Reinventing Shoes While Reinventing Herself
Kara Mac quit her day job when Shark Tank's, Daymond John, said she had a killer idea
Like many women, Kara Mac, 52, spent a lot of time obsessing about designer shoes — what was wrong with them, what she wished for, why she could never find exactly what she wanted, and, of course, why she needed so many pairs of them.
The Tao of Shoe Schlepping
“I was commuting from Westchester to Manhattan and had a 20-minute walk every day. I’m tall so I don’t wear heels, but I worked as a fashion designer, so I would never wear sneakers,” explains Mac. “I had comfortable commuting shoes, then when I got to work I had about a dozen pairs of shoes under my desk and I would figure what to wear based on my outfit. If I had an event at night, I would have yet another pair in my bag. I was schlepping shoes and a laptop back and forth every day when I had this epiphany, Why can’t someone design a shoe that you can transform from outfit to outfit and from day to night? I knew they also had to be well-made and comfortable because if my feet hurt my psyche is off all day.”
Mac dreamed up an answer: A shoe with a removable heel.
She quickly went into action, researching shoe construction online and ordering casting and molding material. “I began experimenting on the kitchen counter, taking the heels off my own shoes, but I never thought of myself as an entrepreneur,” says Mac, the mother of two teenage boys. “I kept my job. I was just obsessed with this one idea.”
Solving a Problem But Creating a New One
Nevertheless, she had samples made and held small focus groups in her living room. While women loved the idea, Mac found that the removable heel wasn’t providing enough stability.
Successful start-ups see an unmet need and offer a fresh solution. Mac certainly had the first part of the equation nailed, but like so many entrepreneurial endeavors, the first iteration wasn’t quite right. It was time to pivot.
“I was in a department store and I found these really fun Tory Burch sandals,” she says. “They came in three color combinations and I couldn’t make up my mind, so I ended up walking out with none. I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if you could have all three in one.”
Mac gave up on detachable heels and instead started prototyping a shoe that could be changed in an instant by adorning it with different accessories — various colored covers that snap onto the heels, along with interchangeable toe-buckles, tassels, and chain links. The idea was simple: Buy one shoe and then as many accessories — Candy! — as you want so that the shoe can be made to match any outfit, mood, or event.
Deciding to Swim With The Sharks
“I’m a Shark Tank addict,” she admits, “and when I heard Daymond John, one of the show’s on-air investors, was doing a three-day seminar, I applied.” After the first round, Mac became one of ten companies chosen to proceed to the next level — a personal appointment with John. She raced against the clock to get ready over one weekend. “I told all my friends not to call me. I emptied my husband’s barbecue case and lined it with velvet. I filled it with shoes and candy, the accessories that would swap on and off.”
Within minutes of meeting, John threw up his hands and told Mac her idea could be huge. “He compared the concept to Build-A-Bear or American Girl. I quit my job the next day because I had validation from someone who wasn’t a family member or friend, and I’ve been working on ShoeCandy full time ever since.”
John’s team helped Mac devise a business plan and find manufacturing sources. She spent a week in Brazil meeting the tanners she would need to produce the high-quality shoes. All the while, she kept her plans on the down low, worried that someone might steal her idea.
“I was self-funded and still am. It wasn’t that terrifying at first because I had a pretty good nest egg, but it got more difficult as I put more into the business,” she admits. Mac ended up bringing in a trusted friend and marketing expert, Ann Merin, as an equal partner. “We balance each other out. I handle creative, sourcing, operations, and she handles business, coding, and marketing.”
Getting to Launch
The duo launched ShoeCandy at a Massachusetts conference for women in 2014. “We purchased a booth and took orders. Women loved it! It was unbelievable. When I drove home that night, I was so high.” After some technical glitches, the ShoeCandy site launched two months later. Mac and Merin also held a Kickstarter campaign, raising $25,000 in 30 days.
Today, ShoeCandy has eight base models, including boots, flats, heels, and sandals, and an ever-growing assortment of candy with which to accessorize them. The first ShoeCandy store opened in Westchester in 2017, and Mac is eyeing further expansion as well as potential licensing deals.
Mac is proud to be one of the next wave of entrepreneurs defying the stereotype that founders are all twentysomethings in hoodies. “I couldn’t have started a business when my kids were younger,” she says. I have a child with autism, and there were too many responsibilities. I actually work a lot more than when I was commuting, between 70-80 hours a week. I miss being able to be off sometimes. When I go on vacation, I’m still talking to our attorneys, photographing shoes, doing all our social media. But I feel like I’ve reinvented my life and how I feel about myself. I’ve had to be so much more extroverted than I would be if I still worked for someone else. I’m much more conscious when I walk out the door each day that everything I do will affect my business. I like that I’m in control of that. I’m so proud of being able to move forward at this point in my life.”