If there is one lesson 2020 has taught me, it’s to be thankful for all the things that I’ve taken for granted.
I started Thesis Couture 7 years ago...and it’s been 7 years of blood, sweat, and sometimes a sea of tears.
There has been pain in this journey like nothing else I’ve ever faced in my professional life. I’ve been betrayed, ripped off, and taken advantage of. Even still, perhaps the biggest slight was that some of those I expected to be my biggest advocates were ‘too busy’ to help, or probably more honestly simply didn’t care as much as I thought they would.
When I began on my path as a founder, I really had no idea what was in store for me.
The founder journey may be glamorized, but it should not be envied. More than anything else, it’s painful. But in pain, there is progress. And in progress there is joy. Two sides, same coin.
I started Thesis after being at SpaceX for almost 6 years, where I helped bring together one of the world’s most formidable engineering armies. Rockets are really, really, hard, yet we managed to put together the right group of people that made even the impossible, possible.
Keep in mind that before SpaceX only the 6 mightiest nations in the history of the world had ever successfully gotten a vehicle to space, and that’s with the endless human and financial resources of a nation-state. SpaceX did it with fewer than 400 people, and for a small fraction of the historical cost.
So let’s just say I was feeling pretty swaggy when I started on the heels of those achievements, on the first steps of my own founder journey (see what I did there?) #momjokes
Most of my assumptions, as it turns out, were wrong, and my optimism was based mostly in my naivete.
Here are some of those assumptions, in no particular order, which seemed at the time to make total sense at the surface to me.
- Rockets are hard, so shoes will be easy.
- I’ve been awesome at everything else I’ve set my mind to, so I will be awesome as a founder also.
- The industry will welcome innovation if it helps their customers.
- If you make a superior product, it will sell itself.
Now let’s break these down a bit one by one.
False assumption #1: Rockets are hard, so shoes will be easy.
Yes, rockets are really f*cking hard, and they are 80,000 custom components all working in sync to defy gravity itself; they are quite literally a testament to human ingenuity.
But, the shoes being easy part...I got that way wrong.
Anything that interacts with the human body in a critical function (walking upright is a critical function) gets complicated fast. A design flaw of fractions of a millimeter in high heels can be the difference between better support or a loss of balance. It’s a knife’s edge design challenge to maximize support and functionality while maintaining clean, sophisticated, and visually pleasing lines.
Furthermore, an industry/product/business may look ‘easy’ from the outside in, but if it was then everyone would be billionaires. The reality is that doing anything that is worth doing is probably going to be hard… wickedly hard. While I heard that as a consistent talking point from other successful founders /entrepreneurs, I was still sure that I would be the exception to the rule and that the world would bend more easily to my will.
We spent 5 years working on R&D, and went through more than 20 iterations of our Thesis LIFT Technology before arriving at our first release. We then spent another 18 months tweaking that design based on the first round of customer feedback before arriving at Eve as our sophomore release. Imagine any other school other than the hard knocks of entrepreneurship where it takes 7 years to grow from freshman to sophomore.
I often wonder, if I was somehow smarter or better would I have been able to shorten this cycle? Version 1 of our technology took us 5 years and version 2 took 1.5 years. So we have gotten better and faster, but that first 5 years was so much longer and harder than I ever anticipated.
False assumption #2: I’ve been awesome at everything else I’ve set my mind to, so I will be awesome as a founder also.
“ Confidence is the closest thing in this world to magic…Leaders are just normal people who habitually seized opportunity. You’ll gain expertise only when you step confidently into new territory. Act confident to become confident. Eventually, the more we practice at things, the better and more confident we become. We all have fear, and we all have causes we believe in. It’s our choice which one we allow to win in the end.”
I still consider myself to have high confidence in my own abilities, and I still believe that there are very few things I can not do if I set my mind to them.
