Written by Marie Bartlett | Photos by Anthony Harden & Courtesy of Knock Out!®
Most people, when they hear the phrase “Don’t get your panties in a wad,” think relax, calm down (the Brits prefer “knickers in a twist”). But when Angela Newnam, president and CEO of Angle Enterprises, LLC, hears the phrase she thinks “opportunity.”
As founder and owner of Knock out!® Panties, a Made-in-America undergarment and sleepwear brand carried in boutiques throughout the United States and overseas, Angela has found a viable solution to the age-old problem of women and the love/hate relationship they share with their underwear.
Undies, unmentionables, personables that don’t fit or feel right are something that every woman can relate to: too tight, too loose, too flimsy to survive multiple washings. Let’s not even talk about the odor and “leakage” problem that isn’t discussed in polite society, but is the bane of many active women, especially as they age.
In fact, it was this very conversation Angela, an energetic, attractive blonde, had with a group of women friends that planted the seed for her now thriving company.
“After baby number three, around 2005, we were living in Charlotte. The discussion was how to lose baby weight, which led to working out and why there weren’t suitable undergarments for women that could absorb sweat. Or say you’re doing a jumping jack and you have the pesky leak. So I did a little research on products and found nothing.”
With an impressive business pedigree and her self-described driven nature, Angela started digging.
“I ordered fabrics, searched the patent database, and eventually found a technology in existence for odor and leakage control. Literally, it was a Febreeze® on fabric,” she says. “More interesting, it was developed in Rutherford County, North Carolina, near Tryon, and being used on hunter’s apparel under the brand name No Trace®.”
The small world grew even smaller when she dug deeper and learned there was a strong interconnection between her growing interest in fabric technology and her own personal background. Her husband had grown up in Danville, Virginia, home of Dan River, Inc., one of the largest textile mills in America and the owner of the No Trace® odor absorbing technology. Like the majority of cotton mills, it was in financial straits by 2006, shutting plants left and right even before the recession closed in.
“We learned that Dan River had just gone bankrupt, and I wondered how to license their technology. What I found was that they hadn’t yet sold their patent. I made an offer. No one was buying anything in 2008, and the company was happy to get anything, even a low price. Once we had the patent, in 2009, we did a year of research and development to find the right wicking fabric and develop our patent for a new type of panty.”
Angela had bought the patent and developed some fabrics, but that was a long way from starting a business and bringing a product to market. “I took the leap, but I really had no idea what I was getting myself into. I had been a consultant to businesses, but not the founder of one. I guess the stars just aligned.”
Born in Raleigh, North Carolina, the oldest of three, she grew up in Tryon. “My dad spent his entire career in textiles at Milliken in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and retired as an executive division president. After I graduated from Tryon High School, I went to the University of Virginia where I got my undergraduate degree in business. I wanted to work in manufacturing—I liked the analytics and the problem-solving aspects of it—so I joined A.T. Kearney, a leading manufacturing and supply chain consultancy. After three years, a former professor encouraged me to apply to Harvard Business School. That’s where I got my masters in business administration, in 1996, met my husband, Todd, and moved to Charlotte.”
Harvard, she says, opened a lot of doors for her. She returned to consulting, with the premier firm of McKinsey & Company, advisors to the world’s leading businesses. McKinsey was growing its operations practices and had a new office in Charlotte.
“After living in New York, Boston, and Chicago, I was ready to return to the south.” Thereafter, she spent nine more years in consulting, five with Springs Industries, a billion dollar textile company in Fort Mill, South Carolina.
“So between my dad working in textiles, and my association with textiles, I had enough knowledge to be dangerous. I didn’t study textiles in school, and I am not a textile engineer. I did, however, know enough about textiles to find my way around the business. I love the feel of natural fabrics and fibers. I committed to staying away from synthetic fabrics, and instead, figure out a way to get the best performance out of natural fabric, especially cotton.”
Moisture-wicking technology has been around for decades, used primarily in sports apparel made from synthetic polyesters. The fabric is designed so that moisture cannot be absorbed and passes through the fabric, “wicking” it away from the body and dispersing it to an exterior part of the fabric for faster drying.
However, would it work on cotton, the fabric of choice for what Angela had in mind? Not just any cotton, but Supima*, which is the highest grade 100% cotton. A natural fiber that is “breathable,” cotton offers several advantages, including the ability to control moisture, insulate against heat and cold, and provide comfort through its softness and ability to stretch. That’s why it’s recommended by healthcare providers and is so often used in undergarments.
“It took numerous trials in the lab to get the wicking and the odor combination just right,” Angela recalls. “The first two trials failed. We had given very specific instructions, yet the technologies were not working together. Turns out, one of the companies we were working with had added a softener we hadn’t specified. Once that problem was fixed, we were finally rocking and rolling.”
By June, 2010, they were ready to send out samples to 100 women and see what response they received in return. When the results arrived, adjustments were made on the patterns, but everyone who sampled the built-in liner loved it.
Getting a name for the product was next. That’s where Angela’s creative side kicked in. She wanted something catchy and fun, yet practical.
“I was trying to think of a name for high tech underwear that had performance built in, names that were “sexy,” but were also strong enough to deal with sweat and odor, not exactly what you discuss at cocktail parties. My designer and I were messing around with names and she said ‘How about knockout knickers?’ I was like well, I like the “knockout” part. So we came up with a name that allowed a double meaning: the knockout meaning a glamour girl and the knockout image of the strong, active woman.”
Simultaneously, they set out to get the supply chain in place: a designer, a fabric maker, a sewer, distribution, and marketing. As a start-up company, it would be a huge challenge, Angela says. Putting it all together was like building a puzzle without a visual guide.
“Startups come along all the time, with about a ninety-five percent failure rate. Therefore, we didn’t always get a warm welcome. I had no patterns as yet. I had a good idea and some prototypes, but that was about it. We were told to return when we were bigger. Luckily, our fabric manufacturer had a great relationship with my first choice sewer, and through his recommendation, agreed to work with me. It just seemed everything was interconnected and was meant to happen this way.”
A graphics designer produced the website and marketing materials, using soft, provocative lips to portray a “secret” and feminine color schemes throughout. Angela liked that combination—soft yet strong.
Their first sewing run took place in October of 2011, and their first retail sale took place the day before Thanksgiving. To launch the product, they held a “panty party” in Charlotte that November, something Angela says still plays a small part in the company’s marketing. Ironically, it was the very town in which she had sat a few years earlier, complaining there was “no good panty product out there.”
A panty party?
“It means we get a group of women together, drink wine, look at different styles and laugh about underwear issues. It’s a lot of fun. People are tactile by nature and want to touch the product, see if it’s soft, if the lace is scratchy, if it feels good. I get some of my best input from these events.” She does five to ten of these parties a year, mostly for kick-offs in new cities.
Their main audience seems to enjoy it most. “While we have styles for all ages, our primary market is the female between the ages of thirty-five and sixty, married, with kids, active, likes to work out, keep fit, and appreciates our cotton panty liner and what it does for them.”
With no manufacturing plant needed, here’s how the supply chain works:
“Since our product is about the technology, we don’t own any factories. Instead, I specify the type of cotton to be used, (the highest quality we can find), specify where the fabric is made, which is a company in Georgia, and where the yarn is knitted (in North Carolina). Then it goes to our sewing factory in South Carolina.”
She prefers not to identify the name of their suppliers, not uncommon in manufacturing. They began with one color and limited styles, but soon increased their inventory to seven colors and twelve styles of ladies underwear, along with twenty mix-and-match, including men’s boxers and tee shirts.
She found a sales and marketing guru who came to her from the popular Spanx product line, working from Dallas, Texas, to reach out to sales reps in both the United States and Canada. Knock outs! were sent to Oprah Winfrey, who dubbed them “Ready for Anything at Anytime” and were featured on CBS, CNN, Fox News, and ABC.
“We saw large spikes in sales as a result of the Oprah endorsement. She’s a trusted resource for millions of women.”
Specialty boutiques are her go-to retailers. She started with three and now has 650 retailers in the United States and ten different countries, including Canada. Sizes vary from extra small to plus sizes.
“I want every woman to be able to find something in my line that she loves. We have briefs, we have thongs, we have boy shorts, tiny to full coverage—we have it all. Personally, I love the new sleepwear we’ve added at customers’ requests. We designed it because night sweats are such a huge problem for millions of women, whether it’s hormonal changes they are going through or chemotherapy. I have night sweats myself and can finally sleep right through them.”
