How to Start Your Own Shoe Brand with Susannah Davda @ The Shoe Consultant

We spoke to Susannah Davda from The Shoe Consultant to find out how a buyer can start their own shoe brand…
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How to Start You Own Shoe Brand

We spoke to Susannah Davda from The Shoe Consultant about how to start your own shoe brand, what are the different stages throughout the process from start to finish!

  • Introduction – 00:40
  • The Shoe Consultant 2:26
  • Starting a footwear brand – 6:07
  • The brand – 10:25
  • Learning about the product & design – 14:02
  • Investors – 15:50
  • Manufacturing countries for footwear – 19:18
  • Italy – 21:01
  • Spain – 21:45
  • Portugal 22:14
  • More than one manufacturer – 22:55
  • The last – 24:51
  • Private label vs custom manufacturing – 26:05
  • Sourcing materials – 27:40
  • Trade shows – 29:00
  • Working with your supplier – 31:43
  • Visiting a factory – 37:08
  • How long it takes to get a product produced? – 40:07
  • When should you start talking to your suppliers? – 41:01
  • Factory closing dates – 41:45
  • Tips for quieter periods – 43:40
  • Where to go for help – 46:30
  • One bit of advice to take away – 48:01

Heather: Welcome to our Meet The Buyer Sessions.

I’m Heather, founder of Sourcing Playground and I’m here today with Susannah Davda from The Shoe Consultant. We’re going to be talking about how to start a shoe brand, and what are the things you need to know and how to go about doing it. So, thanks so much for joining us today, Susannah.

Susannah: Thank you so much for inviting me. It’s great to be talking to you.

Heather: So, basically we’re going to be talking about how to start a shoe brand and all the different things you need to know, especially, if you’re a first-time brand. So, could you tell us a little bit about your experience and how you got into the industry?

Susannah: Yes, absolutely. To be honest, footwear is all I’ve ever really done. From working in shoe shops as a teenager to realising that this is where I wanted my career to go, so I studied for a degree in footwear design. When I graduated, I joined a large retailer, a footwear multiple in the UK as designer and trainee buyer, so I got to see both sides.

Heather: That’s so exciting as you’re talking.

Susannah: Yeah, exactly. It was really insightful. I got to travel a lot. I got to do the big trade shows and also, I was able to see some factories, which was really useful. I did some of the technical side of the drawings and more of the statistical analysis and the things that a buyer really needs to know as well as– I suppose getting an instinct for what’s commercial and what is just really, really appealing and exciting in terms of footwear.

Heather: Yeah.

Susannah: And then, I started working for a global footwear brand managing their women’s range, their women’s global range which was really interesting.

Heather: That’s nice, isn’t it?

Susannah: Yeah. The tastes for footwear around the world are quite different.

Heather: Yeah, massively.

Susannah: Uh-hum. So, that was my background. I’ve been working in the footwear industry for over 20 years, three and a half of which have been running my own consultancy, called The Shoe Consultant.

Heather: Tell us a little bit about what you guys do at The Shoe Consultant, and how you help buyers and brands and what are the type of things you offer for them?

Susannah: So, we have two sides of the business. One side is helping people to start shoe brands. I work with startups at any stage. The preference is always to start working with them as soon as they’re even thinking about starting a shoe brand.

Heather: You guide them properly.

Susannah: Yeah, because there are so many mistakes that you can make in terms of being a startup. You can spend money in so many different ways. When they work with me from the outset, then I can just drive them across the clear path where they know that they’re making the right decisions all the time. It helps their confidence, but it also just helps their business to grow more quickly or develop more quickly. So, I love working with startups and that support side of things really makes me happy when they’re happy.

Heather: Yeah, yeah, definitely. And in a start-up, obviously, the experience and advice you give them is so valuable and it’s such a small scale, so you can really see the value that you’re bringing to them.

Susannah: Exactly, yes. Working one-to-one is really beneficial, I think, for both sides. With startups, they move so quickly. So, you really do see the results of the input that you’ve contributed really quite quickly, so that’s great. And then, I also work with established shoe brands and shoe businesses, so that includes retailers as well. When they come to me, they’re looking for– often a different point of view. I have this 20 years of experience that I can contribute. I have quite a holistic view. I try to be aware of any footwear developments in terms of technology, in terms of how politics is affecting footwear. New brands that could be their potential competitors. So, I can give them a different viewpoint. I can give them research and research techniques that they wouldn’t necessarily have thought of. Because I do find that more established brands they have particular…

Heather: They play it safe.

Susannah: Sorry. They play it safe?

Heather: Yeah.

