The realities of starting any business always have two things in common. The first is you can't predict your path. There will always be unknowns. The second is that no matter where that path might take you, anything is possible. Sarah Sukumaran, NYC-based tech exec turned sneaker designer and now founder of Lilith NYC has embraced that wholeheartedly and has some great antidotes for anyone looking to turn their creative passions into a business. The learnings that she has acquired over the years with traditional tech roles, a predictive analytics gig at Nike - a natural fit for a sneaker-loving software product director - to now the life of an entrepreneur, have set her up for years of success and are something we could all benefit from.
Scroll down for some gems from the conversation with Sarah.
Hi Sarah! You're a big advocate of embracing your community. How did that play a part in getting Lilith off the ground?
It's amazing. When you put out in the universe that you're doing something, people will naturally gravitate towards you and start making those connections wherever they can. Lean into that. When I started vocalizing and putting it out there that I was starting a footwear company, people all of a sudden had these connections for me and that's how all of my contacts, angel investors and other people I now work with, have come about.
What's it like going from the tech world to now being recognized as a sneaker designer and brand owner?
I worked in tech and I thought that was my life. I was ready to become a DevOps engineer and I really thought that's where my career was headed. So now, it's so nice to explore this creative side that I didn't know I had.
I really love colour theory and working with materials. When I'm in Portugal, going to the leather supplier and looking at the suede that we're going to go with, or looking at the colour swatches; I have such a strong passion for that. People now refer to me as a creative and I'm still getting used to embracing it because I still am this nerdy tech person but now I'm a creative too which is pretty cool.
Any advice to someone who was in your position looking to start their own brand while working a 9-5?
I am a big proponent of not quitting your job and working on your side hustle when you're getting a nice check at your current employer. The only reason I quit [Nike] was because it was a clear conflict of interest working for a footwear brand and starting my own. If I was working as a tech company I would definitely have done this as a side hustle and just kept collecting a check. You need to be able to financially support yourself or have savings to be able to take that leap on your dream.
Work full time and spend more hours after each day building your startup. There are so many little things you can do to get your startup off the ground, especially in footwear. You can source the factory on the internet and spend $200 to get a sample made. Everything is possible. You just need to take those small steps and making it work doesn't have to involve quitting your job and going bankrupt throughout the process.
Lilith has done a bunch of pop-ups and is in a few retailers. Is expanding that a big goal of yours?
I think for any brand, you always need to have a multi-channel experience. In year one, we started getting approached by retailers but I just felt like I wasn't ready. However, I realize now how important that is and we're definitely working on getting into more and more doors and doing more pop ups. Online is great but getting people to try on the shoes, especially at my price point it key. Just like any portfolio, you need a diversified approach as an entrepreneur.
So true! Lastly, has been one of your biggest learnings since starting Lilith?
Shifting away from traditional seeding and actually using your customers as the influencer, that's been an interesting shift and learning for me. I was wasting time seeding people who would post once and never wear the shoe again. Now, I'll surprise a customer who's bought two or three pairs and be like, here's a free shoe because I know that they're going to wear the hell out of it and that's probably better marketing at the end of the day.
They're the ones who post the authentic photos, wear the shoes and get complimented in person and get way more excited! They're their own ambassadors to the brand. I love it and they love it.
Make sure to follow Lilith for news on their pop-ups and releases and keep it locked to Pier Five for more conversations with creative entrepreneurs like Sarah!