Four years ago, Katie Shea and Susie Levitt were just NYU collegiettes with a dream. Since then they have launched CitySlips – functional, foldable, and oh-so-adorable ballet flats. The girls chatted with Her Campus NYU about their inspiration, how they started their business, and their advice to future entrepreneurs.
HC NYU: What first inspired you to design CitySlips?
K: We’re short! We’re 5’2”. Especially being a student in New York, you’re not just a college student, you’re interning, you have social events, you have classes, and you are kind of juggling so many things. And because we are petite, we definitely wore heels pretty often. It definitely gives you confidence – it makes you feel taller and a little more put together – and one of the things we were both dealing with at the end of the night was our feet killing us with the pain. In the summer of 2008 before our senior year at NYU, we both had internships, so we would meet up every week and discuss our passion for entrepreneurship. [CitySlips] was something that wasn’t yet on the market, and we thought it was something that made sense. We both gravitated towards products, and this was something that we could actually do.
S: I’m from Connecticut originally, and Katie and I are both short, but I always wear my high heels, and people didn’t know how tall I actually was, they thought I was a lot taller, like 5’5”, and in actuality, I’m probably 5’2” on a good day. Going to school in New York and walking from Union Square to Cooper Square and you realize that high heels, while they look great and are fashionable, aren’t practical. Just looking for an actual problem that we were experiencing as the target market really helped us have an innate understanding of what the product needed to be, because, at the end of the day, we were the target consumer.
HC NYU: What did you do to develop your idea and product?
S: We spoke to our girlfriends and other students that were interested in entrepreneurship and got their thoughts and feedback on the idea, and then during our senior year we took a business plan writing class and entered into a couple of business plan competitions. One was the NYU Stern Business Plan Competition, which we got to the semi-finals, and another was NYC Entrepreneurs. So we applied to that, and Imade that to the final round. It was great to start it while we were in college, because we could utilize the advisors on campus, and professors that had experience in entrepreneurial companies could definitely bring a lot to the table in terms of giving us knowledge and feedback. We also had access to NYU databases and libraries that would probably cost so much money if we weren’t students. To have access to that information; and also the student groups, like the Entrepreneurial Exchange Group, and sororities on campus gave us great feedback, and great connections, and it really just helped us launch the company while we were in school.
HC NYU: When you first started CitySlips, it was just a dorm project – how have you grown your company since?
S: So we first started with the idea and just talking about it with our friends. But we kind of did it a little bit backwards. We interviewed with The New York Daily News, in February 2009, regarding students taking a different route after graduation – you know turning down the corporate, investment banking jobs, and not going after those kinds of jobs – and Katie and I were a perfect fit for two young students that were doing something different. So we were interviewed by a writer from the New York Daily News, and she said she would keep in touch and then a couple of months passed and we still never heard from her, and we just figured that the article didn’t run, or maybe she just wasn’t with the company anymore. And then on June 1, we woke up to tons of calls, tons of emails from our friends saying “you guys are the centerfold feature of The New York Daily News!” And within 24 hours, Forbes wrote about us, NY Magazine wrote about us, and the idea just got out there in a matter of a couple of hours! We were just so surprised, and at that time we barely were ready to launch! We didn’t have our website finished. We didn’t have a logo. We had like 400 pounds of shoes delivered to the states a couple days before, so we were really not ready, but it pushed us to start from there. We decided to start calling up a couple boutiques and telling them that we were featured in this magazine and that we were featured in this news article, and we think our item would be great for your store. Then we started to target national resellers, like Neiman Marcus, Macy’s, Dillard’s, and those were some of the first accounts that we got that really represented the brand and the product nationwide.
K: Also, both of us have entrepreneurial parents who ran small businesses either from our home or close by, and that notion of starting small and minimizing risk felt natural to both of us. So the first step is obviously creating and developing the product, the second step was selling the product, so we started with boutiques and mom-and-pop stores. The product fell into that kind of functional, fashion space and things were just jumping leaps and bounds in the market place, so we looked up boutiques that carried that product, and we picked up the phone and asked for the buyer or the owner, and said, “Hey, we have this really cool new product that we think women in your store would love it, especially if they are already purchasing items in that function fashion space.” And that’s really how we started. We wanted to make sure we could handle business, and shipping, and operations on the small-front before we went out and approached national retailers like Macy’s and Dillard’s.
HC NYU: Did you always anticipate going into business together or did both of you have different career goals?
S: I think we started with the mentality that this is a really fun project that we both would love to do on the side while we are at school. We both bonded over coming from entrepreneurial families, having a similar interest in tangible products that you can see, that you can touch, that are on a shelf in a store, versus finance where you are trying to wrap your head around some random derivative that you can’t put an evaluation on that changes every day. We bonded over that and it helped us start from there, and the idea was born. But we just wanted to try this out, we didn’t plan for it to be something we would do full-time for the next three years, but it just kind of snow-balled into this.
K: And I think something that the two of us bonded over, I think even to this day, we don’t really think of ourselves as designers, but more as problem solvers, and that solution-oriented part of our personality seemed like a really good fit and brought us together. Both of us knew that we were drawn to entrepreneurship, but we just needed an idea that we believed in at the end of the day. And we just launched the company two weeks after finals. The worst case scenario for us, and especially why we kind of love urging college-age women to set up business, if you fail, you have a degree, you can go back into the market-place and search for a job, after six months, which was the deadline we gave yourselves. If you can’t pay the rent in six months, you have to evaluate other options, and that’s really not such a terrible worst case scenario. Especially, even if you fail, you would have learned so much just trying to start this operation, with sales and product development. Plus, it seems like a win-win either way.
