Trisha Bantigue and Kathy Zhou are the founders of Queenly
Trisha Bantigue and Kathy Zhou are the founders of Queenly, the best search engine and marketplace for formal dresses. Founded in 2019, Queenly marries fashion and tech, bringing Silicon Valley to the formalwear industry. Part of the company’s biggest asset is its proprietary algorithm that matches buyers to dresses.
The idea for Queenly came to one of the founders, Trisha, as a result of her pageant experience: she realized that the main pain point for every woman there was finding, affording, and reselling their gowns! And this pain point wasn’t just for pageants, but for homecoming, quinceañeras, military balls, and more! One of the main reasons the Queenly marketplace really resonates with me is, as Trisha shares, it allows every girl and woman out there to have a “Cinderella experience,” an experience that used to be unattainable due to the economic barriers and high price tag that comes with formal dresses.
The amazing co-founders, Kathy & Trisha.
The founder duo didn’t just have to face a normal founder’s obstacles, but they launched during a global pandemic and managed to not only thrive but to get accepted to an incredibly prestigious accelerator as well: they were part of Y Combinator’s most recent batch (Winter 2021). In late April the Queenly team announced that it closed a $2.262 million round, following its $800,000 pre-seed raise.
Wondering about the founders' backgrounds pre-Queenly? Trisha graduated from UC Berkeley with a major in Political Science and worked at Google, Facebook, and Uber, on their Executive Recruiting team focused on Engineering and Product. Kathy has an equally stellar resume: she graduated from UPenn with a double major in Computer and Environmental Science and worked as a full-stack software engineer at Pinterest.
I had the immense honor of connecting with Trisha and Kathy and asking them a few questions about starting Queenly, launching amidst a pandemic, raising capital, and the Y-Combinator experience.
Firstly, how did the idea for Queenly first come about? What were some of the first steps you took?
TRISHA: The story of Queenly really came into fruition through my pageant experiences. Growing up, I didn't have an affluent family background so I had to start working early to provide for myself. I emancipated myself at the age of 17 so I was completely on my own with no parental support since then. I started joining pageants as a way to pay off my expensive UC Berkeley tuition, and I ended up falling in love with the whole experience! Then I realized that the main pain point of every woman there was finding, affording and reselling their gowns! I thought to myself, "Wow, this happens for prom, homecoming, weddings, quinceañeras, military balls, and more!" Coming from a background where my cofounder and I didn't have a lot of money to attain our dream dress for prom, I knew that a lot of girls experience this all over the country. I approached Kathy and pitched her the idea, while also simultaneously encouraging her to join her very first pageant. She agreed and I helped coach & mentor her through her journey. She ended up also loving her experience and so we started Queenly!
The Queenly Team recently grew from a team of two to six full-time workers.
What were some of the obstacles you had to overcome?
TRISHA: I think the biggest obstacle for most founders is figuring out how to grow to your first 1000 users then 5k, then 10k. There are growth issues that you gotta solve at each stage and so we had to be very creative. We also built our operations from the ground up, so we just utilized a trial and error process to figure out what works best for our product. We wholeheartedly listened to all our users and applied their feedback to our app and website right away. Then raising our first round of fundraising (preseed) was definitely a huge obstacle.
How was your experience at Y Combinator? How was the application process and what impact did it have on your business?
TRISHA: We had actually applied to YC twice! The first time we were rejected after an in-person interview early on in Queenly’s growth. For this most recent batch (Winter 2021), we applied in Fall 2020 with an application that highlighted the progress we had made, especially the challenge of building a formal dress company during a global pandemic. During this second time’s YC interview, we made sure to solidify our business model in their questions about our company from our previous interview experience, most specifically around profit margins, addressing future scaling challenges, and clearer growth metrics. One of the most notable aspects of our YC batch experience is that the events and office hours were entirely remote. This benefited us and many of our batchmates through being time-efficient in being able to attend online zoom calls while focusing on daily operations and building much needed product milestones, as well as the chance to connect with more founders internationally in our batch. Mentorship from the batch founders was also quite accessible in this format. Demo Day was also remote and was definitely a challenge in establishing a concise one-minute verbal pitch and succinct slide to sell our company to investors. Overall, we were able to succeed and grow from this experience [Techcrunch: Queenly raises $2.3M for its dress marketplace]. Our biggest piece of advice for founders thinking about YC is to make the most of the experience, in being proactive during the batch and to the YC partners in asking for the most feedback, analysis, and resources they can provide.
One of the main reasons Queenly really resonates with me
is it allows every girl and woman out there to
have a “Cinderella experience.”
Although this number has slightly fluctuated in the last few years, less than 3% of VC funding goes to female founders. How was your experience pitching/seeking investment?
TRISHA: It was ****ing hard! It was one of the hardest things we've ever had to experience in our lives! The extremely disappointing low percentage is a true reflection of our experience. As two minority female founders, pitching a very female-focused products, we received a ton of implicit bias from VC's and investors. We were questioned a lot in terms of our capabilities and sometimes, they would even ask who built the app & website for us when we already told them that Kathy is our CTO. From our personal experience, we saw that we got drilled a lot more on metrics, market size, expertise, etc., than probably our male counterparts. We repeatedly got the sentiment from many VC's that our market is not big enough, therefore, not worth investing in. We felt defeated every single time we received a "no", but we kept fighting and pushing through. Now that we are part of the "less than 3%" by having raised more than $3M in the past 2 years, we want to make sure that this percentage increases. We hope to help other female founders get funded as well.