Susannah: Yeah. They have particular ways of doing things that they’ve been doing for quite a number of years whereas my thinking is, as a consultant, I have to be innovative. I have to keep up to date with what’s changing. The brands and the retailers, who are thriving at the moment, are the ones who really are keeping their ear to the ground.

Heather: Yeah, definitely.

Susannah: Yeah, and concentrating on what consumers want.

Heather: Yeah, definitely. We’ve seen that with like the rise of online and the decline in retails. It’s the ones that are being the most innovative are winning, basically.

Susannah: Exactly, yeah. You’re right.

Heather: Fantastic. So, let’s start from the beginning. So, let’s say you’re a first-time buyer or if you are someone that’s looking to start a new brand and they are right at the very beginning. What would you say is the process and how would they go about it? What is the things that they need to be focused on?

Susannah: So, the first thing always is looking at the consumer. Okay, so we could say that the consumer doesn’t necessarily know what they want until they see it.

Heather: Yes. So true.

Susannah: You have to be quite clever. I think in terms of a consumer research that you do and that’s something I can help with in terms of asking the questions that are going to get you the useful information. So, always talking with a consumer, but also knowing the context in which you’re going to be operating. So, if you want to start a high-heeled shoe brand, or you’re a retailer who wants to get into footwear. So, perhaps, there’s a new buyer who is going to be focusing in the footwear.

Heather: Uh-hum.

Susannah: Then you would want to see who else is making footwear in at that market level, high heels. What are they offering to their consumers? I always recommend looking at consumer reviews.

Heather: Uh-hum, yeah.

Susannah: Because they…

Heather: Even things online, for example?

Susannah: Yeah. They can be really insightful, I think. You can see a company’s products online, but you don’t really know if they’re… if they’re suiting the customer, if they’re selling any of them unless you look at reviews. Another trick I always say is to look at what’s in the sale.

Heather: Yeah. That’s so true. What hasn’t sold?

Susannah: This is it. Okay, so maybe it’s particular sizes which also can be quite useful to know or maybe it’s why are there so many sizes of this product, it just didn’t work, and you try and figure out how. So, understanding the context. So the consumer, the competitor in the country or in the areas that you are looking to operate in. And so, with startups, often they come to me and they have designs in their head and that’s sort of their starting point. Whereas, I tend to be the voice of reason and say, “Hold on, can we backtrack because is there an opportunity for this? Who’s going to buy it? Who else is making similar products? How much are they selling them for? What’s their distribution model? Are they online only? Are they wholesaling? Have they got their own stores?” You have to understand who you’re up against.

Heather: So, basically, it is understanding first your consumer and what they want, and then you basically, you tailor make the product around then your consumer as opposed to, “I have a great idea, let’s try and fit this into a customer and try and make it match for them.” So, start first with the customer.

Susannah: Absolutely. Because the thing is, if you jump ahead and you end up making a four-inch heel, and you’ve spent a load of money on heel molds because it’s this really interesting heel design that you created, and then you realise that actually your customer only wears a maximum of three inches. Then you’ve wasted a load of money. So, you have to do it, I think, the methodical way. So, together we would look at pricing strategy. We would also look at product strategy. So, what are the consistent things that you’re going to have in your products or what can a customer always expect from your product? That can be branding and logos, but it can also be– would they always expect them to be leather? Are there particular colours that your brand is going to be all about? Then, that kind of feeds into the branding elements as well.

Heather: So then, from there then, would you fit the brand around the customer or would you already have a brand in mind and how would the brand then fit with the shoe? How would you explain that process?

Susannah: So, often I think the branding side of it links quite closely to the purpose of the brand, like, “What is driving this brand? What’s the reason why it exists?” And linking that to the consumer, what they already like? So, not necessarily the shoe brands that they are into already, but thinking about your ideal consumer and– “What Instagram accounts do they follow?” All of those sorts of things. “What’s their aesthetic, and how does that link with your brand and your goals and your personal kind of thoughts and taste around that?”

Heather: When you’re researching this, do you have a specific method like, literally, how you pop this down? Is this you sort of, gather lots of online resources, put it all in a Word doc and a PDF. Like, how do you go through that process?

Susannah: So, I don’t have at the moment. I have specific templates for particular areas in terms of competitor analysis and I will always send them out to my clients. And I do produce reports for particular clients and I have templates that I use, but everything I do really is bespoke. When I’m helping startups, sometimes the startups are so creative.

Heather: They’ve done it all for you.

Susannah: Yeah. This is it. It’s sort of I tell them what they need to put in, what they need to research and sometimes they come up with these amazing design document, like in InDesign.

