Claire Flowers was in software sales and after years of suffering through poorly made shoes that would get caught in sidewalk grates and fall apart weeks after buying, she was inspired to design her own shoe.
Now, it turns out, getting someone to manufacture a single shoe is not so simple. It's not like getting a tailored suit. Large manufacturers have no interest in doing one-off business like that and no one overseas will do it.
This is what inspired Claire to start Claire Flowers Shoes. She wanted a woman's shoe that feels like a Nike, looks like a Jimmy Choo, and wears like a work boot.
We sat down with Claire to talk about how she went from idea to full fledged business and much more in this latest episode of Small Business War Stories.
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A summary of our interview with Claire Flowers of Claire Flowers Shoes is below.
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- Tell me a little bit more about your company. How would you describe what you do, and how did the whole idea come about?
- Are there domestic shoe manufacturers who sell for themselves?
- What was the vision you had for your shoes?
- From an aesthetic perspective, where do you get your inspiration for your designs?
- Have you thought about doing both work and fashion shoes?
- How did you make the leap to start making the shoes?
- Where did you make the shoes? How did you establish a relationship with the manufacturer to make that happen?
- What is your opinion on the idea of selling direct to consumers versus selling through distributors and retailers?
- Is there a tension there since you sell direct and have a relationship with retailers? How does that work?
- What is maybe something that is specific and special about starting a women's shoe company versus starting say either a general, or athletic shoe company, or a men's shoe company?
- What are some misconceptions that people have about you?
- Can you tell me about a time when things went wrong for you? What did you do about it?
- If you were to give one piece of advice, or one lesson to people who are either operating and starting small businesses, what would that be?
- What's your vision? Where do you see things going in the next 10 years?
- Is there anything else that you want our audience to know about you or your company? Where can people find you?
Tell me a little bit more about your company. How would you describe what you do, and how did the whole idea come about?
Claire Flowers: Sure. So we not only do shoes, but we also do a line of leather dresses. Then I also have a joint venture that I just started with a woman named Julie O'Connor, and that's a line of reversible dresses. So everything that we do marries form and function.
We've all heard that, but what it means to us is taking stuff that is already out there, like high heel shoes, and making it beautiful in terms of its aesthetic, but then also not painful, which is something that typically woman's high heel shoes are. Then with dresses a lot of times they're impractical in terms of like the textile might be linen, which wrinkles easily, or might be sequins or something that just doesn't make sense. So how do we marry a textile like leather that doesn't wrinkle and lasts forever with a silhouette like an A-line dress, something more functional that lasts forever. So that's really the premise of our business.
It started when I was traveling quite a bit for work. I was in software sales. I would have a pair of high heel shoes that maybe would last like a week or two because I would get stuck in grates in cities, you know like the grates in the street. I'd rip my shoe out and all the leather would come off of the heel. So I'd be on a work trip and the heel cap would fall off, or I'd slip and fall on the airport floor, whatever it might be. So I was constantly abusing my shoes, and they were falling apart. I'd be on this work trip and I'd have to go to the cobbler.
So I'd be rubbing my mascara into a scuff on my shoe, or I'd be putting Sharpie on a band-aid and wrapping it around the heel. I really should be focused on work and closing deals, and I'm focused on my shoes, or I'm running to Marshalls between meetings, stupid stuff I shouldn't be doing. So all of a sudden I'm in a weeklong meeting in Manhattan, and I'm looking at my shoes. It had been raining, and I had slipped and fallen and gotten stuck in a grate, and all that stuff. So I'm sitting and looking at my shoes and cataloging all the reasons why they sucked, and I started drawing a pump that if I had designed it, how it would be, and how it wouldn't do all these crappy things. So at the end of this week long training I had come up with this shoe that had these five kind of unique attributes. So I started Googling like shoes that don't get stuck in grates, shoes that do this and that, and couldn't find anything.
So I went back to St. Louis, and started looking for a shoe manufacturer. So you know how guys will get a custom suit made in Thailand. They'll fly there for a week, they'll make a vacation of it. They'll have a custom suit made, then they'll go back to the states, and they'll wear it for 10 years because it fits them like a glove.
So I wanted to do that same thing with a pair of women's pumps. So lo and behold you can't find a factory in the United States that will do that for you. Like they won't do a private label for you. They just don't exist. There are no domestic shoe manufacturers that will private label for you.
Are there domestic shoe manufacturers who sell for themselves?
Claire Flowers: Yes, New Balance owns their factory. I obviously can't sell software and then open a shoe manufacturer in the States. I started looking overseas and they all had these minimum order quantities. While I'm doing this, I'm telling my sister, my mom, my girlfriends I'm looking for this shoe manufacturer, and they're asking me why.
So then these women were like how did you, or why are you looking for this shoe manufacturer? And I told them why. So then they said well if you find a manufacturer and you make 10 pairs for yourself to wear the rest of your career, order me five. So I thought if there's a demand for this, then I should do it.
