Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with Sweetflexx Founder McCullough Shriver about his innovative startup, which developed a line of resistance wear clothing.
NAN PRICE: Your grandfather invented a tricycle for a child with cerebral palsy, so there is a history of entrepreneurship in your family. Did this shape your ambition to become an entrepreneur?
McCULLOUGH SHRIVER: It’s interesting that you start off with that question. When my grandfather and I spent time together, we’d invent crazy, wild, fun things with no intention—just for the pure joy of creating something new and maybe making life a little bit easier. There wasn’t really any business purpose behind it.
So when he designed a tricycle that worked by rerouting the pushing pedals up to the handlebars, it was to help a child who couldn’t ride his bike in a similar manner to the other kids.
As far as the turning inventions into a business—I didn’t really realize you could do that until much later on in life.
NP: So you didn’t necessarily always want to start a company?
MS: No. That never really even crossed my mind.
NP: How did you come up with the idea for the Sweetflexx line of clothing?
MS: The idea for Sweetflexx was really no different than what my grandfather and I had been doing—just looking around at objects we had lying around in the room and thinking: What can we combine to perhaps make life a little easier?
I wanted to develop a product that would help someone out with regard to struggling with finding time to take care of themselves. What that really turned into is a product—and what’s at our current value—is making every step count.
I can’t tell you whether a customer is going to be doing errands and taking care of three kids today, or she’s going to be running from class to class. But the one thing I do know is that she’s going to take a certain number of steps during the day. So, if we can take each step and make it count just a little bit more, hopefully those steps can add up to some big strides. That’s how you accomplish your goals, little by little, adding them all up.
NP: Step by step.
MS: Right. Then the idea just came about—if I could take resistance bands, put them into clothing, and design it in a certain way that it will resist against your muscles when you’re walking, I might be onto something.
NP: When exactly did you launch the startup?
MS: I had the idea for about two and a half years. I launched in October 2015.
NP: How has the product evolved since then and how are you building a customer base?
MS: I spent about five months working with a few customers, close friends, and family to help improve the product and make the production process more efficient. We’ve been through four major changes to finally get it to there.
The funniest thing is I got into women’s fashion—all the sudden I’m working with a brand-new consumer I never worked with before. I didn’t know exactly what they wanted.
It was great because I got back all this information about how the product should improve. There were a lot of similarities amongst that feedback, which made the process lot easier.
As far as marketing, a lot of it is just customer-to-customer and building that out step by step. Because, at the end of the day, your customer is going to be your best marketing person. Having social media, regular bloggers, and press coverage also helps drive out the word about the product.
NP: I remember reading about your product and thinking: I can just walk and burn more calories? Sign me up! I’m glad you sent me a pair of pants to try. They really are effective. I can feel the difference when I wear them.
MS: Right, it’s not like anything you’ve ever felt before. I’m so glad you like them!
NP: I read that you spent more than a year perfecting the pants. That’s a long time. What inspired you to keep moving forward?
MS: The big inspiration to me was Spanx Founder Sara Blakely. I read every article and watched every video I could find about her. Her story is very similar to what I’m doing, where I have no background whatsoever in fashion or manufacturing. Like her, I just had this crazy idea and decided to go with it.
And just having a belief that this product could help people really helped me as I went along, continuously day after day hitting a wall. I’m actually back in that phase right now where we’re working on our shirts, and it’s a completely different concept. The shirt pulls your shoulders back to help with posture when you’re sitting down.
When you go out to the manufacturing world to patternmakers and you’re telling them all these things, they’ve never heard of resistance bands in clothing. They don’t even know how it’s sewn in. And it doesn’t help that I’m not coming from the Fashion Institute of Technology or Rhode Island School of Design or any type of design fashion institute—I took a class at Jo-Ann Fabrics!
So there’s certainly that battle, you just can’t give up after hearing “no” so many times, and eventually you get there.
NP: You said your product went several major changes. How did you roll with those pivots?
MS: A lot of companies start by earning capital early on, and I think that’s great. But if you do something like Kickstarter, you have a pretty big customer base right off the bat and you may get a lot of hype in the media. If your product is not to the point where it’s perfected, that can come back to bite you later.
So for us, there was a benefit to starting out lean, only making a few pairs of pants at first. I wasn’t taking money that was being made and pouring ridiculous amounts back into producing a huge number of pants only to realize 10 customers later that something didn’t work. So you’ve got to be a little flexible, that helped.
NP: Tell us about the process of acquiring a patent for your product. Was that challenging?
MS: It’s a little bit intimidating in the beginning. I was fortunate to find a great person here in Hartford who was very happy to take his time and explain some of the finer concepts in developing a patent. It’s really just creating a compelling argument as to why your product is unique.
NP: The product was tested at the John B. Pierce Sports Lab at Yale University.
MS: Yes. I realized I needed to do some testing to ensure it was effective. Obviously you can’t just put resistance bands into leggings tell someone they work and then expect a positive response.
I worked with Dr. Nina Stachenfeld, who loved the idea. She’s very focused on getting people to just move more during the day. According to her, moving more during the day can really benefit your health. So she and I had many conversations about the ideas and concepts. Then we started to have participants test them to see what was actually happening.
NP: Are you involved with any startup resources in Connecticut?
MS: I’m trying to dip my toe in a little bit more into Connecticut as far as entrepreneurialism and innovation challenges and getting more involved in the community. Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs (HYPE) is a great one to start with. I just became a member. I’m also looking at applying for the CTNext Entrepreneur Innovation Awards next year.
What I’m also trying to do is work with mentors—people who have experience in the industry and have experience starting a company. Right now, I basically control every aspect of the business, which has helped because I’ve learned every aspect of the business early on.
It’s also helped me learn what I’m good at what I’m not so good at. Then, when I’m able to hire, I can bring on people who have different skills than I do.
NP: So when you’re ready to hire, you can rely on people for their strengths.
MS: Right. The other benefit is, because I’ve been so involved in all those area, I already know what is and is not going to work, so it makes the process of finding someone to fill that role that much easier because I’ve had the experience.
NP: Do you have a forecast for the next few years?
MS: It’s obviously going to be day by day, just continuously building. A lot of apparel businesses take about a year and a half to two years before the tires really grab in.
One thing we definitely want to do is get onto some of the bigger retail channels retail, such as QVC and Home Shopping Network, that’s where the company can really launch into its next future thing. And then we’ll go from there.
Right now it’s all organic growth. It’s all specialty retail stores. And it’s a lot of experimenting—finding out which demographic responds the best, who is going to be that early adopter for the product and then marketing to them and growing outward from there.
Eventually, hopefully we can start with some local retailers to help create some capital and grow the business. Once we do that, we can go into the bigger retailers and then there would be an exit strategy afterward.
NP: Any advice for those launching their own startups?
MS: You need to have a lot of resolve, just stick with it and believe in your product.
NP: Final question: Are wearing any Sweetflexx products right now?
MS: I’ve got the shirt on because I’m sitting at a desk at the moment. It hasn’t hit the market place just yet but I absolutely love it.