(FN’s “How I Did It” profiles successful footwear and fashion players — from entrepreneurs to designers to top executives at major brands — and reveals how they carved their path into the industry.)
One night several years ago, then-Facebook executive Bianca Gates was putting her kids to sleep when she had what she called “an a-ha moment.”
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She whipped out her phone and texted her friend, Marisa Sharkey — who at the time handled corporate strategy for Ross Dress for Less — writing, “I have this crazy idea. Call you in the morning.” Sharkey immediately replied, “Tell me now.”
That conversation marked the conception of Birdies, a San Francisco-based footwear brand that launched in November 2015 and has managed to raise roughly $10 million in funding as well as get the stamp of approval from Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle. (She was first spotted in the shoes before her royal duties, filming the drama series “Suits” in Canada.)
The company has built a dedicated fan base through its comfortable yet stylish slippers that can be worn both indoors and outdoors — a killer combination for the woman on-the-go. And it’s not just another startup: Booming business has led to Birdies’ debut brick-and-mortar store in its hometown of San Francisco two years ago and the launch of its bridal collection this April.
Here, co-founders Gates and Sharkey tell their story and update FN on what’s next.
How did you become interested in the footwear industry?
Gates: “For me, the interest came in enjoying bringing friends and family together at home and entertaining. I was living in Manhattan — this was back in the early 2000s when ‘Sex and the City’ was the hottest show on the planet — and you wouldn’t be caught dead leaving your apartment without a great pair of heels. But the question wasn’t so much about what to wear outside of your apartment as much as it was when you were hanging out with friends and family in that apartment. There weren’t any shoes for the entertaining spaces of the house: the living room, dining room and kitchen. The only real option was going barefoot or wearing socks or frumpy pajama slippers. I knew there was a big hole in the market.”
Describe your big break.
Gates: “It was probably when Meghan Markle started wearing Birdies. This was even before she started dating Prince Harry, but she had a million followers on Instagram, and we sent her a pair. We felt like she really embodied the brand we wanted to become, which was for an effortlessly chic woman who is strong and sophisticated. The first couple of times, she would tag us, and it really helped give us a boost in sales as well as some traction with editors. But then we started to notice the paparazzi taking pictures of her; she was wearing them a lot — not knowing that she was being photographed. We were able to share that story with editors, who ran the piece, and the shoe was really gaining momentum. We didn’t even have to spend that much money on advertising or marketing.”
What was one of the roadblocks you’ve hit along the way?
Sharkey: “One of the most challenging things was around manufacturing and product development and actually making what Bianca and I really envisioned in our heads. Neither of us are artists or designers, so we didn’t have the right language to talk about what we were trying to accomplish — except that we had a common vision. We wanted it to be the most comfortable slipper that looked beautiful enough to wear everywhere, but it was hard to find people who could help. Footwear manufacturing is usually done overseas in big-scale factories, and we were just two women who had an idea for a stylish slipper. People didn’t take us that seriously, so we tapped into our networks and just started asking anybody if they knew anything about making footwear. Eventually, we found one manufacturer who helped us — it certainly wasn’t the top of the line, but it helped us get our foot in the door.”
What was the craziest thing you did to get your business going?
Sharkey: “What’s crazy about starting your own business is that you’re responsible for literally everything — from creating the product, designing the product, telling whomever about your product to learning how to ship it to customers. Funny story: Early on, the manufacturer we’re working with today was, by coincidence, visiting San Francisco. We were so small at the time, and it just so happened that we moved into our first office the day before. We had lots of desks, and it was empty of people, but it looked like an office and a business. The reality was that, if they had been in San Francisco the week before, we would’ve been meeting at a Starbucks.”
What’s the next big move on your agenda?
Gates: “Last year, we surveyed our customers and found that 75% said that she loved us because we’re both fashion enough to go with everything and so comfortable that she wears us everywhere — traveling, running errands, going to work, at home. We took that data very seriously and experimented with a thicker outsole this past fall, which did incredibly well. We’re introducing a new material to our slippers next month that’s more durable and made for everyday wear, versus the traditional velvet that we’re known for. We’re starting to venture into more materials that are even better suited for the outdoor environment.”
What’s the one thing you do every day to be successful?
Sharkey: “I’m going to have two things — both of which a lot of people do but are also extremely important. The first is prioritizing what you spend your time on. Our business is growing, so the list of demands are getting bigger and bigger. Be ruthless about the way you spend your time. The second thing: I started going to the gym early in the morning, so I’ve already checked something off of my list before 7 a.m. You’ve accomplished something before you’ve even started your day.”
Gates: “The exact same thing. The most successful people have the ability to ruthlessly prioritize what they have to get done on a daily, weekly and monthly basis.”
What advice do you have for someone who wants to break into the shoe industry?
Gates: “We’ve heard a lot of people who would talk about the footwear industry being very insular and hard to break into, and I almost feel that because we hadn’t been in the industry at all, we were like a breath of fresh air. We would ask the ‘why not’ instead of feeling like we were confined to rules that have been pre-established. Don’t be afraid of how your resume reads or how much of a background you have in the industry. Just have a differentiated point of view, tremendous passion and obsession to fix that problem, and you’ll go far.”
Sharkey: “Starting a business is very multifaceted and encompasses so much that it’s really unlikely one person knows how to do everything. One of the biggest lessons for me has been to put myself out there, ask questions and not be afraid to tap into your network and look for people to help you because it will save you a ton of time and a lot of mistakes.”
What’s the next big thing in fashion and/or footwear?
Gates: “Versatility. Women, in particular, play so many different roles. We need functionality with apparel and footwear — one shoe that takes us from coffee to cocktail and reflects our personalities. Comfort is key, but women don’t want to sacrifice style. She wants both, she demands both and she deserves both.”
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