Sunday, November 29, 2009

Crunchie Awards

This week four of our friends (Jen, Pete B, Peter W and Jeff S) nominated us for a "Crunchie" award for best International Startup (outside the US). After thinking about it for a few days, it would actually be pretty awesome to win this...

The catch is, we need votes. Lots of votes.

If you think we're deserving, please help us win by voting for us each day.

Here's what we ask that you'd do:

1) Please bookmark this URL -- maybe even make it your homepage while the competition is running:

2) Every day until December 5 2009 (Dec 4 in the US) click "Nominate" next to "Shoes of Prey".

3) Come back each and every day until December 5, and click "Nominate" again. (Every person can vote once per day.)

Thanks for your support! :)

Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Happy Customer

Our first orders have been going out to our customers over the last few weeks and we're very excited by the responses we've been getting. One of our first customers, Beverly, blogged last night about receiving her shoes. It's a great post with some excellent suggestions which we'll be following up on:

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The Value of Blogging

When we started this blog Shoes of Prey was still well and truly in its early stages. While we were still working out how the business would work we had some extra time on our hands and starting a blog to discuss what we were up to seemed like a really valuable thing to do. Our friends were interested to know what we were up to, so a blog was a great way of keeping them up to date, and we wanted to get people's input on things like the sizing conundrum and brainstorming business names, and the blog worked brilliantly for that (thanks again everyone!).

Now that the business has launched we're finding that we're a lot busier and it's harder to find the time to blog when there are so many other things to work on. However rather than being less valuable, I think at this time the blog is even more valuable. In addition to keeping our friends up to date with what we're doing, and getting input on the many issues we no doubt have ahead of us, this blog is a great place for planning and reflection. I'm 2/3 of the way through an MBA at AGSM and a key theme throughout the program is what they call the 'Action Learning Cycle'. The Action Learning Cycle is quite simple. It says that for anything you do you go through a 4 stage cycle which you should continuously repeat if you want to keep improving what you're doing.

As in the above diagram, the 4 stages are:
* Planning
* Action
* Reflection
* Learning

At the moment we're spending a huge amount of time taking action. We're implementing many of the things we've been planning for most of the year and working to get the business up and running. Doing this leaves little time for reflection, planning and learning. And that's where this blog comes in. Knowing that we want to write 3 posts a week makes us sit down and think, 'what are 3 important things for us this week that we can write about?'. That's a great piece of reflection and planning in itself and writing the actual posts is even better. Take the recent post about our Facebook Page strategy. I'd done some basic research and planning before we implemented the page, but writing the post forced me to sit down and reflect in detail on how it had gone, learn from that then plan our next moves. And I now have a written record of that reflection, learning and planning that I can go back to as we take action in the next steps of building out the page. And the added bonus of doing this process via a blog is that I got some excellent thoughts and ideas from the anonymous poster who shared their thoughts in the post. It was a similar story with the post about interviewing for our first permanent hire.

Even though there's so much to do, and it would be very easy to neglect this blog I think there's huge value in continuing with it.

How do you take time out to reflect, learn and plan?

Friday, November 20, 2009

Reflecting on 5 weeks in Guangzhou - Part 2

Photo Credit:
China is so incredibly different to Australia

I've been lucky enough to travel quite a bit and I've never spent time anywhere that is as different to Australia as China. Parts of the US, particularly California almost feel like home. The UK might as well be home given the number of Aussies in London. Mainland Europe, even with the different languages isn't so different to Australia. And the major Asian cities I've been to like Singapore, Hong Kong, Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur really aren't so different either. I've not yet been to South America and I've only spent a week in Africa so I can't really compare those.

