For centuries, women have enjoyed a love-hate affair with their high heel shoes. They’re so cute! But they hurt your toes so bad!
Sometimes, if it’s a special date or a really important business meeting, you’ll make the sacrifice. And even as you walk out of the meeting with a new contract in your briefcase, you may wish you had remembered to bring a pair of comfortable flats to change into before your heels kill you.
Dawn Dickson has got you covered.
Emergency Shoes When You Need Them
Since April, 2011, Flat Out of Heels has offered a brilliant solution for women who can’t stand wearing their painful heels another second: rollable ballet-style flats that are stylish, comfortable, durable, and compact enough to fit in a small clutch purse. Sold from special vending machines in venues like airports, nightclubs, malls, and hotels, Flat Out of Heels lets you buy emergency shoes when and where you need them.
Dickson, founder and CEO of Flat Out of Heels (her design partner is Brandan Craft) has been a full-time entrepreneur since 2001. She founded a successful company, D1 Consulting, to help non-profit organizations raise money and put programs and fund-raisers in place. She is also an absolute whiz at making an investor pitch, having won the gold (or occasionally the silver) in any number of national pitch contests. Most recently she took first place (and a $25,000 prize) at the PowerMoves.NOLA conference in New Orleans.
She got the inspiration for Flat Out of Heels in 2011. On many occasions, she noticed, women were walking out of clubs or special events barefoot, carrying their heels—or teetering painfully in sexy pumps because their feet hurt so bad. Then one evening in Miami Dickson was out on the town herself, dressed to the nines in six-inch heels, and her feet were really hurting. “I wished,” she remembers, “that I could just go and buy a pair of flats from a vending machine. Then I thought, "Well, why can’t women go and buy flats when it’s an emergency?” It was Dickson’s aha moment.
Hard and Easy
Some of the startup process for Flat Out of Heels was hard. Dickson recalls that it took a lot of research. “For one thing,” she says, “I had to find out if there was something like this on the market already. I did find a few flats out there, so I ordered them—and what I found was that the soles of those shoes were really soft. They weren’t good for walking. So I tried to figure out how I could make shoes that were better than the competitors. I started researching fabrics, different manufacturers, where I could get prototypes made…”
Fund raising, on the other hand, was easy for this Pitch Contest Champ. “I knew how to raise money from my previous career in the consulting business. I knew how to package things. I packaged my business plan, I packaged my budget, and I went to close friends and family to raise my seed money. I’m just now going into a Series A round.”
Flat Out of Heels started generating revenue right away, but Dickson is still not in profit. “We’re continuing to grow,” she says, “and we’re putting capital back into the business to grow even faster. We’re reinvesting our profits, building our inventory, and paying for more marketing.”
Really Good Shoes
It always helps if your new product is demonstrably superior to other products on the market. Dickson’s flats are really well-designed:
- They are serious walking shoes—built with thick, hard, durable soles, no-slip, no-skid bottoms, and a memory foam cushion.
- They are designed with elastic on the heel for a great fit; they never flop off or get loose.
- They roll and fold. They’re compact, so you can carry them for emergencies. And they come in a plastic bag you can use to carry your heels.
- They’re even machine washable.
Dickson’s initial idea had been to sell the flats from vending machines—but it took so long to design and manufacture a proper flat-vending device (she’s currently on her third iteration) that she decided to start selling online in the meantime. That revenue stream took off really quickly, along with sales in some 65 boutiques. Flat Out of Heels has only two machines at this point, but they are in prime locations: one is at the hip Miami nightclub LIV at the Fontainebleau, and the other is at the Atlanta Airport. Still, about 85 percent of Dickson’s sales are online; ten percent come from sales to boutiques and partnerships with other online sites. Five percent comes from vending machines. But that’s about to change.
“We only manufactured five machines,” Dickson explains, “and we tested them for a year. The technology is changing fast, and we wanted to make sure we had the cutting edge technology before we mass produced. The latest model will allow us to expand into many new airports and nightclubs.”
Social Is Key
Marketing is crucial for a start-up business, especially when sales matter. And it should come as no surprise that Flat Out of Heels’ fashionista flats are ideally suited for promotion via social media.
“Social media is crucial for customer products,” Dickson explains. “It’s certainly key for us; in fact it’s been our number one driver. Almost 80 percent of our online traffic comes from Facebook. And this year we’re going to start putting more money into advertising through social media—Pinterest and Facebook in particular. The customers are there, ready to engage. Our associations with celebrities like Loren Ridinger, Andi Singer and the Kardashians have been really helpful to us.
"I do the overall strategy,” she continues, “identifying the hashtags that we need to follow. Then I use a service called Growth Geeks. You can contract with these freelancers to manage certain parts of the social media, and it’s way more cost-effective than having an agency. One girl keeps her focus on Pinterest; one focuses on Twitter; one focuses on creating new Facebook content that will drive traffic to our site. It’s been working great. We’ve gotten 5000 new followers just in the last three weeks!”
Dickson’s current plans include expanding to big-box stores, and experimenting with creative distribution options like mobile sales—using bicycles and trucks to deliver flats directly to suffering customers. And of course placing vending machines in more locations.
Soothing your aching toes has never been easier![Photos by Slav G]