Meet a Student: Jesse Alton
Walking home from the club or dancing at a wedding with tired, heel-worn feet may soon be a thing of the past thanks to Jesse Alton, a student in the Merrick School of Business’ Entrepreneurship Fellows program. As one of six initial members in this competitive program, Alton learns the ins and outs of entrepreneurship from business professionals and expert faculty.
His business, Native Flats, is working to produce fully biodegradable flip-flops, made from a cornstarch compound and soy-based inks. After six years of perfecting his concept, he launched the first round of Native Flats—made with recycled plastic to start—this spring in bars in Denver; Las Vegas; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; and Annapolis, Maryland.
Q: Where did you get the idea for Native Flats?
A: On Dec. 31, 2008 (I remember the exact day), I was visiting the York College [of Pennsylvania] rugby team, and there was snow all over the sidewalks. I saw girls walking home from the bar without any shoes. They would rather walk home barefoot and in the snow than wear their shoes anymore. And I thought to myself, “I can fix that.”
Q: Why choose to produce a biodegradable product?
A: If I want to approach [retailers], I don’t want to give them a product made of plastic. [My product] needs to have good form, good utility and good cost. If someone leaves [the flip-flops] somewhere, [they] will dissolve in the rain. People don’t have to feel bad ... because they’ll go back into the earth after 30-60 days.
Even though the product is currently made of recycled plastic, we can switch our material [to glycan, a cornstarch derivative] at any point—[but] biodegradable will raise the cost. Adding [that] aspect is ... not efficient for a startup working with virtually no capital. Before I switch, I want to first gain revenues.
Q: In what circumstance would someone buy Native Flats?
A: [The flip-flops are] meant to be a convenient type of purchase. Why do you order a pizza? It’s cheaper, yes, to buy all the ingredients, but it’s easier to pay a little bit more and have it delivered to you. We’re a super high-quality flip-flop. We say they’re disposable (and they are), but people think they’re getting one over on us. Customers will say, “They’re so great, why would I get rid of them?”
Q: How has being a part of the Entrepreneurship Fellows program helped you to refine your concept?
A: Everyone has a specialty; my specialty is entrepreneurship and business models. Everyone needs a pitch guy, everyone needs a business model guy, and I can fill that. When I came here, I didn’t know what to expect, and now I’m surrounded by experts in the field. What has been best for me is how it has helped to hone my strengths.
David Lingelbach [director of the Entrepreneurship Fellows program] has taught us some really deep, deep entrepreneurial theory and really explains why [entrepreneurs] are the way we are. [The professors] don’t hold back. They say, “No, no, I don’t think that’s a great idea,” “Yeah, that’s a great idea” or “Maybe you need to work on it a little bit more.” They stoke our fire, and it’s awesome.