How to build a fashionable footwear brand with Harvard Grads Alexa and Sarah, Co-Founders of Margaux

Joining me on the show today is Alexa Buckley and Sarah Pierson, Co-Founders of the wildly popular footwear label Margaux.

Margaux is on a mission to democratize luxury footwear. Inspired by the spirit of American style and informed by smart design, Margaux's classic styles have been re-engineered with best-in-class technical design, allowing for shoes that are as beautiful as they are comfortable.

And because they know that one size does not in fact fit all, their shoes come in an extended range of sizes and widths—meaning there's a perfect fit for everyone.

In this episode we’re covering the moment Sheryl Sandberg inspired them to change directions and leave their corporate job offers to pursue entrepreneurship, how they grew their brand through mega influencer collabs, and the insights learned along the way in creating a successful footwear label.

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!


Well, I'm Sarah and I'm one of the co founders of Margaux and I am Alexa, the other co founder of Margaux and we are building a direct consumer women's footwear brand based here in new york on a mission to create shoes that are as beautiful as they are comfortable um that elevate the every day.

00:03:45 And that kind of solved this notion of this trade off of style and comfort that so many women deal with on an everyday basis brand really born from an experience that election I had working dabbling in the corporate world when we were first coming out of college having to do that shoe shuffle that so many women had to do have to do today where you have your comfortable shoes to get you where you're going, you can wear on the subway on the sidewalk and then the shoes that you want to wear when you arrive. And obviously, you know with the way that we're all living right now maybe makes them a little bit of a, a different experience. That something that is very much, you know, an aspect of you know in quotes normal life. And we were frustrated by the fact that we didn't have that pair of where everywhere, shoes that we could, you know have Karius throughout our day without having to have that second pair always in our bag or in the drawer of our desk. And so that's really what we set out to do is create that were everywhere shoe and started with a single flat and then expanded the collection silhouette by silhouette to include everything from flats to loafers to boots and heels, sounds so amazing and I think especially now given you know, everyone's been working from home and living in a more kind of comfortable uniform, I would say when people are going back to the office, people aren't looking necessarily to going back to this stiletto and that you know less than comfortable foot wet.

00:05:17 I always love to start by going back to the very beginning, before you had started the brand to talk about what was actually going in your lives around that time when you were sort of seeing women wanting to, you know, have a second pair of shoes in their bags and what the kind of realization moment was that you were going to start a business. Yes. Um so Sarah and I were, we met our freshman year of college really serendipitously at a cab stand were both failings and cab, we ended up becoming friends and eventually roommates and sort of the rest of college was spent doing, you know, like Sarah said, internships in the corporate world and I think it was during those moments and kind of like in that um urban environment in which we recognize this like very obvious trade off that women have to make in so many different parts of their life between things that are comfortable and things that are stylish and it really got us thinking about this paradigm that needed to be challenged in fashion, which is that in order to feel dressed and feel beautiful, there was this level of discomfort expected or accepted and especially in footwear, like when Sarah said, we would see women who actually, you know, many women had to bring another pair of shoes in their bag to change into or before they arrived somewhere and we started thinking about like what, what I feel like to have a pair of shoes that made you feel beautiful and dressed, but I also felt really comfortable and that you could run 10 blocks in or 15 blocks or you could run from the subway to work to dinner, two drinks at home and you know how empowering would that be to build a brand around this, about celebrating women and truly empowering them through their everyday lives.

00:06:55 And as we started thinking about this, we realized that there was as much of an opportunity from our product perspective as there was um a brand building opportunity to really build something that challenged this notion and that celebrated a new kind of um nexus of comfort and style and fashion and so that got us so excited, we decided to not take our corporate jobs and not return to the internships that we had started before our junior year and instead graduated from college in the spring of 2014, moved to new york city, got a two person office in Soho and got to work on building the vision for this brand and helping assemble a team of advisors and mentors to kind of also help us realize the vision for the product because we had absolutely no business getting into biz business or really any business, given that we were completely fresh from college, but I think we might probably both say it was the best decision we've ever made.

00:07:57 Yeah, I read that Sheryl Sandberg was the reason that you changed your mind and decided to you know, not go for those corporate jobs. And I'm wondering what it was that she said in that moment that inspired you. That is a great little tidbit of the story that we, we didn't include, but Cheryl Sandberg was our graduation day speaker uh that senior year and that speech happened at a moment when Alex and I were truly kind of in the throes of do we do this, do we not do this? You know which way do we go? And she was giving a speech kind of in the aftermath of releasing her book lean in which was a huge topic of conversation at the time and she just posed this very simple question to the crowd which was what would you do if you weren't afraid? And it was so powerful for Alexa and I because we had been grappling with the choice of you know, taking the path that was more traveled, which was comfortable job offers and kind of the assurance of what that would look like.

