For Stephanie Santistevan-Swett, comfort is a necessity when she’s walking her dog one hour and teaching psychology classes at Duke University the next.
October 7, 2015
Eva Jo Rompers Founder Romps Between a Duke Ph.D. and Fashion Startup
Durham entrepreneur attempts Kickstarter campaign to build a company around rompers, all while pursuing a Duke Ph.D.
Update: Eva Jo Rompers closed a successful Kickstarter campaign October 22, raising $22,680 to launch her business this fall.
And yet few comfortable garments look good and fit appropriately for both settings. So one day in May 2015, the Duke Ph.D. candidate got to thinking about tweaking an article of clothing she loved—the romper. After some early validation from her husband, co-founder and CEO of venture-backed MindSumo, she got to work on some designs and planned a trip to Los Angeles to meet with potential manufacturers.
Just four months later, she’s midway through a Kickstarter campaign that will launch her initial styles into the fashion world. With 80 percent of her $22,000 goal committed, she’s well on her way to creating a brand around the fashion-forward onesie. In fact, she hopes to make Eva Jo Rompers the brand for rompers. No one has yet made that claim.
Lack of fashion industry experience hasn’t been too big a challenge. Swett surveyed 100 women to learn their biggest issues with rompers. She heard from short and tall people, breast feeding mothers and working women. They wanted a comfortable material that could be dressed up or down and with enough coverage to wear to work.
She watched YouTube videos to learn how to sketch the designs and got advice from the New York founder of Shabby Apple and Mary Anne Gucciardi of the local Dragonwing Girlgear before reaching out to pattern makers and manufacturers. She then made 80 phone calls to every manufacturer in L.A.’s fashion district to find one who had experience with women’s rompers, willingness to work with a first-time fashion entrepreneur and with a low minimum order requirement.
The initial five rompers are made of modal or rayon spandex and with extra length, a low inseam and drawstring waist, they fit all shapes and sizes of women, Swett says.
Lack of entrepreneurship experience hasn’t proved challenging either considering the knowledge of her husband, Keaton Swett, who followed his wife to Durham from Silicon Valley last year.
His company raised money from Google Ventures to allow companies like Facebook, Target, Groupon and others pose business challenges to college students in return for cash, and potentially, a job. The couple spent a weekend road trip to upstate New York determining what it would take to launch Eva Jo—from manufacturing to design to materials to marketing strategies to the financial commitment.
So far, they’ve invested $14,000, an amount the female Swett says “put a ‘no fail’ clause in place.”
“Our Kickstarter has to succeed. We have to do whatever we can,” she says.
Helping make the campaign successful was a launch party in Provo, UT (she’s from Salt Lake City) and commitments from 20 bloggers with a cumulative 250,000 followers to write reviews of the rompers. Those write-ups are trickling out now.
Swett anticipates taking a short breather once the Kickstarter campaign is completed and the first rompers are delivered to funders. She might apply to an accelerator or start targeting investors for the business once word has spread in the fashion blogging community. She’ll also need additional advisors and mentors.
She’ll have to balance any of her startup’s work with her third year in Duke’s Ph.D. program in cognitive psychology. It’s the year she’ll write a qualifying paper and make her oral defense. But her focus is on medical cognition—determining more effective methods for doctors, nurses and others to present medical information so people can better understand it.
She’s using that knowledge to communicate the most critical information about Eva Jo Rompers, like the long length and tapered ankle to appease women of any height, adjustable waist that allows for customization and ease of going to bathroom or nursing a baby using simple snaps.
After she ships the initial batch to Kickstarter funders, she hopes to have enough money to produce a second line with additional styles. On the wish list are short and capri versions for spring and summer, long sleeves for winter and more colors and patterns. They’ll initially be sold on her website and through Instagram and other social media—any other channels will be carefully considered.
“The goal is to be the romper company, where that’s all we do and we do it really well,” she says. “If someone wants a romper, they know where to get a good one.”
Swett hopes the name and branding help too. Eva Jo is named after her grandmother and grandfather, two people she considers fun, loving and generous, qualities worthy of building a company around.