On a damp, humid night in the Chinese city of Dongguan Jodie Fox found herself typing a letter she’d hoped never to have to write.
As the co-founder of Shoes Of Prey, a company once reportedly valued in the tens of millions, Jodie had visited China and its factories countless times before. But this trip was different. This time, the business was in financial trouble and she was doing everything in her power to save it.
“I wasn’t sleeping,” recalls Jodie. “I was working across time zones, taking calls all the way till midnight and then starting again at 4am. It was incredibly stressful.”
That week in August 2018, Jodie was staying in a friend’s apartment, in their son’s bedroom. In between phone calls, propped up against pillows in a child’s racing car bed, she started drafting a note to the company’s followers on Instagram. “We are making the difficult decision today to pause orders,” she typed. “Today is a sad moment. And I have to admit, writing this note is not where I wanted to be.”
A few days later, after exhausting every avenue available to her, Jodie pressed send.
When Shoes of Prey ceased trading on August 28 2018, shock waves rippled across the Australian start-up community. From its launch nearly a decade earlier, the company – a fashion-tech business that allowed women to design their own shoes and receive them within a matter of weeks – had been the darling of the start-up scene. It had sold millions of pairs of shoes, attracted legions of loyal fans, and, in 2015, raised $35 million in venture capital investment.
As the creative director of Shoes of Prey, Jodie’s profile had soared as the company’s stocks had risen. Tall and slim with glossy dark hair and expressive brown eyes, Jodie, a former lawyer, is articulate and photogenic. As the face of Shoes of Prey, she was frequently called upon to speak on panels, and appear at star-studded global events like SXSW and G’Day LA, where she mixed with the likes of Girlboss Sophia Amoruso and former Deputy Prime Minister Julie Bishop.
But last year it all came crashing to an end, and in February 2019 Shoes Of Prey officially went into receivership. Now Jodie has written a book, Reboot- Probably More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Starting A Global Business offering a glimpse into a narrative that’s rarely told – a company that couldn’t sustain its early success, and an entrepreneur dealing with the public sting of failure.
Jodie and I first met through mutual friends more than a decade ago, and as she sits in front of me now, she seems weary but characteristically composed. Wearing a silver shift, her dark hair swept back from her face, and her bare feet curled underneath her on the couch, she reflects on her reasons for writing a book at a time when many founders might (understandably enough) be avoiding the spotlight.
“Our story was celebrated in the good times,” she says simply. “And there were so many people who were a part of it, whether it was people who bought our shoes or [investors] who put money into it. [Telling the story] felt like the right thing to do.”
Jodie says she was also determined to offer an authentic account of what it’s like to build – and dismantle – a business, as a counterpoint to the glamourised version of start-up culture offered up on social media and in pop culture. “There are a lot of really tough moments. Every business goes through a time when they feel that they’re not going to succeed. You require huge amounts of resilience and effort. My story is just one story. It’s not special or unique. But I really believe in sharing stories as a way to kind of build a map together.”
Every business goes through a time when they feel that they’re not going to succeed.
The story of Shoes Of Prey began on a beach on the Gold Coast in 2008. Jodie had recently returned from a trip to Hong Kong, where she’d visited a small store and designed her own shoes. Ten weeks later the shoes arrived in Sydney and Jodie began fielding requests from friends who to have shoes made for them, too. That summer, on the sand at Broadbeach, she and her then husband Michael Fox floated the concept as a potential business idea to their mutual friend Mike Knapp, who worked at Google.
The trio spent the next nine months researching the idea, developing software and travelling to China to build out a supply chain. In October 2009, Shoes Of Prey went live, and a few months, and thousands of sales later, the business was flying.
By 2011, Shoes Of Prey employed eight staff and had moved out of their temporary base in the living room of Jodie and Michael’s one-bedroom apartment and into a sleek new office in Surry Hills, as befitted their status as one of Australia’s hottest start-ups. They also attracted their first injection of funding ($2m) from investors.
“We had always set out to build something really paradigm-shifting and game-changing,” says Jodie now. “And in the beginning of the business, all the metrics we had were extremely positive, which was exciting… and why venture capital became interested.”
In 2013, Shoes Of Prey opened a gleaming, high-end shopfront in David Jones, which won a global retail award, and a string of similar concessions in the US department store chain Nordstrom soon followed. In 2015, the company decided to shift its headquarters to the US, and took 22 Australian employees with them. In her book Jodie describes the large house that Shoes Of Prey rented for its employees in Venice Beach as “like a cosy clubhouse where we often ended up for shared meals and weekend drinks as the sun set.”
