How the Co-founders of Birdies Conquered the World of Manufacturing
"I wasn't necessarily seeking an entrepreneurial venture, but I was so passionate about the idea that it just made sense."
If you're all about them dinner parties but also all about them yoga pants and slippers, then you need to know about Birdies: the most comfortable, fashionable house slippers on the market.
As a former group VP of strategy at Ross Stores and global marketing solutions manager at Facebook, there's no doubt that California girls Bianca Gates and Marisa Sharkey have some serious business chops. But like so many others, they went through the trials and tribulations of figuring out the manufacturing and sourcing processes for their products, wearing dozens of hats as business owners and, of course, being patient while their company grew.
Today, we're getting into the nitty gritty about how they approached the manufacturing world, the first steps to making their business concept a reality, and how they plan to expand their team.
Name: Bianca Gates
Current title/company: Co-Founder, Birdies and Global Marketing Solutions, Facebook
Location: San Francisco, CA
Education: BS International Studies, UC Irvine
Name: Marisa Sharkey
Current title/company: Co-Founder and CEO, Birdies
Location: Sacramento, CA
Education: BS Managerial Economics, Cornell University; MBA, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
Tell us about your first jobs out of college and how you landed those positions.
Bianca: My first job out of college was as a pharmaceutical rep for Johnson & Johnson in Los Angeles. During college, I spent time in Buenos Aires (my dad’s hometown) and came across a phenomenal facial cleanser that I loved. We didn’t have anything like it in the U.S. so I decided to solve the problem and began importing this cleanser to the US and sold it domestically. In order to fund this start-up, I waited tables at a restaurant in Southern California called Macaroni Grill. During one of my shifts, a district manager for J&J overheard me talking about the unique attributes of this cleanser and asked me to “pitch her” this cleanser. I was so excited because I thought I had another customer! Instead, she asked me if I would be interested in interviewing for a sales job on her team at J&J. With only six months left before graduating college and my own pressure to find a job that afforded me the ability to move out of my parent’s home after college, I jumped at the opportunity and got the job!
After settling into my job as a pharmaceutical sales rep, I began doing some soul searching and realized that there were aspects of that job that I loved—such as meeting with clients every day, and things I didn’t love as much—such as a lack of an office environment and not being able to see my team regularly. With that, my dad—a college professor, helped me explore other career options that included the things I loved and eliminated the things I didn’t like, and we landed on a career in media sales. Over the past 15 years I have had the pleasure of working at distinguished media companies such as Univision, MTV/Viacom, and most recently, Facebook.
Marisa: After college, I joined an investment bank on Wall Street and worked with Fortune 500 companies on mergers and acquisitions. This was “the” job for business majors at the time and I knew it would be difficult to land. I put a lot of effort into making sure I had the grades, the internships, the work ethic, and the mindset to get one of the few coveted roles. The fast-paced world of finance was a fantastic learning ground right out of college and reminded me that I could accomplish the lofty goals I set for myself. But it was ultimately not my lifelong calling (though I still love learning a new Excel trick).
Knowing that I wanted to shift my career to focus more on strategy and less on finance, I returned to business school to get my MBA. I was lucky to land a summer internship, and ultimately a full-time job, at Bain & Company, a strategy consulting firm. This was an opportunity for which I will forever be grateful. I had the privilege of working with an extremely smart, motivated, but also a very creative group of people who modeled great leadership and team-building skills that have been fundamental to my own career success. I learned how to look at very complex problems and identify the data and insights needed to make decisions. (As an added bonus, I met my wonderful husband at Bain!) I was also able to focus on clients in the retail industry, which had always been my interest. My love of the fashion business was born early on—the weekends of my childhood were spent racing through the shops of New York, with my father, a merchandising veteran, learning to spot the latest fashion trends. This was the ideal way to marry my interests and build my expertise in both corporate strategy and fashion.
How did the two of you meet?
Bianca: Marisa and I met at one of my parties in my apartment in Manhattan 10 years ago. Both of our husbands (boyfriends at the time) were attending business school at Stanford and connected us since we both lived in NYC. We hit it off immediately!
I was not necessarily seeking an entrepreneurial venture, but I was so passionate about the idea that it just made sense.
Let’s be honest, being friends is one thing but being business partners is another. How did you know that you had the right personalities and goals to partner up successfully?
Bianca: Marisa and I work very well together because we admire and respect each other personally and professionally. We also come from very diverse backgrounds which opens our minds to new ways of thinking about things. I guess you could say we complete each other.
