Cassie Fossum is a self-confessed shoe addict. Naturally, she loved how designer heels made her look but was less enthusiastic about how they made her feet feel. A particularly painful night on the town set her on the path to find her ideal shoe, a pair that was as comfortable as it was fashionable. Her research revealed that the technology of women’s shoes had not changed in decades, so she assembled a team of experts who have developed a patent pending 360° comfort system which is incorporated into every pair of Mavette.
At Mavette, fashion and comfort are synonymous. They create shoes which not only look fabulous but feel fabulous as well. This meant giving high heels and flats a much-needed makeover based on their patent-pending 360° comfort technology. This wizardry is combined with a custom fit process to ensure customers a terrific buying experience from Mavette. Every pair of shoes are handmade by Italian craftsmen with generations of experience and shipped directly from the factory in Europe.
Presently, Mavette fittings are done in person, however, Cassie and her team are working to develop an online app which will allow custom fitting of each foot from home.
Today’s guest is Cassie Fossum, CEO, and co-founder of Mavette.com, a company which is exploring a new way to sell women’s shoes which are as comfortable as they are fashionable.
In this episode, Cassie explains how she discovered Mavette’s niche, her journey in launching her start-up, and how she integrates online sales with custom fittings and untraditional retail marketing using Pop-Up Stores.
This is The Lean Commerce Podcast.
I know you have a whole laundry list of cool experiences from starting Mavette, could you walk us through how you got started on this journey?
00:54 I’ve always been interested in the intersection between creativity and business. Throughout my career o have always sat at that intersection, working with creative people on the business side.
01:45 In my last job I was just bored and not feeling challenged anymore. I was running a business within a business, which challenged me but there was a promotion which was not coming through as quickly as I wanted, so I started thinking, what do I want to do next?
02:05 I opened myself up to problems in the world that I wished I could solve, and one of them was uncomfortable shoes. When you go out in high heels, after about 20 minutes your feet are stinging and hurting. I love wearing high heels, but it was something that was prohibitive if you are at a long conference and something is hurting your feet.
02:30 I started asking my other girlfriends, and it is something that many women experience, anyone who has worn high heels. As I looked, I realized that the high heel hadn’t really been redesigned since the 1900s.
03:10 I took my idea and decided to go look for an accelerator program and found one that took people who just have an idea, most of the accelerators want to see that you have an idea and have already started building traction behind it.
03:30 I found the Founder Institute and they were willing to take on companies that just had an idea. The program is about three months long. You meet every week, they bring in different experts; one week it might be about legal, what do you need to know about legal to start a company, another week it might be about market strategy, what are ways to go to market with your idea. Then, you have homework, you meet with a working group and brick by brick you start building your company. Right after I graduated, I found my designer, headed over to Italy, and have been building Mavette ever since.
How did you go from Silicon Valley to moving over to Italy, or finding a designer in Italy and sourcing the product there?
04:42 When I was working on the idea, I knew I did not want to do a Made in China shoe. There are so many shoes out there that are low quality and I knew that for this product which has a footbed in it, it is very technical in order to help you be more comfortable all day. For a custom-fitted shoe, I did not want the perception of Made in China. I wanted the Made in Italy perception because Made in Italy, for shoes, is the gold standard.
05:42 While I was still in Founder’s Institute, I was introduced to someone who is now an advisor on my team. He has a lot of experience in the fashion world but not a ton of experience in shoes. He helped me run a job search for a fashion designer.
I am not really familiar with the accelerator programs. Is it something where they offer you funding when they like your idea, then say “here’s what you need to do to pitch investors, here’s what you need to do to build the team”, or do they want you to find funding first and then go to the Founder’s Institute?
06:43 It depends on the different accelerator programs out there. This particular program was not offering money, you actually give them a little bit of equity in your company to be in their program. Other accelerators are out there if you are further along, you are not just coming in with just an idea, these companies might give you a little bit of funding and also take a little bit of equity.
So, did you raise money from outside investors afterward, or are you bootstrapping the whole thing? How did you approach funding your business?
For funding right now we are bootstrapping, and we want to bootstrap for as long as possible before we consider institutional investment. My strategy is that the further along we can be, the more traction we can show, the better position we’ll be in and the better-negotiating terms we’ll have when or if we decide to approach institutional investors.
I know that you have pop-up events, how are you selling the shoes right now?
09:00 We just started our sales a few months ago, in October, actually. We’ve been doing it solely through our pop-up shops. What we do is either partner with an event or partner with the store or run our own space. We bring our shoes in, bring women in, measure their feet and take them through our whole fitting process to get them fit into the right pair of shoes for them. Once we know their sizing, we have their shoes made for them in Italy, so if you have two different sized feet, left and right foot that are different, we can accommodate you. For right now, we are measuring in person. Something we are working on for next year is selling online, so we’ll probably just sell regular sizes online with our comfort technology. If you want the custom piece, we’ll see you in person to fit you. Something we are also working on is an application where you’ll take a few pictures of your feet and from that, we can take all your measurements and make a custom shoe for you.
