If you’ve tried to buy a pair of black school shoes in the past six months, chances are you’ve either stumbled across or been advised to visit Ten Feet Tall. It’s less than a year since NICOLA BRADLEY and SAM SHORTEN decided to turn their entrepreneurial ideas into action. Here, the ambitious and vivacious British friends tell us how they jumped in with both feet to build their business. By Katie Roberts.
“It’s rare to find a genuine gap in the market,” says Sam Shorten. “Companies everywhere are looking for this one white space, so we’re proud that our school shoes are filling a true demand – and not just any old shoes, but good shoes you can’t get anywhere else.” Sam’s partner Nicola Bradley nods, then jumps in to explain that the pair had talked for months about setting up a business together, finally taking the leap when they discovered school shoes was at the top of both their lists.
“We knew from our own experience that there’s not much of a culture of fitting and buying kids’ school shoes in Singapore. We’d had numerous unsuccessful shoe shopping trips and we’d done what many others end up doing: buying online, asking relatives to purchase them and bring them out, or getting shoes while at home for the holidays – even if that meant fitting them one size bigger to compensate for the delay in wearing them. We know people who have whole cupboards of shoes for their kids to grow into,” says Nicola.
Sam adds: “I’d experienced my child’s foot being measured on pieces of paper, and shop assistants who didn’t understand how to measure width or even what the letters and numbers on the box meant. I wondered what had happened to the important experience we had as children of buying a pair of school shoes; it was always a big event for us!”
Sam and Nicola’s friendship began with a serendipitous encounter. Nicola recognised Sam’s husband on a flight from London to Singapore – he had worked with her own husband 20 years before in the same law firm – so they caught up on that flight, then met each other’s children and quickly became friends.
Fast forward a few years and the pair decided to become business partners. Without even a working business name, they started researching school shoes and sought the advice of people such as Helen Crawford, the expat podiatrist who founded the Osteopathy and Podiatry Centre, and who for 20 years has been seeing the effects of people not wearing properly fitted shoes. “She told us that it’s not flip-flops you need to worry about, it’s school shoes – the ones that kids wear most in their young lives, eight hours every day for hundreds and hundreds of days,” Nicola recalls of that important conversation.
Armed with that insight, the two, who admit they initially had little knowledge about the business of shoes, met with shoe companies to understand the brands they might end up selling. Next, they decided to test the market by calling a number of international schools for their reaction.
“Within three days, we knew it was on. The schools quickly said, ‘Yes, please: help us and do it now! We’ve got thousands of kids who have to wear smart black school shoes and who have nowhere to go for them!’ At that point, we’d already tallied up 16,000 kids who might potentially need shoes – and we hadn’t even called all the schools!” says Sam. “Once we’d seen those numbers, we figured that we didn’t have a lot to lose.”
A business is born
It was then that their previous experience came to the fore. Prior to having her two children, Nicola’s career had been in the retail sector; Sam had run a communications consultancy before taking maternity leave for her third child. Building the business happened frantically around the demands of their families – and at what seemed like warp speed. It was, they say, an “adrenaline rush”.
Nicola had soon built relationships with three suppliers: Start-rite, a traditional British heritage brand; German brand Ricosta; and Petasil, which makes UKdesigned shoes in Portugal. “We asked for 2,500 pairs from each of them, and it’s fair to say that they were shocked – and very pleased – at the size of the orders,” says Nicola. “Everything arrived in three shipping containers from Europe in one week. We’ve got some great video footage of the warehouse filling up.” Importing in such large volumes is advantageous for customers because it means that prices can remain much closer to what people would expect to pay in their home markets – in Europe or Australia, for example.
Setting up the warehouse in Jurong was another logistical challenge. “There was no air-conditioned space big enough to hold 6,000 pairs of shoes, so we did the fit-out ourselves – the racking, everything,” says Nicola. “It was around then we realised that, even though we were a start-up, we were already quite a big operation.” She adds that the warehouse is now working well; all orders are dispatched from there and delivered by courier within 48 hours of the fitting and order, free of charge.
With the wheels in motion, Sam and Nicola realised that the business needed a name and some branding, and it was here that Sam took the lead. “The name Ten Feet Tall is about having extraordinary days in your shoes; it’s about ambition and reaching for your goals,” she says. Appropriately enough, the two women were quickly achieving their own goals. Following on-site shoe-fitting days at Dulwich College, their shop opened in Holland Village Shopping Centre in July; they had barely taken a breath since January. “The lightning speed at which we set this up and the momentum we’ve had since have been amazing. We’ve thrived on the adrenaline, too, even if at times it has felt all-consuming; it’s certainly not for everyone.”
“Our School Shoe Bank has been one of the big surprises,” says Nicola. “We collect pre-loved shoes at the shop and at schools, and we work with our partner schools to send the shoes to needy children in other countries. Some kids write little notes and put them in their shoes to pass on to the next owners. People do feel they spend a lot of money on shoes and that they still have life in them after they no longer fit. So it’s a worthwhile initiative for everyone.”
While there have been both successes and challenges along the way, Nicola and Sam are looking forward to expanding their “black shoe empire” into other countries. The sky’s the limit – or as Nicola and Sam say, “Ten feet, at least!”
Find Ten Feet Tall at Holland Village Shopping Centre, or check out the website and Facebook page for details of pop-ups at school uniform sales and other events.
This article first appeared in the January 2017 edition of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue!