NJ Falk is a multiple Webby, Davey, and Communicator award-winning creative, journalist, and serial entrepreneur focused on emerging luxury, fashion, lifestyle and direct-to-consumer brands. Her current roles are as the Managing Partner of Athletic Propulsion Labs (APL), the women’s and men’s luxury performance athletic footwear brand, and as a Co-Founder & Chief Mentorpreneur™ (a term she trademarked) at The Forward Female, which is a consulting and creative agency for female entrepreneurs. On this episode we talk about her wide skillset, the value of networking, what makes a good pitch, and much more.
What is Athletic Propulsion Labs
NJ Falk: APL was founded in 2009. I am the managing partner, and I've been with the company since day one. Also as a founding partner, we started in the basketball segment where we were the first actually very fascinating. We were a digitally and are a digitally native brand. We launched our concept one basketball shoe.
In 2010, and our whole goal was really to increase and go into a segment of the market where we could make a difference. We did that with our concept one basketball shoe that has our patented load and launched technology. It was banned by the NBA when we launched it. And it became the biggest story in the world, the 17th most search term on Google.
And it was banned because we have an undue competitive advantage according to the NBA, and our business just took off from there. I mean, it was so exciting. We were the biggest story in the world. And from there we moved on in 2014 and entered the men's and women's athletic shoe and running market. And we, with our iconic pro shoe. And from there it's just been incredible growth, unbelievable results for us. And it's our running shoe started a movement.
Alex Bond: That's pretty crazy. So even though you weren't allowed to be in the NBA as a basketball shoe, you never tried to redevelop that shoe to be allowed in the NBA. You kind of just pivoted. Thanks to this new traction that you got, no pun intended, right?
NJ Falk: Well, actually the shoe propelled you up and still does up to three and a half inches higher, and we obviously tested that. We presented the results, the NBA banned the shoe, and I mean it. It actually propelled our business forward, pun intended and we now have obviously more advanced version of the shoe.
We introduced our concept 10 over a year ago to commemorate the anniversary of the banning. We have our super future and we used on our super future basketball shoe, we have the original patented load and launch technology, but even more advanced. And then in the concept 10, we took it even a step further. Another pun intended.
And we have a a 12 spring technology in that shoe. And it literally, you propel yourself off your forefoot and it launches you higher. And all of this is patented by us. And I think what's so special about APL, we are really the pioneers and innovators of the luxury performance segment of the athletic footwear market. And we really center and focus on our product and beautiful performance.
So that's in everything that we do. It's in our basketball shoes, it's in our running and training business, and we look at everything and we bring all kinds of technology into everything we do, in our outsoles. We have our prop, we have our future foam in our zipline, which is now our zipline running shoe is now one of our top selling products.
And it's been an incredible thing to see the big business progress as we continue to innovate. We focus on technology, but we're also incredibly focused on beautiful performance, our looks and our style.
Alex Bond: There's a certain amount of brand identity that goes into that is kind of what I'm hearing you say. So in an industry like fashion, which can be, you know, heavily dependent on keeping up with trends, and I know that you do have a background in being the editor-in-chief at an online blog that was fashion based and won a lot of awards.
And I want to know from your perspective, how do you decide what kind of shoes to develop? What was it just the technology? I mean, I know that trends in fashion can be constantly evolving or changing. Is that something that affects the business model at all?
NJ Falk: One, thank you. I mean my former blog, the Blonde and Brunette, I mean, it's one of my many webby award winning creative aspects to my life. But our entire, and I'm deeply involved in the fashion business, but so is our entire team, our co-founders and our design team, and we really look at the market and we are inspired a lot of times by what's happening in the marketplace.
And we've developed, in particular our proprietary t loom knit, which came out with our techloom pro. In our techloom phantom, in our techloom wave, it's a three dimensional knit and then we've progressed it. It with the zip line, which is the knit, is actually an all one piece on the upper of the shoe moved on from there.