Heather: Oh, wow. Okay.

Susannah: And I’m like, “Okay this is cool.”

Susannah: You know like Indesign and ok, this is cool

Heather: This is good!

Susannah: You’ve got this amazing aesthetic eye and also, that you know the business side of things, so it comes across really nicely. So, it’s a bit of a mix, if they need templates and things from me, then I’ll provide them. And often, it’s kind of building it in Excel and putting it into PowerPoint, and then saving it as PDF. And PDF seems to be kind of a universal business plan format at the moment.

Heather: Once you’ve done the research, then you would go on to, I would guess, the branding, and then designs. So, how would you– walk us through the design process. So, you would, obviously, get a designer to do this. Where would you recommend someone going to find a shoe designer or someone to help with the technical drawings of creating the shoe?

Susannah: Yeah. So I’ve got a network of shoe designers who I recommend. They all have different areas of expertise. They’ve all got years and years of experience and are also just really nice people to work with.

Susannah: And so,…

Susannah: Yeah. So, if they’re working with me, then I will easily give them a list of a few designers who I think would be really good for them. Also, there are courses. If somebody wants to learn how to do it themselves, there are some really good courses, particularly at LCF, London College of Fashion.

Heather: Okay.

Susannah: They do some really great short courses if you want to kind of learn those sorts of things.

Heather: Yeah, exactly. Some people are really sort of invested in their brand and they want to get really involved into the learning and the design process. Yeah. That’s great if they can have that course for that.

Susannah: Actually, I’d recommend that even if they are working with a designer as well because it just helps with your thought processes when you’re designing something. That you have to be designing something that can be made. It’s quite easy to draw a shoe, that is an impossible shoe.

Heather: Anything else square, that will do and it does not even be as constructible.

Susannah: That’s boring. Shoe people are kind of saying, “Okay, where are the seams?”

Heather: Yeah.

Susannah: It’s all useful. The more knowledge, the better I would say.

Heather: I guess as well as the terminology is really good because I will go later on into the process of when we start working with suppliers, the more you know at the beginning, and that’s what we always say to our buyers and our users is you need to have product research. How can you go and brief suppliers if you don’t know yourself. How things are made? Because then when things go wrong, then you’re able to best advise on things. If you have a better understanding of your product, it wins all-round basically.

Susannah: Absolutely, yes. Completely agree. It can be a hard learning process otherwise,

Heather: Massively. When you start learning about a product, they’re quite technical terms like regardless of what all product you’re dealing with then it’s shoes, especially, because it’s quite a construction, and there’s lots of different elements on shoes. Yeah, as much as possible research product.

Susannah: Yes.

Heather: Okay. So, after you’ve done that, so you’ve got your design, you’ve researched your branding and you’ve got your idea of the shoe and your customer profiling; you go into the design. Then, what is the next stage after you’ve got your shoe design? Where would you go next?

Susannah: So, I think at this point or potentially slightly earlier, you would want to be starting to think about investors if that’s something that you need. Okay, some people will have personal savings or they will already know people who want to invest in them, but many people will need some outside investment. So, this is a good time to be talking to investors and trying to get them on board. Then it’s the sourcing element. So, finding a manufacturer who you want to work with and who fits with your brand values and also with your product type because there are many, many shoe manufacturers in different countries, and they all have different specialties. Also, within that, there are companies who are willing to work with smaller companies or companies who are just developing a new range and don’t want to risk…

Heather: Too much investment. Yeah, upfront.

Susannah: …massive quantity.

Heather: So, would you say, as a small to medium size brand, what would you say is the minimum amount of investment? I know it varies on different products, how many styles you have, how many quantities? You’re experienced, how much would you say is a good starting point?

Susannah: Also, yeah, it’s also about how much uniqueness you want in terms of your shapes, so your last shapes or your heel shapes, those things as well. They add a lot of money. So, as a bare minimum, I mean, we used to say 10 000. I mean, that’ll get you somewhere, but thinking about because you’ve got to have a website.

Susannah: Yeah, of course. Then, that doesn’t cover everything around the business. That’s literally just stock, isn’t it?

Susannah: Well, to be honest, I always recommend starting small in terms of stock. I think this 10 000 to 15 000 should cover you’re sort of first season stock, your website and your consultancy fees. Got to work with me. And the other sort of incidental fees, some travel as well.

Heather: If something comes up along the way, just to have a sort of a buffer just in case anything goes wrong.

Susannah: Yeah, and a bit of training. You do have to spend it in the right way, I think– I’ve spoken to brands who, one in particular, she got – it was– she actually given a prize, I think, of 10 000 pounds. A couple of years down the line, she’s like, “I don’t really know where it went.”

