The divorced couple who built a global shoe company

The Shoes of Prey founders, Michael Fox (left), Jodie Fox, and Mike Knapp Image copyright Shoes of Prey
Image caption Jodie Fox launched the firm with her then husband Michael (left) and their friend Mike Knapp

Jodie Fox says that when she started a successful business with her then husband Michael, it was both "amazing and equally difficult".

The Australian couple had set up their company, Shoes of Prey, in Sydney in 2009, three years after they had married in their early 20s.

Together with co-founder and old college friend Mike Knapp, they launched their e-commerce website that allows women to design their own shoes. The company then makes them at its factory in China, before mailing them out to anywhere in the world.

While the business is continuing to grow strongly, and so far more than six million shoes have been designed on its website, the Foxes' marriage broke down under the strain of working together, and they divorced in 2012.

Yet despite the end of their marriage, neither of them walked away from Shoes of Prey.

Instead both continue to lead the business, which last year moved its headquarters to Los Angeles, as they aim to crack the giant US retail market. Jodie is the chief creative officer, while Michael is the chief executive.

Jodie, 34, says: "Working with my husband was amazing because so few people are lucky enough to be able to see their partner in action, doing well in meetings, seeing how they work with others.

"But it was also difficult because switching off is near impossible."

Image copyright Shoes of Prey
Image caption The company allows women to design their own shoes from more than 170 colours and fabrics

She adds: "At the end of a work day... it was hard to simply give unconditional support for blowing off steam, rather than get into a conversation about what each of us saw in that event."

When the couple eventually split, Jodie says it was "very amicable", which made it easier for them to switch to being just business partners and friends. She says they also worked hard to put emotion to one side.

"We've worked on communicating very clearly and frequently to ensure that tensions are resolved quickly," she says.

"And we operate with utmost respect and assumption of best intentions as first port of call for any emotionally triggered responses."

Shoe-making hobby

Jodie, Michael and Mike met while studying law in Brisbane.

Jodie, then 25, and working in marketing in Sydney, had taken to designing her own shoes, a form of creative expression that had attracted the attention of her female friends.

"I liked shoes," she says. "But I could never really find exactly what I wanted.

"My girlfriends saw my [self-designed] shoes and asked where they came from. So I started to make shoes for them too."

While hitting around business ideas on a beach on Queensland's Gold Coast in 2009, the three co-founders decided to expand on Jodie's hobby and develop a business that would let women design their own shoes via a website.

Image copyright Shoes of Prey
Image caption The shoes are made at the company's factory in China

Customers can choose from 12 shoe shapes, and more than 170 fabrics and colours.

They chose the name Shoes of Prey because Jodie likens shopping to the thrill of the hunt.

Within two months the company broke even, and within two years it was enjoying multi-million dollar revenues, with prices starting from about US$129 (£89) per pair of shoes.

Moving its headquarters from Australia to the US last year, it has now secured more than US$24m of private investment funding.

Self-help videos

In addition to the end of her marriage, Jodie says she has suffered from depression and "imposter syndrome" - a fear she didn't deserve to lead a successful company, and would be found out.

"Both of these things are incredibly normal in the entrepreneurship landscape," she says. "Those feelings of not being capable or deserving, or smart enough, are extremely common."

Jodie, who now lives and works in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Monica, says that as a result of the difficulties she has faced she is passionate about communicating the often difficult realities of entrepreneurship to others.

"Failing is a pretty frequent experience in the life of an entrepreneur," she says. "I fail a lot every day. There are far more failures that I can talk about than successes, for sure."

Image copyright Xiaohan Shen
Image caption Jodie now lives and works in the Los Angeles beach side area of Santa Monica

To help her share her experiences - both good and bad - she has her own YouTube channel, where she posts videos with titles such as "Business tips for shy people" and "Work v Life - is there work life balance?" as well as lighter lifestyle videos.

These help Jodie - who is the face of the brand - connect with consumers.

Analyst James Stewart, head of retail practice at Australian consultancy Ferrier Hodgson, says this personal approach makes sense for a company that relies on interaction with its customers.

"Consumers used to buy a product based on a brand because that brand was special, and they can show it off to their friends and family," he says.

"Luxury brands are now accessible everywhere. So in order for consumers to have a shopping experience and product that is genuinely different, there's been a global push along the lines of personalisation and collaboration of products."

'Being human'

Image copyright Jodie Fox
Image caption Jodie's YouTube channel is a good way to promote the business

Until recently Jodie says the firm did not consider opening any brick-and-mortar stores, as this seemed counterintuitive to a business based around an online design platform.

However, she says that she and Michael and Mike - who both worked for Google in Australia before starting Shoes of Prey with her - realised they needed a physical presence when customers started turning up at their offices in Sydney.

"They would just walk into the middle of all the desks and be like, 'Hi, we just want to try some shoes on,'" says Jodie. "It was insane."

And so in 2013 Shoes of Prey opened its first physical shop in Sydney's David Jones department store. Customers can use iPads to design their own shoes, and pick fabrics from samples placed around the shop.

Shoes of Prey now also has five stores in the US, located within branches of the Nordstrom fashion chain, and has big plans for further expansion. It currently has 220 employees.

Jodie admits that working with her ex-husband can still be challenging at times, "but that's called being human".

"I think you've got to accept that you're not going to like each other the whole time, but that you're aiming towards the same thing."

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