The past two years have probably been the most tenuous this generation has known. For me, the recession of the early 1990s is a distant, hazy memory, but the time in which we live now is clear in its uncertainty. People are out of work or in fear of losing their income; they cling to jobs they don’t love, corporations they don’t respect, because they have real, pragmatic concerns — mortgage and car payments, unpaid student loans, and children to support — which makes the daily struggle to maintain shelter and keep their families fed hardly poetic. We live in a fast and furious culture, and we sometimes wonder if we can breathe underwater.
So we wonder, in our darkest hours, if the American Dream as we know it still exists, or whether it’s merely an idea, an apparition, a light once blazing now flickering out. But in spite of all of this, I assure you that there’s hope. In recent months, I’ve been speaking with women who have made significant sacrifices in an effort to launch businesses they believe in. From launching public relations consulting companies to burgeoning non profits to new product innovations and technologies, people are looking at this time as one of opportunity rather than economic peril. Start-up costs are low, and the web makes research, marketing, publicity, and distribution, a viable reality.
Over the next few months, I’ll be interviewing women entrepreneurs and business owners of all ages. You’ll meet the women behind small start-ups and you’ll learn how CEOs of major brands (Dermalogica, Lorac, Candela Group, among others) are sustaining during these precarious times. To kick this off, I’m excited to bring you Lindsay Phillips’sstory. Phillips, the owner of SwitchFlops, a chic, affordable, feminine line of flip flops and sandals with interchangeable straps, launched her incredibly profitable company at the age of twenty-four. Learn how she did it!
What’s ingenious about SwitchFlops is the sheer ease and versatility of the line. This is the epitome of convertible, transitional fashion, where a variety of Velcro straps makes it easy to switch up the look of your sandal depending upon the occasion — go for the nautical beach Brooke strap while cruising your local surf during the day, or opt for the sophisticated evening Chelsea strap for al fresco evening dining.
How did you come up with such a simple, but brilliant concept on how to reinvent flip-flops and footwear?
LP: SwitchFlops evolved from a pair of ceramic sandals I created for an art design class. There was an amazing response by family and friends to these flip-flops adorned by a variety of fun, Florida fare including sunglasses, palm trees and tropical fish. Everyone wanted to buy a pair and was disappointed to discover the shoes were not functional. I began designing flip-flops with colorful straps and fanciful buttons. After stumbling on the concept of using Velcro to create an interchangeable strap, and applying for a patent, SwitchFlops were born!
As we’re in the midst of a precarious economy, many are finding, ironically enough, that now is the best time to start a business. As someone who is a successful entrepreneur, can you speak to the process of how you launched your company? From the patent technology to manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution — how long did it take you to get the company off the ground, and what resources (including outsourced staff and legal counsel)/start-up capital was required?
LP: I could write a book responding to this question! From the very beginning to present day has been a seven-year journey. After I had created a working model and began wearing a pair of early SwitchFlops, one of my family friends told me that I should patent my design. I was in high school and had no idea of what a patent was at the time. So I Googled patents and initially searched the U.S. patent website for sandals with an interchangeable strap. I couldn’t find anything similar to my idea, so after my preliminary research I contacted a patent attorney. There was a long waiting period before the application was accepted. By the time the patent was issued 4 years later I was far along into creating a working prototype and itching to get the manufacturing process started. As an Art history major with only 2 summers of business experience as an intern with Polo Ralph Lauren, getting my initial production of SwitchFlops was a huge challenge.
Looking back I think this was hardest bridge to cross. After having no luck finding a U.S. shoe manufacturer that was interested in my project I recruited my mother to be my business partner. We explored many options and were ultimately introduced to someone with experience in having goods manufactured in China. With our mentor as our guide my mom and I traveled to Shanghai. We had no idea what to expect but we believed in our idea and took a chance. We found a factory that was willing to work with a small startup company and placed our first order of 5,000 shoes. At the time this seemed like a lot and we had visions of our garage being filled with SwitchFlops forever! Five months later our first shipment was on the way to Florida. Wait… where are we going to keep these shoes? We rented a storage shed, which served as our first office and warehouse.