But the leap I took from there in my expectations was simply wrong. Just because I’d been ‘naturally’ good at everything else I’d done did not in any way prepare me for being a founder. In fact, the reality is the inverse. As a founder you’re not aiming high enough if you’re good at everything,
Now 7 years in, I’d say the most critical part of being a founder is knowing that during your journey you will hit the limits of your natural awesomeness, even if you haven’t hit those limits before. There is too much to do, too many challenges to face, and too many landmines on the battlefield to try and do it all yourself. Your greatest strength as a founder may in fact be being humble enough to own your weaknesses, and building a team around you that closes those gaps instead of trying to close them all yourself.
False assumption #3: The industry would welcome innovation if it helps their customers.
Basically every high heel made in the last century (except Thesis!) has been built on a minimalist internal structure: a piece called a ‘shank’ (basically a metal popsicle stick about an inch wide and 4 inches long) which is compressed in a cardboard insole that the shoe is built around.
So when wearing traditional heels you’re basically walking on a metal popsicle stick. Is it any surprise that it feels like punishment?
A century ago when this technique was invented it was as good as could be done in that time, but that is simply no longer true.
Nearly every other aspect of our lives has evolved in the last 100 years, so why haven’t our heels?
I first disassembled a heel almost 8 years ago, even before founding Thesis and when I was just a curious customer trying to understand why my shoes were hurting me so much. As soon as you see the internal structure, you don’t need to be an engineer or rocket scientist to see that it’s an overly simple component that seems poorly suited to support an entire human.
So my natural assumption was that if I came up with a better way, the current industry leaders would trip over themselves to either partner with us or, perhaps more ominously, compete with us.
Then I learned a few things about the fashion footwear business.
First, all the brands we think make high heels, from the Jimmy Choos, Louboutins, and Manolos of the world to the Nine Wests and Naturalizers, don’t actually make shoes. In fact, their only products are sketches of consumer goods and marketing of consumer goods. The entire development and production cycle is outsourced to production factories in Italy, Spain, China, and elsewhere.
So on one side are those that sell us heels, and on another side are those that produce them. The factories give minimal feedback to designers and mostly do as they’re told, within their existing knowledge set, and deliver the quantity of heels requested with the external design requested. The designers aren’t thinking about function, and design purely for fashion.
So the entire $40B high heel sector has designers and producers, but is lacking a function where they work together to measure, analyze, and improve the ‘field application’ of their product. So in other words, there is no engineering team studying how the heels ‘perform’ in the environment in which they will be used.
If this function did exist, they would have called out many years ago that many of the foot problems women experience in the developed world are impacted or exacerbated by high heels as they are currently designed. Very few women would describe fashionable heels as comfortable, so the product is one where the user understands and accepts the pain and risk. Other than tobacco, there are few industries that can survive while harming their own constituencies; yet while high heels are known to be painful and potentially damaging, their CAGR (compound annual growth rate) only seems to increase.
Note this is not the case with athletic footwear. Nike and Adidas employ teams of hundreds of engineers that study how their products actually perform, and they work hard to improve the consumer experience of actually wearing their shoes. This is one of the major driving factors of why the market caps of Nike and Adidas dwarf the market caps of even the most successful fashion brands.
So I figured that since high heels are made without engineering input, if I called out this gap and showed that it could be filled then the industry would react. Current industry leaders would either reach out to partner with us or would simply beat us to the punch given their resources and brand awareness.
In reality, however, none of those things happened (at least not yet).
As it turns out, your faves don’t actually care about you, they care about their profits.
A year before we released Olympus One (our first drop), we met with one of the world’s leading luxury footwear companies. They reached out to us, asking to learn more about our tech. I was secretly terrified to take this meeting as I assumed they wanted to gather intel, and then basically work to kill us off. Nonetheless, because I wanted to find a way to give as many women as possible access to Thesis technology and the experience of wearing heels that feel as good as they look, I took the meeting and shared everything I had learned over 4 years with them.
