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Shelly Nicholas: Connection Between Competitive Sports + Entrepreneurship

Updated: Feb 16, 2019


Athletes and entrepreneurs share a lot of the same characteristics. The sense of urgency to be fierce, to build on your strength and ability, and ultimately win. Shelly knew that starting a business would have its challenges, but she took it on because she knew she had an idea for something great.

Shelly is learning how the struggles she faces as an entrepreneur can now be used as a learning tool for others to grow. Shelly found a niche in the market of hair accessories for athletes. Years ago when she played competitive sports, most of the gear she could buy were for boys or men. Now you will find a wide array of performance gear perfectly tailored to women’s bodies and needs. Shelly shares her story of building the brand, Pretty Knotty and bringing the lessons of this adventure to the classroom.

How long have you been teaching and how did you get started at LIM?

I first started teaching while I was a contractor for the New York City Department of Small Business Services. I worked for their client-facing unit, NYC Business Solutions, providing consulting services to entrepreneurs who were starting or operating a new business in the city. My area of focus was new business owners, and I focused on business plan writing assistance, marketing planning, access to financing, and workshop planning and development. Based on my previous marketing experience at a startup, I decided to begin teaching social media marketing and online marketing workshops. I really enjoyed being in a classroom setting, so I began looking for adjunct teaching opportunities.

I taught my first college course, Social Media & Mobile Marketing, at LIM during the Spring 2012 semester. Since there weren’t many traditional textbooks about social media marketing at that time, I based a lot of the course material off of my experience implementing social media for marketing purposes. Since LIM is in NYC, we were able to bring in exciting guest lecturers from Yelp, Stylecaster, Google, and more.

What is your favorite thing to teach that is not found in a textbook?

With any subject, I love being able to share real-world experience within the context of information included in a textbook. Some subjects can sound incredibly boring in a book but can come to life and take new meaning when coupled with a real-world example and personal story. For example, we discuss intellectual property in my Entrepreneurship course. IP can just seem like a bunch of definitions and without any context can be pretty dry. My business, Pretty Knotty, has three trademarks, had a provisional patent, and is non-provisional utility patent pending. These were huge milestones for my business. I love sharing ‘why’ IP is so important for businesses and being able to share my own story with the students.

The idea of your Pretty Knotty brand of fit ties..where did this stem from. Are you an athlete? What is the vision behind it?

I grew up playing competitive sports, and I also have crazy, curly long hair. As an athlete, I went through tons of cheap hair ties that stretched, broke, and damaged my hair. That’s why we created FIT TIES!

FIT TIES are designed to securely hold hair in place during training and competing while reducing friction and damage to hair. FIT TIES use a patent-pending design and manufacturing process and proprietary material blend. These combined to create a superior, longer-lasting product that securely holds hair and outperforms the competition. FIT TIES are stronger, last longer, and are gentler on hair than generic hair ties. Plus, our products are proudly made in the USA.

When I was playing sports, most of the gear was for boys or men. Since then, the athletic apparel and footwear markets have evolved significantly to include women. There’s a wide array of performance gear perfectly tailored to women’s bodies and needs. We created a performance hair tie for athletes so athletes with long hair don’t have to worry about their hair becoming loose when competing. We created a product that solves a pain point for so many competitive athletes (and people with long hair who just want a superior product).

Which sports did you play?

Growing up, I played sports year round including soccer, basketball, baseball, swim team, lacrosse, ice hockey, and I earned a black belt in karate. I played rugby in college and for part of grad school.

What is owning a business like this all about?

I started Pretty Knotty because I knew there was a gap in the marketplace. I wanted to create a better product for all of the girls and women who I played sports with… my teammates, my training partners, coaches, trainers… you name it. Pretty Knotty is all about empowering athletes with long hair to perform their best.

If you’re an athlete, have you ever fixed your hair during a throw in? How about have a hair tie break during free throws? Has your ponytail ever slid out when running down the field? Has your helmet fit awkwardly because of the bulk of your hair tie? Pretty Knotty is all about solving those problems. That’s why one of our sayings is ‘adjust your game, not your hair tie.’ We created a stronger, longer lasting hair tie that reduces damage to hair. For so many active users, this is huge!


