Be a communicator. Even introverted entrepreneurs need to learn how to network. The more you engage in communication outside of your natural comfort zone, the less terrifying you will find it. The truth is, successful businesses have well-connected founders. It’s perfectly fine to build those connections from scratch. Join a networking group, attend industry events, and connect with peers and experts online. Don’t be afraid to randomly message people. Practice creating videos for social media, and when you are comfortable with that, do lives and podcast interviews. I’m an introvert and I got comfortable enough with those elements, so you definitely can too!
As part of our series about the 5 things you need to succeed in the fashion industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Susannah Davda. Susannah is the founder of The Shoe Consultant; the place to go for small and startup global shoe brands looking for support. The Shoe Consultant provides essential advice and connections for anyone looking to start or grow their shoe brand. Susannah has been working in the footwear industry since 1998 and has been helping shoe brand founders since she launched The Shoe Consultant in 2015.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I grew up in an unconventional household. My father was a vicar who made shoes for the family as a hobby, and my mother was obsessed with everything alternative. As the youngest of four children, I usually wore hand-me-down clothes from my brothers and sister. So there I was in my sister’s outdated neon orange cagoule, my brother’s jeans and my dad’s handmade shoes. But that wasn’t who I was inside.
I began to witness the power of style when my mum would get dressed up for a night out. Then I became obsessed with fashion magazines. The dressing-up box with my mum’s 1970s creations and a mysterious pair of glittery gold shoes was my favourite place in that draughty cold house. When I was older I began to make and customise my own garments…and shoes slipped my mind.
At the age of 16, I had a weekend job that I hated at a handbag and luggage shop. My friend was working in a shoe shop and told me they needed more staff. So began my shoe career! From that point on, I was shoe-obsessed. I studied for a degree in Footwear Design at university and worked in shoe buying and design when I graduated. By the time I decided to launch The Shoe Consultant, I had 17 years of global experience in product management, design, buying, sales, and retail.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started?
When I started The Shoe Consultant, I knew I wanted to use my expertise to help people, but I hadn’t yet figured out how. I offered a diverse range of services for consumers and B2B clients, all centred around shoes. I ignored the conventional advice of creating a clear business plan, and simply let the market tell me which of my services were desired. Even now, I see some logic in this approach because I was creating a very new type of business. Nobody had heard of a shoe consultant before I launched my company.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
The service I should have abandoned much sooner was VIP shoe shopping. I have so many tips about finding great shoes — especially comfortable high heels — that I wanted to share with the world. Being a personal shopper for people’s shoe wardrobes made perfect sense to me, but nobody was looking for this service!
In fact, I think I only ever had one client. I remember taking three trains to her house, helping her sort through her shoes, and taking away the footwear she wasn’t going to wear anymore. I then had to carry three massive bags back on those three trains to get them home to EBay for her. I got some strange looks as I’m only 5’2” and petite. Plus I missed my train connection and my baby was due a feed at home, so that added to the discomfort. It was quite the adventure!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I specialise in helping independent shoe brand founders rather than large businesses. Because they are in control of their business strategy, I am able to make a much bigger impact than if everything I advised had to be approved by several layers of seniority.
I am passionate about being my clients’ consumer ambassador. Always encouraging them to consider their consumers in every decision they make. That’s why I still drive through the snow at night to give talks to groups of people who want to hear my shoe tips. It’s those people who tell me what they really want and need from their shoes.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
As entrepreneurs, we tend to bounce between a healthy level of productivity, those days when we feel we are getting absolutely nowhere, and burnout. So like anyone else, I sometimes manage to follow the advice I’m about to offer, and sometimes struggle to.
Take time off. Being “on” all the time may make you feel productive, but it doesn’t let your brain rest or come up with new ideas. Stepping away from our phones can be difficult because we use them for business and our social lives and don’t want to miss anything. I switch mine off at 8 pm and don’t switch it back on until I head into the kitchen for breakfast. That’s not a long break, but it’s a useful one for de-stressing before bedtime.
Also, try not to be on and off at the same time. Being engaged with a real-life conversation in the room while answering emails is likely to result in frustration and poor quality input to both. We’ve all been there and it’s just not productive.
Lastly, don’t be hard on yourself when your inbox has been your boss all day, and you haven’t got any meaningful work done. Just plan tomorrow with your priorities first in your schedule.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I love helping my shoe brand clients to have a strong sense of direction, and to avoid mistakes that would at best dishearten them and at worst cause them to waste a lot of money.
