How Sheryl Sandberg Inspired These Fashion Founders to Ditch Their Corporate Jobs and Launch a Startup
Alexa Buckley and Sarah Pierson had a plan in place -- it just didn't involve launching a startup. Here's how they found the guts to follow their passion and launch custom-fit shoe company Margaux.
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
On the eve of their graduation from Harvard University, Alexa Buckley and Sarah Pierson were ready to kick off adulthood with corporate jobs that they had long ago accepted. But a side hustle they had explored during senior year -- making a stylish, wear-all-day shoe for women -- kept gnawing at them. Within a week, they had ditched their job offers and were making plans to launch a shoe company from New York. Here’s how they made Margaux a reality.
1. Identify the problem.
Buckley and Pierson had been undergraduate roommates for years at Harvard. The summer before their senior year, they both spent time working in the corporate world -- Buckley in venture capital, Pierson in consulting. They got back to school in the fall, and their experiences had one thing in common that they couldn’t shake.
“We had witnessed the shoe shuffle -- women put on a pair of shoes to take them where they’re going, and then carry another with them to change into when they arrive,” Buckley says. “It’s inconvenient and outdated. The modern woman is frankly too busy for this. There should be a pair of shoes you put on in the morning and makes you feel beautiful and you can run around in it.”
2. Solve it.
Each of the women had a job lined up post-graduation, but during their last semester, they started investigating the problem as a side hustle.
“We looked at what the wear-everywhere shoe looked like on the market, and tried to figure out how we could be different,” says Pierson. “And fit in footwear is a huge problem -- studies have shown that almost 90 percent of women are wearing the wrong size shoe. Some of that is lack of options, the rest is lack of awareness and design.”
They researched technical details like insoles and foam patterns, working with advisors on campus, even visiting suppliers in New York, and set out to build a customizable, direct-to-consumer product.
3. Dive in.
On the day of their graduation, they both still planned to start those corporate jobs in the near future. Sheryl Sandberg helped them reconsider.
“She was our commencement speaker and opened our speech by asking the audience, ‘What would you do if you weren’t afraid?’” recalls Buckley. “And in that moment, sitting in the rain with our families, Sarah and I looked at each other, and we knew.”
They bailed on their corporate job offers, moved to New York in July, found a closet-sized office in Soho and got to work.
4. Find good help.
The girls had nailed down their vision for the brand back in their dorm room -- they knew they wanted it to have an elegant, heritage feel and settled on the name and color palette months prior -- but now they needed expert advice on how to, well, make shoes. And especially, how to make customizable shoes at an affordable price point.
“We were doing as much research as humanly possible as two 22 year olds with absolutely no experience,” says Buckley. They found an article about two industry vets, and cold emailed them. “They agreed to meet with us and were also inspired by the challenge,” Buckley says. From there, they connected the young founders with factories and suppliers in Spain. “It was perhaps one of our most serendipitous breaks,” Pierson says.
5. Obsess over the details.
With the help of their footwear experts and factories that were willing to meet the Margaux challenge, samples were made, tweaked and tweaked some more.
“Often footwear adjustments, you’re dealing in millimeters,” Pierson says. “It really was a microscopic focus.”
While they wanted to offer custom sizing, they also knew that they had to create a line to get factories to work with them, so they launched a factory line to support mass production of shoes in normal, narrow and wide widths; custom orders would follow.
Today, the majority of the business is ready-made pairs. “But,” Buckley adds, “the twist is that over 40 percent of those ready-made pairs are still not standard sizes.”
6. Put yourself out there.
Originally, the founders envisioned Margaux as a strictly ecommerce business. “We didn’t anticipate how crucial retail would be to the buying process, from the customer’s perspective,” Pierson says.
They launched a shoppable showroom to allow customers to schedule appointments and try on shoes or have a custom fitting. “It was almost like a lab -- we could test product, color, pricing, messaging,” Pierson says.
The success of that showroom gave them the confidence to explore additional retail opportunities, and they introduced multiple pop-up stores in late 2016. Finally, they opened a permanent space in 2018. “We brought it home to New York,” Pierson says.