What was the vision you had for your shoes?
I said “well my shoes suck. I want them to be like Nike's, but I want them to look like Jimmy Choo's. How do I do this?” I wanted plates on the back so that the car floor mats don't rub that right shoe above the heel when I drive.
I also wanted heel caps that don't wear off and show that metal pin you so I'm not walking on that metal pin, and then scuffing up hardwood floors. I want the outsole to have some sort of like Goodyear vulcanized rubber tread so that I don't slip and slide on airport floors because I was notoriously running late for flights, running through the airport.
So that was another attribute. I wanted them to not hurt. I was constantly doing trade shows, or I was just on my feet all day. So they needed to not hurt by noon like all my high heels did, and then I also needed a heel that was wider at the base so that I didn't get stuck in those grates and cracks when I was walking.
And I still wanted the shoe to have a feminine stiletto-like aesthetic because I think that's feminine, it looks good with a business suit. I didn't want it to be a wedge. I didn't want it to be matronly looking. I wanted it to fit this bill in terms of look a certain way, but also be durable and functional.
So that's from the practical perspective. Now from the aesthetic perspective, where do you get your inspiration for your designs? I mean you were talking about wanting it to feel like Nikes, but look like Jimmy Choos, and wear like work boots…
Claire Flowers: Right. Well so that's complicated because if I were to just design what I wanted, it would be a lot more “out there” and whimsical than it is. But I came from the practical business side, and I started the whole brand to work with your professional side, but then also be okay with jeans on the weekend, I can't really do that. So what's comes from creativity versus what's marketable are two totally different things, and I understand that. So I don't always necessarily design what I want.
Have you thought about doing both work and fashion shoes?
Claire Flowers: Yeah I have. I've been wanting to do a stingray pump, which I'm going to do, but that's not something you'd probably wear to work. It might be something, but I'm thinking about it for like a bridal shoe. I've done an ostrich print-embossed leather, and I've done a leopard print, but then for work I do a lot of black and gold, some more basic, timeless, classic type stuff.
How did you make the leap to start making the shoes?
Claire Flowers: I initially thought “I'm going to keep my real job. I'm going to make one run, and see how it goes.” That one run went well. I self-funded that. Then I did another run. Then it got to the point where if I was going to continue, I was going to need investors. They said if you're going to take capital from us, then you're going to have to quit your job, and it can't be a hobby. So I had to make a decision. So I quit my job.
Where did you make the shoes? How did you establish a relationship with the manufacturer to make that happen?
Claire Flowers: In Novo Hamburgo, Brazil. It's the southernmost part of Brazil. The relationship part was difficult. I started looking for factories, and most of them won't talk to you because a lot of people want to be in fashion. They have an idea and they call a bunch of factories, and try to get prototypes made. Factories are not in the business of just making prototypes for everyone who calls them. They want to know that you're serious, and you have a lot of money behind you, which I was serious, but at the time I didn't have a lot of money behind me.
I had to get over that challenge. I called this guy in Chicago who had several shoe lines throughout his career, and I asked him if he had any factory connections. He said I do, and I will vouch for you if you pay me. So we just kind of told little white lies here and there, and I paid him to endorse me.
I mean he didn't really know better. I wasn't legit. So he did so, and then I found a perfect factory in Brazil that had low minimums, handmade shoes, awesome quality, was willing to invent with me things that they hadn't done before, and I'm still with them today and they're amazing.
That's awesome. How often do you go down there?
Claire Flowers: Rarely. Some very popular well-known brands started there. That's another awesome thing about them, I didn't really have to vet them, they were somewhat of a known quantity.
What is your opinion on the idea of selling direct to consumers versus selling through distributors and retailers?
Claire Flowers: I love it. I'm really glad that I entered at a time like this. So I think it's awesome that you know I have to convince Susie Smith to buy my shoes as opposed to trying to convince Nordstrom that Susie is going to like my shoes, if that makes sense. I'm probably 90% direct consumer, 10% to retailers.
Is there a tension there since you sell direct and have a relationship with retailers? How does that work?
Claire Flowers: No. I am really good about not disenfranchising my retailers. I don't run sales. I don't send out coupons, there are coupon codes they're really hard to come by, you have to come to like my private events, or you have to kind of know me personally.
I do that purposefully so, you know it's commonplace now that when you buy something you hop on your phone and you Google like coupon code, or you look for the exact same product, or you look at a SKU to see if you're getting the best deal. I don't people to be in one of my retail shops, and look up Claire Flowers and see on my website that the exact same product is discounted. I don't want to piss them off. So I'm really careful to not do that.
Are all of your retailers here in St. Louis, or are you in other geographies as well?
Claire Flowers: I am also in Birmingham, Alabama and Dallas, Texas. My sister's in banking, and she lives in Birmingham. I spent two years at Auburn so I have sort of like a couple friends there. We were focused on Atlanta, Dallas, and Birmingham. So what we found is that the West coast, they have this kind of Google mentality. So the professional women there are into flip flops and espadrilles, and sitting on stability balls, whatever at work. So it's kind of a different mindset. The women in the Northeast where snow boots a lot of the year, and they do a lot of walking in cities and subways. So they're not into heels, or they're wearing snow boots and then getting to work and changing.
