Michelle Brooke-Marciniak has worn many hats.
There’s the All-American collegiate athlete hat, earned during her time as a standout on the University of Tennessee women’s basketball team under legendary coach Pat Summitt. While donning that cap, she led the Lady Vols to their fourth national championship, and was named Final Four MVP in 1996.
Then, there’s the professional athlete hat, worn for six seasons, including several in the Women’s National Basketball League. After retiring in 2002 and moving into a role as assistant coach for the University of South Carolina women’s basketball team, she began down a path that inspired the newest hat in her collection: entrepreneur.
Brooke-Marciniak co-founded SHEEX®, her line of performance bedding and sleepwear, with fellow USC assistant coach Susan Walvius in 2007. Since that day, SHEEX has grown from a wild idea shared between two friends to an innovative, next-generation product that provides solutions for a more comfortable sleep environment through breathable, moisture-wicking technical fabrics. The co-founders went from struggling to find suppliers to featuring their products in Bed Bath & Beyond, department stores, and other retailers across North America.
Along the way, Brooke-Marciniak leveraged the skills and mentality she developed as an athlete to guide her career as an entrepreneur. This March, she shared her story with aspiring female entrepreneurs and student athletes at Babson College, encouraging listeners to “go for it” when pursuing their dreams, and reflecting on the natural transition from athlete to entrepreneur.
The Aha! Moment
“While assistant coaching at USC, I was wearing a pair of shorts that I loved to run and train in. I bought Susan, my co-founder, shorts to try. She loved the fabric so much, she said, ‘I’d love to have bedsheets made out of this.’ That was it, the aha moment. We were like: let’s do this. It was our final year of coaching, and everything else had led up to that. It was our entrepreneurial moment.”
Crawl Before You Walk
“We had to find a fabric, so we faxed 25 different factories. Can you imagine a company overseas receiving a fax from a U.S. company that didn’t exist? We finally got a huge roll of fabric—the biggest roll of fabric you could imagine—and had to figure out how to make bedsheets from it. We realized why this had never been done before; the fabric is circular knit, and it wouldn’t fit a queen- or king-sized mattress. So, we cut it. Took the center panel, cut more fabric for the side panels. Eventually we seamed together the whole sheet, and that’s when it started to click. They say you have to crawl before you walk, we were definitely crawling for a while there.”
“The fabric inspired the idea, but as athletes we created a brand new category in bedding—performance sheets. We created a unique sleep experience for people, but we had to get the product in their hands. We started selling online, but brought some pillowcases to the U.S. Women’s Open [golf] as a little experiment. What we saw, people’s reaction to the fabric, was beyond words. That’s when we knew we had something special.”
Fake It ’Til You Make It
“We didn’t have any fancy presentation—we had corkboards. We sold people on the idea before we even had product, and validated the idea through a visual brand experience. People would light up when we’d push the fabric across the table.
“We eventually met with a national buyer from Bed Bath & Beyond and gave him a sheet set to take home. After sleeping on it, he called us, excited—he wanted to launch us in 650 stores. We didn’t even have a supply chain! Just a couple of sheet sets. It took us so long to get this opportunity, and we didn’t want to pass it up. So, we launched in store, but had to partner with a global sourcing company in Hong Kong to execute the business. We did license the brand for the first few years, but we took it back over and are now a wholesale company, which gives us more control.”
The Race for Capital
“I recently got great advice from Sheila Marcelo, founder of Care.com. She said, ‘You’re in a constant race for capital. Don’t ever take yourself out of the capital race mode.’ When you’re raising series A, you should be thinking about B, planting the seeds to line it up. I have a sleep product, but don’t sleep because of capital.”
“My secret sauce is work ethic. It’s not about working hard; it’s about working smart. It all ties back to being an athlete. You have to have fierce resilience to persevere, you have to be tough. You have all of these qualities as an athlete, and you tap into every single one of them as an entrepreneur. The reality of entrepreneurship, is that it gets hard. It gets really hard. You have to have toughness and faith in yourself to get through.”