Heather: Wow.

Susannah: Yeah. Actually, that amount of money could get you really, really far with your brands if you’re getting the right advice, if you’re doing–… …it’s not even thinking about the logical things, it’s having someone with some insight who can advise you on the right ways. So, it can get you really far or it can get you almost nowhere.

Heather: Yes. So, back to the manufacturers and the sourcing process, obviously, that’s where Sourcing Playground would come in. We would help you with manufacturers. In your experience, what are the countries or the places that you’ve worked with and the types of manufacturers you’ve worked with?

Susannah: So, when I work with startups in the UK, they tend to be premium or luxury. That tends to be their kind of business model. So, we look at Italy if it’s luxury, or Spain or Portugal if it’s premium. It’s quite useful, I think, for brands based in the UK to be able to source relatively locally, so that they can travel out.

Heather: Yeah. It’s much easier when you can just, you know, when it’s even just a few hours on the plane, a lot of people work with Far East manufacturers and that’s quite difficult. Even the time zones working with them, emailing that adds time into the process.

Susannah: Exactly. Often their quantities can be higher in the far east as well. So, that means, it’s more of if you’re looking to make larger quantities, then the far east would make sense, but if you want to start out and you want to be really hands-on which a lot of people do, then starting closer to home is better. Then, when I work with people in the US, we will look at Europe because I know Europe well, and I know the areas of expertise and I have contacts here, but also Mexico and Brazil makes some sense as well over there.

Heather: Would you say they all have their specialities? What would you say– obviously, you say Italy is from the luxury end and there are Portuguese and Spanish. So, what would you say is their differentiation between the three?

Susannah: Okay, between those three. Yes, it’s interesting actually. Italy has the name. So, lots of people think, made in Italy automatically means, it’s…

Heather: Quality.

Susannah: Yes. I would say that the very best quality shoes do tend to come from Italy. But they’re also capable of making not quite as premium.

Heather: Yeah, of course.

Susannah: Well, it does.

Heather: All end of the spectrum can be found, I guess, but it’s just finding the right one.

Susannah: Yes. This is it. Some luxury brands are starting to make the uppers elsewhere, and then the final products are finished in Italy. Things have changed a bit in that respect. With Spain, the areas around Alicante, so, Elda and Elche are kind of renowned for women’s footwear in particular and, actually, they do make for some luxury labels as well. They make some really beautiful sort of handcrafted footwear. I wouldn’t say it’s less finesse than Italy, but it’s more like you can see the work that has gone into it, I think. So, that’s Spain. And Portugal had been like there’s slightly more affordable end of premium, but, actually, they do make some really lovely shoes. It’s quite a mix of different footwear types that they make over there. They make some really good men’s footwear as well as women’s and sneakers, and, yes, it’s quite a blend.

Heather: When you are working with their factories, would you recommend having one manufacturer for the whole brand or from a risk point of view, would you spread that across different factories, and how would you go about managing the factory element with the products?

Susannah: It depends on the sorts of products that you’re making. If you’re making quite diverse product types, for example, if you’re making trainers and you’re making high heels, and that’s all part of your business model, then you’re going to need two different factories, because it’s pretty rare to find an expert in trainers.

Heather: Both fields.

Susannah: Yeah. Who’s also an expert in high heels. So, I would say differentiate your factories by product type, yes. To start out, the best way to get a consistent aesthetic is to work with one factory, but, of course, there is that risk.

Heather: It is a risk, anything can happens.

Susannah: But, if you’re literally just starting out and it is quite small quantity,

Heather: You don’t really have the choice.

Susannah: No. This is it.

Heather: Two investments on the different molds, styles, the heel type and it’s just duplicating costs, I guess, in the beginning.

Susannah: Exactly. So, I would say if you are thinking of adding a factory to the mix, then do it with a different product. A different kit, a different last, a different sole, so that you’re not actually duplicating at all.

Heather: Yeah, of course. So, there, obviously, you can, depending on what you’re looking for, you can have like completely custom-made, which is your own or how much can you already use the supplier’s styles and products and then tweak it yourself? Have you yet, the experience of doing that?

Susannah: Yeah. So, it really depends on what you’re looking for, and I suppose, how extreme your designs are, how much innovation, where the innovation is.

Heather: Yes.

Susannah: Yes, it’s much more cost-effective to use existing lasts and heels.

Heather: Just for anyone who doesn’t know, can you explain a last and all of the different parts of the shoe, just so we all know what we’re talking about.

