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For the past three years, REDI has hosted a pitch contest associated with its entrepreneurial conference, and each year a shoe-related business has won. In 2011, twins Brynne and Bailye Stansberry, cofounders of TwoAlity, won, and their transparent boots with interchangeable fashion liners are now available online. (They were profiled in the February issue of Columbia Business Times.) The next year, Xiaoke (Jessica) Cui won with her pitch for Haute Couture Shoes, a shoe with an adjustable heel height. This year, both the first- and second-place winners pitched ideas for shoe businesses. Lauren Rundquist, first-place winner and owner of LaQuist Designs, sells custom hand-painted shoes. Second-place winner Nathan Fleischmann’s Stadium Shoes sells active lifestyle footwear from a truck.
Virginia Wilson, director of small-business development at the University of Missouri Small Business and Technology Development Center, pinpoints a few reasons for these entrepreneurs’ success. One is that the market data shows that the shoe industry is experiencing a lot of leakage locally. That means many people are shopping outside of Columbia, Boone County or even the mid-Missouri area for shoes. Another reason for their success is that all are targeting a particular submarket instead of trying to compete with big-box retailers in selling all kinds of shoes to all kinds of people.
Sean Siebert, adjunct professor of business administration at Columbia College and chair of Taskforce for REDI’s #BOOM Bounce Competition, explains that the shoe industry has been almost entirely exported (98.6 percent of footwear is made outside the United States) and that it is dominated by big-box markets.
Siebert thinks that the proliferation of recent shoe-related startups is about something other than shoes. He describes how each of these startups is unique. TwoAlity has adopted ecommerce to make a new shoe product available, and LaQuist Designs has embraced the social-era economy and mostly bypassed traditional sales outlets. Even the business that seems most local, Stadium Shoes, is a new system to get an already-available product to the community, and the truck itself doubles as the company’s own marketing and advertising tool.
Why then have so many shoe businesses won this competition? More important than the shoe business ideas themselves are “the entrepreneurs within” the winners, Siebert says. He says entrepreneurs are created one of two ways: “either something defines them or something invents them.” He says these young business people are inventing themselves through their shoes businesses, and they will define themselves later in life, possibly after other business ventures. Both Siebert and Wilson agree that rather than simply creating products, Brynne and Bailye Stansberry, Rundquist and Fleischmann are all creating brands — fashion brands that are starting with footwear.
If it’s not about the shoes, then what is it about, Columbia? Siebert posits that Columbia is a great incubator for young entrepreneurs and small businesses in general; its ready supply of support and mentorship provides a place for these businesses to be centered, and then often much of their ecommerce success happens with sales outside of the mid-Missouri region. The local media also covers young entrepreneurs and fledgling businesses, which is not usually the case in larger cities; the wealth of these stories then attracts more entrepreneurs.
Siebert started a Facebook group for social-era entrepreneurs to provide another gathering place where young businesspeople can be “competitive through collaboration.” Columbia’s young shoe entrepreneurs live out this idea. Rundquist believes that the different shoe companies all benefit one another; she says Brynne and Bailye Stansberry are “really inspirational” to her. She thinks that TwoAlity and Stadium Shoes are succeeding because they are more than just shoe companies; they are new spins on providing a staple wardrobe item, headed by driven and passionate young professionals.
Fleischmann says REDI’s support through the #BOOM Bounce Competition has impacted Stadium Shoes “immensely.” The financial support allowed him to concentrate on his strengths — business and marketing — and contract out legal work to the experts. Although #BOOM Bounce was his first pitch competition, he had already completed a successful Kickstarter campaign. In fact, Stadium Shoes is one of only a dozen for-profit businesses to be crowd-funded in Missouri during the past year. In addition to receiving valuable feedback and increasing his network of both mentors and peers, the Kickstarter campaign and #BOOM Bounce Competition were both crucial validations of his business model.
Local competitions have also had other benefits for Rundquist; winning third place at the CLIMB (Collaboration, Leadership and Innovation for Missouri Businesses) competition in 2012 taught her that she was running a real business. She had to complete a business plan, formalize a name, etc., and it was “a really big growing experience,” she says. She thought of REDI’s #BOOM Bounce Competition this year as another opportunity for her to learn what other young entrepreneurs were doing. She remembers thinking, “I knew the previous two years, shoe companies had won, so they’re probably not going to pick another shoe company.” But they did — hers.
