Inside Track: Juggling school, sports and startup comes up aces
At 20 years old, Grand Valley student-athlete Katarina Samardzija is growing athleisure startup with pitch competition wins.
Running a business has never been theoretical for Katarina Samardzija.
The Grand Valley State University junior was quite literally raised in the bridal store her mom, Nicole Samardzija, and aunt, Natalie Krstev, co-owned — VIP Occasions in Elmhurst, Illinois.
“My aunt and mom would take turns watching us kids in the back during work,” she said. “When I was old enough, I started helping clean the store. Then I did sales and running the desk pretty early on.
“I was raised in that whole hustle and work environment and seeing what it took to make it in business.”
Her dad, Bronny Samardzija, and uncle, Rod Samardzija, also set an example as they ran Gremp Steel, a family-owned steel fabrication business in Posen, Illinois.
But Samardzija dreamed of becoming a doctor like some of her other relatives and evaluated prospective colleges based on the strength of their pre-med programs.
After winning all-state honors in high school tennis, she was offered a scholarship to GVSU, and she signed on the dotted line.
During her freshman and sophomore years, Samardzija loaded up on science prerequisites while playing tennis.
By sophomore year, she had added a business minor and was developing an idea for a product that would solve a problem she encountered.
“One day after practice, my teammates and I went to our rec center to change,” Samardzija said. “In order to get in, we need an ID, but we would end up bringing keys, wallet, phone, all these things we didn’t need, and the lockers didn’t lock and the cubbies weren’t safe.
“When some of our stuff got stolen that day, I knew I had to do something about it.”
Other armband-, belted- or fanny pack-style pouches she found could hold small items, but they lacked comfort, versatility and durability.
So, she created her own wearable products with the help of her mom’s seamstress at the bridal shop and began selling them on Etsy.
“When I came up with this idea, I knew it had to be machine washable and snug when holding contents, and it had to be on my person somehow, so I don’t have to worry about where it is,” Samardzija said.
She secured a trademark for the brand name Locker Lifestyle and developed and began selling four products: Wrist Locker — which also is trademarked — Ankle Locker, Little Locker and Head Locker.
Last year, Samardzija switched to a double major in entrepreneurship and marketing and began tapping into the resources of GVSU’s Richard M. and Helen DeVos Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation.
With encouragement from professors and mentors, she started entering — and winning — pitch competitions to raise money for materials, production and packaging.
Samardzija won the MWest Challenge in April and Start Garden’s 5x5 Night in May.
She also won pitch competitions at the Michigan Inventors Coalition, Dolphin Tank and Accelerate Michigan and was ranked among the top 15 at the CEO Global Pitch Competition in Tampa, Florida.
Additionally, she made it to the global semifinals of GSEA, a global entrepreneurship competition in Cincinnati, and was accepted into the Future Founders 2018 National Fellowship Cohort as one of the top 17 millennial entrepreneurs in the country.
Her brand is now a full-fledged LLC, and she shut down her Etsy shop to immerse herself in how to run a business from every angle — including sewing, building her own website, marketing and sales.
“If I’m going to bring people on, I need to understand what they need to learn,” she said. “As a CEO, I want to be my own boss, and to be that boss, I want to be not only working with my team but also creating the whole building blocks and growth process, so when I’m looking for someone to help, I know what to look for.”
Her mom has been her No. 1 resource. Samardzija began production at VIP Occasions and was keeping all of her inventory there until a fire destroyed the store in January 2017.
Faced with the costs of replacing all bridal inventory and finding a new storefront, Nicole Samardzija and her sister decided to permanently close the shop.
Now, Nicole Samardzija is working with her daughter at Locker Lifestyle.
“I call her my ‘momager,’” Katarina Samardzija said. “Her 26 years of experience in retail are priceless to me.”
Besides her mom and herself, Samardzija relies on production help from friends.
“I go to local craft fairs and markets, and I sell on the website. I do a lot of custom orders,” she said.
She is in the process of finding a manufacturing partner, so she can scale up production and begin selling on Amazon in the coming months — and she has several additional product ideas.
Samardzija recently started selling her products at a retail store in Boulder, Colorado, called Skirt Sports. She plans to expand to other brick-and-mortar stores after securing a manufacturer “that’s willing to grow with the company.”
“I’ve been reached out to by Cedar Point and Costco, and they are interested in carrying the products, so I want to make sure I can keep up with that,” she said.
Running a business while in college and playing sports has been a challenge, Samardzija said. Often, she works 40 hours a week on top of studies, training, travel and competing — and sometimes sleeps only four hours a night.
She said being in sports has given her the discipline she needs to keep it all going.
“I have a set of lists for each thing: practice, business stuff and class,” she said. “I’m running all over all the time, but now I’m used to it. In tennis, my coach has helped me realize the importance of that discipline.”
The pitch competitions have allowed her to avoid taking out business loans so far, Samardzija said.
“It funded all the legal fees, the patents, production, in order to keep Locker Lifestyle debt-free. I take pride in that I have been able to keep 100 percent of the company and own it,” she said.
Samardzija said she sold nearly 1,000 units of product in 2017.
Social media has been one of her top marketing methods, she added.
“I love when people send me pictures of where they use the product, or what they put in it,” Samardzija said. “Before Christmas, I was really overwhelmed about meeting deadlines. Then I got a picture of a customer in Thailand feeding an elephant wearing my product, and it made my day.”
To keep the momentum going, she launched a Locker Lifestyle ambassador program this month for customers and followers of the brand to spread the word — from high school students to active older women to outdoor sports enthusiasts.
She also is speaking at entrepreneurship forums, participating in running and sporting expos and events, and seeking opportunities to “co-logo” her products, i.e., put her logo on the front and a college sports team’s logo on the back.
Samardzija said many people have brought her to this level of success.
“The competitions and connections and advice and people I’ve met have gotten me to where I am,” she said. “Both of my parents have come to all my competitions, so now they’re not allowed to not come to any because they’re good luck charms.
“They’ve believed in me the entire time. It would not have been possible to do any of this without them.”