Ladies, if you’ve ever had trouble finding a shoe that fits, Carol Haffke is your fairy godmother.
Carol’s Hawthorne shoe store, The Shoe Garden, works because of two simple rules — all shoes and boots in store must be available in at least a size 12 (if not longer), and they have to be gorgeous.
On paper, it’s a simple recipe for success. Carol saw a niche — shoes for women with longer feet who had been tearing their hair out in frustration at the small sizes available in most stores — and she filled it.
But in reality, it wasn’t that simple. When Carol first opened her store, she had absolutely no idea what she was doing.
In 2011, Carol walked away from an established career in journalism and PR, virtually on a whim, in order to open The Shoe Garden.
She dove in headfirst, with no experience in running a business, and no experience in retail.
Now she’s written a book, In My Shoes, detailing all the risks she took — and how she made them pay off.
Why did you decide to write a book about your experience as a small business owner?
I had the idea when I was completing a submission after a friend nominated me for a business award. That forced me to really stop and think about my business journey for the first time.
I realised that many of the questions were not relevant to the way I had chosen to run my business. And so I thought: ‘I know, I’ll write a book and share exactly what I want to’. It was incredibly cathartic to do so and all the way I kept thinking about new business owners and all the things that I had learned the hard way; things that typically weren’t covered in normal books about business.
I wanted to share what it felt like, too. That’s a huge change and adjustment; one that I completely underestimated. Basically, In My Shoes is the book I wished I could have read before I started my own business.
In the book you talk about making the decision to open your own shoe store, specialising in larger sizes, in a matter of hours one afternoon. What gave you the confidence to pursue such a drastic career change?
I guess I’ve always been a bit of a risk taker, finding jobs overseas in Namibia, Portugal and Vietnam and usually taking on jobs outside my comfort zone and experience. Through that, I realised that hard work, learning fast, being humble and long hours are key to success. So the big leap into the unknown didn’t really scare me.
To be honest, I was also pretty burnt out and desperate for a change from my previous career, so I really embraced it and within five months had opened The Shoe Garden. Also, as I am just like my customers in that I have a longer foot (size 12), I knew there was a niche waiting to be filled.
How did your friends and family react when you told them what you wanted to do?
I was so incredibly lucky that every single person I knew and loved supported me 100 per cent. Yes, some were shocked that I was leaving a successful career and especially when they learned I was selling my house so I could invest my own funds into the business without the angst of a loan, but when I shared what I wanted to do and how, they were all on board.
I’ve heard about “dream chasers” and have met a few of them over the years, but they weren’t around during this particular dream, thank goodness.
How hard was it to connect with women in Brisbane who were having the same troubles as you were finding shoes? How did you find them?
It actually wasn’t hard at all. From my own experiences trying to find shoes that fit, let alone were fabulous, I knew first-hand how desperate and deprived they were. I also knew that if you know someone who happens to have longer feet, you know they struggle to find shoes and feel empathy for them.
So word of mouth worked incredibly well. Relatives and friends who heard about me told their loved ones. I had some great media coverage before I opened and I had a landing page on my website up and running early on. On that, I conducted a survey to ask women about their shoe size and shoe preferences. From that, I was able to get their contact details so I had a database of hundreds of women before I even opened. And then word spread like crazy.
Still to this day, I am delighted to have new customers find me and it’s a combination of Googling me (I worship my web guys for this!), and ongoing word of mouth recommendations from my gorgeous customers or other shoe or clothing shops, which I’m incredibly grateful for.
Was there ever a point when you stopped and realised the business was a success?
To be honest, I reckon that point only came at the start of this year, a few months before my fifth birthday! Something clicked. I realised that I was looking at, analysing and reacting to every opportunity or circumstance as a business owner. It took me some time to learn how to do that; to be hyper aware of everything as a potential opportunity for my business.
I guess it all depends on your definition of success, too. For me, at this stage, I feel comfortable and confident not just selling gorgeous long shoes, especially as I had no experience in the shoe industry before this, but running the business itself. I can pay all my bills on time. I can live comfortably (although nowhere near, yet, what I used to earn). I have helped to raise nearly $20,000 for MicroLoan Foundation Australia, an amazing charity that helps women in Malawi start or grow their business with small business loans. I have never, ever been happier in my career. That’s what success means to me.