Winning local competitions has provided Rundquist with seed money to do things such as build up her stock of paint and buy shoes to paint as samples in order to build her portfolio, as she’s found that customers respond better to photos of finished shoes than to sketches for designs. Like Fleischmann, she has also used this financial support to do routine but necessary things such as buy a Web domain.
Lauren Rundquist opened her online shop selling custom hand-painted shoes in September 2012, and sales have since originated from all six inhabited continents. Columbians can also buy her shoes at Elly’s Couture downtown.
Now a junior strategic communications major with an emphasis in art direction and a business minor, Rundquist has always had the entrepreneurial bug, selling custom jewelry to boutiques in St. Louis as a high school student. When she decided to take her company online, she noted the intense competition for handmade jewelry and landed on custom hand-painted shoes as a more viable alternative. Although she easily navigated the transition from traditional canvases to canvas footwear, she had to experiment with paints to find the perfect match of flexibility and durability, with features such as water resistance, that could stand up to the functional requirements of canvas as footwear.
Her popular American flag design is always the same, and though some designs may be similar to past patterns, the majority of her sales are for unique designs. Even a similar floral pattern, for example, will differ in blooms or colors for each order. Rundquist orders shoes for each customer from the manufacturer so that the customer receives one shipment directly from her with the completed shoes. This also means she does not have to invest a lot of capital in purchasing shoes before they are sold. Customers can buy shoes that are already painted or order from a design sketch, but about half of her business is completely custom. The customer describes his or her vision to Rundquist, and she comes up with a one-of-a-kind design, a “piece of wearable art.”
Rundquist hopes to expand her company into a brand. She recently started branching out from casual shoes such as Toms, Keds and Converse into high heels at Elly’s Couture. If customers respond, she might expand the high heels option to her online shop, and in the future, she could diversify into hand-painting other accessories such as tote bags or wallets. LaQuist Designs is more about art than shoes, which are a convenient medium where customers can express their personalities through the designs. “I get to communicate with people from across the world and create something completely in their vision, something incredibly unique and special and one of a kind,” Rundquist says.
Some customers even send her photos of themselves wearing her designs. “People are what have helped my business succeed,” she says.
Nathan Fleischmann’s Stadium Shoes is a mobile retail truck that hits the streets of Columbia this fall. The truck serves dense populations without access to brick-and-mortar stores and crowds that pop up in specific places, such as at colleges; large employers; and at events such as festivals, races, etc. Stops at downtown public locations could occur as the business grows.
Because Stadium Shoes is in locations where people are on their feet, it stocks active lifestyle footwear, which could include flip-flops, lace-up sneakers or ballet flats, depending on the occasion or site. Fleischmann describes Stadium Shoes as “a mobile boutique experience.” The truck holds about 10 different styles of shoes at one time, for a total of about 270 pairs of shoes onboard. Customers walk through the truck, view footwear displayed from entry to exit and can try on shoes inside. Driving the truck for the first time was “exhilarating, the physical personification of starting the business,” Fleischmann says.
Fleischmann knew that during the past decade, Columbia and MU have experienced explosive growth, and he researched areas where retail sectors weren’t keeping up. After the Stansberrys’ successful pitch, he started studying the shoe industry in Columbia. Shoes are a necessity, something people can justify spending money on even in a down economy. Besides being a great fit for mobile retailing, active lifestyle footwear is also a growing segment of the market, both in demand and price point. The mobile retail business model also allows for a lean startup that can react and adapt quickly to consumer response and changing market conditions.
The idea for the shoe truck came at lunch while discussing Columbia’s thriving food truck business; one of his co-workers, who knew Fleischmann was already thinking of starting a shoe business, asked, “Why can’t you do that with shoes?” That idea to the business’s opening has taken about two years.
By building the blog before the truck, Fleischmann created interest. “The website and social media are vital components of mobile retail and specifically Stadium Shoes,” he says. The website holds the inventory so customers can order shoes there as well, and Twitter lets them know about the truck’s whereabouts.
The name Stadium Shoes is both “a nod to the athletic lifestyle consumers and a reference to the symbolic place where people gather as players or fans,” Fleischmann says. Of course, the Stadium Shoes truck also brings people together.