On persuading Sara Blakely to be a mentor and building a consumer product startupFeatured
I spoke with @@EmilyKenison, CEO and founder of Straplets, the first and only shoe accessory designed to give your old shoe a new look and solve your shoe slips. Emily and Straplets recently went viral through a post by Sara Blakely, founder of SPANX and previously the youngest, self-made female billionaire in the United States. Emily held up a sign saying “Sara, will you marry mentor me?” at Sara’s How I Built This Summit speech. Sara found the idea very clever, agreed to mentor Emily, and shared the post through social media. ––In 2014, Emily had just graduated from law school and was buying a pair of shoes for her new job. To her dismay, the shoes ended up falling off on her first day, a problem Emily remembers thinking straps would have solved, which led to her idea: creating detachable straps for shoes. Emily had studied fashion intellectual property at law school and knew she could get a utility patent on the straps, a rare defensible differentiator in the world of fashion and a way to create an entirely new product category (much like Sara Blakely had done with SPANX). To bootstrap the idea, Emily applied to patent competitions to get the patents written for free. Afterwards, she was ready to create the first prototypes. She knocked on the doors of dozens of factories in the Garment District of NYC, but each turned her down because her order size and business were too small. Recalling how knowledgeable and helpful her teachers had been in college and law school, Emily approached professors at the Fashion Institute of Technology, who ultimately helped her create her first prototypes and get Straplets off the ground. She brought the first samples to her family and friends, who tested and loved the product. With the preliminary indications of product market fit and with the help of a friend of a friend of a friend connection, Emily pitched to a top factory in Turkey that also manufactured shoes for luxury brands like Fendi and Chanel. Although they were hesitant at first, the factory was ultimately persuaded by Emily’s persistent and strategic pitch. They helped to design and refine the initial orders, marking the launch of Straplets. Reflecting on her founder journey, Emily shares her advice for current and aspiring female founders on bootstrapping businesses, pitching their startups, and finding strong communities. Find community even in unexpected ways. Emily currently lives in San Francisco in a commune called The Archive with 22 other entrepreneurs. Although each person is working on their own venture, the community has been an incredible resource for Emily. These founders speak candidly with each other on practical topics, pooling their collective experience on questions like how much equity to give to an advisor or how and when to sell on Amazon. On a more emotional level, surrounding herself with people going through separate but similar journeys, particularly in the lonely startup world, has helped Emily find the motivation to get out of bed on even the most challenging days. Take chances: your next opportunity could be anywhere, and the worst possible outcome is just temporary embarrassment. Emily saw many similarities between SPANX and Straplets. Both have utility patents and were creating new product categories, an exceptionally challenging yet high potential endeavor. Emily wanted to learn how Sara effectively educated consumers on a product they did not yet know they truly needed. So, at the How I Built This Summit, Emily approached Sara with a creative “will you marry mentor me” sign and went down on one knee to “propose. ” In that moment, Emily took a chance: the worst thing that could happen is temporary embarrassment. Fortunately, Sara loved the idea, agreed to mentor Emily, and shared the video online, which has led to tons of inbound customer interest and general support for Emily and Straplets. Categorize your mentors with a different interaction approach for each category. Specifically, have 1) best friend mentors primarily for emotional support with more frequent and casual interactions2) structured mentors with deliverables where you have regular, scheduled touch points to discuss strategic, specific questions (like how to determine your marketing channels and KPIs)3) very busy, big name mentors (such as Sara Blakely) for less granular, more pivotal decisions (like whether to raise VC money). Find creative ways to bootstrap your business. Thus far, Straplets has been mostly self-funded. Emily decided to bootstrap the business because she wanted all aspects of it to be largely ironed out prior to raising substantial amounts of outside money. Bootstrapping was an incredibly difficult process. Emily spent a large portion of her monthly paycheck as well as every evening, early morning, weekend, and vacation day on the company for years even before dedicating herself full time to it. With the help of great friends and incredible levels of perseverance, Emily continuously found ways to reduce cost and wore many hats, taking on tasks that she would otherwise be hiring team members for. Interestingly, the process of being the jack of all trades out of necessity has allowed Emily to better understand every aspect of the business and better hire for and manage teams in each area as Straplets grows.Tailor each pitch to the end decision maker, if possible. When pitching to venture investors in particular, female founded consumer companies building products for women frequently struggle to find an empathic response. Venture investors are mostly men and fail to understand female customer pain points. Emily has found that instead of pitching solely on the problem she is addressing for women, she can shift the presentation to center more on relatable problems for these male investors. For example, she can present Straplets as a way to help these investors spend less money on their wives’ shoes: their wives can just buy one pair of shoes with multiple Straplets.If you have the authority to make a decision yourself, you won’t look back. Emily grew up quite risk averse. She comes from a traditional family and always thought she would be a lawyer. But she had also always been creative and entrepreneurial in small ways throughout her life. When she kept up the passion for Straplets for 4 years of working on the company alongside her day job, she knew she wanted to finally take the leap and felt that the company was, by then, positioned well for growth (with a website, prototype, and manufacturing process in place). Her decision to quit actually spilled out unexpectedly at an ordinary meeting with her manager. Emily remembers it was a surreal moment. Once the decision was made, there was no looking back. She had asked tons of people for feedback prior to going all in on Straplets, and found it only further confused and overwhelmed her. The lead up to the decision was painstaking and extensive, but the gut instinct moment of quitting her job was relatively accidental and brief. Reflecting on the incredible journey since then, Emily has no regrets. “If you exercise your agency and make those important decisions yourself, you won’t look back -- only forward.”Lastly, we wanted to give a shout out to Forbes8, which provides on demand video content designed for entrepreneurs at every stage of their journey.