I read that there are three phases to being in business. The start-up phase; the throw-up phase; and the grow-up phase. I have well and truly done the first two, and now I feel comfortable in the third phase.
You’ve talked about how important it was for you to create a business that gives back. Why was it important to you to support the work of Microloan Foundation Australia?
I was really lucky in my 20s and 30s to live, work and travel in many countries, particularly developing countries in Africa, so I appreciated how lucky I was to be born in Australia and have the opportunities that I’ve had in a peaceful country. I saw some terrible poverty and was always interested in doing what I could to make a difference.
I am a big believer in that we can all make a difference. Before I opened The Shoe Garden, I worked in fundraising for 10 years for two amazing charities so that also cemented it for me. It’s another way my business stands out from the crowd; being proud to be a not-just-for-profit, by which I mean I donate a portion of every sale every day. It makes me feel fabulous and my customers, too.
I was fortunate to travel to Malawi with my darling mum in late 2014 and we got to meet some of the women who are assisted by these small loans. Their lives literally change overnight because someone believes in them and it doesn’t matter that they are women or they are poor; they are being treated with respect and dignity.
They are also a strong part of my motivation as donations are tied to sales. The more successful I am in terms of revenue, the more I can give back. So far, in two years, I’ve helped to raise nearly $20,000; around $13k that I have donated from sales and the balance from friends, family, peers and customers donating through my Shop Share Care program.
You also discuss the importance of remaining a ‘small’ business and being personable. Why do you think this is so important, and what are some of the ways you achieve this?
I love the idea of focusing on being great, rather than big. I’ve had really stressful jobs in the past and often spent most of my time and energy managing poor behaviour. Keeping things small in my business means that I can be central to everything and ensure things are done to the highest of standards. There are no compromises.
I absolutely love knowing that nearly every time a customer walks in, I’m there to greet them, to have a chat and learn more about them, to better understand what they are looking for and to apply that information for future stock purchases. Being on the shop floor is where you really learn about your business and it’s where I love to be. Staying small helps me greet many of my customers by name.
I have shared a lot about my journey in business on social media, so many new customers feel they know me before they have even walked through the front door. I can respond to their needs immediately; no meetings, strategies or policies to change! I love developing those relationships with my customers, and also my suppliers.
It’s a big advantage being small; you can be flexible and responsive and present and personable all the time.
Your book is about your own personal experience, and of course, everybody’s experience is different. But what’s a general bit of advice you would give to a first-time business owner?
Oh, there’s so much I’d want to share — which is why I wrote the book!
Above all, I would advise a first-time business owner to work out straight away how they stand out from the crowd and to find as many ways as they can do so, because you need to develop your unique brand. Don’t be afraid to shake it up. You need to be not just proud but loud, too!
In other words, figure out what makes you special and make sure your customers, peers and the general community know about it. Tell them, live it, breathe it.
I would also advise to never, ever stop learning. Don’t get cocky or arrogant; know that you can always improve, either in what your business does or how you operate that business. They are two distinct things and both are equally important.
Now that your store is well and truly established, and you’ve had time to reflect on your life so far with this book, what are the biggest challenges you face moving forward?
I think, like with any business, the challenge is to keep growing but, in my case, given my commitment to staying small, that doesn’t mean building an empire or having Shoe Gardens all over the country. It means being more successful at what I do, finding better shoes for my gorgeous customers and selling to more and more longer-footed women.
I see online sales as a huge area of growth potential. I have lots of ideas for the future about ways that I can naturally expand the business, so I’m looking forward to moving onwards and upwards.
Where do you see The Shoe Garden in 10 years? How do you stay motivated?
That’s an easy question… I see myself exactly where I am now as the proud owner of The Shoe Garden. The difference is that my small business will be stronger and more successful in terms of sourcing and selling gorgeous long shoes, discovering new ways to delight customers and growing in terms of giving back to the community.
As for staying motivated, in five years, I’ve never had to wonder about that. I think it comes with the territory when you start your own business or, at least, it should! When you create something from nothing and it comes to life and you are super proud of it, it’s easy to stay motivated when you love what you do.
The Shoe Garden is located at Shop 1, 115 Riding Road, Hawthorne. For more info about Carol’s book, In My Shoes, visit shoegarden.com.au/in-my-shoes-book.