Giant Steps: Ups, Downs of Shoe Store Primed KC Entrepreneur for Business Coaching
This is what we love about KCSourceLink’s resource network for entrepreneurs: Kansas City entrepreneurs pay it forward. Take Jill Hathaway, entrepreneur-turned-business-coach. She learned firsthand that a plan for growth isn’t one size fits all.
From sales to banking to startups, Jill has decades of experience with how to start and grow businesses. Before she joined the UMKC Small Business and Technology Development Center, she was an entrepreneur herself and had the same questions and struggles many small-business owners face.
As a ScaleUP! KC mentor, Jill has passed on what she knows about navigating financial hurdles, hiring the best employees and what kind of growth is right for a business. Here, she shares how she started her venture, pivoted her strategy in the face of adversity and cleared the hurdles to exceed her goals.
In the late ’90s, if you had diabetes, finding the right shoes was a nightmare. Not to mention, for those with the condition, bad footwear might mean sores, gangrene—and even amputation. And forget all those online shopping options we have at our fingertips today.
Take Baby Steps with a New Idea
That’s when Jill Hathaway saw a business opportunity. Her husband was a pedorthist (basically a pharmacist for feet), and she had experience in the footwear industry, so both saw a need they could meet, particularly one in the Kansas City metro. Jill’s husband did have the shoes for those who needed them, but she says he couldn’t run a business—good thing she was a banking whiz with more than 13 years of experience. So Jill took the reins with the numbers as COO and CMO shortly after their son was born.
But she learned early on that just having an idea doesn’t make a business. The Hathaways rented a 300-square-foot space in the Brookside and Waldo neighborhoods, but business wasn’t booming.
“We thought, if you build it, they will come, but it didn’t happen,” Jill says. “Customers didn’t know about us. People didn’t understand what the company was.”
The Hathaways called their business Footwear for Foot Care, but she says people were confused what the business sold and sales suffered.
But one day, a customer popped in asked if the Hathaways could travel to fit a relative for shoes in Belton, Missouri, about a half-hour south. That was a lightbulb moment. It turned out that a person with diabetes occupied 1 in 10 beds in the nursing homes in Belton at the time, Hathaway recalls. Those customers were unlikely to come to the Hathaway’s store, but maybe, she thought, the store could come to them.
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Pivot, not Just to Survive but Also to Grow
So the Hathaways put their shoes on wheels and started marketing to diabetic educators, diabetic doctors, orthopedic surgeons and podiatrists and offered a slightly different service.
“In order to stay afloat, you have to be able to pivot,” she says. “You have to see the need in a community and listen to the customers. When that customer came in, that’s one we realized we could solve.”
From there, the Hathaways realized they were missing potential sales: What about diabetic patients’ family members? Some (maybe they were nurses, teachers, attorneys) might be on their feet all day and need a comfortable pair of kicks. And other potential customers, besides those who had diabetes, might have separate shoe and foot issues the Hathaways could solve.
Keep the Cash Flowing
The couple added a space for orthotics and other items to increase average sales and used other strategies to bring in revenue while they waited for money to come in that was tied up with customers’ insurers and the government.
Eventually, the Hathaways landed in a hefty 6,000-square-foot building that would house their expanded business. But that’s when other problems arose. Multiple air-conditioners and heating units ate up a lot of energy. And then there were roof repairs and other costly maintenance. So they started to cut some of their products for kids and, later, men’s wear. Jill says the big space started looking more like an empty grocery store. But that purge actually helped save their operation—as the market started taking a hit in 2008. That’s when Jill had to find other ways to keep a profit.
Research and Reassess
Real estate experts and marketing research said Leawood would be a better fit than relying on their Brookside/Waldo location. Paring down to women’s shoes (because research showed that women in the area spent more money on seasonably comfortable shoes) and moving in to a higher-rent 900-square-foot space with cheaper utilities also meant being closer to clients who had more cash to spend. That was key to higher profits.
Jill says she relays her lessons from her shoe business and other experiences to her clients today, especially the hundreds of resources available to them in the Kansas City area. (Need to get connected? KCSourceLink can help.)
Don’t Go It Alone: Connect with Resources
“Back then, I had no idea there were resources in the Kansas City market that would help me with any aspect of my business, much less free resources,” she says. “As an entrepreneur, like many of my clients are when they start, juggling all the balls and wearing all the hats—it’s difficult to give up control and to delegate. That’s why I relate to my clients now. I was in their shoes.”
Inspired by Jill’s story and want to take the next step and start your own? Call KCSourceLink at 816-235-6500. No matter what stage of your business, from inception to fueling growth, we can connect you with the resources you need for your business to go the distance.
You never have to go it alone. KCSourceLink connects thousands of Kansas City entrepreneurs to hundreds of resources in the area at no charge. Like Scale UP! KC, an elite (and free) four-month program that teaches small-business owners how to propel their passion to the next level. If you’ve got what it takes to be one of the elite few selected for the next ScaleUP! KC program, apply here.
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