As for China, or at least Guangzhou, it's entirely different. The differences that struck me include:
  • The spoken and written language. In Europe you can look at a street sign and know roughly how to pronounce it, or you can listen to a conversation and pick up the occasional word because it's similar to an English word. Not in China.
  • The food. Chinese people don't like to eat seafood unless they've seen it alive and so know it's fresh. Watching the fish that you're about to eat being pulled out of the fish tank and killed isn't something that would go down so well in Australia. It's interesting though, that's the reality of eating meat and we've become desensitised to that in Australia.
  • Slurping your soup is the done thing. You spit bones out onto the table rather than remove them before putting the food in your mouth.
  • The cutlery. Why did we decide to use knives and forks and the Chinese decide to use chopsticks?
  • Censoring the internet. You can't access Facebook, Twitter, Blogger (including this blog), sites hosted by Google Appengine (including Shoes of Prey), sites or even Google search results that mention Tianemen Square or Falun Gong. Though perhaps it won't be long until we start on this path in Australia. Mike and I used ExpressVPN while we were here to get around the censoring.
  • What is and isn't polite to say - a western female friend was asked if she was married, when she said no the Chinese supplier said, "You need to lower your standards, you have too much acne!"
  • The toilets. They are a hole in the floor that you squat over. BYO toilet paper.
  • Toddlers wear buttoned pants rather than nappies so they can go to the toilet in the street, or in a drain on the floor on the train!
  • The pollution. I've seen a blue sky maybe twice in 5 weeks here. The rest of the time it's hazy, and it's not fog. We have to clean the apartment thoroughly every week because a thin film of black soot ends up covering everything. Fill a bucket up with water from the tap and it's brown. And that's the reality of being the world's factory. We can't get angry at China for being polluted when pretty much everything we buy in Australia is made there.

Don't get me wrong, I love it in China, the differences make it exciting and fun, I just didn't expect things to be so different. It's fascinating that human beings can develop such vastly different cultures and ways of living.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Reflecting on 5 weeks in Guangzhou - Part 1

Tomorrow I fly home to Sydney after spending 5 weeks in Guangzhou China. That got me reflecting on my time here and this is Part 1 of my thoughts.

I arrived here 5 days after we launched Shoes of Prey and when I think through everything that's happened in that time it feels like 6 months rather than 5 weeks. In addition to being in another part of the world it feels like I've been in a time warp.

Here's some of what's happened:

  • We've had some great press with the highlights being spots in Marie Claire, QWeekend Magazine and, judging by the traffic that followed, a popular Auckland morning radio show.
  • We've had some amazing feedback and learnt a lot from our customers which will direct our work over the coming weeks.
  • We've had days of strong sales and days of 0 sales.
  • We've set things up to start working with a second supplier.
  • We've spent 5 days at the Canton Fair and explored a whole range of new, potential products for future businesses.
  • We've experimented with offline sales at the Bondi Markets and Sydney Fashion Weekend.
  • We've hired Vanessa, our first full time employee.
And biggest of all, we've gone from being unsure of whether our 9 months of work to launch Shoes of Prey would bear fruit to realising that while there is a lot of work ahead of us, the business is looking promising and we're confident we can make it work.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Startup Roller Coaster

Photo Credit:
Working at Google was a great, steady job. There were highs, there were lows, but at the end of the month there was a nice steady pay check.

Shoes of Prey is like a crazy roller coaster where you're strapped in by your feet and flung around a crazy non-sensical track at a hundred miles an hour. There's gut wrenching, plummeting lows and fantastic, ecstatically exciting highs. And they come within days of each other.

Last week we met with our supplier who told us their workshop has too many orders and our shoes are now going to take 5 weeks to make. This is on top of some of our first orders already bordering on being late. If we can't get our first orders to customers on time, what hope do we have of encouraging people to spread the word about our business? Queue plummeting low. Fortunately we'd kept in close contact with another potential supplier and over the weekend we sent our first orders to our second supplier. 2-3 weeks is their turnaround which is much better. But now we have a raft of issues to work through around matching leathers and designs across suppliers. We can see a hard but steady rise out of the low.

This weekend was Sydney Fashion Weekend. We invested $4,000 of our not exactly large cash reserves in the event and opening night on Thursday saw pretty dismal sales. Plummeting low number 2 for the week. We tweaked our sales approach, our messaging around pricing and got all our laptops working on the stand, and Friday night and Saturday saw fantastic sales. Plus we've learnt so much from speaking to our customers directly that we've got a good idea of where to focus our energies over the coming month. An ecstatic high only 24 hours later!

It certainly isn't boring running a startup.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Welcome to the Shoes of Prey Team Vanessa!

As mentioned in a previous post we've been interviewing for our first permanent hire to be based in China. We're pleased to say that we've hired Vanessa Iron. Welcome to the team Vanessa!

Vanessa studied English at University. She's worked for 3 different Chinese exporting companies, and the first one involving women's shoes. On her first day on the job she picked up one of our shoes and proceeded to give me a lesson in the different materials that had been used to make this shoe! This is exactly who we need on the team! Vanessa started with us last week and already she's proven she will be very valuable. I had planned to meet with a shipping company based in Shenzhen to discuss shipping prices. At the moment we're using Hong Kong Post and we can get better rates and shave a couple of days off the delivery time using someone else. Vanessa took a look at the website of the shipping company I was going to use and told me there were much better and cheaper companies in Guangzhou. She called a few and she was right. Shipping rates and service levels from the company she suggested in Guangzhou will be much better than with the company I had found.

