It’s been a whirlwind year for the Texas teenager who created FishFlops. Madison Nicole Robinson caught the attention of millions of readers, and FishFlops became a most-searched for term on the Internet overnight, when Yahoo Small Business reported on her fledgling fashion business in May 2013.
Today, at 16, Robinson is a wiser and wealthier entrepreneur who has taken her business to a new level. As she completes her sophomore year in high school, she has sold more than 100,000 pairs of her colorful sea-creature flip-flops for kids, which retail for between $20 and $32 in Nordstrom and other stores. She has introduced a line of wedges and cork-soled sandals for women. And this spring she launched the tweens clothing brand, Madison Nicole, in Saks Fifth Avenue and 120 U.S. boutiques.
The acclaim has rocketed Robinson to local celebrity status. The Houston Chronicle named her first on its 2014 Most Fascinating People list, ahead of the city’s star athletes, rappers, politicians, and activists. Junior Achievement of Southeast Texas asked her to speak about her experience to 8,000 students last month. Numerous publications, including Seventeen Magazine, Forbes, Success Magazine, Bloomberg Business Week, Tatler Magazine, and Times of India, have covered her story. And she’s been featured on the Fox Business Network, Inside Edition, CNBC’s Nightly Business Report, ABC News, CBS News, and other broadcasts.
Two middle-school textbook publishers will include Robinson’s story in some 1 million volumes for U.S. and Canadian students. Hundreds of would-be entrepreneurs of all ages from around the world have written letters and emails congratulating her or asking for her advice. And she became pen pals with a group of Japanese primary schoolchildren who contacted her through Twitter and sent her drawings of their FishFlop design ideas.
Robinson has also turned her attention to good causes, donating more than 20,000 pairs of shoes to charities including Snowball Express Military Charity, Shoes for Orphan Souls, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas Children’s Hospital, Cy-Hope, and, in support of her best friend who had open-heart surgery recently, the American Heart Association.
Robinson admits it’s not easy being a regular teenager as well as a businesswoman. “Sometimes it’s stressful with school work and the dance team. We practice till 5:00 pm every day, then I do my homework before my business work,” she says, adding, “and I do business work on weekends.”
With FishFlops keeping her so busy, why launch a clothing line? “Nobody wears FishFlops in the winter. And since my name is out there, we thought it would be good timing to make a clothing brand.”
Although she created the original FishFlops designs, Robinson says she had no clothing design experience. A family friend helped her find a collaborator in California who proposed a selection of tween styles for which Robinson gave input—such as to attach pockets, create a pleat, produce it in a chevron-patterned fabric, or add a contrasting zipper “for a pop of color”—based on what she thought would appeal most to her fashionable friends. In a sort of celebrity branding agreement, the line is marketed under her name.
“I see a lot of people wearing high-low shirts,” she says. “I don’t like when they’re too long in the back, so I tried to make one I liked. I put lines on the back to give it texture, added pockets because I hadn’t seen those before, and chose the color.” Her instincts are on target: Saks sold out of her tops, priced at between $28 and $48, and placed a second order that will show up in stores in June. Robinson expects her business to fill orders for another 5,000 pieces nationally this fall.
As yet, the Madison Nicole line is exclusively for girls aged 9-13. The smart and stylish pieces stand apart from the usual for the age group. “The girls are still young,” Robinson says. “You don’t want to make them look like they’re old, but the clothes are sophisticated enough so people can take them seriously.”
Next, she says, she plans to introduce a line for her own age group: “I have a whole rack of new designs in my closet. I wear the ones I like to school and get input from my friends.”
For their decision to make FishFlops in China, Robinson and her dad Dan got their share of criticism from Yahoo readers. Like many U.S. designers and inventors, however, the Robinsons searched hard to find a U.S. manufacturer. “I felt bad that I couldn’t have the shoes made in the U.S.,” Madison says. “But nobody here could make them the way I wanted them designed.” For Madison Nicole clothing, she was able to hire a California manufacturer.
Overall, Robinson says her overnight success has “forced me to grow up and learn what the world is really about and interact with adults.” In her recent Junior Achievement speech, she shared some of those early life lessons: “Never give up, be persistent, but be patient. If you have a good idea, go tell people about it. You don’t know who will have the connections that could somehow help you get started.”