5 Minutes with Michael Fox, Director of Operations and Co-Founder (Shoes of Prey)

Founded by three friends, Michael and Jodie Fox and Mike Knapp, Shoes of Prey is a new Australian business that provides a unique twist on women’s shoes. Customers who visit the website are able to use a simple tool to design their very own unique pair of shoes. Top quality materials are used and the shoes are hand-made in reputable workshops before being packed and shipped anywhere in the world, all for very competitive prices.

Having first dipped his toe into the legal profession, co-founder Michael wasn’t destined for the courtroom. He went on to spend several years in business management roles at a major Australian retailer and then with the search engine Google.

In this interview with Brainmates, Michael shares his thoughts on the challenges, opportunities and excitement involved in developing and marketing a new product.

Where did the idea for Shoes of Prey originate?

I had wanted to do something entrepreneurial for a while and Mike and I often found ourselves thinking through various ideas for online businesses. What sparked Shoes of Prey was a trip to Europe with my wife. We stopped off in Hong Kong on the way back and she ordered some custom made shoes that were then built and shipped to her when we got home. I thought – could this work with an online retail model? Together with Mike we investigated the potential. We spoke with a number of women and asked if they would use a site that let them design their own shoes. The response was positive and so we began a process of market analysis. The closest thing we could find to a competitor was specialist shoemakers, without an online presence, offering bespoke shoes for around $800 – $1,000. We went through and looked into whether the model could work with a lower price point and what customers would want from the product – the shoes and the website.

How does Shoes of Prey work?

It’s very simple. You just head to our website and open up the Shoes of Prey Design tool. You can pick the shape, the style, the materials and customise the look to your own preference. At the moment there are 3.18×10^22 possible combinations on the site which means that customers won’t have any problem making something unique. Payment is managed via PayPal and the shoes are then built in one of two workshops in China. The shoes are then shipped directly to the customer in around three to four weeks. The shoes cost either AUD $250 or AUD $300 depending on the heel height, which is very competitive – mainly because we’re cutting out a costly middleman retail channel and because we have low inventory and operational costs.

The end product is of course a fashionable pair of shoes. But the user experience also involves the process of designing the shoes. How did you develop this?

Mike has a lot of experience in programming and he developed the tool. We focused on making it very easy to use – it had to be obvious what you needed to do to customise your shoe. We didn’t want customers to have to read a manual. It was challenging of course as we had to ensure that the design combinations were possible – there are a range of materials and some can and can’t work with each other so there was some experimentation and finessing of the design tool.

Shoes of Prey Design Tool
Shoes of Prey Design Tool

As a start-up, you have to take on a lot of responsibilities outside your core areas of expertise. What are some of the harder things that you’ve had to do?

Because our production is based in China we had to spend time over there meeting with different people to find the right suppliers. This was a challenging process as our business model was new – most workshops were happy to produce mass quantities of products but we had to find the ones that would produce smaller volumes, and of unique designs. We had to make sure that the supplier also would work well with us remotely given we’re based in Sydney. We have two suppliers for redundancy and have had some issues with timings being a bit longer than we’d like and with our shipping agency. We now have an employee on the ground in China and this has made it possible for us to ensure quality is up to our expectations. Another big task was integrating the product with the website – we had to take thousands of photos and work hard to ensure the way the shoes looked on screen matched how they looked in real life.

One of our biggest issues in starting up was around our brand name. We had done a trademark application for Shoes of Prey and it was proceeding well, but then just two weeks before launch we discovered an issue with another fashion brand that had trademarked, but had not used the term “Prey”. This was a big headache and delayed our launch but ultimately we were able to reach a deal with that company and get our site up relatively close to plan.

Of course, any new startup has the challenges of organising contracts, finances and managing cash flow but so far we’re doing fine on those fronts.

How important is marketing to your business? What are you currently doing and what are your plans?

As you can imagine, marketing is absolutely critical. We took our time though and focused on launching the site first and ensuring the process worked fine. We’ve taken to Social Media and have created a facebook fan page which already has over 1,200 members actively discussing our product. We also use Twitter to keep our customers aware of new developments such as new designs or materials. As an ex-Google man, I’ve used AdWords to drive traffic to the site and this has been very effective. We’ve also done a very small amount of PR to date, just to get some awareness out there but we are about to launch a marketing and PR campaign including some traditional marketing such as engaging fashion magazines and trying to get media coverage in radio and television.

What does 2010 hold for Shoes of Prey?

Next year we will be focused on refining and improving our business model as well as focusing more on marketing and increasing sales. Interestingly, as an online business we have started to look at the offline channel. We’ve had some success recently with showcasing our shoes and website in pop-up stores here in Sydney and we are looking at the potential of establishing an affiliate type relationship with a select number of leading shoe boutiques in the capital cities. We think this offline channel will be great for building awareness and stimulating conversation that can drive people back to our site.

Internally we will focus on our operations, trying to speed up the process and provide redundancy in suppliers so that we have a more secure and stable process.

From a product perspective we are considering some new extensions such as wedding shoes or bundled packages. Then of course we have our general marketing push, really focusing on using social media to drive awareness, interest and sales. It should be an exciting year!

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