Skirt Sports, Inc / Woman-Owned Business
Tell us a little about yourself and your childhood.
I grew up in a Chicago suburb called Downers Grove, playing ever sport possible, but ultimately gravitating to swimming. When I was 16, I qualified for the 1988 Olympic Trials in the 100m breaststroke with the 5th fastest time in the country in my age group. I swam for Yale University and graduated in 1994 with no idea what I wanted to do next, so I gravitated to what I knew best - sports. While I waited tables and did random temp jobs, I started exploring the sport of triathlon and the next chapter of my life began. I qualified for the 1995 ITU World Championships as an age grouper, and met my future husband on the airplane on the way to the event! He was already a professional triathlete, so we pursued both of our athletic dreams and spent the next decade swimming, cycling and running around the world.
When did you decide you wanted to start your own company?
The idea for Skirt Sports came to me on a training run in December 2003. I glimpsed my reflection in a storefront window and thought, "I am tired of looking like a boy while I'm on training and racing. I just want to feel pretty!" I ran home that day and scribbled notes about creating a line of women's athletic clothing that you could look and FEEL good wearing. Within weeks, I knew this was an idea that wasn't going away, so I started to explore it.
Was there a specific moment when you knew this was what you wanted to do?
On Sept 12, 2004, I won the Ironman Wisconsin wearing a prototype of the first-ever running skirt. I literally experienced a transformation on the race course that day when the cheers went from "Go First Woman!" to "Here comes the Skirt! The Skirt is winning!" I knew that something magical was happening. I knew that you couldn't write a better script to start a business. I knew that my passions were shifting. I knew that my life was about to change.
After you made the decisions, what steps did you take?
Three days after winning the Ironman, I incorporated Skirt Sports, Inc. Shortly after that, I ordered 500 skirts to sell at an expo in Austin, TX. I knew that people would need to touch and feel this new, innovative product so marathon expos were a natural launchpad. I continued to learn about fabrics, manufacturing and more while I planned for my launch. The funny thing is that I ordered 5000 more skirts before I ever sold the first one. Turns out it takes months to make new products, so I took a leap of faith and went for it!
How did you fund this project?
I funded Skirt Sports through initial seed money totaling $50k. Then I got a SBA loan up to $200k which eventually graduated to a larger asset-based commercial bank line. Along the way, I did two rounds of friends and family equity financing. Today we are financed through a bank line and cash flow.
Nicole DeBoom Founder & CEO | Skirt Sports, Inc. www.skirtsports.com
What were the hardest hurdles?
The hardest hurdle is the same today as it was on day one. The goal is to deliver a product to a willing consumer at precisely the moment she realizes she needs it. You can get close but you'll never be perfect - with styles, fabrics, colors, inventory sizes and more - so you have to be willing to let go of perfection in order to keep moving forward.
What advise do you wish someone would have given you?
Never stop listening to your gut.
Did you have a mentor?
I don't have a mentor but I have a huge network of people who care about me; people I can call anytime for help. I believe in developing your own personal Board of Advisors in your life, so you can have experts in any area you need. I'm not talking about a community of Facebook friends. I'm talking about respect-based relationships that you have nurtured.
At any point did you want to give up?
I've never wanted to give up, but there have been times of great frustration! Entrepreneurs must have an unwavering belief that they will succeed. If that belief ever falters, it's time to pack it up because there are too many road blocks and obstacles for someone who isn't 100% committed to a positive result.
What made you keep going?
I have created a brand and community that mean so much to many. I move forward every single day with the knowledge that the work I'm doing helps women find happiness. That's why I keep going.
How long did it take to become profitable?
Five years. Every year we work hard for profitability - it's not a given, even after 14 years in business.
What was the best thing you did to grow your business?
We shrunk. After about ten years in business, we noticed a shift in the shopping habits of consumers (from brick and mortar to online). Instead of waiting for the shift to hit us, we made a strategic decision to "shrink to grow" by dropping the less profitable functions of our business. This allowed us to be proactive with consumer shopping habits and rebuild our business around the more profitable ecommerce channel.
Do you feel it was more difficult because you are a women?
I've never experienced bias in business because I'm a woman. There's a possibility that I have benefitted from what you might call "athlete privilege" that could have offset any potential gender bias. When people learn that I was a successful, hard-core Ironman athlete, they may make assumptions that my success will transcend into business. I also think that being an athlete has helped me develop confidence and confidence goes a long way.
Do you think social media is important?
Absolutely! Social media is where your brand personality can truly shine through. We almost exclusively feature our ambassadors and community. Images don't have to be perfect; they need to showcase the real aspects of our brand. The struggles and successes that our community go through on a daily basis.
Was there any life lessons you learned along the way?
Every day I learn a lesson of some sort. I think the biggest lessons always revolve around people. When you make decisions based solely on money, they usually aren't the best decisions. Always ask yourself, "what's best for the brand?" or "what's best for the customer?" Then ask how we can make it work financially.
What is the happiest memory from this journey?
There is absolutely no single happiest memory. I have so many memories. Traveling around the world. Meeting sewers at our factories. Meeting buyers at trade shows. Meeting runners at events. Meeting women who come into our store on a daily basis seeking products that will help them feel good in their own skin. Every day, something happens that makes me smile. I prefer the little wins over one big huge one. Maybe that's one way I've matured since I've been a pro athlete. It makes every day the best day of my life.
Where do you see your company in 5 years?
I see Skirt Sports the same as it is today - just much bigger. I see more women finding the joy in movement that our products allow them to do more freely.