Above: Nicole Birnbaum models several rings from her business FlipRings.
It’s amazing what can result from a small flash of inspiration. For Nicole Birnbaum, a rising senior at the College of Charleston who’s majoring in communication, such a moment took place early in her freshman year. It was an epiphany that led to the creation of a successful commercial venture – FlipRings – and to her winning Student Entrepreneur of the Year for 2021-22.
Back in the fall of 2019, when the College was shuttered due to Hurricane Dorian, Birnbaum spent that week at home in New Jersey with her parents. Her father happened to have a black silicone ring that he used in place of his wedding band when working out or doing other activities. The younger Birnbaum wondered if rings like that were available in a range of colors.
“I found myself playing with that thing,” she recalls, “because silicone is stretchy and it’s just fun to play with. That made me wonder if I could find the same product available in other colors. I went online, but couldn’t find anything like that. At least it didn’t appear that anyone was making and marketing such products to people my age. So, I started thinking, ‘What if you could just have a ring with some fun, expressive words on it, kind of like those bracelets that used to be so popular a few years ago?’ That’s where it all started.”
When Birnbaum refers to “it all,” she’s being more than modest. Launched in the winter of 2020, her venture steadily gained popularity after the first models appeared. By the end of 2021, FlipRings had exceeded $500,000 in gross sales.
“Our first model had the word ‘coffee’ engraved on the outside and ‘tequila’ on the inside,” she explains. “Flip rings, right? You can reverse them inside or out. I love graphic design and designing things in general, so at that stage, I was just playing around. Eventually, I found a supplier and ordered some samples. I showed those to the women who were my roommates, but I didn’t tell them that I had created these things. They instantly loved the concept, and it just took off after that. The photos of them wearing the rings were the first elements of our marketing collateral for FlipRings.”
Birnbaum, who partnered with her dad to get FlipRings off the ground, has made effective use of social media – primarily Instagram – to promote the rings. She now has over 36,000 followers on that platform and some 30-plus student ambassadors at universities across the U.S. And all the while, she’s managed to keep a low profile.
“Initially, I wanted to create a kind of community around FlipRings,” she says, “and I wanted to get it out there that the person behind this was 19. But I didn’t really want people to know that it was me. So, I worked to make our Instagram presence personal and interactive. I think that was the right formula because we’re still doing really well with sales. And most of that is because our outreach speaks in the right tone to people my age. Essentially, what we’re offering is about self-expression and having fun, and I think that resonates.”
Just as FlipRings was getting off the ground, Birnbaum set up an account with the e-commerce platform Shopify.
“That’s right when a lot of people were spending a tremendous amount of time on the web because of the COVID-19 lockdown,” she explains. “The timing really helped a lot because the business just exploded at that point. I also think it’s important that my company puts a big emphasis on empowerment and moods. The whole idea is to help people show that moods change all the time, and that’s OK. FlipRings help people express themselves through an accessory.”
Last fall, to augment her business skills and pursue a minor in entrepreneurship, Birnbaum enrolled in the CofC course Introduction to Entrepreneurship. Over the initial weeks of that class, she grew to know the professor – David Wyman – fairly well. It was Wyman who recommended she enter the College’s Student Entrepreneur of the Year competition.
“I really wasn’t interested,” she recalls. “When he told me that I’d have to make a presentation in front of the judges and about 60 other people, I knew I didn’t want to do it. I have anxiety around public speaking, but Dr. Wyman insisted. He said the experience would be good for me. And, he was right. I learned that I can’t be nervous. I mean, FlipRings is my business and I know it thoroughly, so I just had to speak about it in a way that connected with the judges and the audience.”
Ultimately, Birnbaum’s presentation prevailed and she won top honors in that annual competition, walking away with the $1,000 prize. But more valuable to her are the lessons she learned and the connections she made in the process.
“I’ve learned a lot by running my own business and finding ways to promote it,” she says. “The contest was another aspect of that learning journey. And I’ve learned that there are lot of students at the College who are running small businesses. In fact, along with Billy Barlia and Oliva DeSisto (two other students in the Introduction to Entrepreneurship course), we’ve started a new club to support and encourage this – the Founders Club. We’ve only been active since January, but we’ve got about 15 members and everyone seems keen to keep it going next year.”
In the interim, Birnbaum will spend the summer dividing her time between Charleston and her home in New Jersey. She’ll continue to manage FlipRings, but says she doesn’t want to focus solely on that.
“I’ll also be doing a remote internship this summer,” she offers. “It’s a creative consulting role with an advertising agency based in California. I’ll help them with designs for events and ads for clients, doing things like picking color schemes and helping orchestrate events.”
And, what about her future as an entrepreneur?
“I don’t really have a plan,” Birnbaum says. “I don’t know if that’s good or bad; I’m just enjoying the moment. I’m expanding to other products. We’re now doing skull caps or flip beanies for winter and flip bucket hats for summer. But my business is so new. It’s only been two years, and I just want to see where it can go. I can do whatever I want with this enterprise, and that’s what I love about it.”