As a business owner, surround yourself with smart people. There’s a saying that if you’re the smartest person the room, then you’re in the wrong room. I believe this. Find people who know more than you and have more experience than you; they’ll provide you with the type of insights that you could never dream of.

What are the similar traits of an athlete to an entrepreneur?

I think there are many similarities between being an athlete and being an entrepreneur.

Practice, practice, practice – As an athlete, you want to get yourself on the best team and learn from the best coaches to elevate your own game.

Push through setbacks – there will be injuries, prototypes that don’t work, teams you won’t make, experts who think your business idea is bad, games that you won’t get in, and doors that will close. Successful athletes and business owners push harder in the face of adversity.

Learn from losses – Review the film, analyze what went wrong, determine how to improve, and move forward.

Passion – As I mentioned above, I played a variety of sports throughout my life. There were times when I played soccer year round on premier teams in addition to playing high school sports. No matter how tired I was, I went to practices (often times back to back on the same night), did my homework, and took care of whatever responsibilities I had. It’s not easy to train or work 24/7, but it’s easier when you deeply care about your goals, your mission, and where you want to be.

What will success look like to you in this journey of owning your business? Or are you already there, and just like playing a sport, when do you know its enough?

Developing a product and starting a business can be challenging and intimidating. It can also be incredibly exciting and fulfilling. I developed the idea for this business back in 2008, and my business partner and I began working on product development back in 2012. It’s been a long road, so we try to celebrate all of our successes along the way. Some of our highlights include: finding the ‘right’ hair tie design and materials to make the best hair tie for athletes (SO HUGE after 5 years of failed attempts), developing our brand by finding our brand name, product name, slogan, colors, overall feel, protecting our IP with registered trademarks and a patent-pending, launching the business, feeling overwhelmed by sales during our first day, week, and month, being featured in People Stylewatch as a ‘summer essential’ for runners, getting great feedback and reviews on our products, hearing positive word of mouth through the grapevine about our hair ties, seeing our products in stores, seeing our product on professional athletes and Olympic athletes, and knowing that our product genuinely does what we say it will.

There have been some of the biggies for us. We have some new partnerships in the works right now, and we’re so excited about the future. We want to get FIT TIES into the ponytails, buns, and braids of as many athletes as we can so they can enjoy the benefits of the highest-performing hair tie on the market.

Life moves fast or slow for you and if you could give one piece of advice to your students what would it be?

I wanted to start Pretty Knotty since 2008. The business didn’t officially launch until February 1, 2017. My advice two students is twofold…

First, make every job you have your own. Your first job may not be your dream job. That’s okay. Try to tailor your work and professional development opportunities to your interests and play to your strengths. Doing this can help you plan for longer-term goals while creating a niche for yourself in your current position.

Second, if you have a long-term goal, start working on it today. Prioritize your dreams. Do a little bit when you can each day to continue to move yourself towards those BHAGs that you set for yourself.

You lived in NYC…how long and everyone has their view on the city that is so special and unique. What is yours?

I lived in NYC for about 8 ½ years. I went to Fordham University in the Bronx, and I ended up living in almost ever borough (sorry, Staten Island!). There is so much to love about NYC, but my top three things about the city (because there’s only one city… amirite New Yorkers?) are the passion, the energy, and the opportunities. I could go on about this for days, but instead..

Is there a mantra or quote that inspires you?

Pretty Knotty’s slogan is ‘Hair Up, Game On.’ When I created this saying, it was a short, hair-inspired way to tell myself and the world that I’m ready and I’m about to get after it. This saying is about having confidence to take on any challenge… big or small. I hope it empowers our fans to make the most of each practice, game, workout, workday, project, or anything else that life throws their way.

Hair Up, Game On!!!

An adventure like Shelly's can help find endurance and confidence. But when do you know when you have actually made your business a success? How have you faced your own similar challenges?

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