Julia Grinham is the CEO and Co-Founder of Upper Street, the made-to-order luxury footwear label where you can design your own beautiful women’s shoes online and have them delivered to your door in just a few weeks.
I had a chat with Julia earlier this week as we took a trip down memory lane talking from her journey starting the business, difficulties faced along the way, ways in which she's further accelerated the growth of the company to advices for young entrepreneurs.
Can you give us some background information about yourself?
My passion is taking an idea and making it happen by bringing the best people and resources together to achieve the vision. I have over 15 years experience in online business development and commercial management, working for large corporates, turning around consumer online businesses and running my own consultancy.
I also, of course, have a passion for beautiful shoes, and I’m never fully dressed without a pair of my own designed heels on. I fundamentally believe that women deserve to have the perfect shoes for them and these should be lovingly hand-crafted and fit like a glove.
Outside of work, I enjoy spending time with my family – I have two young children who keep me extremely busy and give me both laughter and worry lines! I love keeping fit both at the gym and going for the odd run around my local park. And I have a passion for music; I used to sing in a wedding covers band, although unfortunately I don’t have time for that these days as Upper Street is all consuming!
Tell me how you initially got into business?
I always wanted to have my own business from a very early age and took a Business Studies degree, so it was fairly inevitable. I chose to start my career in the corporate world to give myself a good foundation to build from, and spent my early days at Reuters. My first job was on their International Marketing Graduate Scheme working in London and Singapore then working as a Relationship Manager looking after major banks in the city.
But it was only a matter of time before I felt the need to work in a more entrepreneurial environment where I could effect rapid change and development; I joined the leading online local information business UpMyStreet.com in the dot.com heydays, as Business Development Manager. It was an exciting time, and I worked with a team of extremely bright and interesting people, and had a lot of fun. When the business was bought out by uSwitch.com I took over the management of UpMyStreet as a subsidiary, and it was here that I really cut my teeth running a full P&L, taking the business into healthy profitability.
How did the idea for Upper Street come about?
I founded the business with my sister Katy, who I’d always wanted to go into business with. When Katy got married back in 2003, her dress designer suggested that she might want to get a pair of bespoke shoes made to go with the individual look of her dress. She fell in love with the whole idea of designing her own shoes, and started getting all her shoes made to her designs.
When I saw Katy’s beautiful shoes I was green with envy, and knew this would make a wonderful online business so that women all over the world could design their own shoes. Our aim was to democratise bespoke design, so that made-to-order shoes could be an affordable luxury for all.
It really was one of those light bulb moments over dinner, and we rushed straight home to write the bare bones of the business plan on paper….. And within a few months we started to put it all into action.
Tell me about the early days, what was the hardest part of starting the business?
Starting the business was enormous fun. We wrote our business plan by the poolside during a week in Dubai, and spent the best part of a year researching our market, creating our product range, and working with suppliers to bring the concept to life.
We started by thinking of all the key shoe shapes and design options that when put together would create classic shoes with a twist. We spent a lot of time literally cutting out pictures of beautiful shoes to make our definitive matrix. We launched the business with court shoes, platforms and sandals, then after 18 months brought out our very popular ballet flat. In the pipeline are flat sandals and shoe boots, which will be a very exciting addition to the range.
We then had to consider the palette of stunning high quality materials that we wanted to offer, so that all 130 would blend or contrast perfectly together, sourcing only the very best from around the world. It was much harder than we imagined whittling it down, but we’re really happy with the edit. We do offer more Luxe materials in our North London studio, which in due course we’ll bring to the website, as they are absolutely stunning.
The next challenge was then producing samples of all those shoes, working with our shoe designer and craftsmen in the production team to make sure that all the curves and contours were as we imagined, and the fit was super-comfortable. We never rest on our laurels when it comes to quality and fit.
And finally, we had the huge creative challenge of producing the 3D Shoe Designer, to make it as easy and fun as possible for our customers to create their dream shoes, and to visualise them in a true-to-life form. It’s an unbelievably complex process behind the scenes, but when you use the website it is just so simple… it takes a lot of hard work to achieve that.
What is Upper Street? And what are you trying to solve with it?
Upper Street is the made-to-order luxury footwear label where you can create your own beautiful women’s shoes online at www.UpperStreet.com and have them delivered to you door in just a few weeks.
Women often find it so hard to find the shoes that they are looking for – whether it’s to express their individuality, to go with a particular outfit or to complement their wardrobe. Or they need a specific heel height and design they feel works for them, and that also fits them well even if they have small, large, wide or narrow feet. Trying to find the perfect shoe that fits your requirements is a real problem for a lot of women, and we solve that problem.
We also give our customer an incredibly personal customer service making them feel really special, which it is very hard to get from traditional shoe retailers. But more than anything, we give women a real feeling of pride in that they’ve designed their perfect shoes.
How have you been able to fund it?
We’ve funded the business ourselves to date, along with a small business loan from the bank.
What sorts of advice do you having for entrepreneurs looking to raise money for their start-ups?
Make sure you really know your numbers; although having a great idea and a strong team is paramount, the financial forecasts will be what investors focus on.
Build relationships with potential investors as early as you can so that they really know you and your business, and you know them well before you get to the point where you ask them to invest.
Look at other skills that you want investors to bring beyond money, for example industry expertise and a network of contacts, which may help build your business faster than just the cash injection.
About the first few months, how excited were you, tell us about how those months felt, what happened?
Our first order came in within an hour of us going live, which was incredibly exciting, and in the early months we were pleased with the revenue progression. It filled us with pride to see our brand being talked about so positively by the fashion press, and it was wonderful to be making so many women’s shoe dreams come true.
How did you initially get traction?
PR was really critical for us to get endorsement from the fashion press and get the message out to consumers, so we engaged an agency before we launched to secure the right press coverage. The word then started to spread through social media and through customers’ advocacy.
What are the most crucial things that you have done to grow your business?
We quickly realised that we’d need to build up the team to help us grow, and it was a real step forward when we first employed a Customer Service Manager, and shortly after that a Marketing Manager and Production Manager. This allowed Katy and I more time to focus on strategic planning, business development and finance and really grow the business to the next level.
We’ve had to take a few risks with marketing campaigns, so for example on our first birthday we did a ‘buy-one-pair-get-one-free’ offer for one day only, which got a lot of press coverage and huge consumer interest. We did three months worth of business in one day, and we struggled to fulfil all the orders! But we managed to deliver in the end, and this really helped to build our customer database.
And we launched our iPad app in November 2012, which has been really successful for us with around 40% of our users now accessing us on that platform. It was quite a big risk as the development costs were high, but the way things are going we’re now sure it will pay off.
What should we be expecting from yourself and the Upper Street team for 2013?
2013 is all about taking the Upper Street brand to the next level and significantly increasing awareness within the UK. We’ll be working on some exciting new PR campaigns and partnerships to enable us to do this. We’re also expecting to go out for investment this year to help us scale more quickly.
Lastly, what three pieces of advice would you offer entrepreneurs starting out today?
Firstly, believe in and back yourself. Don’t listen to all the naysayers (although that doesn’t mean you should be closed to constructive advice!). Find mentors who you can bounce things off who’ll give you the right balance between support and critical evaluation.
Trust in your gut feel, particularly when it comes to people. The individuals you work with whether they are employees, suppliers or partners are critical to your success. If it’s not working, don’t be afraid to go your separate ways. If it is working, build and treasure those relationships for the long term.
Finally, make sure you have good handle on your financials and in particular your cash flow. You need to get the balance right between investing for long-term results as well as making sure you’re driving the necessary revenue for the immediate future. If that means getting investment to make it work, then be open to that.