Here's a brief outline of what will be involved in Vanessa's role:

1. Receiving a daily delivery of shoes from the shoe workshop:
- quality check the shoes completed that day;
- photograph the shoes completed that day;
- package and ship the shoes completed that day.

2. Upload the photographs and sizing information for the completed shoes into our database.

3. Track all our orders to ensure shoes will be delivered on time.

4. Organise our bookkeeping.

5. Liaise with our suppliers as we add more material and design options.

6. Translating for us on our trips to China.

7. Ad hoc tasks like:
- finding a new shipping company to reduce our shipping times and cost.
- if things go well, establish an office in Guangzhou. We've rented a small room to start things off.
- helping us research suppliers for new products we might want to explore.

If we want to retain Vanessa there are a range of things that are important. 2 key one's are:

1. Providing an opportunity for her to grow with the role.
If things go well for Shoes of Prey and any other businesses we might set up, we'll likely need to hire more people in China. We wouldn't necessarily need people with as much experience as Vanessa, so she could potentially manage additional people we hire here giving her a new challenge in her career.

2. Bonus structure.
We want Vanessa's interests to be aligned with the business so her bonus will be based on how many shoes we sell and the bonus will be significant. If we reach our 12 month goals for the business Vanessa will receive an additional 60% of her salary as a bonus, and the bonus is scaled so she's still rewarded if we do well but don't quite reach our goals, and she's rewarded more if we exceed them.

We're very excited and very pleased to have Vanessa join our team.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Using 3D software to visualize our Fashion Weekend Stall

I've always wanted a reason to play with Google's Sketchup software - and yesterday I had the perfect excuse. We're currently planning our presence at the Sydney Fashion Weekend which starts this Thursday. Within 30 minutes I had downloaded Sketchup for free and mocked up this very basic scale model of our stand:

An image is fine, but animation is better:

As you can see, Sketchup is incredible useful for visualizing a physical space. With minimal training you can easily create realistic models which you can then use to iron out potential logistical or tactical problems; changing everything around in a matter of seconds. For instance, we know from our experience at the Bondi markets that our shoes are like magnets to fashion conscious women. Having them at the front of the stand makes more sense so we can get a few precious seconds to explain the concept and then draw their attention to the laptops.

That said, our finished stand is potentially going to look quite different (and certainly more polished). However it was a great way to explore the amount of space we have available to us. We'll definitely use it again when we need to plan out physical spaces.

Are there aspects of your business that could be better visualized in 3D?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Product Photography - Take 2

As discussed previously, photographing the shoes we have made is important to our business. One of the biggest pieces of feedback we've had is that the shoe designer isn't realistic enough. It would be a significant investment to make the designer more realistic, and that's an investment we'll hold off making for a while, but one improvement we can make is to add photos into our shoe designer of 'shoes similar to the one you've designed'. Design a shoe in red patent leather and we'll show you a photo of a shoe made in red patent leather. Select the 4.5 inch heel with a platform and we'll show you a photo of a shoe made with a 4.5 inch heel with a platform.

To do this properly we need great photos of our shoes. So we've been investing in photography equipment and I've been teaching myself product photography. So far we've purchased:

Canon EOS 500D Camera
Canon 50mm Lens
Home made light box
2 x 70w 5500K lights
1 x 168w 5500K light

One of the great thing about the camera we bought is that you can tether it to your computer and see the shot your going to get on your computer screen before you actually take it (see the image at the top of this post).

Our biggest challenge with the product photography is getting the colours right. The leather colour in the shoe photographs needs to match the leather colour in real life, otherwise we're going to have disappointed customers. To give you an example of how much the colour can vary take a look at these two photos of a gold soft leather shoe:

This photo is with the white balance on the camera set properly. The shoe looks silver.

For this photo I adjusted the white balance and this is the actual colour of the leather. Trouble is now the background is an ugly orange. We could cut out the image of the shoe and photoshop the background white, or alternatively make the adjustments to the silver looking shoe to make it gold, but that's difficult to do properly and when we're photographing multiple pairs of shoes each day we want to be able to get the image right first time.

The photos above were done with our old lights and since then we've bought 5500 Kelvin (the same as sunlight) professional photography lights. Check this light out!

The new lights have improved the colour issues, but we're still having problems matching blues without using photoshop.

