Shoes With Soul: Two Friends Realize a Dream
Renee Albertelli and Richard Rodriguez shared a dream ever since they met in college: to start their own business. Both took business and marketing courses and began their careers in established businesses so that they could gain experience about what it takes to turn an idea into a business reality. But as they advanced in their careers, the firms they worked for didn't offer the types of challenges they wanted to pursue. They decided they wanted to work for themselves, and they saw an opportunity.
For her job in marketing at a telecommunications firm, Albertelli had traveled to several regions of the world with developing economies, including Africa, Asia, and South America. She became increasingly aware that women in these regions wanted—and needed—to find new ways to earn a living to support and educate their families. Rodriguez, on the other hand, spent his time working in the financial offices of a major U.S. clothing firm that had its own stores nationwide.
During her travels, Albertelli met a group of women who were highly skilled at crafting handmade sandals. They prepared the leather by hand, designed their own shoe patterns, and assembled each pair of sandals with simple tools. Albertelli thought the finished products were beautiful. She was also impressed by the women's desire to operate their own businesses. She thought they would make a great team, if enough sandals could be produced for sale—even in small numbers—in the United States.
Albertelli contacted Rodriguez when she returned from her trip, and the two friends met to create a business plan. Both believed in the product and the cause—they could build a business based on the desire and craftsmanship of small groups of artisans who wanted to band together to form their own businesses and the market for handcrafted goods in the United States. They knew if they could succeed with one group of women and their products, many more would follow. They banked on the fact that U.S. consumers would fall in love with the idea as well—and buy the products.
Albertelli and Rodriguez took a huge risk—they decided to cash in their retirement savings to fund the creation of the first batch of sandals. They devised a plan for acquiring more financial backing so that they could transport and advertise the product. They developed a marketing plan based not only on the beauty of the sandals but also on lives of the women who created them, so that consumers would feel a connection with the makers. They named their company Shoes With Soul. The two entrepreneurs didn't need to worry initially about locating a manufacturing facility because the shoes would continue to be made in the village where they originated.
Albertelli and Rodriguez worked closely with the woman who had started the shoemaking project in her village. When they had enough prototypes, they began to make the rounds to existing stores. They also considered renting kiosks at certain malls and investigated setting up a booth at specific sporting and cultural events. Although they understood the importance of a Web site, they decided not to sell the sandals directly online until they had a more complete line of products to offer consumers.
At first, interest in the shoes was limited to small boutiques—entrepreneurs themselves—until a local TV news show heard about the business and decided to do a story on Albertelli, Rodriguez, and the women. Then things began to change, and Shoes With Soul seemed to take off. Rodriguez and Albertelli were excited by their popularity—but how could they fulfill orders, expand their product line, and grow at a sensible pace?