Small shoe brands are able to respond effectively to the changing needs and desires of their customers. By supporting footwear brand founders, I enable them to delight their customers with the shoes they offer.
Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share a story of how that was relevant to you in your life?
I used to have “Work hard and be nice to people” on my wall when I worked for a global footwear brand. I needed this reminder because in that environment it was surprisingly difficult to do both of those things. Office politics, shifting boundaries and demotivating management styles meant working hard didn’t always feel productive. Defensive or manipulative attitudes amongst some colleagues created an atmosphere in which it was difficult to bond and make real allegiances and friendships.
Working hard and being nice to people is essentially my business culture now. I have loved bringing humanity into my business, and helping my clients create their own human-centred brands.
Do you see any fascinating developments emerging over the next few years in the fashion industry that you are excited about? Can you tell us about that?
The fashion industry as a whole needs to sort out its waste problem. Many brands are beginning to create products with low environmental impact, but this movement needs to accelerate and spread to entire business models.
Happily, I see many footwear brand founders in my peer support group The Shoe Community making efforts to use natural or recycled materials. They are also considering repair and recycling as part of the service their customers expect.
Thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Top 5 Things Needed to Succeed in the Fashion Industry”. Please share a story or example for each.
1. A clear purpose
Be clear about the problem you are looking to solve for your customers. Starting a brand with a design, and no purpose set in stone can result in numerous changes in direction. Having ablinkered approach which enables you to focus on one problem will make all of your brand decisions easier.
Remember, the more you change your mind about any element of your business — from brand name and logo, to product design or communication style — the more money you will spend because you have duplicated work.
2. The best solution
Entrepreneurs often fixate on one solution to a problem before exploring whether that is the best solution. Qualitative research can enable brand founders to understand their potential customers better, in order to solve their problems with products which will be a no-brainer purchase for them.
Don’t over-complicate the solution. Not every new product has to contain entirely new technology.
3. The right support
As an entrepreneur, you are not expected to know everything. Being openly ignorant might make you feel as though people won’t respect you, but in fact experts love to be asked for their opinions. They aren’t judging you. They will be keen to feel they have helped you solve your business problems.
So ask the stupid question. Find people who are experienced at helping entrepreneurs in your sector, and ask for their help.
4. Price for the future
If you would ever be tempted to sell your product via the wholesale channel, then you must factor the retailer markup into your pricing from the outset. No customer will understand suddenly having to pay more for your product, because it is stocked by retailers.
I also recommend establishing the retail price your market dictates and that your customer would willingly pay, and working backwards to a target cost price. If you allow your manufacturer to just tell you what it costs to make your product, chances are the resulting retail price will be higher than you had hoped. When your manufacturer has a clear cost price to work to, they will tell you where they need to make compromises, and you will have greater control over the development and final price.
5. Be a communicator
Even introverted entrepreneurs need to learn how to network. The more you engage in communication outside of your natural comfort zone, the less terrifying you will find it.
The truth is, successful businesses have well-connected founders. It’s perfectly fine to build those connections from scratch. Join a networking group, attend industry events, and connect with peers and experts online. Don’t be afraid to randomly message people.
Practice creating videos for social media, and when you are comfortable with that, do lives and podcast interviews. I’m an introvert and I got comfortable enough with those elements, so you definitely can too!
Every industry constantly evolves and seeks improvement. How do you think the fashion industry can improve itself? Can you give an example?
If retailers and D2C brands ordered lower quantities with a view to selling out at the full price, their customers would begin to place a higher value on the items they buy. Eradicating discounts would also enable those brands and retailers to reduce their RRPs, instead of the current model of inflating retail prices to reduce them later.
We all have brand newsletters in our inboxes that give us a new discount code every few weeks. You would never pay full price for their products because you have been trained not to. If you ever desperately needed the product and had to pay full price, it would actually cause you emotional distress.
If instead of discounting, brands consistently communicated the value of their products in exciting and unexpected ways, we would still be interested in purchasing from them. In addition, the purchase decision-making process would be simplified for us.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love to eliminate the word “fashion” from our vocabulary, and replace it with the word “style”. “Fashion” implies that a particular look or garment can only be worn for a short time period before becoming “out of fashion”. Instead, we need to get excited about making functional purchases that will last and suit our personal style. We can feel proud of how long we have owned the garments we wear, and how well they still suit us.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!