better one for women. A counterpart site for men that followed 16 months later, HisRoom.com, got the same treatment. Edmark’s reward has been an Internet company that has enjoyed double-digit growth every year.

Selling lemonade

Since entrepreneurship is as much a personality trait as a business decision, its signs can manifest early in life. Edmark’s Seattle childhood was full of kid-sized ventures she dreamed up with her brothers: back-yard carnivals, Halloween haunted houses and lemonade stands made of packing boxes repurposed as pretend vending machines powered by kids standing inside. “It wasn’t so much about the money,” Edmark recalls. “It was more about trying to create something then seeing the fruits of our labor come in.”

Unlike other kids who wish for a pony when they blow out the candles on their birthday cake, though, Edmark says her childhood wish was to be a millionaire by the time she was 40. Her initial plan was to get there by being a fashion designer. “I loved fashion and fancied myself the next Yves St. Laurent,” she laughs.

The dream lasted through a degree in fashion design at Stevens College in Missouri. But it hit a roadblock at her first design job with a resortwear manufacturer back in Washington state, where she was assigned the task of doing knock-offs. “I found out this vision of having your own label is one in a million,” she says.

A tour of duty on the sales floor of Nordstrom’s followed, giving Edmark useful experience in fashion retailing. And two other jobs Edmark had at the same time to make ends meet also honed her sales skills. Before arriving for work at Nordstrom’s at 10:00 a.m., she spent two hours telemarketing a new technology-facsimile telecopiers. She also was night manager of a gourmet cooking store.

Not seeing a future in any of those jobs, she went back to school after a year, completing a Master’s degree in business administration at the University of Texas in Austin. Eight-plus years in sales at IBM followed. Well-compensated but bored, Edmark continued to play with ideas for new businesses in her spare time. When one of her circular knitting needles suggested an idea for a hair accessory, her access to engineers though her job at IBM proved handy. That’s how she learned injection molding was the process needed to produce the product, and that she’d need $5,000 to have the custom mold fabricated. “It never occurred to me to ask anyone for the money. I thought, I’m going to earn it,” she says.

Kiss me, you fool

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