After consideration, they shared that while they loved the technology, they could not offer it to their customers. As a small start-up Thesis couldn’t scale to millions of units in a very short period of time; this presents a conundrum for current industry leaders because:
If they acknowledge that Thesis technology is a superior high heel product for women, then they are also by default saying that the millions of units they have on shelves across the world currently are inferior. So without a clean and crisp cutover path, they simply could not take any short term hit on profits even if it meant a much larger and more customer centric business in the long term.
So, yeah, your faves are basically willing to treat your feet like collateral damage. However, we are also complicit because as long as we keep purchasing their products, the signal we send is that we are ok with being treated this way.
After getting the update that the luxury brand we met with was not interested in partnering with us, I was sure they would try to copy us. I mean I literally showed them each internal component and explained how it worked and what the science behind it was. At first, I checked their website and IG almost daily, then weekly, then monthly, and then eventually I realized they didn’t have any plans to try and make their own shoes better either.
I mean if it’s not broken, why would you fix it? If your profits keep going up, you’re not exactly inclined to change the recipe.
Furthermore, even if they had the will, they didn’t have the knowledge or organizational set up; these brands are simply not engineering driven, they don’t have the talent or mindset to be. Most fashion brands are led by men in both the creative and business roles, and men tend to design from a place of fetish, i.e. ‘how do I want her to look while she lays on the bed waiting to be ravished?’. They do not design from a place of ‘how many meetings does she have today, and how many concrete city blocks will she be walking?’. Even if a woman is in a leadership role in a male dominated field, she has usually learned to be successful by modeling her behaviors after those she sees around her who are successful (men), not by questioning those power figures around her.
False assumption #4: If you make a superior product, it will basically sell itself.
I’ve always valued innovation; making something I love (high heels) better was my original inspiration. I knew how much frustration I had with the heels in my closet. I was starting to get bitter about how well they decorated my closet, and yet how little desire I had to actually put them on my feet.
So I was sure that the most difficult part would be fixing the design and making heels that met my standards of both sexy and comfortable. As mentioned in false assumption #1, this was not only hard, but much harder than I expected.
It was not, however, the most difficult part. As it turns out, you can make something amazing but if you can’t get the word out to the right people, then you’re basically the tree falling in the forest with no one around to hear it. After 5 years of toiling on the product, once we had shoes that several hundred women had tried and said they loved, for a fleeting moment I thought that I had crossed the ‘valley of pain’ and that things would get easier from there.
I hit the outer limits of what I could do and learn quickly and well enough to lead on.
Even with my early customers sending me emails about how my shoes changed their lives, I was unsure how to navigate from a great product to a great business with repeatable, profitable, and scalable output.
In full candor, we are still figuring that out; we’re still David trying to win in a world of dozens of Goliaths. Eventually I figured out that at some point along the way it’s ok to hit the limits where I trust myself to get us to the end zone. I learned then as a founder what I already knew as a recruiter: that success is more likely when you surround yourself with those that can make you better, and allow them to drive while you ride shotgun. As I’ve learned to do this, I’ve found it refreshing to have a chance to look up from the road and enjoy the scenery a bit.
So this brings me full circle to the point of this piece of writing.
My gratitude in 2020 is for all of it: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Thank you to each and every one of you who have followed and supported us, some of you for as long as 7 years. It’s your emails and notes that have kept our team moving forward even when the world around us fell apart.
Thank you to all the amazing women who have been brought into my life because of Thesis. This has perhaps been the greatest gift of all. I always wanted a circle of badass boss ladies who I admired and who I could learn from and grow with; on that count, my cup runneth over, and I’m forever grateful to the universe for letting them be a part of my journey.
Thank you to all of my investors and partners who have backed us, even when many of your peers told you there were easier bets to make (there were, and are). Thank you for giving me an opportunity to do this, even if I don’t always get it right.
Thank you to every potential investor that told me no.
Thank you to the industry experts and leaders that told me why it would never work.
Thank you to all those who tried to push me down instead of lifting me up.
And thank you to those who have taught me the most painful lessons along this thorny road, you have made me a better woman, partner, and founder.