How Bianca Gates, Co-Founder of Birdies Grew Her Business and Her Leadership Through the COVID-19 Pandemic
I had the pleasure of speaking with Bianca Gates, one of the co-founders of Birdies Slippers. It was a unique opportunity to connect with a fellow entrepreneur and brand that is focused on creating versatile products for the woman on-the-go. (Psst! They make the perfect footwear to wear with your More Sunday Silk Sets that are secretly pajamas you can wear in or out of your home.) Bianca launched Birdies after 15 years of sales and marketing experience from managing partnerships and marketing at Facebook and Viacom.
Bianca is no stranger to my hometown, Irvine, as a graduate of the University of California at Irvine with a B.S. in International Studies and currently lives in San Francisco with her husband and two small children.
Q: What inspired you to get into footwear?
The idea hit me while living in Manhattan in the early 2000s. I’ve always had a lot of joy bringing together friends and family for entertainment at my home. I wanted something fashionable yet as comfortable as slippers to wear while entertaining in my apartment. Being barefoot, wearing socks, or a frumpy pair of pajama slippers didn’t quite go with my hostessing outfits. I was surprised to find that there wasn’t anything available in the market so I set out on my journey to fill the gap.
Q: What triggered you to pursue Birdies full-time?
I had been working full-time at Facebook while working on Birdies on the side with my co-Founder, Marisa Sharkey. Out of the gate, we had strong traction and press, with celebrity Meghan Markle wearing us regularly which gave us a lot of strong organic buzz . 18 months into my entrepreneurial side hustle, I utilized my 2 month sabbatical from Facebook (which is awarded after hitting 5 years) to see what would happen if I dedicated my full-time to growing Birdies. What I found was that things really took off!
When I returned to work at Facebook in early 2017, I was conflicted about staying at the job I loved at Facebook or pursuing my dream of building Birdies. As I explored my options I received an email from Andy Dunn - then CEO of Bonobos, offering me a $100,000 investment in Birdies and his help in raising a seed round. With the support of my husband and lots of strong traction the past two years and now an investment from a successful direct-to-consumer (DTC) founder, this was the moment I decided to take the plunge and left Facebook in mid-2017 to run Birdies full time.
Shortly thereafter we raised a $2MM seed round, led by Kirsten Green at Forerunner Ventures - a smart, strategic person and firm known for investing in successful DTC brands such as Glossier, Away, Warby Parker, Bonobos, Jet.com and so many more. With her help and the help of so many others, our entrepreneurial dreams quickly became a reality.
Q: I read that your vision was to create a product that was mostly worn at home but have recently evolved to shoes that are secretly slippers. What brought on the change?
Together, customer service feedback and a survey of our customers brought on the change. One of our amazing interns helped us to survey our customers and we found that 75% of our customers wore their Birdies everywhere - in AND outside of their homes. This made sense as we were getting a lot of customer service complaints that the sole would wear out too quickly because people were wearing them out on the streets! Of course we would tell them they weren’t designed for daily outside wear, but while I was initially panicked to see this, it was a growth moment for me to trust the numbers and evolve our business along with the opportunity.
Based on the numbers we could see what our customers wanted. So we adapted a thicker rubber sole on our 7 layer technology to make the slippers more appropriate to wear in and out of the home. Once we made the decision to promote Birdies as “a stylish flat that's also a slipper” business exploded!
Q: Given the recent pandemic outbreak what was your thought process in managing through the crisis?
One of the things I learned during my time at Facebook was the idea of “ruthless prioritization”. So as COVID-19 hit, I knew we had to ruthlessly prioritize what mattered most (even when it felt like everything mattered equally) and execute against those priorities swiftly and quickly. We broke down our priorities into 3 groups:
- Team: ensured the safety of our team. Had our HQ team work from home immediately and closed our retail store. Ensured all employees were paid during this time.
- Investors: Regularly communicated with our board and investors (sometimes daily!) to make sure we were in lock step with them as things were changing rapidly.
- Customers: Made sure that we continued to be the authentic, warm, responsive friend they had grown to trust over time. We placed an extra emphasis on customer support to ensure our customers questions were being answered promptly. Our creative team also sprung into action to ensure that all of our content on every channel was reflective of these new times. Our merchandising team also moved fast by bringing back select styles that customers were demanding to live more comfortably (and fashionably) at home.
The results? Sales of our slides have grown over 200% and engagement with our brand has risen over 400% since the beginning of April. It pays off to stay authentic and have a good plan of action!
Q: What's is your ideal Sunday like?
A family hike followed by an early family BBQ and dinner together
Q: Any words of advice to be productive in a Work From Home Environment?
Stay disciplined and organized with your day!
FLASH ROUND ANSWERS:
Current show you're watching: Just finished watching The Last Dance, Michael Jordan documentary and loved it. So inspiring to watch with so many great lessons to pull from as we build Birdies.
Favorite Time saving App: Slack
1 thing you need to relax: Finish a great workout
First place you'll go when quarantine is over: The nail salon!
Be sure to checkout Bianca and @birdies ! They make the perfect pair to your More Sunday silk lounge and pajama sets.