Shoe Designer

Startup Costs: $50,000 - $100,000
Part Time: Can be operated part-time.
Franchises Available? No
Online Operation? No

Designing shoes can be an incredible way to satisfy your artistic and career goals.

Ask the Expert: Jordan Clark, Founder of Dooeys

What is the first step to getting started as a shoe designer?

To get started on launching a shoe brand, I recommend reading these three books by Wade Motawi: How Shoes are Made, How to Start Your Own Shoe Company, and Shoe Material Design Guides so you have a basic understanding and foundation for everything you'll learn and terms you'll hear during the development process. If you're not in footwear, try to find similar books related to your product. Survey your target audience and ask them about what they look for in a product like yours and their purchasing habits. Ask very poignant questions that will inform your design and material selection, but try to keep it to 10 questions or less to increase the likelihood of people responding. You can use tools like SurveyMonkey to pay for a list of emails in your target market to survey. It's great to ask your friends and family, but it's best to speak with people outside your network to get the most honest answers.

Research your competitors. Understand how they market their product and how you will be different. Create a business plan. Think through what your business model will be, where you will sell, who is your customer, what are all the costs involved, what's your go-to-market plan, and so many other details. Don't forget to consider branding from the beginning. Your brand needs to be consistent across your design, materials, messaging, and business model so it's good to start forming this early on.

Decide where you want to manufacture. Where is known for making the product you want to make in terms of the level of quality and price you're looking for. Reach out to a transport logistics company to estimate what transportation costs will be from that country to the final destination and research what harmonized tariff code your product falls under so you can get a sense of duties and taxes you'll pay to import it. These are all important costs that go into your landed cost.

Establish a relationship with a shoe designer and start creating conceptual designs. You can find a designer on Upwork, Fiverr, People Per Hour, and many other websites. Research the materials you want to use and source them from suppliers. Try to source within the region where you'll be manufacturing as this is more sustainable and reduces transportation costs. Go to tradeshows to find suppliers, research materials online, and network with others in the industry. This process can take a long time so be patient. It took me about a year and a half to land on the right materials for my house shoes, however, we were still able to move through the design and prototyping process as we finalized everything. With your initial design and an idea of materials, have your designer create a spec sheet of your design that you can use in the next step.

Find an apparel agent to help you choose a manufacturer. Clothing and footwear agencies have close relationships with factories and can guide you in selecting the right one for your product. You'll also be a small fish at this time, so having someone with a longstanding relationship with a factory will make the factory more likely to be willing to work with you. Your agent can also help you source materials and will serve as your person on the ground during development and production. I started my shoe company while living in Amsterdam. I was able to travel to Portugal as needed but didn't have to be there for every little thing throughout the prototyping process because my agent was there to relay information back to me and ship me samples. I now live back in the U.S. and this has become even more important to me now with greater distance.

You'll need to land on the fit and shape of the shoe so buy shoes that serve as examples of how you want your shoes to fit. You'll give these examples to your factory to create the "last" of your shoe.

Refine your designs and create a tech pack that outlines the materials and construction of the shoe. You'll send this to your factory to use for prototyping. Be prepared that you'll likely go through many rounds of prototyping, but while you're doing this you can begin preparing for launch. Finalize your brand name and file for trademarks and purchase domains. Create a landing page that you can point people to as you'll need to start building your email list as soon as possible. Start working with a copywriter (establish your brand voice), graphic designer (create your brand aesthetic), and photographer to put together the assets you'll need for your launch campaign.

Is the industry growing?

The sustainable fashion industry is definitely growing as more consumers are demanding transparency from brands. It's been great to see brands switch to using more eco-friendly materials, give back to the environment, and share more around how their clothing is made. There's still a lot of work to be done in this space, especially with some of the big brands, but smaller brands like ours are launching and as consumers, we need to work a little harder to fine them.

What type of person is a great fit to try this?

Someone who loves wearing multiple hats — in any given day you may be a designer, a logistics coordinator, a bookkeeper, a fundraiser, a marketer, and so much more. You have to be comfortable switching gears and learning new skills. You'll also need to be comfortable dealing with ambiguity and figuring things out. The type of person who would love running their own business appreciates having autonomy over their work, excels at building relationships, and has the passion and drive to persevere through the ups and the downs.

How much money can a person expect to make in the first year and in five years?

Expect you won't be paying yourself the first couple years and reinvesting revenue back into the business. After 5 years, you'll hopefully have a small team in place and can be paying yourself through sales and possibly investments you've taken on to grow and scale the business.

What kind of experience/training do you need to have?

You don't need fashion industry experience, but you need to be ready to learn about it and how products are made. My background was in startups and management consulting. I had no prior experience in the fashion industry, but my experience working at a beauty startup taught me how to be scrappy, work in a fast-paced environment, and see firsthand the team needed to build a brand. My experience as a management consultant pushed me outside my comfort zone and I believe prepared me to the same as a founder.
I read shoe books to learn how shoes are made, I networked and spoke to people in the shoe industry, I listened to podcasts and read books on starting a business. Since there are so many aspects to starting a business, it's helpful to take an online course or accelerator that walks you through the ins and outs of launching a brand — covering everything from creating your MVP to finance to marketing.

What do you wish you knew when you were just starting out?

Know what your core business is and spend your time and energy on that. Find experts to help you in the areas that fall outside of that like using a 3Pl to fulfill your orders rather than shipping them out of your house and hiring a Google Ad specialist to run your campaigns.

Who are your customers?

Our customers are women between the ages 30 and 65 that spend time on their feet at home.

Where do you find new customers?

You can find new customers through digital advertising, engaging on social media, collaborating with other brands, partnering with bloggers and influencers to share you product with their audience, getting PR features, doing pop-ups, and so much more.

What type of growth can be realistically expected year over year?

It's going to require a lot of testing to see what works and figure out how to get in front of your target customers. Expect your first 6 months to be slow as you figure out what channels and tactics work for your product and then use that to optimize and grow.

Are there any resources you recommend that were extremely valuable to get your business off the ground? 

Join entrepreneur groups where you can get the support you need and connect with people going through similar challenges. Find mentors, network, and look into crowdfunding platforms. 


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