We certainly look at the market at what's happening in fashion, and I think that's one of the reasons our whole entire product line has resonated with consumers is because we have beautiful design combined with beautiful performance and we continue to innovate every time we go out into the marketplace. So we do look at segments. I mean, we definitely have a running shoes. We had a high top trainer.
We came out with our techloom tracer, which is a mid. Trainer and a great cross trainer and especially for hit cross training weightlifting. So we absolutely look at all those segments and say, you know, what should we be developing? But it can often take us up to two years through the whole testing and development process to put out a new silhouette.
I mean, this year, this past year, we did our collaboration with McLaren and came out with the APL McLaren High Speed that is the incredible performance running in. As soon as it was released. I mean it basically sold out. It happened in days.
Marketing strategy of APL
Alex Bond: And I bet that the space that you hold thanks to this kind of drama or controversy with the NBA definitely helped keep you in the conversation. Are there certain other ways or things that you have to do to try to continue to retain that sort of an audience? Or is it just you know, good old fashioned marketing.
NJ Falk: I think it's always a combination of things. I always like to say it's so important to be part of the conversation. And we're part of the conversation in so many sectors, in so many ways, and we really work on all of those journeys and those conversations and they center around.
Obviously it started with the concept one. But in running and performance and style, we are on that conversation, whether it's in the press with an enormous amount of PR that comes out on our shoes. And a lot of that is so organic because our brand resonates with so many people. What happens is also influencers, celebrities, everywhere.
We have such an incredible organic following because of everything that we do, and it's so authentic and I think consumers absolutely see that and it resonates with them. We're also talking about our, our product and all the technology and the performance and the innovation that goes into it, but the design and the product speaks for itself.
And then we have e-commerce journeys where a lot of our business is e-commerce. A lot of it we sell to retail luxury retailers around the world. And then we have our stunning flagship store at The Grove, which is really an embodiment and an incredible representation of our brand. You know, it's light, it's airy, it's almost an art gallery or a spiritual space for the for our product.
And I mean, if you go through. I mean it. It's this gorgeous space with these 30 foot high ceilings, and there's a wonderful feeling when you go in there and it's product focused, but it's also a beautiful design space. And everything we do is design. Driven, and a lot of that inspiration comes from the automotive industry too.
Technology and everything we do is, I mean, our materials are proprietary. Our technology is proprietary, so it's a really wonderful journey through our brand and it resonates with the consumer.
Alex Bond: I can imagine that it elevates kind of like the luxury style of it while at the same time separating yourself from, you know, kind of zigging when everyone else is zagging a little bit is being able to be noticed in a crowd a little bit.
NJ Falk: Absolutely. We like to say that we fit at the intersection performance and luxury, cause that's where our brand really does sit.
From Hollywood Executive to Managing Partner of APL
Alex Bond: We'll talk more about APL, I think that you personally and your experience and your entrepreneurship, you've got a great resume in portfolio and you've been doing a lot of stuff for a long time.
So I kind of wanted to talk about your diverse background and how you navigated your path to the e-commerce industry and how that experience has impacted your management techniques at apl. So if you don't mind, can you actually chart for us your path from Hollywood executive to you know, managing partner of apl?
NJ Falk: It's been such an incredible journey, and one of the things that I try and do is I try and follow what's going on in the world and where there are these incredible turns and points happening in the economy and with consumers. And my background is a creative background, but also a business background.
I'm a graduate of NYU, I am a MBA from NYU. I worked, I started actually as a film editor in my career. Then went to branding firm, American ,Express and then came to the West Coast and went to work for MGM and Universal Studios in licensing, merchandising, marketing, and working on really big tent pole motion pictures, and also Oscar contender pictures and Oscar winning pictures and learning a lot about marketing, what the consumer wants.
Having this dialogue using market research and understanding and crossing that over into the whole licensing and merchant merchandising segment and what it means to sell and. Connect with the consumer that way. From there, I started I went actually to the wedding channel, and that's where the e-commerce and the whole thing started.
