Mike Knapp, Michael and Jodie Fox saw an opportunity in the growth of online retail. The company they established, Shoes of Prey, has gone on to be the global leader in custom-made shoes.
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It is not often that a cutting-edge fashion brand emerges from the confines of a law school but that is exactly where the story of Shoes of Prey’s meteoric rise begins.
Shoes of Prey is one of Australia’s most successful online retail start-ups, offering customers the chance to design their own shoes – from the heel, toe and fabric right through to the colour and embellishments.
The founders – Mike Knapp and husband and wife pair Michael and Jodie Fox – all met while studying law. Mike and Michael were enrolled at University of Queensland and Jodie was studying at Griffith University.
“We all started out with dreams of the court room, I think. Mike was studying law and IT, Michael was studying law and commerce, and I was studying law and international business,” recalls Jodie Fox. “The way that we all met is that all three of us were pretty heavily involved in our law societies, and the law societies have great cross-over in Queensland.”
The diverse experience gained in the early stages of the trio’s careers is perhaps the key to the success of Shoes of Prey.
After university Mike worked as a judge’s associate for a year and then took a year to play around with business ideas before moving on to Google to work as a software engineer. Michael got his accreditation as a lawyer and then took a role with the automobile parts company Super Cheap Auto before also moving on to Google. Jodie stuck with law longer than both the boys, but her heart was just not in it and she moved into advertising.
“Mike is an extremely talented engineer, who is also incredibly entrepreneurial. Michael has rich operational experience and an intimate knowledge of SEO [search engine optimisation] and SEM [search engine marketing],” says Fox, who brings the marketing and branding expertise to the team that is so important to the retail sector.
So where did the trio’s inspiration for Shoes of Prey come from and how does fashion fit into this mix?
“I didn’t love shoes until I realised I could have exactly what I wanted,” says Jodie. “And so travelling throughout Asia, in the same way that men get suits customised, I started commissioning my own shoe designs. And as my shoe collection was growing, my girlfriends said ‘this is amazing, where are you getting these great shoes?’
“I remember I had a stopover in Asia for about 10 hours, and I dashed out of the airport, designed 14 pairs of shoes, some for me, some for my girlfriends, and ran back to the airport.”
At this stage Mike and Michael were now both at Google. They could see a huge opportunity in the growth of online retail and were making plans to take advantage of it – but they needed an idea.
“I think it was actually Michael lying on the beach at Christmas. He had a light bulb go off; it was like ding, that’s exactly what we should be doing. So we married the two ideas and Shoes of Prey was born,” says Jodie.
With the company’s products tailor-made by artisans in China and shipped directly to the customer, finding the staff and suppliers to get the idea off the ground was no easy feat. “The majority of the world’s shoes are produced in a certain region of China, so we knew that it was rich with talent. And also all the componentry things we need, we knew it was all there,” she says.
But what of the challenge of establishing and growing the business in China with the differing culture and business practices?
“For us it was about reaching out to our network, and it was also about doing as much research as we could online,” recalls Jodie. “Michael and I then flew to China to look at all the products and approach potential suppliers. It was from this that a couple really stood out for us, and we progressed the relationship with them,” she says.
Networking and the willingness of others to offer advice is common amongst start-up communities but for Mike, Michael and Jodie the warmth and eagerness to help in Australia was a real surprise.
“All of the entrepreneurs that we approached, whether they were running $50 million, $100 million or $2 million businesses found time for us, to answer our e-mails or to have a coffee or whatever it was, and that was genuinely a huge surprise to me, and something that we try to give back to the community as well,” she says.
The company, in its third year, now gets sixty per cent of its business from offshore customers, with Japan, US, UK and France the leading markets, something which Jodie believes is indicative of the success that can be wrought through today’s connected global economy.
“I think there’s a real opportunity for other business, not just retailers, but all kinds of businesses in Australia. We don’t have a geographical boundary anymore, and I think it’s a really exciting time for us as a nation. What can we turn ourselves into now that we don’t have that isolation so much anymore?” she says.
“I also think, from speaking to various investment firms and people like that, that they’re quite excited about the opportunity and what is becoming available in terms of talent, imagination and innovation in Australia at the moment as well. I think that there is this awesome sort of consciousness coming about in Australian business that is really exciting at the moment,” she says.
With the company firmly established as the world’s leading custom shoe retailer the entrepreneurs decided to branch out. Enlisting the help of another ex-Google whiz, Mark Capps, they launched online prescription eyewear retailer Sneaking Duck last year.
If there was ever need for a poster boy for the awakening of Australian innovation as the ‘tyranny of distance’ is consigned to history by the opportunity of today’s hyper-connected world, Shoes of Prey would be just the fit.
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