“And I think being a part of MassChallenge is being a part of a very powerful community. It’s the I know one person who knows these other people and it's this huge spider web that just keeps growing in the best way.” - Katarina Samardzija, founder and CEO of Locker Lifestyle and PowerToPitch.com
Katarina Samardzija has very quickly become an entrepreneur to keep an eye on. She started her first startup, Locker Lifestyle in 2016, partially out of her college dorm, partially out of her mother’s bridal dress shop.
While looking for different funding opportunities for Locker Lifestyle, Samardzija applied for and won a grant from FedEx’s Small Business contest. Her pitch went so well that FedEx asked her to shoot a video as a helpful resource for future applicants of the program. Once the video was posted, Samardzija’s inbox was flooded. “Just hundreds of direct messages after the FedEx grant,” Samardzija said. “Questions like how do you enter pitch competitions? How do you find them? How do you feel comfortable speaking? How do you prep? I couldn’t keep up!”
Indeed, Samardzija has a remarkable talent for pitching – she has 22 wins and counting – and upon realizing that what came naturally to her, was not so for many other aspiring entrepreneurs, she decided to harness this ability. She created her second startup PowerToPitch.com, in the aftermath of the FedEx grant. At first, a single recorded workshop to try and answer those who reached out but has grown to a series of workshops and one on one time. “Now I'm on a mission to give individuals and businesses the power to pitch themselves to success,” said Samardzija.
In 2020, with Locker Lifestyke, Samardzija won the Gold prize in the MassChallange Early Stage Accelerator. During her time at the accelerator, Samardzija accomplished the following:
- logged 41 hours of mentor sessions
- grew revenue by 195%
- officially launched on Amazon
- hired three new employees
We recently spoke with Samardzija about her experience at MassChallenge, the rise of Locker Lifestyle, and the unexpected camaraderie of the entrepreneurial community.
To start, can you tell us how you got started as an entrepreneur?
I just graduated college a couple of years ago and started my first company Locker Lifestyle out of my dorm room after I had some valuables stolen from my gym locker.
I was planning to go to medical school but then created the first Locker Lifestyle product, because I wanted a more convenient safe way to hold the essentials while I worked out. And then during college, people started knocking on my door like “Hey can I get a Wrist Locker to take to tailgate? Hey I need a Wrist Locker for my ID & cash to go to the bars!” things like that, and so I switched my major from biomedical sciences to entrepreneurship and marketing.
I was fresh out of college starting the business, making everything out of my mom's bridal store, and then she lost everything to a fire. Not only did she lose her business of 26 years, I lost materials, patterns, prototypes, and was back to zero which inspired me to enter my first pitch competition. That was the first one that allowed me to kickstart the business. I got my LLC, I created the website and got my first trademarks.
What was it about MassChallenge that appealed to you?
I decided to apply for a MassChallenge because I saw the extensive amount of mentors and connections available across the network, which I thought was super unusual and unlike any competition or accelerator. I knew that I needed a lot of help in terms of marketing, more outreach, some bigger contracts, and especially on the social media advertising side. I saw that some people were connected there and knew that was the best of the best and that I wanted to be a part of it.
My favorite part of the accelerator was the one-on-one mentorship sessions. Once I picked out the mentors that I wanted and confirmed that they also wanted me back, we set up private sessions. It was like a whole college semester catered to my business, I mean it was just a wealth of knowledge and connections and I still actually keep in touch with the mentors that I was paired with during the program.
One of my close mentors was from Puma and he helped connect me with some previous content creators, videographers, and photographers who shot some of the biggest celebrities in the world and we were able to get on a call not once, but several times to go over the content that I wanted to create and execute on and where I could source and do things, and so it was incredible to be able to operate at that level.
Where were you and Locker Lifestyle before the accelerator?
Before the accelerator, I didn't have much marketing experience, and it was very helpful to be able to not only ask for help but feel comfortable and that it was okay to ask for help. That was where it made the real difference, and then we were able to get on Amazon, which was one of our biggest challenge channels. After that, I was able to get enough money to also invest in a PR company that helped us get on Good Morning, America, and from there we've been featured three times.
During the accelerator, you partnered with Zulily to help with e-commerce. Can you tell us about that?