I had this wonderful experience of helping to build, I think some of the first bridal registries bring e-commerce online in terms of the bridal market, wedding gowns, jewelry, all of these different sectors and working with different retailers to bring that online and having that whole experience.
And that's when I was like, wow, this is really incredible. But it was in so many ways, a new frontier. So it was up to me to get better. Educate myself. And that's when I started I left and I built my own advertising, branding and interactive agency, the uxb, and I started to really dive into building websites, e-commerce, and this whole new frontier where I got to combine my personal ex my background and bring it into this whole new area.
And also, you probably know I'm a copywriter and a journalist. So my, all the, I got to combine all those skills together and it's really fun. So that's how it all started. And then APL started in 2009. So I sort of transferred that knowledge and experience to help build that business. But I also have, during this journey, been an angel investor and a mm-hmm. Strategic advisor and a lot of other brands. And because I want to keep my fashion life and my all these learning avenues open.
So I did helped with the, it was an angel investor. I advised modern picnic right now. I'm doing the bunker, Miss diamond ring, was in my office just yesterday. And I get to do this knowledge transference and be and I trademark this term a mentor. And then I have my other company where I'm a co-founder with my two other co-founders, Priscilla Presley and Lauren G called the Forward Female, where we're coaching and mentoring, emerging female entrepreneurs and also have a creative agency.
So I get to participate in that too and do all this great knowledge transference. But I'm doing that for yotpo right now where I just joined them. They asked me to be a mentor in one of their new mentoring programs too. I think it's so important to be giving back this cross-generational experience and knowledge we need to be helping the younger entrepreneurs that are starting out and really help them.
Advocating for females in the eCommerce space
Alex Bond: I've read and seen that you're a major advocate specifically for female entrepreneurs and females in the e-commerce space. Can you actually tell us a bit about, you know, why you think that's an important issue for you personally? And what specifically you are advocating for?
NJ Falk: I've definitely had mentors along the way, they happen to be all male. They were incredible and supported me in my career. But I also felt since I started my career so young and was doing all these things, I would've loved to have worked and had more role models that were visible, that were female.
And I think being a role model, working with other women is an important way since I have the opportunity, experienced a lot of success and learned a lot along the way. Learn difficult lessons, easy lessons that. It's my job in a way to give back. I mean, I've been fortunate and I wanna give back.
It's exciting and it's part of the journey. And the other, the flip side of that is I get to learn from everybody else too. And I always want to keep learning by mentoring and being involved in all those things. I get to learn too. So I think it's an important part. And there's two sides to the coin and those are the two sides. It's a not a one mentoring is not a one-sided relationship. It shouldn't be.
Alex Bond: No, it's definitely a two-way street. I mean, there are opportunities where I mentor other people and essentially I get just as much out of it as they do at the end of the day. And it, it's definitely a two-way street.
NJ Falk: I wanna keep learning all the time. And I think that's one of the ways that I do, because I wanna stay part of the conversation and that is a critical way of doing that because everything is constantly changing so rapidly.
Alex Bond: No, absolutely. Just to kinda like circle back to your role as a strategic advisor to these female focused luxury and consumer brands. How did your experience with, you know, uxb, the blonde and the brunette, affect the way that you advise and mentor or even manage APL?
NJ Falk: Yeah, so great question. What I found through my experience is, how important it's to have these open dialogues, but also delegate. I work a lot in terms of with structure and I look at everything in 90 day cycles, and I also meet with people and with my clients too. I pose a lot of questions.
We usually start with lots of questions and, and talking about things, dialogue reveals answers a lot. And then I like to say, I like to marinate. So we do a lot of talking, marinating and then I believe in the 90 day schedule. And by that I like to look at things and developing things in 90 day chunks and say, let's get this done and get these major projects done. Then let's move on to the next thing.
And I find you accomplish a lot doing that. And my other key pro productivity trick is a distraction list, which I keep all day long. I have it like right here and it's literally do it now, do it later. What I try and do is take the things that are minutia and cluttering your brain, and I write them down and I put them to the side and then I return to them.