Susannah: Okay, sorry. Yes. So, the last is, basically, it’s normally a plastic shape, which is sort of roughly the shape of a foot that the shoe is formed around. So, if you had a pointed toe shoe, then the last would be pointed and the shoe is formed around that. If you had a round toe shoe, it would it all comes from the last, that’s the sort of basic shape.

Heather: It basically helps to give shape to the shoe and make it all consistent, I guess.

Susannah: Exactly, yes. Do you want to know lots of different shoe parts?

Heather: Just the last, I think probably be fine just want to be on board with that. So, working with your suppliers on the different products if you either- if you want to, for example, like, private label or customise something. What would you say if someone’s starting out, let’s say, they wanted to have slightly different unique elements, but didn’t want to create a complete custom shoe from the beginning. How much do we adapt to one of the suppliers shoe to fit a design?

Susannah: Yeah, it’s interesting. I think with lasts attempt to adapt them vary in their success. Generally, if you want a last that is quite different, you need to put down new lasts. So, you need to invest in new lasts and that can be quite expensive.

Heather: Roughly, how much we’re talking?

Susannah: Depending on where you’re sourcing them from and how many sizes you’re looking for.

Heather: One size, one product just as a first base.

Susannah: And also, it depends on the amount of pairs that you want to make, because if a factory can work with just one pair of each size– because you’re just making really, really small quantities, then you only need to make one size roll of lasts. If you’re starting to make quite large quantities, then you need multiples of each size. A new size run can run into the thousands.

Heather: Uh-hum.

Susannah: Yeah. Also it depends who’s kind of developing the lasts for you. If you’ve got somebody in addition to the last manufacturer who is making those specifications, then you need to pay them as well, so it can get quite expensive.

Heather: And when it comes to the materials and sourcing that, how far into the process would a buyer get or does the supplier source all of the materials for you or would you recommend you, yourself, the buyer doing their own research and sourcing the fabrics and materials? How does this process go from the construction of the shoe plus sourcing the materials?

Susannah: So, some factories are more geared up to that side of things than others. I would recommend that most people look into it themselves. The more information you provide to the factory, the more likely you are to get what you want.

Susannah: Yes. So, even if you’ve sent them a swatch of a leather and they’ve got something similar from a supplier that they prefer to work with, they’ll send you a swatch of what they have and you can say whether it’s right or not. It’s good to know what you want. So, there’s a leather fair, which I would recommend, everyone goes to, anyway, if they’re looking to– if they’re a buyer for footwear or if they’re looking to start a shoe brand and it’s called Lineapelle. They have a small version in London every season, every six months. They have a massive version in Milan. Also, they do a mini one in…

Heather: Sure, in Milan. Looking at lots of different leathers.

Susannah: Yeah. It’s quite exciting because they also- they do a really good trend presentation. Which I always find quite insightful and looks at bigger picture.

Heather: Yeah, of course. It helps to give you an idea of what other people are doing and what’s going to be on trend of the next couple of seasons. It’s really inspiring. I’ve been to a few trade shows when you go and you see all the different products out there. Really helps the creative juices go as you get back to the drawing board and cut that to some new products.

Susannah: Exactly, yeah. Without a doubt.

Heather: Are there any other trade shows you would recommend people go into here in the UK or if there’s any else a bit further afield?

Susannah: So, the main ones in the UK are Pure London. There are several footwear brands there. There are more footwear brands at Moda UK, which is in Birmingham. And they’re both every six months. They’re definitely worth going to see. When thinking about a little bit further afield, Micam in Milan is an enormous footwear for– have you ever been?

Heather: No, I’ve not been to that one.

Susannah: It’s the kind of trade show where you need roller skates.

Heather: Oh, wow, they’re huge. Literally, just thousands and thousands of suppliers and it’s just you need a map.

Susannah: Yes, so…

Heather: You need a map

Susannah: Yes, exactly. You need a map, you need a goal, you need to focus, you need to know which holes you want to go to and which can go by the wayside if you run out time.

Heather: I think it’s really important as well for people to go because when I’ve had experience of going to a trade show, you set up meetings beforehand. I do research beforehand and see what suppliers or products or brands are going to be there and see if you can set up meetings because they’ve always got little areas and you can have little meetings and presentations work. I find you’re a lot more structured when you go to trade shows rather than just aimlessly walking around and you can leave and feel in a bit did I get enough out of that. Whereas when you go, set up meetings, and you have a clear goal in what you’re doing, and you feel like you’ve really got out of the whole point of going there, really.

Susannah: Yes, absolutely. Yeah. I would highly recommend that and some of those meetings can be successful and some maybe…

Heather: You just want to decide.

