It was a warm spring day in 2006 when 8-year-old Madison Robinson came home from the beach in Galveston, Texas, locked herself in her bedroom and emerged a few minutes later with a drawing to show her father.
“It was a pair of flip flops with fish on them,” Dan Robinson remembers. “She looked at me and said, ‘They are fish flops! Can you make them for me?’ It was a chills-of-a-lifetime-moment for me.”
Dan immediately logged onto his computer and purchased the domain www.fishflops.com. He loved Madison’s idea, but he wasn’t sure if he could make it work, so he told her he would make her a pair of “fish flops” someday and left it at that. But when his daughter asked about the project a few months later, he decided to go for it because he really believed the idea had potential and he wanted Madison to know he was a man of his word.
The next six years turned out to be a roller coaster ride for the Robinson family, who now live in Houston. Despite his lack of business experience—he was a bank trust officer by day and a T-shirt salesperson by night—Dan threw himself into creating the FishFlops brand. When not in school, Madison worked on new designs. Dan soon quit his jobs to work on the company full time.
Their hard work paid off, and today FishFlops are sold in 64 Nordstrom stores nationwide and several independent retailers. Madison, now 15 years old, is in charge of designing updated styles. Other than design help from Madison, Dan runs the business by himself and says he’s sees the brand growing exponentially in the next few years.
“You have to truly believe in what you're doing to make it work,” Dan says. “Believe in your heart that someone will buy your product because you are going to put a whole lot of effort behind it.”
But getting from idea to selling their product at Nordstrom wasn't a slam dunk for the father-and-daughter duo. Here, the Robinsons discuss what steps it took to land that large retail account.
How on earth did you get your shoes into Nordstrom?
Madison: I read a story about how Nordstrom had started as a shoe store, so I contacted a buyer in January 2012 and asked them if they wanted to carry FishFlops. The buyer liked the concept, and we launched them in stores in July 2012.
Well, that sounds like it was a piece of cake.
Dan: [Laughs] Sounds so easy, right? I give all of the credit to Madison. She’d written letters to other places and never gotten a response, but she kept trying, and Nordstrom worked with us to get the right colors and styles. Once the shoes came in and stores started selling them, I thought, "Is this really happening?"
How did you get FishFlops off the ground? Did you have a list of manufacturers in your back pocket?
Dan: Oh, I wish. It was a hard road for quite a while. I enlisted my network of friends and family in the retail industry to help me find overseas factories to produce the shoes. I had a few samples made, and then Madison and I went to a trade show in Orlando in fall 2010 to gauge the interest of retailers.
What was the response at the trade show?
Dan: It was good. About 36 stores put in orders for the following spring, which equaled about 1,600 pairs. I thought I could sell more, though, so I asked the manufacturer to make 36,000 pairs.
Whoa, that's quite a jump. Why? And how did you pay for all those shoes?
Dan: I did it because I trusted that we could sell the product. It cost about $50,000, which was part personal money and part loans from family and friends. The problems came later with order tardiness.
Dan: It was a mess. The factory told us we’d get the orders in by the end of January 2011, which was perfect because our customers wanted them sometime between late-February and mid-April. But when late January came and we still didn’t have the shoes, I started sweating it.
I exchanged a ton of emails with the factory and was told that everything was backed up. Everything arrived in late May, but by that time, 20 percent of our orders had cancelled.
What did you do with all those extra shoes?
Dan: I rented a warehouse to store them all and then pounded the pavement at trade shows trying to sell, sell, sell. In late 2011, a retailer ordered 10,000 pairs, which was really exciting, but there was a problem. The store wanted them to be shipped 12 pairs to a box. We had received them from the factory in 40 to a box, so that meant that we had to unpack 10,000 pairs of flip flops, buy new boxes, re-package all of them and reship them.
How long did that take?
Dan: It took about a month of work every single day. Madison came into the warehouse and helped, and friends and other family members helped. I remember being in the warehouse until 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve 2011 packing boxes by myself.
Thankfully, things started to really pick up in early 2012 when we landed the Nordstrom account. Now I hire out a warehouse outsourcing company to pack my boxes.
Have you ever thought about quitting?
Dan: Of course I have. There have been nights where I haven’t slept because I’ve been scared that things won’t turn out right. But then, just when I’m ready to give up, I get a response from a buyer who wants samples and my hopes rise.
How are things going today?
Dan: Things are going really well. We are completely sold out at this point, which is a great position to be in, and we're planning our next collection and creating samples for upcoming seasons.
I am starting to see a snowball effect. The longer we're out there, the more people recognize our brand. I’m getting emails every day from stores looking to buy. Madison and I are headed to a big fashion trade show in Las Vegas later this summer.
Madison, what are your plans for the future?
Madison: I want to finish high school and then go to Texas A&M University to major in business or fashion. Eventually, I want to start my own line and name it Madison Nicole, my first and middle name. It will be a brand of clothing, shoes and accessories.
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Photo Credit: FishFlops