So I've worked with my mentees a lot that way, and we usually meet or talk every two weeks, and they only bring three to four issues. But my client experience and having to get up and present, talk to clients, gain their trust so that they really reveal. What the key issues are. Once you get that, then you can start to solve the issues.
So it's really having open, transparent, thoughtful discussions. And it shouldn't be too long. It can just be A lot of ways I work is just. 15 minutes here, 15 minutes there as opposed to really, really long meetings.
Determining which brands to invest in
Alex Bond: And I can kind of imagine that when people are, you know, still developing this relationship with you, especially when you're coming on as an investor, they still wanna impress you. So it's kind of like they're still interviewing for a job that they already got or have and don't want to show you the skeletons in the closet too early because they don't wanna scare you. Is that kind of what I'm hearing?
NJ Falk: What I generally look for, and most people know this about me, is I'm looking for an idea that is unique in a space, and that might change it, and that hasn't been brought forward before. It's like modern picnic. I love working with Allie Kaminsky at Modern Picnic. She reinvented the lunchbox.
I actually have my modern picnic lunchbox over here. I pack my lunch a lot. I was walking around with a lunchbox that a kid would carry really reinvented something in a sophisticated idea that really hadn't happened in the lunchbox space before. Nurses, doctors are using this, people going back to the office.
I mean, if you're a diabetic, you need a way to carry your medicine. You can do it in a gorgeous modern picnic lunchbox. It's a handbag. Or backpack and I mean, she's changing the space and that's what I look for.
11 honorees, another example. And they, they just were sold to, but they had this whole dialogue going about size, inclusivity. But in a more luxurious way and really developing that space and that conversation really hadn't happened before. So I'm looking for someone to come to me and bring me something that's different, unique answers, a problem in a space that hasn't been answered before.
Alex Bond: Cool. No, that's great. That actually, I had a couple more questions about that in terms of diving deep on it. And I just wanted to, wanted to say, I love the name Modern Picnic because I saw that a couple times and didn't really look into specifically what it was because you invest in a lot of companies.
And I was like, I don't know if I have the time to look at every single one of these companies. But now knowing that it's lunchbox makes perfect sense. I was like, that already is a good name. Now it's even more fitting, you know.
NJ Falk: And you'll probably love the backpack. I mean, I've got my big carry all right here that. I packed this morning and my lunch is in there. It it's a part of my life or sometimes I'm just going places. There's a smaller version, there's different handbag versions. I mean, I have way too many of them already. My milk and my water and everything. I carry my low fat milk and it's just part of my life, but it's answering a need.
And I also, only do certain segments. I do things in the segments that I love. I love female focus brands. I love working with female entrepreneurs. I love anything that's in fashion, jewelry, luxury, so I stay with the segments that I know and I feel comfortable with. I'm not going out of into areas where I haven't had some prior experience. A love or a passion. And I think that you have to be true to yourself.
What makes a good pitch?
Alex Bond: And you know, you must hear a lot of pitches for why you should invest in a company and into some sort. And I can imagine even then it's easy to kind of say, you know, it doesn't really tickle my fancy, it doesn't excite me, it doesn't, you know, make me passionate. So what does make a good pitch, even if it does?
NJ Falk: I have a wait list right now. I'm like so many people reaching out to me and I have a wait list? And I think you have to manage your bandwidth. There is a fashion brand that I'm talking to, that I'm very excited about. Again, they're having a fashion dialogue about greater inclusivity. In terms of size, inclusivity from, you know, petite all the way to size, inclusive as well as age inclusive.
And I think that's a new frontier. Age inclusivity. I mean, we're seeing this now and a lot of brands need to pick up on this, that especially the female consumer, if she's in her forties and above, She has 40 to 50 years of shopping left. And brands are very focused and I understand why on a younger target audience as they should be and bringing those consumers in. But I also think the 40 plus audience is feeling a bit neglected. Right now they should be part of the conversation.
