You’re a dancer with a great concept for a product for your fellow dancers—and you have no idea how to get it manufactured. Here’s how the founders of Apolla Performance Wear worked with a business incubator to turn sketches into a dance business with a sellable product.
With the evangelical passion of an entrepreneur, Kaycee Jones describes her invention, Apolla Performance Wear Shocks, as being for “anyone with feet.” What the former dancer and her partner Brianne Zborowski have, in fact, created is compression footwear that offers salvation to anyone with painful feet—which is to say, every serious dancer at some point in their career.
The story of Apolla Shocks began in 2014, when Jones suggested to her longtime friend and fellow dancer Zborowski that they launch a dance product together. Jones had met Zborowski in 2005 through Zborowski’s husband-to-be, a dancer Jones had known since childhood. “I knew Brianne was the one for Nick,” Jones says, “and we became best friends soon after.”
It was on a family beach vacation together, sitting on the sand, that Jones first brought up her idea of addressing dance injuries with some sort of compression wear. Soon after, she made a formal PowerPoint presentation to pitch Zborowski on her idea: footwear that could be worn while dancing, as well as for recovery, and that they would ultimately call a “Shock” (shoe + sock). Zborowski was sold on the concept as both unique and badly needed in a community where foot and leg injuries are soaring due to increasingly intense training regimens and more demanding routines. Plus, says Jones, “Dance footwear is so out of date; it hasn’t evolved. Dance medicine and science is on our side.”
Jones, who is now COO of Apolla, has a master’s degree in kinesiology and is a National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Personal Trainer (NSCA-CPT). She threw herself into researching exactly how a targeted-compression sock should fit to precisely support the muscles and ligaments in the foot and ward off injury and reduce inflammation. She reviewed scientific literature, talked with dancers and spoke with clinicians and doctors. “Then we created our own Frankensock,” she says. Zborowski adds, “We cut out bits and pieces of material on my living-room floor and made a hand-sewn prototype.”
A Business Incubator to Bring the Idea to Life
Zborowski, who serves as CEO of Apolla, has a degree in business management, and her parents were successful business owners. Having worked in a family business and in several managerial positions, including accounting, she understood the basics of business operations and start-ups. But she recognized early on that the Apolla team’s Achilles heel was their lack of manufacturing know-how. “One of our biggest challenges was not knowing how to manufacture the product. We needed someone to hold our hand,” she says. Through a Google search, they discovered the Manufacturing Solutions Center (MSC) in Conover, NC, an area known historically for its textile manufacturing.
The nonprofit business incubator, which is part of Catawba Valley Community College, has a simple mission, says its executive director Dan St. Louis: “We want to create and maintain jobs in the U.S.” Toward that end, the center works with start-ups to research materials and create prototypes. “We do testing. We help with market development. We make sourcing connections for the entrepreneurs,” St. Louis explains.
The Apolla owners always knew they wanted to keep production in the United States in order to maintain tight control over product quality and availability, so connecting with MSC was a good fit. “We call them our godfather,” Zborowski says, laughing. “They taught us the process with the utmost respect.” Once past the prototype and testing stages, the center also connected Apolla with a local textile mill where the Shocks are now made.
“They Did Their Homework”
Many would-be entrepreneurs with a product idea “think it’s going to be easy,” says St. Louis. “They watch ‘Shark Tank’ and think their idea is going to be a get-rich-quick scheme.” Not so with the Apolla team. “Apolla came in knowing what they wanted,” he says. “They were very focused; they did their homework.” Zborowski and Jones had already analyzed their market and knew why their target customers would buy and how much they would be willing to spend, a step too many entrepreneurs fail to take, says St. Louis. “You need to ask someone who isn’t your friend or relative, ‘Would you buy this for 20 bucks?’”
In fact, it was a full year and a half from inception before Apolla began taking pre-orders online for its first products, the Alpha and the Infinite, in August 2016. “We felt really comfortable going into the launch,” Zborowski says. “We took our time to prove our idea.” They began by interviewing dancers and then testing prototypes, ultimately consulting with 100 test users. “We were in testing for over a year,” says Zborowski. “It was an iterative process of protoyping, testing, making edits, repeating until we collectively felt it was ready for group testing. We made a couple adjustments after large group testing.”