Zulily was a really special partnership because I was trying to get in contact with a buyer for the longest time. It’s a great example of knowing the right people because I was doing all this outreach and then found one person who I would have never expected to know the right buyer, but I happened to ask the right questions in order to get connected. Once I was able to send a sample to the right person, I didn't even have to go through an extra vetting process, and during the first meeting they stopped my pitch and said, “we want this,” and we went through what I was capable of in terms of shipping and barcoding. We launched with them a few weeks after that.
That’s an example of why I think getting a lot of people like that into your network is almost more important than finding any funding. All it takes is one person to get that connection, or you need to have someone whether it's for emotional support or for actual physical support like manufacturers, I wouldn't have been able to have the right people to hire. I think being a part of MassChallenge is being a part of a very powerful community that enables this. It’s “I know one person who knows these other people” and it's this huge spider web that just keeps growing in the best way.
What do you think your biggest learning from the accelerator was?
One of the biggest things that I thought I never really had to do and was humbling in a way, was putting together official documents for our brand statement, vision statement, target customer, and persona profiles. Even Puma had these huge outlines of their specific customer personas: their customer does this for fun, they like that, they also shop here. And I realized that, yes, I know these things about my audience, but when I'm bringing on new people who are doing social media research, I need to have these documents for reference. I underestimated how important those things were and my mentor at Puma really helped me with that.
How did PowerToPitch come to life?
I started PowerToPitch.com after receiving hundreds of DMs when FedEx posted a video of me teaching people how to apply for their grant competition. It was just a few minutes long. I couldn’t keep up with the messages, so I took a weekend to create a workshop on pitching. And it just exploded.
I didn't spend anything on marketing and I was able to pay myself more than I had in eight months from Locker Lifestyle because I was investing so much in inventory and I didn't realize the serious need for something like this.
So I've now created PowerToPitch.com to be able to coach individuals and small businesses how to find grants, apply for pitch competitions, and how to sell yourself with confidence so you can actually execute on these opportunities.
How did you realize that you had a special talent for or understanding of pitching?
It was funny because I didn't even realize it after winning 22 pitch competitions. It's such a crazy ridiculous number. I didn't realize that until I had some mentors telling me, “hey can you coach this person, can you help that person.” And I started to see repetitions in a lot of the questions, which all seemed so natural to me.
It wasn’t until after I started receiving all these questions that I realized maybe my knack for this is a bit unusual. I had all this experience of being in different situations and adapting. I've done competitions all across the country and I've been in crowds spanning just one investor to a group of 7,000 conference attendees. So I released I had a good amount of experience in many different aspects, and that's why I’m able to provide a diverse variety of value to people.
Katarina Samardzija sharing her story at the 2019 EO GSEA US Nationals
What is it about entrepreneurship that gets you excited?
It started at the beginning of Locker Lifestyle. I had a mentor to who I did a cold outreach. They were on Shark Tank. They were just crushing it. For about two years, I was having such an issue trying to find a manufacturer. I wasted time and money and had no idea how to work through that experience. So when I reached out, this person took the time to vet me and helped me get connected to a manufacturer. And I was so grateful! His response was “seriously, I’m happy to help because I wouldn't be where I am without the mentors that I have so I'm just hoping that, one day, you can pass it on.”
His kindness always stuck with me. The existence of this community and learning from others, and getting help. I want to be able to help others do the same to be successful and pursue their dreams in that regard.
Can you tell us any goals or wished for your future? Maybe like 5 to 10 years down the road?
I have so many different ideas for the workshops that I want to do, and I can’t share them now because I'm still working on them.
I have so many other courses and conferences that I've been a part of and other group learnings from different projects, so I definitely want to be able to continue that brand and in 10 years I want to be able to sponsor my own pitch competition. I've done enough of them to have an idea of what I wished they did and didn’t do for me as an entrepreneur.
What was the experience like winning the Gold Award at MassChallenge?
I still smile thinking about it. It was so weird having to be virtual. The suspense was building the whole day. I was so nervous and my fiance came over with a bottle of champagne, I was like, “why did you do that? You're gonna jinx me winning!” My parents were sitting around and when my mom was recording, I still have a video of everyone just screaming in the kitchen, it was such an honor and an experience that I wish every entrepreneur can have.
With the money, I was able to hire new people, especially to help for Amazon, and then the PR company that got us some of our biggest opportunities yet and it made a serious difference. From the advertising side to the mentorship side, it was something that was a truly priceless experience. I hope every business has the opportunity to apply to something like this.