Susannah: ..you decide. Yeah, you decide that the relationship isn’t going to work or they think maybe it’s not going to work, but you’ve learned something from that interaction.

Heather: And obviously, rather than going and starting the process with them, you’ve learned now, rather than waiting a year, six months of wasting time with someone or a company that’s probably not the best fit for you.

Susannah: Exactly, yeah, and there’s nothing like face-to-face interaction

Susannah: to sort of start a relationship.

Heather: Absolutely.

Susannah: Especially, I would say, I don’t know, I think in mainland Europe, but particularly in Italy, but also Spain and Portugal, it is about relationships. Yes, it’s business, but it’s also about coffee.

Heather: Yeah, definitely. You talk about shoes, you do have to have coffee with it on the side.

Susannah: Yeah. You have to have this sort of meeting in the middle, you have to sort of come to an understanding of where each other is coming from to have that kind of mutual respect that you need to start a working relationship.

Heather: I think as well it’s really nice when you come and meet another business owner. So,if you’re a brand, you’re really passionate about what you’re doing. You’re starting a new brand, is a very creative process and then you come and meet. I don’t know a factory owner or a business owner or another brand and it’s really nice when you come together and you’re both talking about something you’re really passionate about and you can share that experience with someone else. It’s not just okay, this is about business, we make products and then that’s that. It’s that, okay, we’re both, we really like what we’re doing and it’s really nice to have that experience with both of you. So, I think relationships are so key to when you’re starting a brand.

Susannah: Absolutely, and that they understand where you’re coming from in terms of the purpose of your business. Because I think, there are people who start brands and they just want to make pretty things and they’re not really good about the context.

Heather: And the actual purpose of why they’re doing it.

Susannah: Yeah. With factory owners, then they do want to know is this going to be a success?

Susannah: They need to know…

Heather: Yeah of course

Susannah: …that you have a really good understanding of who’s going to buy it and how much for? And that’s what gets them excited because they think, “Okay, this could be a really good business.”

Heather: Yeah, definitely. We explained this. We always, always, advise our buyers, as much as possible, go and speak to factory owners and go and do– always pitch it to them. I think that’s the best way of seeing things. They’re investing in you, yourself, as well as much as you’re investing in them as a supplier. When you first start the relationship, is it going to do well? And I think, suppliers that believe in you and believe in your product and believe in your brand, are more likely to invest into the relationship and offer better things at the beginning. So, are they able to lower the quantities to help you in your long-term goals? If you just go there and expect, “Okay, I want this, this, this and this, and I want lower quantities and this is what I want to do,” and you haven’t really got to understand each other from a business point of view, then they’re less likely, I think, it’s my experience is to help you in that process. You need to pitch the idea to them and for them to believe in what you’re doing.

Susannah: Yes. You’re absolutely right. I think some startups or buyers would go to a factory and just expect them to jump.

Heather: Jump!

Susannah: Jump

Susannah: But they only want good business. They don’t want any business, they want good business. So, it is up to you, as you said, to persuade them to pitch to them.

Heather: I think to look at a supplier, I think, it should be as a business partnership. Suppliers are so important to the whole process when you’re dealing with a product. If you have a supplier that is not right for you or isn’t great or it can be bad quality or is late, there can be so many different things that can go wrong and you really need to know before you start working with them. Are they the right ones? It’s like, I say, it’s like dating. You need to make sure they tick all the boxes and you’re happy with them because for a product or a business that is all product-based and that is so heavily dependent on customer satisfaction, product quality, delivery times and your supplier is like 80% of that and is result of 80% of that. So, I think if you get the right one, then you’re halfway there.

Susannah: Exactly, yes. These people you will be working with them and you will be communicating with them frequently so it’s very important that you do see eye to eye. Like any relationship, it works when you have that mutual understanding. I would say with clients who are trying to choose between a couple of factories or maybe a couple of agents and they’re like, “Well, you know their pricing is about the same. Their products look nice. I don’t know how to choose,” and I’m like, “Well, who do you like?”

Heather: Yeah. Who do you like? Which one’s the best?”

Susannah: Yeah. Because the person who is a little bit keener to work with you, then you’ll get better communication from them and you won’t feel like you’re constantly chasing. Yeah, it makes such a difference.

Heather: Yeah, definitely. I think from any point of view, especially, from when you’re starting a brand, you’re starting things, I should say, move fast. You need someone that’s reactive. You need someone that’s responsive. It doesn’t wait 48, 72 hours before sending a reply to an email. You want someone that’s replies to you straightaway, is very good at communication and wants your brand to be a success as much as you do.

Susannah: Exactly.