Let’s dive into that idea of an app to measure your foot, how are you approaching that and what’s that going to look like? It seems like it could be applicable to any shoe retailer in a big way if you can figure out your shoe sizing before you go into a store.
10:35 Sizing is a big issue, especially when you sell online. The more we can help our customers and help people know what size they are before they buy, that’s a big thing for all retailers. Not only can we figure out the right sizing for you, but we can also fit specifically to your individual feet. 60% of women have a left and right foot that are different sizes, it means that they really should be wearing two different sized shoes. We are actively building the app right now, so once it comes out, we’ll have more to share but I think it is exciting that the technology is catching up to the idea of mass customization.
I am surprised that no other retailers have implemented it, it seems like it could be a huge, huge thing.
12:18 It might sound easy when I am talking about it, but it is something that is hard to do, and I think that is why other retailers haven’t done it. That is an advantage of being a start-up, you can be nimble and flexible. I am sure other retailers will be excited once we get this going.
You are trying a couple of different sales channels and you have the cost of doing custom work, so it is not like you can buy a huge amount of inventory to bring over and then sell it all out. From a business perspective, how have you managed that kind of multi-channel and customized products with international shipping?
13:06 I have the benefit of my co-founder who used to work with the Marines, he also happens to be my husband. He used to get things over the border from Pakistan and Afghanistan, so I like to say if he could do that, he can get my shoes from Italy to the United States. Really, it is all about making sure that you have a very clear communication with your supply chain so that when an order comes in they can directly start the process of getting the shoe made and directly shipped to the customer.
14:18 Right now, we’re saying around eight to ten weeks for delivery, but we feel pretty confident that as we get going and selling more, we can get that down to around four to six weeks.
There’s a lot of movement trying to take online presences and make them work offline as well. What kinds of things do you see happening to the future of retail?
15:21 I think that the “Amazon effect” is only going to grow, people want things faster, they want two-day shipping to their doorstep, but I see that growing for commoditized items where the brand does not matter so much. That is where smaller brands with a strong voice can distinguish themselves. Amazon can win if your product does not have something special to distinguish itself. If you are offering something really unique, you can get customers to come to you, and that is where I see the future of retail.
You already do the pop-up shops and you are moving into the online space. Do you think of retail as a channel Mavette will ever pursue? Perhaps Nordstrom or a similar distribution plan?
18:01 Right now, we don’t have plans to directly go into a Nordstrom retail, I think we’re so new right now that we have to stay open to opportunities. If Nordstrom came knocking at our door and said, hey, we love what you are doing, let’s have a collaboration together, we would. There is a lot of talk that retail is dead. I mean, big-box retailers are struggling, but we are seeing a lot of companies starting online and moving into a physical retail space.
21:41 As I mentioned, we’ve done pop-up shops, and our customers there need to talk in person, the fittings need to be done in person. We’ve learned invaluable data just from being there and actually talking to our customers. Even when we are not actively talking to them, just listening in to them, we capture feedback we would never get online.
Can you tell me how you got started with the pop-up shops? How did you approach pop-up shops and what’s the process to it?
22:49 For us, the pop-up shops are very opportunistic. The very first one was a partnership with a women’s conference that I was just planning to attend. I knew we were to the point where we wanted to start making sales, and the conference mentioned in the signup that “if you want pop-up shop space here and you’re a conference attendee. You will be welcomed”. I thought, “Maybe this would be a good idea, they aren’t charging us extra for it”. As a start-up, we are always looking for the opportunity which doesn’t cost any extra money. After that, it’s just a matter of the nuts and bolts of making sure you have a nice display, something you can set up and take down quickly and easy to pack in the car.
What sort of investment needs to go into a pop-up shop?
26:17 I think it really depends on what your product is. If you are selling jewelry a pop-up can be very minimalist, you need a tablecloth and a couple of display racks. For our shoes, we bring over a hundred pairs with us and we have to figure out a way to display them all. In the end, it only cost us about a thousand bucks for wooden display racks and it is all stuff we can use over and over again.
As a guy, I don’t know anything about picking out high heels. Has there been anything surprising that you have learned?
30:12 For me, it is surprising how few women have had their feet properly measured since they were in their teens. After you have a baby, or if you gain or lose 10 pounds, your feet can change. I’ve met women who say they have wide feet, but it turns out they are on the narrow side. More women need to reassess their sizing.
What is the driver behind the best Mavette customer? Will she be a raging fan of the comfort, or is it the look plus the comfort, the price? What do they love the most about Mavette?
31:37 I think what women love about Mavette is that it is a comfortable shoe which has the technology for all-day comfort but does not look like a comfort shoe, they are beautiful designer high heels.