Alex Bond: Yeah. And financially they have more disposable income than a 16 to 25 year old does. So that is very smart. I just kind of wanted to know how a brand has to fill a need or make you passionate.
How do they act actually, aside from that j just, you know, say that's a good idea. How do they effectively pitch to you that that makes, you know, because someone, I could sit here and tell you right now, Nj, an idea that I have. But I don't think that's as effective as certain techniques that would make you feel that sort of energy or honestly convince you why to pony up for it, you know? So what are some of those things?
NJ Falk: Are they filling a gap or a need that hasn't really been filled before? I mean, and I think, you know, modern picnic passes that test. I think 11 Honore who I met with. And was an angel early on in their journey passed that test. There wasn't someone quite like them in the marketplace. Star face, which is doing an incredible job. Really changed the conversation about, you know, putting a star sticker on your face for a blemish and saying, you know, this is acceptable.
And really owning that space and picked up on the fact that what was happening with Gen Z and millennials and really having this edgy, incredible dialogue. You know, the Bunker who I'm a strategic advisor is really tapping into the luxury car enthusiasts. And I'm a car enthusiast. I represent that female segment that really is, they wanted that voice and to have that dialogue as well.
And then of course, you know, the forward female, one of the other co-founders is actually a mentee of mine and worked with me at the Blonde and the brunette and my agency. So I think I was her first job when she came to Los Angeles. So we sort of grew up together and talked about this idea and it happened organically, and what we're seeing is there's a massive need with all these young.
Especially female entrepreneurs to have support and guidance in the marketplace. But on a one-to-one level, we have an accountability club. We meet with them. I mean, it's a more intimate experience than a lot of the other companies that are out there right now in the space.
So we've got, and we provide creative templates. We give more services. So we really did a deep dive into how could we help on a much more intimate level with their experience and their businesses and give them real support day-to-day support.
How involve NJ is with the brands she invest in
Alex Bond: And I wanna talk about some of these councils and boards that you're on as well, honestly. Cause I think that's a really cool part of it. I think the networking piece, some people might struggle with or might say, I don't need to do that, I just need to focus on my business.
But the very last investment question that I want to know for you personally, okay, is that I know some investors want to helicopter parent their investment and ensure its stability and that they receive a proper return and are very heavily hands-on involved from like a control standpoint.
How involved are you typically in the companies that you invest in and how do you decide how involved you should be?
NJ Falk: I always have that conversation upfront because I think it's really important to have that conversation and some investors, to your point, are deeply involved. I am there. Depending on the company, if they need me, like one, one particular company that I'm investor in, I mean, I have deep knowledge about operation and logistics.
And I do that day-to-day for apl, they can call me up. Anybody can call me up and say, look, I'm having an issue. I need advice. We're working on something based on your experience. What should we do? Who can you connect me with? And I think it also goes back to the networking component. You carry your network with you your entire life, and building a network is so important.
I don't micromanage. Almost any of these things, but I'm absolutely available and I'll certainly see an opportunity related to a founder, a CEO. They can come to me, we talk things over and
obviously, Apl, I'm so deeply involved every day. You know, running our e-commerce, operations, logistics, marketing, all the different roles.
And the forward female, I am definitely involved, but I'm also deferring to my two other co-founders because they're bringing so much to the table. But we confer on big decisions, and I think that's important, bringing knowledge and perspective. On game changing things.
It's important also that people feel they can turn to you with comfortably when they have an issue and you are gonna say, let's solve this together as opposed to it being something difficult. They know like, you're in it with them, let's figure this out. Being supportive and bringing knowledge to the equation.
Alex Bond: And sometimes just being that support is extremely important. And not having to be so hands-on but saying, I'm here if you need me, we'll figure it out. You know, because that's the real value of experience sometimes is being able to know what to do in certain scenarios and sometimes just doing not nothing, but being there is part of the responsibility. So I think that's extremely valuable.
