10 Questions for Lindsay Phillips

It all started with a high school art project.

Entrepreneur Lindsay Phillips, founder of interchangeable flip-flop brand SwitchFlops, got hooked on footwear as a teen after creating a ceramic sandal for a class. It wasn’t long before she began fashioning colorful straps backed with Velcro, giving a single shoe several different looks. In the years since, the 25-year-old Phillips has parlayed the art project into a nearly $30 million business.

After perfecting the design during college, the Florida native launched SwitchFlops in 2007 with one patented style — a basic black flip-flop — and 13 removable straps. Now the company, renamed Lindsay Phillips, has grown to include nine footwear styles, from kitten heels to ballet flats, and hundreds of detachable embellishments, as well as handbags and scarves priced below $70.

Sold in about 4,000 stores nationwide and in Canada and the U.K., the Cedar Knolls, N.J.-based company grew by 90 percent in 2009 and is on track to increase another 80 percent by the end of this year.

“I really owe a lot to our retailers because they trusted us as we’ve been building the brand,” Phillips said, noting that she will expand into Spain this year.

While about 60 percent of Phillips’ retail clients are stores that don’t traditionally sell footwear, such as Hallmark shops and other gift boutiques, the brand is growing online. Earlier this month, Phillips launched a customization boutique on the company’s Website, allowing consumers to browse the full offering of snaps and straps, pair the designs with the shoe styles and add original embroidery.

“It has been an amazing learning experience,” she said. “I love what I’m doing.”

1. How did your age influence the way you approached the business?

LP: I had a very fresh look and hadn’t been in the footwear or retail business before. I had to really listen to what my consumer wanted. I took a lot of advice, questions and concerns [directly] from consumers, and I still do that. That’s been a big part of why I’ve been successful.

2. Why have you targeted gift stores and those types of accounts?

LP: We’re in [traditional] footwear stores, too, but we found that our shoes are great gift items. You can give the initial shoe with a strap or two and continue giving straps for birthdays, Hanukkah or Easter. Being in the gift market is a no-brainer.

3. Are you looking to launch any new categories anytime soon?

LP: Not at this second, but I’m always thinking ahead a couple of years. I consider the Lindsay Phillips brand to be an accessories line. I’d like to expand on the handbags and scarves, and jewelry could be huge. I hope I could do that within the next couple of years.

4. What are the challenges of bowing new categories when your company has been known for flip-flops?

LP: Everything we do has a twist, but it doesn’t have to be totally interchangeable. It’s been a challenge, [but that’s why it’s important] to explain how a bag, [for example], can be flipped inside out to show off a new print or how the shoulder straps can be worn two ways. When we were doing just SwitchFlops, it was just one item, but now we also have to make sure all [the categories] work together.

5. How do you communicate the brand message to retailers and consumers?

LP: The display has signage to show how it works, and we give a video to retailers about the product. It tells my story and how the pieces come together, [along with] press clips. I’ll also do in-store appearances, demonstrating how the Velcro comes off and can be switched with another look. The reaction is amazing when you can show in-person how the product works.

6. How important are public appearances?

LP: If I could do them every day, I would. I’ll be the fashion stylist of the day when it comes to the shoes and help pick out the straps, bags and scarves. It [gives me an opportunity] to get feedback and give customers the look they want. They also get to see that I’m a real person, and it gives them this connection [to the brand].

7. Do you also use social networking to generate buzz?

LP: We’re always Twittering and on Facebook. That’s how you get to know your customer, and they love hearing what we’re up to. It’s like they’re getting a sneak peek at what’s going on, and they wouldn’t have that [insight] if they weren’t on Facebook.

8. You create new embellishments throughout each season. How crucial is it to keep developing new designs?

LP: What’s important is the strap, and that’s the reason people are buying. The shoe acts as a neutral, so I try to make sure the snap or strap is incredible. You can’t create a line off just one look, so I try to pick a color palette for each season and want to stick to that as I build the collection.

9. How do you distinguish yourself from other interchangeable shoe lines?

LP: We were the first interchangeable flip-flop company out there. Now, as we build the brand, we need to make sure it’s the best product. When I started, I had one flip-flop choice and 13 straps. As I started growing, I began making more straps and offered more colors of shoes. Then I thought, “Why not a kitten heel or wedge?” Everyone always wants something new, and customers come back to us because we’ve shown we’re innovative.

10. Do you worry about the novelty wearing off?

LP: No. Our product is either a product that you love or you don’t, and that’s OK. That’s also where the scarves and bags will come in. We’re able to hit the customer who wasn’t interested in the flip-flops. If someone doesn’t like one item, there are other items to choose from.

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