Heather: So, in terms of building that supplier relationship, would you recommend– how often should you visit a factory? If it’s feasible for you to go and visit or any other things like having meetings, telephone phone calls, video conferencing, how would you have that relationship go?

Susannah: In terms of how frequently you would visit them, when there are issues where you’re really struggling to communicate whether it’s regarding something visual about the product and you’ve sent a whole load of drawings and it’s, literally, it’s not just happening…

Heather: They could not understand it, yeah.

Susannah: …then, that can be an important time. I think at the start of any season where you’re handing over your technical drawings and the factory is starting work on the samples that can be a really useful time. Also, well, in the world of social media now, you need content, and as a brand, whether you’re small or more established, great content can come from factory photographs, videos of your actual product being made.

Heather: Absolutely. Or like a USP, you shot about them. They’ve fantastic to talk about.

Susannah: Yes, yes, and it’s so nice to see the people, I think, people behind the products that are being made.

Heather: Definitely.

Susannah: Going over, if you’re a talented photographer yourself, great, or going over with–sorry. My computer came up with something annoying. Going over with a video videographer can be great and you can get some amazing content you know depending on the scale of your business and what you want to get out of it. So, potentially, at the time where they’re manufacturing, your bulk production, could be a good time as well. It doesn’t have to be that often, but it’s important to be able to react fairly quickly and be able to get on a plane and just sort out any issues that arise if you need to. Some things you can have a telephone conversation and it’s all ironed out and it’s great. But, sometimes, you do need to be face to face. Some people I find, respond better to phone calls. They’re telephone people and some people are email people.

Heather: Yeah, definitely.

Susannah: Sometimes, with language barriers, people can be better verbally rather than in written or the other way around. So, it’s sort of figuring out who it is that you’re dealing with and what their strengths are and how you’re going to get the information you need the best.

Heather: Would you say walking through the process of start to finish, how long would you usually— what is the usual timeframe for when you’re starting working with the supplier and you’ve got the designs to when you actually get the stock? What sort of timeframes are you giving brands or what would you say is an average time?

Susannah: Okay, so, some of it depends on when you start working with them. At what point in the season you are because if you are working to traditional seasons of spring/summer and autumn/winter, sometimes you might need to rush things if you’ve started developing things a bit late. I mean, how long do you need, six months could be quite good.

Heather: If you’re giving some timeframe, to working to the normal springs/summer, autumn/winter, what would you say, in your advice, would be the best time for someone to start this process and when would they launch? Giving themselves enough time because things always go wrong in development and you need a buffer. So, what time of the year would you say it’s best to start?

Susannah: Okay. So, if you were launching in January for a spring/summer season, and you were a brand new start-up and you’ve got quite a lot of development to do. You don’t necessarily know quite what you want until you’ve seen a round of samples and can make some decisions. I would say start development before the factories close in August. So, in Europe, most factories will close for most of the month of August. So, if you want to launch in spring, then you could start development in June. That, I would say, is for a first season. I think, subsequently, if you know what you want and it’s all quite clear and you’re communicating well with the factory, you could probably start in September.

Heather: So, on a good time, you would say it’s a six-month process. But, if you’re someone that’s really from the beginning, it needs a lot more time and it’s going through the whole process, it would be a properly around a year?

Susannah: Yeah. I mean, I think, also, it depends on if the person, if the brand is just solely focusing on making shoes or if they’ve got a day job as well…

Heather: Of course.

Susannah: …that is something else because things can be slowed down on both sides, really. So, yeah, I suppose six to nine months is about right.

Heather: Keep in mind of the spring/summer, autumn/winter and that August factory closes, something to always bear in mind. Different places around the world always have their cutoff point here in the far east. and in China, they have Chinese New Year.

Susannah: That’s right.

Heather: Chinese New Year, of course, stops everything for that whole month. So, it’s being mindful of where you’re manufacturing in that country is, make sure you went and find their national holidays when you’re not going to have any contact from your supplier. Really, do your research and finding out their national holidays in those areas because it can put a massive disrupt to the whole production process if you’re not aware of those.

Susannah: Exactly. I think also as a start-up, you should try and work with the factory or if you’re a buyer and you want to make smaller quantities, trying to work with the factory actually to let them manufacture your products in quieter periods is a good idea if you’re able to. If you’re able to maybe take your stock a bit earlier.

Heather: Have you had experience doing that? How would you go about discussing that with a factory? I didn’t know they did that.

Susannah: Well, it’s interesting. Honestly, trying to kind of get them to fit it into their peak periods…

Heather: An effort. where they’re making everything for everyone else is pretty difficult but even big brands will try and balance the production and they’ll think about taking products earlier or think about fitting different sort of inter-seasonal products in between because it benefits the factory to have full capacity all year round.