Marisa: Bianca and I have had very different career experiences and in many aspects, starkly different personalities. Bianca is more instinctive while I am more deliberate (you only have to read our first job stories to get a sense for this!). Bianca is an outgoing sales executive while I am a straight-to-the-point data analyzer. At the same time, we share a similar working style—we are both “get things done” kind of people. This combination has worked out very well for us. There are a lot of uncertainties in the early life of a company. Knowing that before we make a big decision, we have already had to convince the other (who is likely looking at the problem from a totally different perspective) has ultimately made us more confident we are taking the right path. We also have great respect for each other’s experience and expertise, and realize we have a lot to learn from each other. We have been close friends for years before we were business partners, and also recognize that we work best when we are having fun together, too!
Tell us about life before Birdies. What were you doing?
Bianca: Not much has changed for me before and after Birdies—although I guess I’m a lot busier! I’m still at Facebook and my kids continue to keep me busy. My husband is my rock and I am able to do so much because of his love and support.
Know yourself and let that guide you.
Marisa: Working with all types of retail clients at Bain reinforced my love of the industry. While they all faced different challenges, my experience helped me learn to break down strategic issues and align others on changes to be made. Looking to have a greater stake in the driving change within an organization, I left Bain to lead the corporate strategy team at Ross Stores in New York. While some may think discount retail is not the sexiest of industries, the management team placed a high value on strategic thinking and I was able to learn from some of the best merchandisers and operators in the business.
How did you decide to start a fashionable slippers business?
Bianca: It was actually my husband’s idea! I think he got so sick of me complaining for years that I couldn’t find fashionable slippers to entertain at home that in January of last year he encouraged me to just solve the problem myself, once and for all. I hope he wasn’t kidding!
Marisa: When Bianca initially shared the idea I couldn’t believe it! For years I had been Googling “fashionable slippers," “stylish slippers," “chic slippers,” and unfortunately, was still spending way too much time in frumpy slippers. To add insult to injury, our home is a revolving door of neighbors and friends and we are always entertaining. I like to kick off my outdoor shoes at home, but could not find stylish slippers to coordinate with my outfits. I knew that many of the most successful businesses were born out of solving a problem the founders were facing—and we had a pretty obvious problem on our hands (or feet actually)! It lined up with a time in my career that I was ready to do something very different. I was not necessarily seeking an entrepreneurial venture, but I was so passionate about the idea that it just made sense. And like that, my career as an entrepreneur was born.
We bought and ripped apart a lot of slippers, sneakers and flats – including designer shoes (which PAINED us to do) to learn about the components and details of every different type of shoe.
Take us back to the beginning of Birdies. After you had the initial idea, what were the next steps?
Bianca: After the initial idea I knew I couldn’t do it alone in addition to my full-time job at Facebook. I needed an exceptional co-founder that could do this full-time. With Marisa’s background in consulting and retail as well as our strong friendship, I knew she would make a great co-founder for Birdies. One evening I texted Marisa that I had an idea for a business and that I would call her the next day with more details. (I wanted to take the time to sell her on the vision.) Typical Marisa, she couldn’t wait and asked me to text her the idea right away. I simply wrote “fashionable slippers” and she quickly responded with “I’m in." Without ever having discussed it before, she had the same challenge for years of what to wear when entertaining at home. We hit the ground running the very next day.
Starting a product-based business is mystifying to many, and for good reason! Tell us about how you started the process of finding manufacturers, designing the actual slippers, etc. What kind of resources did you use to help you along the way?
To be perfectly honest, we had no idea of how and where to start on the manufacturing side. But we were obsessed with solving this problem once and for all. We bought and ripped apart a lot of slippers, sneakers and flats – including designer shoes (which PAINED us to do) to learn about the components and details of every different type of shoe. We watched video tutorials, talked to factory owners, industry execs, and even shoe stores to better understand each step in the process. We kept a private Pinterest board with inspirations for our collection as well as ideas for our logo, e-commerce site, and other inspirational ideas…and the board kept growing and growing. Only matching our obsession with the idea was our obsession with bringing the new idea to market so that we could truly test the product-market fit. And that determination led us to launch our first ever Birdies in November of 2015, and we are completely blown away by the feedback.
What has been one of the hardest lessons you’ve learned since starting Birdies?
Bianca: Balancing moving fast and being patient!