S: Katie and I were just a very good match. I don’t think we planned for it, we are very different in terms of our personalities, so at the end of the day, we have very similar beliefs, in the sense that we both wanted to be profitable, and start small; we both have very similar economic approaches to situations. We challenge each other a lot, but I feel like we have an underlying type of understanding with the way that we should approach business, which is very similar on both of our ends. And that is great in terms of launching a partnership as well.
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HC NYU: What did each of you major in at NYU?
S: I was economics. I also took a couple classes in pre-business. It was really helpful to take all those courses at Stern and really have a basic understanding of things from marketing to accounting to market banking. It was definitely really useful.
K: And I was in Stern undergrad for a marketing and finance double major and then a specialization in entrepreneurship. It was good for me; I liked jumping around and using different parts of my brain, so it was kind of three types of classes I thought were a good balance.
HC NYU: What role do each of you take on in the company?
K: Susie and I are the only full-time employees, so we have been able to stay very lean, and outsource a lot of our profit and variable costs, whether that is on the operational or the sales side of our business. But essentially, Susie is more in charge of keeping revenues up and I am more in charge of keeping costs down. And that overlaps at times, of course, but that is definitely two pieces of a business that you need to either recognize and do both yourself, or if you are considering a partner, recognizing that different types of personalities might be better at different pieces of the business.
HC NYU: And what clubs and organizations were you both a part of at NYU?
S: Tons! One of the big ones was I was involved in were Delta Phi Epsilon, a sorority at NYU. It was great in terms of helping us as a company. We got to survey 50 girls at once and really get their thoughts and feedback regarding the product, the price point, colors, sizing and it was just really easy. I feel like a lot of companies really need to survey people, and they spend a lot of sources trying to find their target demographic, and Katie and I had that target demographic right on campus, which was easily accessible.
K: It was really a great way to get feedback again from our target market. We asked questions from, “this is our idea of a product, what would you pay for this?” to “would you rather have Velcro or a zipper opening” or “if there was a matching pouch what would you want it to look like?” It was really valuable. I was also the President of the Entrepreneurial Exchange Group which is the entrepreneurship group on campus, and that was also a great place for us to learn how to refine our pitch and talk to people in an environment that was very conducive to getting honest feedback from business oriented students, which I think was very valuable.
HC NYU: How did you utilize networking to your advantage while in college?
S: Some of these network groups were amazing for us when we launched the company. We were featured on CNN, which was a connection from one of my fellow classmates, and the Nate Berkus Show, also a DSW program that we did. Those were all connections that we made at NYU, you know, kids that just went on to work at similar industries, or just industries that could compliment what we were doing. And that was definitely not planned, but it was tremendous in terms of bringing our company to the next level.
K: Networking is something we both also think is really important, and I know it sounds really gimmicky, and it has such a negative connotation sometimes. We would not have been able to get as far as we have, as quickly as we have, without so many people that have mentored us and given us advice. And when you’re starting a business, you automatically have someone interesting to talk about. Especially, when you’re a student you think, “what do I have to talk about with somebody who is twice my age?” but if you have an idea for a product, or a company, or a service, our recommendation is to tell everybody you know about it. At the end of the day, for somebody to have the money, the time, the passion, and the energy to steal your idea and knock it off, the chance of that is so slim, and the benefits of talking about your idea or product far outweigh the possible negatives.
HC NYU: What would be your one key piece of advice for NYU students who are hoping to start their own businesses one day?
K: Try to utilize your time at school as much as possible. Your opportunity costs are low. You’re not used to having a salary, with a full-time job, health insurance. So use the down-time that you have between classes. And I know that every NYU student is super busy with extra-curriculars, but if you can set aside time to really focus on this and utilize the resources on campus, it is really a great time to launch a company. Definitely look into your peers on campus as well as try to get feedback from your professors, which can be two totally different types of feedback when it comes to your business. And also, at NYU the Berkeley Center was tremendous for us in terms of launching our company. The director Jeff Carr gave us such great feedback, and he actually referred us to The New York Daily News when we first started the company and got our first feature.
S: We also used the Berkeley Center to find lawyers who helped us incorporate our company and gave us free legal advice, which is really hard to find when you are young and in school. I would also recommend to take classes that you think can help you launch your company. It is a win-win. You are getting credit, and you are getting experience, and at the end of the day, you can walk out and potentially be launching your company. The two courses we took were a Business Plan Writing course and an Intellectual Property course that helped us file for our patent pending and our trademark. Having the knowledge and being able to understand what you need to do in order to launch your company is invaluable, so when you are talking to potential investors or anyone about your business you really have an underlying understanding for the basics. So I feel like NYU was incredibly helpful for us in terms of launching the company.
K: The resources are truly phenomenal, from the Business Planning Competitions to their pro bono lawyers that come in and meet with young entrepreneurs. And sort of piggy-backing off of that is our advice to use your professors. You might not have a network at 21 years-old, but if you are a professor at NYU, you probably have some industry or academic credibility. And for us, for example, our business law professor helped us think about do we want to be an F corp, or an LLC, so just be aware that those people are there. They really love to help, you just have to ask.