Jodie Fox: Revelations behind a start-up success story

Some people inspire because they’ve had great success in business. Others inspire because they’ve taken a huge risk in life that’s paid off. While others simply have a disposition that inspires to be more, do more, achieve more. Jodie Fox inspires for all these reasons and more (this one managed to get the trifecta of beauty, brains and just being a general baller).

Co-founder and chief creative officer at Shoes of Prey, a company that offers customers the ability to customise their own shoes, Jodie is making a name for herself as one of the big rising stars of the start-up scene.

With Jodie today launching her signature shoe line for the company, the fourth and final instalment in the brand’s Inspirer Collections, we thought it was the perfect time to sit down with the co-founder to find out exactly how she got to where she is today.

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Can you tell me about the concept behind Shoes of Prey?
We started back in October 2009, that was our live date – but the actual idea came together the December before in 2008. What had happened was Mike [Knapp co-founder], Michael [Fox co-founder] and I were friends. We’d met each other in law school and Michael and I had subsequently gotten married. The boys had gone from doing law to Google, and they were just loving the potential of doing e-commerce. They had read this book and decided they needed a viral idea. Mike was a software engineer, and Michael had been at SuperCheap Auto for a year where he had learnt a lot about retail operations. So they were like “we’ve got all this experience, we just need an idea!”

In the background – I never really loved the shoes that I found. I enjoyed shoes but couldn’t find exactly what I wanted. I was told about this store in Hong Kong where you could design your own shoes, and so I went into the store when I was there for a five hour stopover. It looked just like a regular store, so I had to ask “Can I design my own shoes?” And then out come all of these leather swatches and heel shapes… It was like Christmas! I had the best time, I designed 14 pairs of shoes in one hour.

When the 14 pairs of shoes later turned up at my desk – the girls in the office were amazed. We were opening up each box with the girls going: “How are you doing this? Where are they coming from?” When I explained, they asked for me to make the shoes for them as well. So I did. From there it was this natural development. I was creating shoes already and organically because I enjoyed it, I wasn’t even thinking about it as a business. The boys were thinking about it as a business, so it came together as design your own shoes online – and that’s how Shoes of Prey was conceived.

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Was it a scary decision to leave your jobs to do a start-up?
It was terrifying! We spent nine months figuring out how to create the business. We all left our jobs at different times. Mike Knapp left first and that was because we needed to figure out if the site could work and what that would look like. The next one to leave was Michael Fox – he was more around the operations, and I was all the branding and products – so I was the last to leave. It was crazy as we went through this process, as while we knew we needed to do it, you have to have a leap of faith. I remember thinking: ‘I’ll start a business, wait till it’s making me enough to pay me the salary I’m on and then I’ll leave’. But it has to be the other way around, otherwise the business will never get to that stage because you’re not putting enough time into it.

As each person left, the other one would then split their salary between the people. When it became my turn, the last one to do it, we went and had lunch in Surry Hills and we must have spent for four hours – no alcohol, just talking about it. And it was terrifying. Michael and I were married at the time, we’re not anymore, but we were thinking about buying a house and we had this money saved up. We were both in pretty solid careers, and the very idea that we would just stop that was scary.

But the things that got me over the line to do it were Mike Knapp saying “Let’s fail fast!”. The idea was, “Wouldn’t you prefer to know if it’s going to work within a couple of months rather than dragging it out as something being done half-arsed in the background?” And he was right. And the other thing was a tiny bit of self-belief. I know how to add up, I know how to subtract, I know I’m not going to let myself fall into the gutter. I think the key thing for me was having good people around like my family and my friends because I know that when something really bad happens or I make a bad decision, they are like “you’re usually pretty smart – this is probably just a blip”. And they’re the people that if things were to go terribly wrong, they’d have my back so I’d never completely fall. So knowing these things helped make the decision to go for it. You never know. There’s no crystal ball. You believe the idea will work, but you don’t know the idea will work.

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Have there been moments along the way where you’ve felt like this is the moment you’ve made it?
One of the things I’ve learnt is that you never feel like you’ve made it. I went to this conference earlier this year and there were people there like Joshua Bell [musician], Matt Groening [cartoonist], even David Attenborough [naturalist] dialled in. But the thing that struck me was that it was okay to feel like you haven’t made it, because all of these people don’t feel like they’ve made it.

What do you see as the key to your success?
I think there are three key parts. I think in order for mass customisation on-demand to work, there are three key pillars that have to exist and have to be executed well. That’s the technology, the manufacturing, and the marketing. We built all our own technology in-house. We needed to create something that would dynamically visualise the shoe as you were choosing the different elements, heights, colours… That was critical. It also has to be simple, fun and accessible.

The second thing is the manufacturing. I personally believe the reason that on-demand hasn’t ever worked before is because manufacturing just simply doesn’t do on-demand on scale – which is why we built our own factory. We had to do that to be able to make this business work. The third thing is the marketing – which is helping people to understand what it means. We have such a tendency to jump on to Amazon or pop down to the store and pick something from the shelf – and this is a huge paradigm shift. Those three things have to be true for it to be successful. MIT was predicting back in the late sixties that mass customisation was going to be the future of retail – we’re company who is giving it a crack, and is doing it well.

You seem to have a knack of finding trends before they happen. You tapped into customisation before it trended, you were doing influencer marketing way before it became a thing. Do you have a secret of spotting trends before they happen?
I think the secret to innovation and finding these new things is not to look for them; it is to think about your customer or the person who is at the heart of all of it and think about where they are and what they want. Then try and make that better, better, better. When you actually focus on the audience you are trying to serve and you really concentrate on what’s good for them rather than looking at what everybody else is doing – go try something else. When everybody else is zigging – go zag. But also too, I have to say, there are a lot of things that we tried that did not turn into trends! I can list you far more things that we tried and didn’t work than things that did.

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Does it excite you when you see other brands such as The Daily Edited and Mon Purse doing customisation at a large scale?
Yes, I love it! And the reason I love it is because this is a movement. The more we see customisation happening, the more it’s an education for people to understand that there is an alternative to grabbing something off the shelf. For Shoes of Prey, we’re in this for the long haul and believe customisation has such a huge future ahead – it’s wonderful to see more companies in the space.

Career highlight?
The first time we had our own office was pretty special. We won a retail award for the World’s Best Retail Design when we opened our first store, and that was against Karl Lagerfeld – so that was also pretty spesh! And I recently got to spend some time with Tamara Mellon [Jimmy Choo co-founder], so that was amazing as well.

Career lowlight?
I’m not going to lie, there’s been a few. I think the times that have been the hardest are the ones that you are scared that you might have to stop it – the thinking that if this doesn’t come off, then it’s time to close the doors. There’s definitely been moments like that. Probably the biggest ongoing lowlight that’s really difficult to deal with is finding enough balance to have your own life as well. For me at the moment, it’s a huge challenge.

Are we going to see Shoes of Prey extend into further offerings?
Of course! But we’ve still got so much to flesh out in terms of our offerings of women shoes. I mean, we only just introduced boots! There’s a little more we need to do before branching into other products, but you can bet they’re on the list. I do think there’s a huge amount to be said for focus. We need to make sure that what we offer and deliver is great value and something that makes sense – we couldn’t necessarily do that if we tried to rush in and do everything.

Words and images by Husskie editor Yelena Fairfax.

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