It all started with a high-school art project.

For a ceramics class, #b#Lindsay Phillips#/b#, the now-25-year-old founder of SwitchFlops in Cedar Knolls, made big, chunky flip flops and adorned the tops with fun, funky buttons that she glued on.

Although her teacher entered the shoes in a competition, Phillips didn’t do so well, because she hadn’t quite followed instructions — her shoes were mixed media, not pure ceramic. But they were a winner in her parents’ house, where the shoes captured the attention of every woman who walked in the door. “Literally every single woman who saw the shoes couldn’t stop talking about them,” she says.

So since everybody liked them so much, Phillips figured she should make them more widely available. She started by buying a bunch of cheap flip flops and gluing on buttons. But the buttons wouldn’t stay put. To firmly affix the buttons, she decided to use Velcro and that worked well enough to start making prototypes.

After Phillips got her shoes into those early stores, orders started rolling in. As of today, her shoes are in 4,000 stores nationwide, and her company, SwitchFlops, has sold more than a million pairs.

The Velcro had add-on changed everything. Phillips bacame an overnight success. She will discuss her rise through the fashion industry when she delivers the 2010 female entrepreneur lecture on Friday, March 26, at 6 p.m. at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Madison. For more information or to register for the free event, call 973-443-8842.

Flip flops are created with a mold, but then she faced the problem of sizing her Velcro strap to fit different shoe sizes. She did not want a different strap size for every shoe. So they figured out a way to have three sizes of the Velcro straps: small for shoe sizes 5 and 6, medium for 7 and 8, and large for 9, 10, and 11.

When Phillips gave the prototypes to family members, they told her she had a great idea that she needed to patent. Her mother, a nurse, and her father, a cardiologist, encouraged her from the beginning, she says, and her mother became a partner in her efforts to establish a business.

The next step for Phillips was to do research online about how to get things moving from concept to product, and she realized she needed someone to manufacture the shoes for her. Her first efforts to find one were unsuccessful. “When I first started, I tried to contact a manufacturer in the U.S., but they wouldn’t take it on, because in their eyes I was a liability,” says Phillips. “Five thousand shoes are really nothing. Until you’re big, they don’t really want you.”

In the face of the rejection by the American company, Phillips was ready to look to Asia. “I realized the only way to make it happen was to get on a plane and go to China,” she says. And this was all happening while she was at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, working on her art history bachelor’s.

Not surprisingly, her mother did not want Phillips to fly alone to China, so she accompanied her daughter. When they landed they found a translator and told him they wanted to go to a flip flop factory. Although he agreed to show them five places, they decided to go with the first. “They got the concept,” says Phillips. “I really had no idea what I was doing.”

But inexperience didn’t really matter to Phillips. “I knew I had good idea, and I was very persistent,” she says. “I knew I had to start somewhere, and I tweaked everything on the way.”

Just because she placed the order with the Chinese factory, though, did not mean that 5,000 shoes arrived on the next plane. It took a year to work with the factory to perfect the concept, with many E-mails and prototypes going back and forth.

When Phillips finally had the shoes in a storage shed in Clearwater, Florida, where she was born and grew up, she had to do more research and figure out how to sell them. In 2007 she heard about the Surf Expo in Orlando, Florida. She learned of a program offering free space to six new companies and got one. Phillips set up her booth and started selling and opened 30 accounts at that show.

Manufacturing a shoe requires figuring out myriad little things you don’t usually think about, like the top part of the decorative, interchangeable straps.

“It seems very simple,” says Phillips. “But you have to source ribbon, source buttons, put the two components together, and make sure the buttons are on tight enough.”

Where to manufacture the shoes is also a continuing challenge, because, says Phillips, a company should never be dependent on a single source. “From the beginning you are looking at different factories,” she says. “Sometimes factories close, and you have to make sure it won’t kill your business.”

But on the positive size, a company has more influence on its factories as it grows. “Once you start growing, you are able to have a little more control and you get factory space,” says Phillips. “At a factory, if you produce 5,000 shoes, you’re not as high on the priority list as you are if you are producing 500,000. They’re going to take the guy with the bigger order in front of you.”

Phillips has been to China three times and now has a team there. SwitchFlops is in the process of building its own offices in Hong Kong, and Phillips also has someone who goes over to China and works with the factories.

Phillips’s title is “founder of the company.” In 2008 she brought in a chief executive officer, #b#Jeff Davidson#/b#, to help run it. “I knew I had a good idea, but I didn’t know people were going to love it,” she says. And did they! In 2007 SwitchFlops did $700,000 in business; in 2008, $9 million; and in 2009 about $17 million.

The best part about bringing in people who are experienced, says Phillips, is that they know what they are doing and can help you. Davidson, she says, has taught her one important thing — don’t be afraid of hiring people who are smarter than you and have more experience.

“I try to always surround myself with people who are the best of the best,” says Phillips. “I’m extremely blessed because I have a great team, from sales, to design, to marketing, to the CFO, to the CEO, to my customer service department.”

During college Phillips did have a couple of experiences that prepared her in different ways for her entrepreneurial future. The first was a semester at sea, which, she says, influenced her designs by “having the chance to experience new cultures and traditions that in turn helped fuel my creative spirits.”

Also, for two summers she worked in Ralph Lauren’s leather goods division in New York City. “Being an intern, I had the chance to get a brief overview of everything that goes on behind the scenes of a big fashion company.”

Yet Phillips still felt like a total novice when she started her own business. “I was figuring it out for myself by trial and error,” she says. “I think the best way to learn is to do it.”

SwitchFlops has expanded beyond the original shoe to a jewelry shoe that has an interchangeable snap system. This spring the company is adding bags (some of which are reversible or can be carried two different ways), scarves, and some fancier shoes. “We have now evolved into more of an accessory brand,” she says.

“Everything is fun and has a twist. It’s about the Lindsay Phillips lifestyle.”

Then she offers a list of adjectives that capture what her company is after: Classic, colorful, dynamic, unexpected, stylish, individualistic, fun, and flirty.

SwitchFlops now has about 28 employees and Phillips commutes to New Jersey every other week from her Florida home. With Davidson on board to head things up, says Phillips, “I get to do what I love: design and PR.”

When Phillips launched the business, she worked seven days a week and brought in her family on weekends to help pack boxes. “When you are first starting out, the hardest thing is doing everything yourself, from design, to packing boxes, to talking to customers, to going to shows — you name it, I did it,” she says.

But getting a business started requires total commitment. “You have to do you what have to do,” she says. “The past three years have been a lot of work, but very rewarding. If you really believe in it and are persistent, you can make it happen.”

In her free time — most of which, she points out, is on airplanes — Phillips tries to spend time with her husband and her family.

The commuting works for Phillips, though. She gets to be in the warm weather in Florida and near her family and the sea, but she also has her toe in the commercial center of the Northeast.

“It is the best balance.” she says.

Phillips is thankful for the support of her parents. “They had no idea what they were getting into,” she says, “but I have to thank my parents every day because they believed in my idea. They helped me and encouraged me every day, telling me, ‘Lindsay, you have a great idea; you have to make this happen.’”

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