NJ Falk: Yeah. I don't micro manage, that's not my style.
Importance of building relationships
Alex Bond: So talking about these influential boards, councils and committees in a wide variety of industries actually too, that you're in. I mean it ranges from fashion, entrepreneurship, commerce, art, and plenty more. Are these groups generally more for networking opportunities or what's sort of, you know, substantial change in their respective fields? Are they trying to provide a lot of them?
NJ Falk: Some of them are for networking opportunities. Others are seeking knowledge from the people that are on the boards and others are for helping to mentor some individuals. So it's really a balance I enjoyed because I'm meeting more people.
Again, I'm gaining knowledge from other people. I wanna learn from others. I'm always interested in more education, but I also think when you're sitting on some of these boards and institutions you get exposed to in incredible work, but you also get to contribute and bring your knowledge forward.
I mean, I just became a member of deal makers, hers. I don't think I deal makers. I can't pronounce it. And they're the most influential female DMA deal makers in the retail and consumer space. I went to a dinner in New York recently with them, and I'm listening and getting to learn from them, but they're also learning from me and I get to contribute and have a voice.
And I, love both of that and I get to reach out to these people if I have an issue or I need to be connected to someone. Or help me with this. It's great and I love that. So I think your network is what, having strong networks in so many areas gives you incredible resources.
Alex Bond: No, I totally understand the value of it. I can imagine it's extremely valuable. And just to kind of take it to the end degree, you're an extremely busy person already. And while I'm not saying there's too much of a good thing, we have a finite amount of time.
And I also think that if someone's kind of new to the networking game, they might not know what to spend their time with in terms of there's a million conferences, a million groups, a million boards.
How do you determine, you know, what groups and affiliations are worth devoting your time to especially being in an area where there's a lot going on, essentially?
NJ Falk: That's a great question. I base the decision on where I think I need to keep learning more, where things are changing so quickly that there might be other people who have current knowledge I can tap into. Because I think especially in e-commerce, the tech sector, even in the, the fashion world, it's so fast. You want to be able to touch base with other people in those arenas.
For me, in those particular arenas where I can gain knowledge, I can also learn about new platforms, new technologies, how to do something, where I'm gonna make a connection and it's gonna enhance. APL is gonna enhance the forward female. It's gonna enhance or something. Or I can bring a connection to one of the companies that I'm working with.
So I make the decision based on how much something is going to possibly enhance my knowledge base and increase my network and introduce proprietary, methodologies, platforms and other things that I need to know about that maybe I didn't read about, or I can meet someone firsthand.
Mastering the skill of networking
NJ Falk: One other thing, I hate to interrupt you, but if you have to say no, I'm also saying no a lot because you have to stay focused on what you need to stay focused on staying. Saying no is critical to the whole process.
Alex Bond: You actually cut me off with the answer to my question, which was what advice do you have for an e-commerce professional? You know that struggles with mastering the skill of networking. And I think that's part of some really good advice is just saying no to certain things.
NJ Falk: Yeah. And saying no means saying no to a zoom call. Saying no says means I'm sorry. I cannot take that meeting until two months from now because I am busy on other things and there are other priorities on my schedule, and I do that a lot. I say I am back to the 90 days.
I am focused on the following things and accomplishing those, and I need to finish those before I can turn my attention to something that you might be bringing me that's exciting and new. But I can't focus on it yet. And it's important to sift through that and I do that every single day.
Alex Bond: And I learned in the last probably three or four years that the phrase no is a complete sentence. Sometimes you don't need no because yada, yada, yada, yada. You can just say no. And people respect that more, more often than not, honestly. You don't have to give a massive explanation as to why something might not work out or anything like that.
NJ Falk: And also Chris boss, the great negotiator wrote about him many times in my journalistic career, says, no, is the beginning of the negotiation. I love that. And saying, no means, okay, that's not working, but let's talk about it. And you can, and it doesn't have to be confrontational.