When I heard that my old college friend Nicole Flowers had started a company designing a new, utterly fabulous line of fanny packs, I wasn’t surprised in the least. Nicole was the kind of girl who everyone knew, who’s wardrobe everyone wanted, who was wearing bold-colored skinny jeans years before anyone else was. That she would be the sole fashionable force behind making fanny packs actually cool again—well, it just seemed like a natural progression of events.
It also didn’t surprise me that her company was founded to give back to the community. From planning service events back in college to leading her company’s volunteer initiatives to, most recently, hiking Kilimanjaro to raise money for an orphanage in Africa, Nicole is also the kind of girl that has tried to make the world a better place in whatever way she could.
Hence, her new company, hiip. Here’s the idea: With the purchase of each fabulous bag—like the chevron print Marina or the Peacock Floral Mission—a “hiip kit” full of toiletries is given to a person in need in the harshest neighborhoods in San Francisco. The hiip team will hand out the bag for you, or you can give the kit to those in your own neighborhood—and perhaps even start a conversation.
I sat down with Nicole a few weeks ago for a much-needed catch-up session, and learned more about the idea behind hiip, her passion for social entrepreneurship, and what it’s like to be a brand-new entrepreneur (while holding down a day job!).
How and when did you get the idea for hiip?
I have wanted to work for myself for a while. I’ve been with my company [a large biotech firm in San Francisco] for a few years, and I love it here, but I’ve known for a long time I’d rather do my own thing than work in the corporate world.
I’ve also followed Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS shoes, almost since the beginning of TOMS, and I have wanted to work with him forever. I loved the idea of a company that was for profit but that gave back—I love how they sort of reinvented the model of entrepreneurship. So I invited him to an event I had at work, and he came, and I told him, “This is what I want to do.” He actually told me to talk to his HR people and that he’d find a place for me there.
But when I started thinking about it, I realized that I don’t want to move from San Francisco. I have a huge heart for the city of San Francisco and for homeless people, in particular. My desire was different than the global outreach thing that TOMS does.
So I thought hard about my personality, my knowledge base, and my goals, and I decided, well, I could do this myself! I took his book, Start Something That Matters, totally seriously and thought: OK, I want to help the people of San Francisco. What do they need? What do other people need? And I decided—fanny packs! Hey, why not? I just basically followed what he did. His book is like a manual.
You started hiip in July, but you’re still at your company. How did you broach this with your bosses?
Last year, I gave my boss a year’s notice, which seems very asinine, but it worked for me. My company really focuses a lot on development and developing the person, and has historically been very supportive of people who want to go on to bigger and better things. And, I wanted to respect my boss. I didn’t want him going into upper management during review season asking for a promotion for me, when he should be fighting for somebody else.
Plus, everyone knew what my interests were. And when they saw me interact with Blake, they knew that was most likely the end for me here. One of my managers came up to me after the event and said, “That was the best job interview I have ever seen in my life.”
So, they’ve been supportive of the decision and the company?
They have been super supportive. My boss is getting me a speaking coach, for if I start doing speaking engagements. I started wearing my hiips around, and a senior director asked about them, then told me, “We should have a launch party for you!” And they threw me one—at the office!
It helps, of course, that I’m still very committed to my job—I’m not checked out, and I want to make sure that they know that I really respect the fact that they are supportive of it. I’m going to work harder because they support me.
That said, the business is getting to the point where I’m going to talk to my manager and see if I can work four days a week, so I have a day I when can have meetings. We’ll see how that rolls out.
How has the balance been? What does your typical day look like?
It’s very tiring! I get here at 8, work a regular work day, and then I go home at night around 5, and that’s when I do all of my emails with my customers, or manufacturers, or my mom, who’s doing my shipping, and my brother, who’s doing banking. And go into my e-commerce tool and check on sales, make sure all the inventory is ordered—everything, I don’t have a partner, so it’s just really me. Not much of a social life is happening.
That said, if I wasn’t happy at work, I’d be too depleted to do anything else. Some people think that your side project is where you get your energy, but if you’re going into an office all day and you’re not happy with what you’re doing, you’re going to get home and just want to do nothing and sulk. But I’m sort of re-energized after working, which is such a blessing.
Tell me more about the social side of your business model. How did you come up with your mission?
I liked the TOMS and the Warby Parker models, but I also wanted to do something that was more community-focused. So the idea was, buy a hiip, and you can get these kits, and that will give you a vehicle to talk to someone in your neighborhood that you walk past every day—someone you maybe don’t notice, or you do, and don’t know what to say.
Eventually, my hope is that people who don’t interact with people on the street will learn how to do that more often—if you have something to give to someone, it will help you to talk to them and not feel weird about it. It seems like a simple thing, but really it’s community building. It’s not eradicating homelessness, but it is bringing people together.
What’s been your biggest challenge with the business so far?
Everything! I’ve never taken a business class, I don’t have a business plan, so everything along the way has been a challenge. Getting a manufacturer just happened this week, so I feel like that’s been the hardest. But really, learning everything has been challenging because it’s totally new! I’ve been in healthcare my whole career—I’ve been a meeting planner, I studied journalism, business is not my forte. So it’s been a struggle to learn everything, but what a great surprise to see how on board people have been with this—I mean, they’re fanny packs!
Of course, when you have a business, you believe in your own idea and think “This is a great idea, and everyone should buy one,” but at the same time, it’s great when you see people really love it.
And it’s surprisingly fun every day, even though it’s really hard.
Read more about hiip’s story and pick up a hiip of your own at hiipsf.com!