Any suggestions are most welcome!

Friday, November 6, 2009

Shoes of Prey Goes Offline

No, the website hasn't gone down, we thought we'd try our hand at offline retailing! The most common piece of feedback we've received is that people would love to see and touch the shoes, so we thought we'd let people do that. A few months ago Jodie designed 40 pairs of shoes which give a good overview of the style and colour options available on the site. We had the shoes made in a range of sizes that will allow customers to try the shoes on to help us determine their size. We've also made up some leather books so we can show off samples of all our available leathers and we'll have some laptops available so customers can use the website and get designing. Here's where we'll be:

Bondi Markets
This Sunday we'll have a stall at the Bondi Markets in Sydney. The Bondi Markets are a predominantly fashion market and a number of now famous designers including Sass & Bide got their start there. Jodie and I will be manning the 3m x 3m stand (Michael is still in China).

Fashion Weekend Sydney
From Thursday 12 November to Sunday 15 November we'll have a stand at Fashion Weekend in Sydney. At the last Fashion Weekend in May over 13,000 fashion loving women came to Fashion Weekend to watch live fashion shows and shop at over 100 designer stands. We'll have a 5m x 2m stand right near the Cafe which should be a great location to show off our shoes. Thanks to Elaine for first suggesting Fashion Weekend to us and thanks to Rafe and Amelia for using their contacts to help us get a last minute spot. Rafe and Amelia will be joining Jodie, Mike and Hazel to help out on the stand over the weekend.

If all goes well we're hoping to continue with a semi-regular stand at the Bondi Markets and we might also explore opportunities to do a pop-up store.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Facebook Page Strategy - Shoes of Prey

Facebook is a fantastic tool for staying connected with friends, and it's proving to be a fantastic tool for us to connect with our Shoes of Prey customers. Since our launch nearly 4 weeks ago Facebook is our top referring site having delivered 8.4% of our total visitors. The key to this has been our Shoes of Prey Facebook Page. I thought I'd share what we've been doing with the page and would love your comments:

1. Strategy
We want to use our Facebook Page to have a conversation with our customers. Many of our customers use Facebook so it's a convenient place for them to talk to us. The benefits of conversing with our customers are fairly obvious but the main ones are:
  • getting feedback on our product and website
  • being able to discuss and get feedback on new product ideas
  • developing our brand through discussions around women's fashion
  • involving our customers in our business so they want to tell their friends about it.
I did some reading about Facebook Page best practices, this white paper by Digital Ministry is excellent if anyone is interested in reading more.

2. Content and Posting Frequency
We're still experimenting with the types of content we post to the page and how frequently we post. We started by averaging a post a day, but engagement quickly dropped off so we thought perhaps that was too much. So now we're aiming for 2 posts a week. For now we've broken down the types of posts into:
  • Discussing fashion trends - we'll link to some of Jodie's fashion related Shoes of Prey blog posts.
  • Recent shoe designs - we'll link to interesting designs that customers have created.
  • Recently made shoes - we'll link to some of the shoes that have been made using the site.
  • Shoes of Prey in the press - these posts have had the best response so far, probably because a lot of the pages members are friends of ours! We think mentioning these is important as it helps to build our credibility.
  • Product improvement discussions - these posts will be used to get feedback from customers about ideas we have to improve the site.
It's still early days for the page so we'll probably experiment with other types of posts and measure the response they have to determine what is most interesting to people.

3. Recruitment
A Facebook Page is only useful if it has members. Here's how we've gone about getting to 900 members in our first month:
  • We launched the page 2 days after launching the Shoes of Prey website and our first recruitment drive involved me inviting all of my Facebook friends, including my male friends to join our page! I was worried that was being a bit spammy but my friends have been a huge support to us sharing their ideas on this blog and in person, and being beta testers while we were getting things up and running so I figured they might be interested to join our Facebook Page. The advantage of having a reasonable number of people join the page early is that when people like or comment on a post on your page, that action goes into their news feed and appears on their wall so their friends are exposed to your page.
  • We've placed a link to our Facebook Page on the Shoes of Prey homepage. Driving people away from our website isn't necessarily something we always want to do, but for our business we think long term relationships with our customers is important. So far our average sale has come a week after the customer first created an account with us, so building trust with our customers and reminding them to come back to our site is important to us. Those things are that much easier to achieve if someone becomes a member of our Facebook Page.

Engaging with our customers via Facebook is only new to us. We'd love to hear your thoughts on our strategy in the comments.