[quote float=”right”]“I run the photo shoots because I like that creative part of the job. We set out to portray soft and feminine, from all American girls to Marilyn Monroe. We want to come across as fun and light, with a product women will tell their friends about.”[/quote]Angela tests every product, and she especially likes the tunic and plays tennis in the sports bra. “Everyone has a favorite style. My husband wears the tee-shirts and boxers. The fabrics have the comfort of cotton as well as performance for workout or just everyday sweat.”
Though her company is hugely successful—they won the Harvard Business Global New Venture Award in 2012—bringing a new product to market is incredibly hard, she has learned.
“I was under the mistaken impression that my product would sell itself because it was so good, but the truth is I had to hire a lot of reps, go to trade shows, and expend our time and energy on public relations. The most energy we exert now is trying to get the word out about our product.”
“We focus on keeping our customers happy with a great product and great service. Our reps put the order into our system so we can approve it quickly. Then it goes out quickly. We chose to hire our own distribution team, rather than outsource, so I can call my team at the distribution center and they jump through crazy hoops to make sure our customers get what they want. We usually ship within two to three days of an order coming in, but we have sent items overnight delivery. Our retailers love that. Our aim is to be a reorder business as opposed to a seasonal business.”
But, she says, you have to be good and stay good at multiple levels to compete against the giant retail markets: great customer service, design, fashion, and delivery.
“I look at every photo and every word that goes into our marketing and give the final say. I run the photo shoots because I like that creative part of the job. We set out to portray soft and feminine, from all American girls to Marilyn Monroe. We want to come across as fun and light, with a product women will tell their friends about.”
When the few complaints arrive, those too are handled by Angela. “String is string and threads are threads so things do happen—a seam pops or a thread comes loose. But we offer a 100 percent money-back guarantee on our products. We give them a new one because my philosophy is that a happy woman will tell her friends and that’s what we’re all about. I’d rather hear from the disappointed customer so I can rectify the problem. I read reviews and respond to every unhappy customer. Every customer who has a complaint—they hear from me.”
Her advice to others considering a start-up is blunt: “It’s gonna cost twice as much and take twice as long as you think it will and consume you for at least a while. The first couple of years, every time you turn around, there’s ‘We need this and we need that.’ You’re building a website, a product, a rep network, a retailer base, photography, and it’s money, energy, mind share. So you need an enormous passion for what you’re doing.”
Her goal for the next five years is to maintain her Made-in-America approach and branch out carefully. Most recently, she licensed with a camouflage company launching the original No Trace® technology designed to counter odor for hunters’ apparel.
“If I had a million heads and an army of people, I could pursue many avenues. But you have to stay focused. You can’t be all things to all people. We thought long and hard before we went into sleepwear until we realized the two went together.”
Today, no longer a start-up, Knock out! is a small, but growing brand. While there are still low days when Angela thinks ‘What am I doing here? I could be out playing tennis,’ she savors the little things: an email from a customer who loves the product, a daughter who bought the product for her mom and wrote, ‘This is the panty you can’t live without,’ or someone who says, ‘I couldn’t get a good night’s sleep until I bought your sleepwear.’
“That’s what it’s about, making a difference,” she says. “That’s why I made this product. When I pitched to Harvard Business School (all men), that’s what I told them. Most were from the high tech world, so I opened with a little humor: ‘I’m here to tell you about our software that will protect your hardware.’ They loved it, and listened to my story about how I wanted to make a product that changed lives.”
For fun, Angela has a unique little collection of dragons that friends have given her through the years, a hobby that began at a project dinner with one of her manufacturing client teams. “You led us like a dragon,” was the message, “friendly most of the time but fire-breathing when we needed it.” Her downtime means wearing cowboy boots and listening to country music.
The company’s success and her role in making it happen all comes back to the adage about not getting “your panties in a wad.”
“Bad undies make for bad days,” she says. “Knock out! panties are about solutions one day (and one night) at a time. So we’ve done what we set out to do. When people come up to me with a big smile and say ‘I’m wearing my Knock outs!,’ that makes it all worthwhile.”
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