Small businesses will often go to great lengths to stand out from the crowd. This shoe startup pulled out the stilettos.

In November of last year, entrepreneur Jodie Fox commissioned Janie Bryant to design an exclusive, sixties-themed shoe collection for her online retailer, Shoes of Prey. Bryant rose to fame by way of the lofty perch of AMC's hit series Mad Men, where she served as the show's costume designer. The seven-year-old company, co-founded by Fox, Mike Knapp and Michael Fox, attracted Bryant with its unique business model: You can design your own shoes--from materials to heel height. "The whole idea is that you're the hunter of shoes," Fox explained in a sit-down interview with Inc.

Fox was always a fashion lover (she blames her Italian roots,) but she could rarely find exactly what she was looking for in a shoe. After commissioning some of her own designs from a third-party vendor--and realizing how much she enjoyed that experience--she decided that her business would give customers the creative say. 

Fox wanted to make her shoes more accessible to everyone. Enter, the online design portal: "You can literally be sitting in your room designing a shoe with a pack of Oreos at 3am," Fox said. With over 200 materials and 10 different heel heights to choose from, Shoes of Prey can create trillions of potential designs. Customers design and view their shoes via an online photo rendering, which are then sent to the company's manufacturing facility in China. The average shoe from Shoes of Prey costs $220. The entry price is $130, and the most customers will ever pay is $450. That's significantly less than designer shoes from Barneys, say, which can go for as much as $3,000. 

Although the e-commerce model is effective from a design standpoint, it also had practical limitations, according to Fox: "We had a healthy business, but we found that women wanted to know what the shoe felt like on their foot. That only comes from having a retail presence," she said. In January of 2013, four years after the company launched, it opened up its first brick-and-mortar location inside a David Jones department store in Australia. The company has since expanded to United States, adding four retail locations in Nordstrom stores.

The design-it-yourself model has posed logistical issues for the team: "The biggest challenge in mass customization is the manufacturing part of it," Fox said, and there have been times when the company did not have sufficient resources to process a request. 

Financially speaking, though, Shoes of Prey is fairly savvy: Fox reports that the company broke even two months after it launched, and by 2011, it was logging more than $1 million in annual revenue. The company has raised $8.6 million--including $5.5 million in its most recent round--from venture investors including Khosla Ventures and Sherpa Ventures. While it refused to give its 2014 revenue, Fox said that sales are up 50 percent year-over-year. 

Fox sees her company as educating customers about the creative process: "Mass customization doesn't make designers redundant. It helps you to understand that designing is actually pretty hard," she explained. Bringing on Bryant also gave the company a sense of direction: "Janie helps to pull together a vision for what a shoe collection could be right now."

Ultimately, Fox hopes to harness the manufacturing potential of 3-D printing, with the idea being that all components of a Shoes of Prey design could be printed as opposed to assembled manually.

"Shoes of Prey is not actually about shoes. It's about getting exactly what you want, when you want it," said Fox, adding: "We may need to do a name change in the future."

Published on: Apr 27, 2015