What a difference a pivot makes: Q&A with Birdies CEO Bianca Gates
She discusses her journey as a fashion entrepreneur and growth of her stylish slippers company
Bianca Gates, co-founder and CEO of Birdies, visited Affirm’s San Francisco headquarters to talk about her journey as an entrepreneur and the evolution of her company, which offers comfortable, stylish shoes that are different from typical slippers. Below are some excerpts from her onstage interview with Affirm CEO Max Levchin, where they bonded over fundraising, finding product-market fit, and the crazy journey of being an early-stage founder.
Max Levchin: It’s always awesome to talk with entrepreneurs, and this is a great opportunity to learn about Birdies and your journey. First, the name: Birdies. Where did that come from?
Bianca Gates: That’s a great question and one that we get asked a lot. During my time at Facebook, I led retail partnerships. I worked with a lot of great, well-known brands, and their marketing teams always started by identifying and naming their target customer. So my co-founder, Marisa Sharkey, and I tried the same. First and foremost our customer is a total badass. A rule breaker; a rule maker. She’s ambitious, strong, warm, wears many hats and loves being the connector of people. After a long day at work she comes home, kicks off her heels, makes a mean martini, and is the life of the party.
Once we identified who she was, we went through a list of names that were as strong as she is as well as warm—and ultimately landed on Birdie. Who doesn’t love a friend named Birdie?! I don't even think we did a name search at the time to see if we could legally have it—we just loved that name so much that we just ran with it. We launched Birdies in November of 2015 with a super basic Shopify site and nothing else since all our capital went to purchasing our slippers. Thankfully, our friends rallied around us and gave us our start. Since then, people from around the world have helped us get to where we are today. We like to say that we’re a brand that has grown from people lifting us up. That's the power of community and conversation!
ML: Once you had the product and name, how did you market? How did you get it into the hands of the first batch of customers who loved it enough to get the word going?
BG: We had to get creative since the $50,000 we each invested went primarily to buying our inventory, and we didn’t have much money left for marketing or advertising. Once we received our first shipment of product—1,800 pairs that we stored in Marisa’s garage—the best marketing tactic I knew that was both free and scalable was to use our personal Facebook pages to say, “We’re launching a company,” and hope that 1,800 friends and friends of friends would buy them.
And so, in November of 2015 we launched Birdies on our personal Facebook pages, and as good friends do, they supported us by buying our slippers. It just so happened that we launched right before Thanksgiving, which was the perfect use case for stylish slippers.
Over Thanksgiving weekend, friends began posting pictures of themselves on social media in their Birdies next to friends and family who were barefoot or in socks, which really highlighted the use case. To add to that, they started to create their own unique hashtags, such as #Birdies4Thanksgiving, #BirdiesInTheWild, #BirdiesFlyingHome; and we immediately got traction.
Shortly thereafter I attended a holiday party at a friend’s home, which happened to be a shoes-off house. When I arrived in my Birdies a woman said, “Oh, this is a shoes-off house.” And I said, “Well these aren’t shoes, they’re Birdies!” And it just so happens that she was the fashion editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. I had no idea who she was. And right then and there she asked if she could do a story about Birdies.
The story came out on February 14, 2016. I’ll never forget that day because we did $10,000 in sales that day—the most ever. But the most notable outcome was not the sales generated that day but that the story helped us expand beyond our own social network and gain traction with new, unknown customers.
ML: I know you’ve also had great success with fundraising and taking your company to the next level. What kind of opportunities—or unique challenges—did that bring?
BG: We raised a $2 million seed round in the fall of 2017 led by Forerunner Ventures which allowed us some time to step back and almost start from scratch. We thought about our purpose in the world, hired some awesome people, and opened our flagship store in San Francisco for real-time customer feedback. One of the best things we did during that time was a lot of customer surveying. Our customers are our guide to growing this company.
Through our customer surveys both in-store and online, we learned that 75% of our customers loved the style and comfort of our slippers so much that they were wearing us everywhere. For me, that was actually a moment of failure because I really wanted to create a product that solved the problem of what to wear on your feet when you’re entertaining friends and family at home.
It was that moment as a founder when you ask, when should you stay focused on the problem that you set out to solve, and when do you pivot based on the feedback that you're getting? We mulled through that for quite some time, until ultimately, we decided to use our customer's words about our product to position our company: “These are so stylish, nobody knows that I'm secretly wearing a slipper.” We stayed true to our heritage of celebrating community and conversation—wherever that may be.
So one afternoon last July, we decided to test a tagline based on our customer’s words to see how it would resonate. We added “a stylish flat that’s secretly a slipper” to all of our marketing. And within 24 hours everything changed. Those few words had eliminated so many barriers that we had put up for customers—Is this a slipper or a shoe? If it's a slipper, can I wear it outside? There had been so many questions, and by using our customer’s words to describe our product, we eliminated all that friction and have been growing at a rapid pace ever since.
ML: I'm fascinated you changed the tagline and pulled out all the stops to reposition the company and its product, and then everything changed. The power of marketing! Birdies is a great success story, and I’m thrilled that Affirm works with your company. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us today.
(Photo above: Bianca Gates, center, with Affirm employees wearing Birdies.)