Once the shoes arrived the next step was selling them. Thanks to great exposure at Surf Expo, our first trade show, we were able to pick up some initial accounts. Oh wait… Now we have to ship! How do you do that? All of the steps along the way were a learning process. We just kept plugging away and did all of the things to make it happen. There was no job, however dirty or boring that my mother or I wouldn’t take on. We were a two- woman show with some help from my mother’s good friends, and my father, brother, and now-husband on the weekends. Initially I was able to take out a loan for the start up costs. The good news was that the shoes were selling so fast that we were able to take the money we were making and re-invest it back into the company.
We are now in over 3000 stores all over the U.S., Canada and the U.K. and employee nineteen people in the company.
Your story is extraordinary as well as inspiring in the sense that you are the founder of a successful venture at the age of twenty-three. Although your mother is a partner, did you encounter any stumbling blocks to launching SwitchFlops because of your age?
LP: Absolutely! As a twenty-four-year old who looks like I’m eighteen, I shock people every day. No one believes that I actually started a company. Being a young entrepreneur is much like being fresh meat to people who seek to take advantage of others. When I first started this venture a lot of people didn’t take me seriously. I was very fortunate to have my mother by my side, which gave me a lot more credibility. With her around people started to take me more seriously.
Your tagline, “Change your look, not your sole,” is smart, youthful and cheeky — you’ve clearly defined your audience as a woman in her 20s seeking fun, affordable summer shoes. When launching your company, how much time was focused on marketing, specifically identifying your core consumer and then identifying opportunities with varying demographic, which, at first glance, might not necessarily be obvious.
LP: I dedicated the entire summer after my sophomore year of college to creating SwitchFlops. When you are working on a start-up company on a budget with no prior work experience is challenging. I used my friends and family to help me brainstorm. The first thing I worked on was the strap design. I came up with 100 homemade strap prototypes. I carried those 100 straps with me in a book and stopped women everywhere I went and asked them to identify their favorite top ten straps. Immediately, I knew that my age demographic, 18-50, was broad based upon the reaction I got from showing the different straps. From there I stared designing for local Florida women, but also kept in mind what nationwide consumers might like. That’s how it all started! Ideas continue to come with time. It was not like I was following an outline. I just started to work locally and it has grown.
How did you get the word out about SwitchFlops? Was it a grass roots, word-of-mouth marketing? Trade shows? Traditional publicity outlets, or a strategy that’s a hybrid of varying outreach campaigns?
LP: During my senior year of college I won a free booth at Surf Expo trade show after having been entered into, and subsequently selected as an innovative product, by a competition known as LAUNCH. It was my first tradeshow and the first time we ever showed our line. From there, word-of-mouth and great PR has been key, not to mention having a unique and new product.
What’s next for SwitchFlops? Any line extensions?
LP: Absolutely! My mind is constantly spinning and is full of ideas. Creativity and design are my passion. In the future you will see less of an emphasis on the SwitchFlops brand and more of an emphasis on Lindsay Phillips as a brand. However, this doesn’t mean that SwitchFlops is coming to an end; we’ll continue to grow the line more than ever. Come September we’re releasing our new, all-season shoe known as the ‘Liz.’ Yes! It is named after my mom. I can’t give you the full details yet, but I can tell you that it is fantastic and it has a twist to it. Finally the LuLu will be able to rest up for spring and summer, while the Liz takes on the fall and winter months! The perfect balance!
Any advice you’d like to impart to burgeoning entrepreneurs? Lessons learned?
LP: If you have an idea and you believe in it….go for it. Trust yourself and never give up, because there will be days you’re going to want to quit. Sleep it off and get right back to work the next day. The hard work will pay off, and just remember: no risk, no reward! If it were easy everyone would be doing it. Once your product is out in the market, work as fast and as furiously as you can. I wake up everyday and I am in awe that my high school art project has launched a very successful company; this should give you the incentive and drive that you can do it as well. Another tip is to surround yourself with smart and experienced people in your industry. At the end of the day you’re only one person, and let’s face it you can’t be great at everything. Thanks to my amazing team I am able to focus on what I am good at!