Heather: Yeah, of course. So, then, they’ll have slower periods of the year when you’re not doing as much.

Susannah: So, how you go about it is really just talking to them about it and saying, “Would it help you if I took the stock a little bit earlier?” And then, actually, that helps you because you’ve got a buffer so you know that…

Heather: You won’t be late.

Susannah: Yeah. If it’s your first season, you’ve got your website waiting for the stock, you’ve got all these campaigns that you’ve shot some samples and maybe you’ve done a Kickstarter, I don’t know but you’ve got all the things, these things waiting for your stock, you don’t necessarily want to just expect the factory to deliver bang on time with no issues, whatsoever. In some ways, it helps to get them a bit earlier.

Heather: Definitely. It also helps for your own sanity as well to know that it’s all planned in advance, you can have it well advanced because when things are tight deadlines and you have, as you say, content waiting and marketing waiting for this, then it can get quite stressful towards the launch and it’s something you want to spread the risk out of there.

Susannah: And, what you don’t want to do is have a bite taken out of your first season as in you’re missing a month of sales…

Heather: Yeah, definitely.

Susannah: …because you didn’t get your stock in time, and then, your first season doesn’t look good. So, on the back of that…

Heather: That works negatively on the next.

Susannah: Exactly, yeah. Your investors get a bit worried and, yeah, it just doesn’t look good, so yes.

Heather: Finding a timing is key with footwear.

Susannah: Absolutely.

Heather: Key takeaway.

Susannah: Yeah.

Heather: Where would you suggest buyers go? Is there any online resources or is there any place that you would recommend people to go to find out this type of information if they would starting out? How can they–a lot of people want to do their own research or find things out on their own, where would you tell them to go?

Susannah: So, in terms of online, particularly within the UK, the British Footwear Association, the BFA is a really good resource. Not only their website but also getting in touch with them. They can provide a lot of help. You can look at my blog on shoeconsultant.com.

Heather: Well, we’ll provide a link in the video so it’s easy to access.

Susannah: Perfect, thank you. I write articles about all of the things that we’ve discussed really. Also, on LinkedIn, so if you link in with me, you’ll see lots of articles that I share about, lots of things that are current. So, news features about footwear that are current and really relevant to buyers and also to startups as well. In terms of other online resources, yeah, there are lots of places in terms of general kind of startup advice. Not so much in terms of footwear, specifically, but if you’ve got any questions just get in touch with me basically.

Heather: What would be, on a final note, what would you say is the one bit of advice you would give anyone starting out, starting a shoe brand? What would you say would be the best help that you could give them?

Susannah: Always start with the end customer in mind…

Heather: Uh-hum.

Susannah: …understand them as deeply as you possibly can. What drives your ideal consumer? What is their disposable income? What problem are you solving for them?

Heather: Yeah. When you say about— obviously, when you understand the customer and you profile them, what are the key things, what are the things you should know about your customers as you say about like disposable income, but what other things would you start to profile the target customer?

Susannah: Well, I have some quite long lists, really, but I suppose the key element–

Heather: age

Susannah: Yeah, I suppose their age, the other brands that they buy, not just footwear but also clothing and accessories, so that you understand their aesthetic and what drives them. Think about the sort of income that they would have, that’s important. Where do they live? So, do they live in a city? Is it somewhere rural? Are you targeting one particular country? Are they male or female? I suppose what do they like doing, I suppose, because, I guess, where do they hang out online?

Heather: Where do they go? What are the things do they look at?

Susannah: Yeah, and also out and about and that all affect your products and your that sort of strategy but also your marketing strategy, how do you then reach these people? So, that idea of customer profile is going to feed into everything you do with your brand.

Heather: Know your customers inside out, basically.

Susannah: Yes. And also, yeah, I would say to anyone who is in that position, who is a footwear buyer, who’s looking for some advice or a footwear brand who’s just not quite sure where to go next, how to increase their growth or if there’s a product type that they could be exploring that they’re not at the moment or if someone’s looking to start a shoe brand, just, yeah, just get in touch with me and I’d love to help.

Heather: Absolutely. Well, thank you so much. You’ve given us so many great tips and advice. It’s really helpful for people to start from the beginning. Shoes can be quite a difficult product to get involved with at the beginning. Yeah, you’ve given some fantastic insight. Thanks so much.

Susannah: Thank you for having me. It’s been lovely, Heather.

Heather: Well, thanks to everyone for watching Meet The Buyer Sessions.

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