It took an email from Andy Dunn, the CEO of Bonobos, to convince Bianca Gates to quit her cushy job as a sales executive at Facebook to devote all her time to Birdies, the luxury slipper company she founded in 2015 with Marisa Sharkey, a former group vice president of strategy at Ross Stores. She had been wavering on the idea for months, when he wrote both women in January, urging them to start fundraising — beginning with a check from him. “You guys have so much traction. Let’s start moving this to the next level,” he said.
His advice paid off: Birdies announced a $2 million Series Seed funding round on Tuesday, led by Forerunner Ventures, the investors behind Jet.com, Dollar Shave Club and Glossier. Other investors include Slow Ventures, Graph Ventures and Social Capital.
Gates and Sharkey said the process, which began formally in late June, was surprisingly painless, given all the horror stories out there about fundraising, typically told by young women. “It went faster than we anticipated, and we had more interest than we knew what to do with,” said Sharkey.
Their last meeting, planned as an informal breakfast with Forerunner, ended in under 45 minutes, with the company’s CEO, Kirsten Green, asking to lead their round — a somewhat surprising result, given the niche factor of their product offering.
Birdies founders Bianca Gates and Marisa Sharkey
But according to Green, their founding story was reminiscent of many of the brands in Forerunner’s portfolio. “While their product is niche, they struck a chord in a shoe category that most of us don’t think twice about and ended up solving a problem we didn’t know we had,” she said. “We have the utmost respect for founders who take a product or industry that hasn’t been updated and present consumers with a fresh, new take that’s worth getting excited over.”
Gates and Sharkey have big plans for the cash infusion, including expanding their collection and rolling out new national marketing initiatives, including mailers and online ads. Prior to this, they’d relied solely on Facebook and Instagram to get the word out, as well as freebies sent to influencers. (They declined to comment on revenue benchmarks for year one.)
In addition, they will open a flagship store–cum–headquarters on San Francisco’s Union Street this fall. “For the last few years, Marisa and I have been to every Starbucks and hotel between San Francisco and Sacramento, where we both live, so it will feel really good to finally have some office space,” said Gates. It will be their first store, and likely the only one for a while, as they plan to keep their focus largely on e-commerce. “We just felt that having a flagship store in our backyard, where people can immerse themselves in the brand and purchase product they can walk away with, would help to tell our story,” said Gates.
That story centers on the home, of course — or “girlfriends, dinner parties, family and lots of Sauvignon Blanc,” as Gates puts it. It will all be reflected in the townhouse-like exterior and interior of the store, through beautiful rugs, a sofa and a dining room table. Gates and Sharkey plan to use the space for regular events feting the celebrities and influencers who have supported the brand from the start.
The Birdies fall/winter 2017 collection
“We have a pretty awesome network of people, who are all one or two degrees separated from someone who’s an influencer somewhere,” said Gates of how they’ve managed to grow their customer base so far, with what she joked was “no money.” “Those people would see others wearing Birdies and reach out to us for a complimentary pair.”
Up until Tuesday night, all of the imagery on their social accounts was derived solely from those fans. Although they don’t intend to change that organic process going forward by paying influencers to wear their product, they do plan to amp up the content they’re putting out there, beginning with their own lookbook and editorial photoshoots.
Gates honed that preference for visual storytelling at Facebook, while working with Instagram. Other company values she’s brought with her to Birdies include, “Done is better than perfect,” and “Move as fast as you can; keep iterating.”
“There’s not always time to perfect everything, so if something’s at 80 percent, just go with it — there’s always time to tweak and make it better later,” she said.
Sharkey, for her part, brought forth her own learnings from Ross, known for its large, off-price clothing assortment. Other than really getting to know your customer, and speaking to them regularly, she believes in staying focused on what you do well.
“If you Google slippers, they go from bad to worse — so we’ve become the mad scientists of slippers,” joked Gates. As such, their styles (all priced at $140) are made with responsive foam for extra bounce and comfort, come with either shearling or satin linings, and have rubber soles that are light enough for indoor wear, but have enough traction to be worn outside. A vegan option was introduced Tuesday, per customer demand.
Gates and Sharkey’s goal, ultimately, is to extend the life of slippers, which have long been associated mainly with the colder holiday months. Having the likes of Dunn and Green behind them will certainly help. “It’s one thing to raise money from a bunch of strategic investors — capital is amazing,” said Gates, “but to have a team of people that also welcomes you into their world and connects you with their portfolio has been life-changing.”
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