How a High Heel Frustration Became a Multi-Million Dollar Business
From Sinking to Soaring: Business Lessons From Solemates
Find a woman in high heels at a garden wedding and you’ll likely find a ticket for a shoe repair pick up in her wallet a couple of days later. High heels and grass are not a good match. This was the problem Becca Brown, the co-founder of Solemates, discovered during her high school prom.
“My friends and I wanted to take pictures on the lawn at my parents house and we quickly had to turn back. Our heels were sinking into the grass and my brand new shoes were ruined even before the night began,” she remembers.
This was the first of many goodbyes to beautiful shoes. While attending Columbia Business School, Becca told her friend, classmate, and now co-founder, Monica Ferguson about an idea for a product that would prevent high heels from sinking into grass. Monica had a series of her own tales of destroyed heels, and so the duo decided to take the first 'steps' to creating a solution. Monica wrote the original business plan for Solemates as the final for entrepreneurial finance, the class they were both taking.
“We wrote the plan around a product that prevents high heels from sinking into grass and getting stuck in cracks,” she said.
After business school, they were both committed to returning to Goldman Sachs, their previous employer, but soon the entrepreneurial urge hit them too hard to ignore. They knew they were on to something but that their company could not be successful unless they worked on it full time. So, though it was risky, they gave up their secure jobs at the high profile company to set off on their own. They have never looked back.
Without a big sale under their belt, Becca and Monica could not yet sell Solemates as a viable business to investors. So, they self funded the provisional patents, early engineering and early prototyping. They quickly felt confident it was going to be a good investment.
Soon after they launched, they got a call from Gayle King, co-host of CBS This Morning and editor at large of O, The Oprah Magazine. Gayle had used Solemates with Oprah at an outdoor wedding in California. Coincidentally, Becca and Monica had dropped off samples of the editor's office the day before she returned from the wedding.
“She said she was so excited about being able to wear heels on the grass at this wedding and was trying to remember the name of the product she had just used. Then she walked into the office and saw a big bag of them in her office. She said it was the ‘Law of Attraction’ at work and was so moved that she called me on the spot to interview me for her radio show and they featured Solemates in O Magazine,” Becca explained.
Gayle King was the first of many celebrities to use the product. Tara Lipinski wore Solemates at her wedding this summer, as did Lauren Conrad, Alyssa Milano, Fergie, and many more. Demi Lovato and Rachel Platten both wore Solemates on the baseball field to sing the National Anthem at the 2015 and 2016 World Series, respectively. Viola Davis and Robin Wright both wear Solemates on set to dampen the noise a high heel makes when a woman walks on a hard surface.
“We’ve not had to pay for placement to get people who are in the news to use Solemates. Each time a celebrity has worn them it’s been because they genuinely needed them for an event they were going to,” says Becca.
Those placements, combined with some early retail wins, gave the co-founders the story they needed to go out and raise outside capital from angel investors. Their goal was to raise only as much as they needed while retaining as much equity as possible in the business. To date, they've only accepted about $1.3 million in outside capital and have turned down many other offers.
In spite of getting some significant press early on, the two founders learned that they had their work cut out for them. “Since we created this category, it took a lot of work to get people to understand the opportunity around Solemates. We spent a significant amount of time explaining the product to store owners and managers and getting the word out to the public. Women everywhere knew that this was a problem, but communicating to the masses that we had created the solution took some time,” Becca said.
The first retailers to take a gamble on them were small independent shops, in and around NYC. Becca and Monica literally would pound the pavement pitching to shoe repair shops, bridal salons, and more.
"Our first retailers were Abigail Fox Designs in Old Greenwich, Jim's Shoe Repair in midtown Manhattan, and Kleinfeld's Bridal in Chelsea," she said. "We went to trade shows and continued to reach out to as many retailers as we could in those early days to try to get traction. It took time but it worked, and after the first couple of years, we found ourselves getting purchase orders from DSW & David's Bridal."
Today, Solemates are carried in over 2,000 retail locations, and as of October, will be available for sale in 4,000 CVS stores nationwide. Solemates are also sold off the company website and Amazon.
Four Lessons for Other Entrepreneurs
Lesson One: Be patient, and stay focused. In business, one of the keys to success is finding ways to persevere. "Early on, when we were first looking for an injection molder, we called over 100, and many of them laughed when we told them our idea," Becca recalled. "Others said they don't work with inventors and hung up the phone. We persevered, knowing that we would find the right match, and stayed focused on doing so. It took months, but eventually, we did find several that seemed to be good fits, and ultimately narrowed it down to the one we felt could do the best job."
Lesson Two: Be comfortable being uncomfortable. Entrepreneurs need to be prepared to make sacrifices while learning. “Goldman taught us that you're (in most cases) going to be uncomfortable if you're learning, growing, and instead of fighting that, it's important to embrace it," Becca said. "When we started Solemates, we knew very little about manufacturing, consumer packaging, how to build a website, etc. But we knew we had to figure out who could help us make our idea and business a reality. So we leveraged our contacts, Googled a lot, cold called, and sought out referrals until we found what we needed.
You're never going to be an expert in something until you're doing it. When we were first starting Solemates, those early days, weeks, months of learning were anxiety ridden, but we quickly learned how to ask the right questions, and learned quickly.”
Lesson Three: Find strength in your network. Don't be afraid to seek out advisers and build a circle of trusted people you can turn to for advice, support, and guidance. “This came from one of our early investors, someone who has been a supporter from the beginning, in many ways," Becca said. "I have leaned on this circle repeatedly over the years. Recently, when we were trying to decide whether to take our fulfillment in-house, we spoke with several advisors and got their feedback, and shared our own.
It was so helpful to be able to go to some of these people, share our concerns and discuss the pros and cons of the move. Ultimately, we made the decision to do it, and it has been one of the best decisions for our business."
Lesson Four: Don’t be afraid of rejection. You need to have absolute faith in your idea while being prepared for criticism. “While we were still at business school, we entered into a business competition to present Solemates to a room of judges. After we gave our presentation, one man in the audience (who had served some time in retail), made a comment to the room that 'no woman is ever going to put that on her heel.' We both shrugged it off, knowing that that was a sentiment we were going to face, but we believed in our idea and knew that we could make it successful," Becca concluded.