Marisa: I’ve worked at or with Fortune 500 companies for most of my career. There were always a lot of specialized resources to tap into. Now we are doing a lot outside of our comfort zones. You are not only the co-founder but overnight become the accountant, lawyer, shipper, designer, tariff expert, etc.
What has been one of the best moments in business so far?
Bianca: One of the best moments in business so far was the first time someone purchased a pair of Birdies that we had no connection to!
Marisa: I’ve been amazed to see the support we have received from friends, family, and even strangers as we have launched Birdies. When you’re starting a new business you have to ask for help—whether it’s to host a trunk show to introduce Birdies to a friend’s network or to recommend a graphic designer. I’ve been overwhelmed with the sincere support we have received from so many people. Even strangers who have read about Birdies have written us to say how excited they are about the idea and how thrilled they are to support women entrepreneurs. It has been such an unexpected pleasure to realize all of this positive energy is out there.
You are not only the co-founder but overnight become the accountant, lawyer, shipper, designer, tariff expert, etc.
What does your team look like? Tell us a little bit more about who is working behind the scenes at Birdies.
We’re just getting started and for the most part we do everything ourselves. At this stage we want to make sure our customers are delighted with both their product and experience, and we take a very hands-on approach. We are entering a stage right now where we are focused on growing our team and though we need to do that quickly, we want to make sure that we are growing our company with people with shared passion and values. Outside of the day to day, we have been fortunate to work with others who are so passionate about Birdies and our product. We could not move as fast as we are without the support of such a talented group. Our graphic designer for example, immediately understood our vision for our branding and our website and pushed it beyond what we could have expected. The creativity that programmers and photographers have lent to Birdies has been fantastic. We’ve been so lucky to tap into such a great network of resources that have brought us to where we are today.
How do you currently handle the process of shipping and inventory, which is often difficult and/or costly for businesses when they are first starting out?
Being a young brand, we’re still learning what works best, and our procedures are constantly shifting as we continue to increase sales. When we launched, we manually did everything ourselves but quickly learned that we needed outside resources to streamline our procedures. Over time, we began using apps to help make it more efficient: Shopify to handle our sales, Xero to keep track of our inventory and financial position and Shippo to help with the shipping. While we are a startup and juggle all facets of our business ourselves, we have found adding support staff has been a huge help this season. We have part time employees who help with shipping, packing and bookkeeping as the volume has grown significantly. A priority for us in 2017 will be focusing on developing a turnkey system for tracking our shipments and managing our inventory.
There is a plus side to being a small operation with a lot of moving parts; we’re able to turn it into a family business of sorts. The volume of sales this holiday season has exceeded our expectations, and we’ve enlisted the help of our kids in our assembly line. They have the very important role of placing a hand-written note in each box before it’s packaged to go out!
Where do you see Birdies heading in the next few years?
The slipper market is sleepy. There is a lot of opportunity to help women feel fashionable and comfortable at home, especially in the living and entertaining spaces of their homes. Women have so many choices in their closet for outdoor shoes, and we want to open that up for indoor shoes as well. We see women having multiple pairs, giving Birdies as gifts year round and living their best moments at home with stylish and comfortable slippers.
What advice would you give your 23-year- old self?
Bianca: Don’t be in a rush to move out of your parent’s house and to pursue your entrepreneurial passion! Shoot, I guess my parents were right all along.
Marisa: Know yourself and let that guide you. The hardest thing as defined by the outside world is not necessarily the best for you, or even the most challenging. Be courageous and choose your own path.
Bianca Gates is The Everygirl...
Spring or Fall?
Coffee or Tea?
TV show you wish was still on the air?
The Golden Girls – there’s something about that show that always made me happy watching it as a young girl growing up. I guess I’ve always been obsessed with girlfriends getting together at home.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
My mother-in-law. She passed away shortly before I met my husband, and I’d want to thank her for raising such an amazing husband and father.
I wish I knew how to…
Marisa Sharkey is The Everygirl...
Spring or Fall?
Coffee or Tea?
Coffee—(well specifically, double shot non-fat, no foam Latte)
TV show you wish was still on the air?
The West Wing – love the idealism, wit and romance!
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and why?
My best friend who just doesn't know it yet—Mindy Kaling! She's smarts, passion, talent, authenticity, and effort in one! Not to mention she's hysterical.
I wish I knew how to…
Paint. I love interior design and creating beautiful spaces. I would love to decorate with my own art—and to be able to share it with family for generations. I recently visited a friend’s home where the walls were adorned with his father’s and grandfather’s art and it added such a meaningful feeling to the space.