Lauren Reeser; American Duchess Company; Historical Shoes; The Story ExchangeYour Name: Lauren Reeser

Business Name: American Duchess Company, a maker of historical footwear and accessories for women

Type of Business: Clothing & Accessories/E-Commerce

Business Location: Reno, Nevada, United States

Twitter @AmericanDuchess

Reason for starting
I had long been interested in historical costuming, a hobby in which most members will sew their own gowns, decorate or make from scratch their own hats, even make things like gloves and fans, but when it came to shoes, that was one thing that most crafters couldn’t make (believe me, I tried!). I went looking for shoes to go with my costumes, but could never find what I wanted. Others in the costume community were also having this problem, so I decided to fill that void, and start making historically accurate shoes myself. I started with asking my blog and facebook fans what they were looking for, then developed a prototype, showed my followers and asked their opinions, and once we had something that seemed really popular, we opened a pre-order, to see if it would fly at all. The first day was so successful that I knew from there on out I would be creating historical shoes for the costuming community.

How do you define success?
Success, to me, is being able to serve your customers the best you can. I spend a lot of time asking my followers and customers what they want, what they would like to see, and this not only helps decide our next shoe styles, but it creates a sense of community too. If a style of shoe doesn’t sell well, it means I missed the mark with the design, and it’s not bringing the right value to the customer. When we really hit the mark, everyone is happy – our customers love the shoe, it sells well, and we make enough to keep developing new styles. Our goal is to provide at least one historically accurate style for every period of dress, if not a choice of two or three, so that ladies aren’t forced to “make do” with something they’re unhappy to wear.

Biggest Success
Our biggest success what the very first style of shoe we offered. It was a big experiment – we didn’t know if it would sell at all, or sell enough to fund the manufacturing. I thought I would have to really work to promote the shoe over the three weeks we set for the fundraising period. The night we opened the pre-order, we had one order come in right away. I was so excited! I thought we might have a couple more by the morning, but when I woke up the next day, I couldn’t believe it – already 70 orders, just on the first day! We needed 80 to do the production run, and by the time the three week pre-order was complete, we had sold 230 pairs! I consider this the biggest success because it literally changed our lives overnight. Before, my partner Chris and I were freelance creatives, struggling with too-few low-paying gigs; after that single day, we knew this was our “big break.”

What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
After our first shoe style was a success, we went right in to manufacturing, without any knowledge of how it worked. Unfortunately, we met some huge issues, primarily with quality control. One of our orders, a large, important, time-sensitive style, was so poorly made that we rejected the entire shipment. This meant we couldn’t ship any of the shoes we had already sold to customers, in time for their big event, causing massive disappointment, and customers scrambling to get other shoes for their costumes. We crafted an e-mail explaining the situation to everyone who had ordered, promising to make it right, offering refunds for anyone who needed one, and making it clear that we would never compromise quality to make a buck. Very few customers canceled, and many responded that they appreciated our decision. Since then, we have learned how to buckle down on quality and prevent disasters.

Who is your most important role model?
I am always thinking about Modcloth, and their story. Modcloth started in a dorm room, selling vintage clothing, and grew from there. Now they are a huge international e-retailer selling funky clothing. I watch even the most outlandish shoe styles sell out in a few days on Modcloth’s website, and it gives me hope. We sell some pretty niche items, but I say to myself, “if Modcloth can sell 200 pairs of this shoe, we can too!”