It's a little bit different. So the Southeast is really where women still like to dress up for work and wear high heels. It’s a warmer climate, so they're still in heels the majority of the year. We're really focused on St. Louis, Atlanta, Birmingham, and Dallas as our markets.
What is maybe something that is specific and special about starting a women's shoe company versus starting say either a general, or athletic shoe company, or a men's shoe company?
Claire Flowers: Well first of all I have no interest in the other ones so I would not be having fun. I mean as far as being lucrative I would assume that females buy more shoes than men. I would say maybe the profitability factor is there. Then just from a design standpoint there's more to design, there are more types of shoes for women than for men.
What are some misconceptions that people have about you?
Claire Flowers: Everywhere I go, people hear that I'm a shoe designer, which I'm not. So that's a funny thing too. I think when people hear that I'm a shoe designer they think that I sit with a drafting table all day and color, which is not remotely true. So designing shoes is probably 2% of what I do. When that rolls around, twice a year I design shoes, and it's probably like three hours. I mean I don't come out with that many designs and styles, and they're all pretty basic because they go back to like longevity, and I want it to last a long time, the styles. Timeless is kind of the thing. The rest of the time I'm running the whole business.
People immediately they want to tell me how I should design shoes, and what would be so cute. The funniest things are the men. So I was in, what was it, Union City. I think that's the place, in Tennessee. This guy said I should put “truck nuts” on the back of the shoes. I get it all the time, just really “great” design ideas. Girls are bad too. I hear ideas like buckles, hearts, unicorns. For example, having the horn of the unicorn as a heel. They're awful. They're all awful.
Can you tell me about a time when things went wrong for you? What did you do about it?
Claire Flowers: God, things go wrong every single day. I mean I've sold shoes and they haven't arrived. I just have to email everyone that bought the shoes and tell them they're not getting their shoes, and they're coming late, and offer discounts, and apologize. I mean I feel like anything that doesn't shut your doors isn't really a disaster.
If you were to give one piece of advice, or one lesson to people who are either operating and starting small businesses, what would that be?
Claire Flowers: I would just be cautious of bad advice. I mean when I first started there were so many people who were older, more experienced, or had started a company that wanted to give me all of their advice, all their free advice, whether solicited or not. I can't tell you how many people said to start a shoe company you need to raise $3 million. If I would have told myself I had to do that, or even done that, I could still be raising money right now, or I could have not done this at all. So I mean there's just so much bad advice out there that I think that it turns people off, or it turns people away from whatever dream they're trying to pursue. It's really unfortunate. I think there are just so many people crushing dreams for no reason.
What's your vision? Where do you see things going in the next 10 years?
Claire Flowers: I want to improve more products. So what we don't do is expand the line, and the products that we offer just to expand the line. So we're not going to make belts just to make belts. If we see a problem with a belt then we'll solve that problem, and we'll make belts. So I want to, when we see an issue with something, I want to come up with a solution and then we'll offer more stuff. So you know want to just continue down this road and expand the line. I want to become a global household name.
There's a 70 year old man in Tallahassee, Florida right now that knows there are red bottom shoes. He doesn't know that they're Christian Louboutin's, but he knows that they're red bottom shoes. So I want that guy to say hot pink heel shoes. He doesn't need to know my name, but I want him to recognize that.
What's it like to do business in St. Louis? What's the business climate here? What is it like to work with other people in the community? What it's like to work with the city, and the government, and the folks here?
Claire Flowers: It's awesome. We have a really great startup climate. I'm in a, I'm a volunteer in a group called House of Genius. Actually, I think that may have started in Austin. You definitely have one. It's really cool. There's a lot of really cool stuff going on in St. Louis in terms of our community. Then the people in general are very supportive in St. Louis.
Government, that's another show I think. We have a 1% city tax and I think that sometimes it's detrimental to startups, or companies moving into the city. The law taxes not only the employee 1%, but it also taxes the employer 1%.
Is there anything else that you want our audience to know about you or your company? Where can people find you? What are your social media handles? Your website? What can people do?
Claire Flowers: Awesome. Yeah my website is claireflowers.com. Instagram is claireflowersheels, and I'm on Twitter clairefshoes. Facebook I'm Claire Flowers. I'm in 11 stores in St. Louis, and you can find them on my website under stores.
Your listeners can use coupon code LES25 is for $25 off.
Building a great business is often about recognizing that a problem you have might also be a problem lots of people have. We often lack the initial skills to solve the problem, but like Claire Flowers, through determination and self-education we can learn the skills necessary to craft a solution.
Claire has done this successfully and now has a fantastic growing business that she loves.
If you have any questions or comments about today's episode, please leave them below.