In the end, though, “the design and aesthetics are surprisingly close to what we started with,” Zborowski says. “We knew which areas we wanted to hit to find the ‘Goldilocks zone’ of effective compression without restricting range of motion. These zones are part of what is patented.”
The Manufacturing Solutions Center also helped with the testing needed to prove out Apolla’s application for the utility patent the company ultimately won. (A utility patent is granted for a product that provides a unique, useful benefit.) Although a compression sock would seem like it could be easily copied, St. Louis says of Apolla’s intricate fabrication: “Someone would have to do a lot of work to knock that off.” Apolla has also trademarked its slogan, “Dance longer; dance stronger.”
How the Company Operates
Apolla is entirely self-funded and has two other partners besides Zborowski and Jones. One is a Florida studio owner who is a silent partner, and the other is Aiesha Ashby, a working professional dancer and choreographer based in Fort Worth, TX, who was part of the design and testing process in the first two years. “We bootstrapped the entire thing,” says Zborowski, noting that bank loans for small-business start-ups without assets or an earnings record are scarce: “When you need money, that’s when it’s hard to get,” she says. After three years of sales and two years of rapid growth, Apolla is now approaching profitability. “We’ve got our margins in a great place,” says Zborowski.
Although Apolla is based in Fort Worth, where it got its start, CEO Zborowski now lives in Michigan, and COO Jones is in Florida. Jones runs the marketing initiatives and inventory management, while Zborowski handles the other aspects, such as accounting, sponsorships and retail management. They both handle customer service and make all major decisions jointly, so they spend a lot of time conferring on the phone and via video conference.
Getting the Market’s Attention
To market the Shocks, the Apolla partners initially worked their extensive personal connections in the dance world to get the product into the right hands and find retailers who believed in it. Apolla has deliberately eschewed recruiting “brand ambassadors” and social-media influencers who may or may not actually wear the product. “We don’t use the traditional ambassador model where we give dancers free pairs and a discount code to promote us on social media,” says Zborowski. “Dancers can feel when they’re being sold to. That’s a feeling we didn’t want.”
“We often have high-profile dancers ask to try Apolla Shocks in exchange for shout-outs,” she explains. “We agree, with the caveat that we want a true testimonial on how they feel about them. It’s no strings attached.” And indeed the testimonials and personal endorsements have flowed in. Those on the company’s e-commerce website include “So You Think You Can Dance” performers Jaimie Goodwin, Lex Ishimoto, and Melody Lacayanga, and the Boston Ballet’s director of physical therapy Heather Southwick.
But perhaps Apolla’s most important and visible endorsement comes from celebrity choreographer Mia Michaels, who shot a video series with the company. “Mia is a powerful voice with a huge platform and it was kismet that she believed in our mission and vision for the dance world,” says Zborowski. Apolla paid Michaels for her work shooting the videos, but Zborowski emphasizes that the collaboration was organic. “She was already wearing Apolla Shocks and loved what we stood for.”
The Bottom Line
Apolla currently has six styles of Shocks with more in the pipeline that they hope to debut in the future. Zborowski is encouraged by feedback from dancers and hopes the product will begin to have a measurable impact on reducing dancers’ injury rates. “We know the work we’re doing is important,” she says. Looking to the future, she is working to grow sales internationally (Apolla currently has distribution deals in Australia, Spain, Switzerland and the UK). Although the partners feel strongly that Shocks’ benefits are universal, Zborowski says, “Right now, our focus is dancers, and one of our goals is international growth so dancers all over the world can dance longer and stronger. Dance is our heart and soul.”
Anne M. Russell is a Los Angeles–based writer who covers small business, fitness and technology.
Are you a dancer with your own product idea? Here’s where to get help
Having business partners with different strengths, both within your company and with outside experts, is often the key to turning an inventive product idea into a sustainable business. Some incubators, like MSC, are nonprofits affiliated with universities and business schools; others, often focused on digital services, provide start-up help in exchange for a cut of future value. The International Business Innovation Association, a trade association of incubators, is one place to start learning about finding help with your own start-up idea. The network of local Small Business Development Centers, partners of the U.S. Small Business Administration, is another. SBDCs are also usually affiliated with colleges and business schools. They offer free professional business counseling and training on everything from business planning to production and marketing. —A.R.