Katie Shea and Susie Levitt are the founders behind the New York City startup CitySlips. The two NYU students got sick of hobbling home after a night out or a day at an internship in their high heels….so they fixed it.
The two turned to their professors and resources at NYU and before long had a shipment of 1000 pairs of their creative shoes sitting at Katie’s parents house. Now their efforts have been featured in things like entrepreneur magazine and the shoes can be found in over 500 boutiques world wide, just last week Neiman Marcus started carrying the shoes. Katie and Susie have learned a lot on this journey and still have some big plans for the future of their company. Read the interview to find out how some sore feet turned into a remarkable venture…
Where did the idea for CitySlips come from?
Well, for starters, we’re pretty short! With both of us standing no taller than 5’2”, we would hobble home in our high heels after corporate internships and dinner dates in NYC. Having lived in the city throughout our four years as NYU students, we had developed a love/hate relationship with our pointy pumps and strappy stilettos.
Regardless, we didn’t want to (totally) give up our beloved wardrobe staples. One too many encounters with shoeless socialites and barefooted babes led to our AH HA moment… we weren’t the only gals in need of a “SOLE-ution”. We realized there was a huge need for lightweight, portable shoes that women could wear during their commute or after a long night out on the town. We “googled” and came up with nothing… and so we set out to create our own! Juggling classroom term papers and corporate term sheets throughout our senior year of college, we signed up for a business plan writing class, enlisted the opinions of friends, the help of NYU professors, and the time of many NYC professionals and mentors. Nine months later (our baby, literally!), our first batch of 1000 shoes arrived at Katie’s parents garage on Long Island (still fondly referred to as our first “distribution center”) and we were on our way.
Many people have ideas like this but never actually do anything. How did you take the leap and make CitySlips a reality?
We were lucky in the fact that we both came from entrepreneurial families. Breaking the “I think I’m going to turn down that investment banking job to start my own business” news to our families actually wasn’t that tough… in fact, it might have been somewhat expected! We had both always loved new ideas and cool products, but knew that execution was key.
When we realized how lacking this niche market of functional fashion is, the potential of our “napkin-sketched” footwear dorm room design became a reality. We pooled savings, and used $10,000 to order our first batch of product, perfect our logo and graphic design, and build our website. Our product solved a problem, so we had a built in benefit over being “just another accessories company”. We wouldn’t have been interested in starting another t-shirt company or footwear company. The innovation and “funk-tionality” is what got us the most excited.
What was your biggest challenge in making CitySlips a reality? What is the biggest challenge now that you are producing them?
Product development was one of the most difficult parts of starting the business. We started with the idea of just making foldable shoes, but we quickly realized that this didn’t solve the entire problem. Women had no where to store their heels once they had switched into or out of their flats! That’s where the expanding pouch came in. After coming up with the structure of both components, we then decided on what materials to use, size breakdown, color choices, and much more.
To save money, we communicated with our manufacturers online, and so prototyping and sampling took a while before we got it right. Fortunately, free internet resources such as Alibaba.com and Skype made the process much easier.
Biggest challenge now? Inventory management, hands down. We’re lucky in the fact that we always seem to have more demand than supply. Being in business for over a year now definitely gives us a heads up in regards to having sales history… but up until recently we were basically going out blind in regards to projections. Knowing how much to order, what size breakdown, what the most popular colors will be next season… this is definitely something we’re still mastering.
How have you marketed cityslips? Any fun campaigns you have run to get the product to “barefooted babes” as you call them?
We’ve done cold sales calls, door-to-door action, have reached out to magazines, and participated in trade-show type events. Visibility is key, so whatever it takes to be on display, we’re up for it. Contests, giveaways, and sales always work wonders for us. The one thing people like more than feeling like they got a deal is the possibility of getting something for free. For these giveaways, we have contestants follow up on Facebook and Twitter, so it also increases our network!
Also, cliché but true… happy customers are our BEST salespeople. We take the extra “step” whenever we can… cute handwritten thank you’s with orders, really good customer service, etc. It’s not very uncommon for a gal to place an order on our website and then come back again the next week to order 4 more pairs… for a best friend, sister, mom, co-worker. The price point makes it an awesome gift.
You’ve mentioned your school NYU playing a big role in the company. Could you explain how and what kind of resources other college entrepreneurs should look into getting from their schools?
The NYU community has been a huge factor in our success thus far. Professors and classmates have lent time, ears, and ideas on countless occasions. We’ve also gotten tons of press leads through NYU administrators and contacts… including huge stories in the New York Daily News and CNN. From classroom to extracurriculars, we have innumerable influencers to thank for their mentorship both past and present.
NYU also allowed us access to great (free) resources. Our professors worked hand-in-hand with us on the project and have connected us to other professionals in their respective fields. We were also able to work with professionals outside of NYU easily because we are living right in NYC. We would often go to class and then straight to a business meeting.
Advice for college entrepreneurs – check out business plan competitions! They are a great way to force yourself to make a plan, get serious advise from smart advisors, and possibly win money. Win-win-win.
What’s next for CitySlips?
We like to think our future is bright and plentiful with plenty of new line extensions and products we have in the pipeline. We plan to keep our brains active and creative, developing an ever-more-present place in the marketplace as we increase distribution from specialty and regional shops to nationally recognized stores.
At our start, we were a one-product-focused company. The foldable ballet flat with expandable tote was the innovative product that we wanted to put all of our energy into. Now that we’ve managed to do so with some success, our company vision is expanding outside the footwear category and looking to tip-toe into accessories. We like jazzing things up, adding unexpected fun to the ordinary. Future endeavors will therefore lead us to broaden our company definition and goals as we go, but the vision will remain dedicated to providing surprising practicality in new products.
Could you give 1 piece of advice to the young entrepreneurs out there?
Just do it. The website might never be perfect. The prototype might never be perfect. The logo might never be perfect. Just start today… momentum will allow you to fix the mistake post-launch.
Also, one more (sorry!). Believe in your ideas and talk about them often. If you’re shy about sharing or weary of idea-snatchers, get over it. You’ll be surprised to see with what enthusiasm others respond with when you open up to them, and you might be even more surprised by the enthusiasm it generates in you!
Where can people find you or CitySlips online?
CitySlips are currently selling in 500+ boutiques around the world. They are also available on The Shopping Channel, and are soon to be on QVC! Specialty chains include Mandee, Travel Traders, Duty Free Shoppes, Bliss Spas and Ricky’s NYC. This fall CitySlips and CitySlips Luxe will be available nationally at Dillard’s and Neiman Marcus department stores. AfterSoles (our 2nd line) will be at Bed Bath & Beyond.