00:09:06 But then also feeling that we were so in love with the vision and the concept for this brand and did truly feel that it was a brand that needed to be created and that just gave us that little boost of confidence that we needed to say yes, you know, we can do this, let's go after this and if we fail and then we fail and we start over again. But you know if not it could be a wonderful ride and that's what it has been. Well that's so powerful, how inspiring. So you get the office in Soho, you assemble your advisors. How does one go about actually starting a footwear label? Where do you start? What are the first steps? Gosh! There are so many places to start. But I think we had the advantage of having a super clear focus at the beginning which was we want to create this where everywhere a shoe and specifically at that time we were focused on really creating a perfect where everywhere flat. So it wasn't that we set out to design an entire collection.

00:10:10 We set out to design and engineer these singular perfect shoe. And so in a lot of ways that level of focus really benefited us in the early days because we knew exactly where we wanted to go with this exactly what we wanted it to look like. And then from there is a question of execution on a few different points, you know, how do we bring the brand to life through branding and aesthetic? How do we then translate the brand to the internet where we were planning to launch the brand, you know, as an income only brand through the website and that user experience and then most importantly in the design, the technical production and the manufacturing of the product. Kind of realizing our vision for what that shoe would look and feel like. And certainly the product development then and continues to be the area where we spend so much time and energy. We have a really high standard for the points of comfort. That issue needs to fit in quality before we take it live and release it to our customers.

00:11:15 And then you know, even after we launched something, nothing is ever sacred when it comes to products that are constantly redesigning re engineering and testing new things when it comes to construction comfort fit. And so then we launched in May of 2015, so I guess a little bit over five years ago now, which is hard to believe with that singular shoe entirely online and used it as a way to get to know who our customer, was what she was looking for from us and and what else we needed to make to really start to build out her footwear wardrobe with Margo sounds super exciting. I'm curious to go back to the bit where you were talking about technical production and your manufacturing? How did you, what did you need to look for when you were finding a factory and how did you then find that person or people or company rather? We, you know, we really were looking for someone who was willing to do things differently and in the world of manufacturing where there is so much process and it is so kind of ingrained in tradition, it's a really difficult thing to find and we heard no so many times before we found the incredible team of sort of product technicians and also factory that we are still with today and you know that process was about catching them on the dream of what we were trying and hoping to build and pitching them on the idea of building it together.

00:12:44 And we were unbelievably lucky and finding two people who had built their careers in the footwear industry, they've done everything from you know, apprentice in very unbelievable factories in their twenties to building brands, launching brands, running factories, working in factories and so they knew the ins and outs um of the technical side of footwear design and production and with them we found our factory in spain and sarah and I flew to the factory and spent a week with the owner, was an unbelievable person and an entrepreneur in his own way and pitch him on the vision of the brand and the business and at the end of the visit, we were in a tannery and remember walking over to him and saying, so will you do it? And he looked at us, he said, let's try. And he took a chance on us in a way that, you know, we will always be indebted and grateful to him and we've grown our business with him, were now the second largest client of the factory and he produces for some of the most incredible brands in europe.

00:13:48 Um and so it's been a really interesting and exciting ride with him, but it was finding people who are willing to take a risk and take a bet on us when you say you wanted to find someone who would do things differently and change the way that I imagined the, the shoe is made, What do you mean by that? What was it that needed to be done differently? So many things. Um, you know, a shoe for us, it really starts kind of from the ground up and you know, designing for both comfort and style. You know, traditionally footwear has really been designed for the look unless so the fit fit is secondary to the look. Um, and so many brands actually, you know, don't even make kind of their own or last, um, which are what molds are called in the shoe business, they use last that are pre existing, which means kind of fits and shapes that are pre existing. And so we made a commitment at the beginning to really develop everything that we released from scratch to kind of hit that standard of style and comfort that we really wanted to deliver on.

00:14:59 And so you know, it starts with kind of the shape of that mold for the look and the field that you want, but then it's all of these micro decisions from there, you know, what kind of insult do you put in? And we used an insult that there was a lot more supportive than you usually find like in a dress you or in a ballet flat particular. Then we design kind of a special, um, like foam layer that goes on top of that insults that you get the feeling of a really comfortable, she kind of in the package of address, but where, and then from there it's, you know, weeks and sometimes months of tweaking the fit by a millimeter here a millimeter, they're making it perfect in terms of look and then again feel. And so it's a really thorough and sometimes lengthy process where we have developed silhouettes for upwards of a year and a half, sometimes just really trying to perfect that fit in that field, wow goodness, crazy. Um, I'm interested to know based on all of that long time to develop, it sounds really, you know, technical um, it sounds really in depth, it sounds like you need a lot of funding to get started if you're building a footwear brand, how were you funding the brand in the beginning, um you know, up until placing that first order and launching, you'll go to market strategy, we were operating as lean lee as humanly possible, we continue to do that, but especially in that first year and then once we had enough of proof of concept we um raised around of equity from individuals and angels say the common thread between that group was almost all of them are entrepreneurs and so they kind of understood what those early days looked like and they understood the entrepreneurial journey and that has been one of the greatest things to ever happen to us because we have a network of people who in, across the board and across industries understand the roller coaster that is building a business and have become such fabulous sounding boards um in, you know, the moments of difficulty and you know, the highs and the lows that come with it.