Not that there was much time to sit around drinking cocktails. That year, Jodie and her team crisscrossed the US opening stores, and living out of suitcases.
On the surface, Jodie’s life appeared impossibly glamorous. She attended star-studded events around the world, was feted in the pages of glossy magazines like Harpers Bazaar and Elle, and lectured at Stanford University. In 2017 she even walked the red carpet at the Screen Screen Actors Guild (SAG) awards, wearing a floor-length, black lace dress and rubbing shoulders with the cast of Game of Thrones and Meryl Streep.
But behind the scenes, her ascent had been less smooth. For years, Jodie had battled debilitating bouts of anxiety and depression, and says now that she wishes she had understood about ‘founder depression’ and its prevalence earlier on. “I felt really alone. It was only in the later years of the company that I found articles about it. Now, it’s one of the things I get asked about the most.”
The business also put pressure on her marriage, and in 2012 she and Michael separated, but continued to work together. “I was 30 years old and I didn’t really know anyone who had been through a divorce. It was confronting,” she recalls in Reboot.
I was 30 years old and I didn’t really know anyone who had been through a divorce. It was confronting.
But Jodie’s biggest test came when the business began to unravel. Having taken on millions in venture capital funding in order to supercharge expansion, sales failed to catch up. “We’d done a lot of research and the sum of that research told us we needed to do four major things to crack the mass market.” Those steps included cutting delivery times and opening bricks and mortar stores “but [even afterwards] we could see that consumer behaviour wasn’t moving”.
Jodie and Michael began cutting costs – closing the US stores and making painful redundancies – and then Michael left the business, leaving Jodie to step up as CEO.
Did she consider leaving too? “You know, I didn’t. I knew we hadn’t hit market fit with everything but I felt there were still some options to be explored.”
Those options included focusing on smaller and larger-than-normal shoe sizing and a potential sale, and Jodie was still investigating the latter when she flew to China in mid-2018 to oversee the company’s complex manufacturing operations. By then Shoes Of Prey was being drip-fed funds, week to week, by investors, and she was advised to take out kidnapping insurance. “I had three or four people independently approach me to ensure I had insurance,” she says. Apparently, at nearby factories, owners had been kidnapped after workers realised the factory was on the brink of closing down – and wanted to ensure they would be paid severance.
I had three or four people independently approach me to ensure I had [kidnapping] insurance.
In China, Jodie stayed in a friend’s apartment, partly because it had three layers of security, while she desperately tried to find a way to keep trading “but it just could not come together fast enough”.
The company ceased trading in August, and the weeks that followed were a blur.
“I had been so intensely engaged and busy for 10 years and then… I wasn’t good at finding peace and spending time just sitting with what was happening,” says Jodie. On top of that, she adds, “there was that personal sense of failure of having to reach this point.”
Sitting opposite me now, Jodie is positive but clearly still bruised by the experience. Looking back on Shoes Of Prey’s demise, she says that in retrospect “in asking people to design their own shoes, we put a lot of heavy lifting on the shoulders of the audience”. She points to Stitchfix (a styling website that sends customers parcels of clothing to try) as a company that’s approached customisation well. “They get that data upfront and then just show you things you like”.
But she is also proud of what Shoes Of Prey achieved and the culture it cultivated. (Even after the factory closed, staff volunteered to work on, unpaid, to complete unfinished orders.) She is still in contact with many of the entrepreneurs and investors she worked with at Shoes Of Prey, and has been buoyed by their ongoing support.
“But of course I feel sad. For investors, you want to be the investment that multiplies many, many times over… and when someone’s made a purchase you want to give them the best service ever… I still feel an overwhelming sense of failure and shame around it as well. And, you know, I’ve felt question marks over my identity, too. For a long time Shoes of Prey was – 100 per cent – the love of my life.”
But these days, Jodie has plenty to look forward to. After several years overseas, she has returned to Sydney with her husband Vuki, who she married earlier this year, and next March she is due to have a baby. She has also been exploring a business idea. “It’s in its early stages and certainly not something I’m ready to jump into. But when you’ve come out of an experience like I have, it does feel good to find that actually you’re excited about something again.” Right now, though, she’s focused on sharing her experience. “My hope is that there’s something [in the book] that adds to the collective wisdom that’s out there, so that if someone else hits this path – which I wouldn’t wish on anyone – they find something helpful.”
Reboot Probably More Than You Ever Wanted To Know About Starting a Global Business, Jodie Fox (Wiley Press)