00:17:13 Yeah, I can imagine it's amazing having that kind of community around you and really invested in what you're doing and invested in your success. Let's fast forward to when you launch and you go to market and how you start finding your first customers. I love to dig into the marketing and the how around how you find people, yes, they're stepping back to those early days, our marketing strategy was very different than it is today, but it's a process of, you know, evolution as the brand grows, um, and scales and as our customer base grows and sales to, but in those early days we were really focused on organic growth and making all the right decisions from, you know, an imagery user experience, a kind of marketing standpoint that really set the brand up for success over time, you know, made the brand feel thoughtful and elevated. And so we really focused in those early days on press and securing press.

00:18:15 And that was one of the major investments that we made in, you know, the first few months pre and post launch in kind of investing in a pr firm. Someone who could help us shape our story and tell our story to the larger world. And we were really fortunate to have a few great launch stories launched with an exclusive on vogue dot com and then follow it up with pieces and several other publications, but that really set us on the right track in terms of organic growth and awareness. And then on a more grassroots level, we were supplementing that with going out and finding customers through events anywhere and everywhere we could have them. And so we did, you know, several months of events around the country, whether it was pop ups and other stores or with other brands, to hosting our own events in markets where we had a stronger customer base from our personal networks and that was a really successful way of us kind of getting that first layer of super fans and Margot loyalists and then we've built on that and supplemented that with paid marketing only as we got bigger and as we added to our selection of product, wow sounds amazing.

00:19:30 The Pop Up sound really cool. Um I want to talk about your collaborations that you do as well. I read that you've done some really successful co labs with big name influences in particular gal meets glam. Can you tell us a little bit about the co lab, how it actually came about, you know if it was just a cold outreach or if you got connected um and then what was the impact of that collaboration? Yes, the collaborations are a big part of our strategy, not only from a marketing perspective but also customer acquisition. Um They're also one of our favorite things to do because to get to work with other women, other creators, other designers is one of the highlights of our jobs. So Julia who founded gal meets Glam first I think posted about our product nearly a year before, Almost two years before we worked together and um she posted without us having ever connected before and we were blown away by what happened from her community and the variety that she was able to create and from there we became sort of digital friends and so she was in a wonderful supporter and um you know we loved setting her product and getting her thoughts on the things that we're working on and then one day we sent her a note and said, you know, we'd love to talk about other ways to be able to work together, let us know if you want to hop on the phone.

00:20:54 And she said you know what happened to be in new york next week, both grab breakfast. So Sarah and I went to breakfast with Julia and her husband thomas and we started talking about what we could do together. And by the end of breakfast we have designed and basically drummed up the entire collaboration which was an exclusive capsule of product, co designed between Sarah and Julia and it was one of the most unbelievable collaborations and projects that we've ever worked on. Um it was incredible to, I've learned from Julia and how she's really perfected the drop model and understand what it's like to kind of bring two communities together that um sure a lot of synergy and see what happens when we can create product that serves both. So the collaboration was such a success that we did a second round for the following spring and that was even better than the first, It was a huge opportunity for us as a brand test into new things like novelty and new silhouettes for her was an interesting opportunity to test as well into new categories, which is about where um so there was a lot of learnings that came from it for both sides and I think for us um you know, a great moment to understand the power of collaboration when it's secret and when it's special at the right moments with people who can kind of expand the reach and people's understanding of our brand, when you say um you know the secret and like the the special and having a drop, what do you mean by that?

00:22:26 Those kind of terms? Um could basically what Juliet taught us is how to um create sort of this like pent up excitement for the drop of a product in a way that we had yet totally learned. And so what she does, that's really interesting and what we started testing on our own end is she actually shows her community the entire capsule or collection sort of far before she launches it. And it's really, it sort of sounds simple, but it's something that we hadn't necessarily ever done, you would tell our community that something was coming, but by actually showing people exactly what it is, giving them time to explore the colors and the fabrications and understand the different styles and how they fit in the different personalities of each of them. People can kind of join in the excitement of the launch and and really spend time thinking about what color they might like or what fabrication would be best for them. Um they might actually mentally budget for the product um and think about how it fits into what they're shopping for the season and by the time that you actually get around to launching a product, you are so kind of like intimately aware of the collection that they're ready to shop, the second that it drops and the first hour of both drops of the collection of Julia were act like gangbusters and I think it had so much to do with the fact that we had shared so much in terms of imagery and details and story telling about collection of people were really ready for it when it dropped.

00:24:03 Yeah, that's so interesting, isn't it? And in hindsight it kind of does make sense because I think they say, you know, someone needs to see something six times before they're ready to buy and then in that sense you're like, oh yeah, okay, well now they've bought into what we're doing, we're not seeing it for the first time on the day that it drops. Yeah, that's a really interesting insight. Do you think if you had one learning that you took away from, you know, your two collaborations with her, it would be that or is there something else? That was a big key takeaway? I would say that was definitely a key learning, but perhaps the biggest key learning for us was proving the appetite for demand for more novelty from our own customers. So Julius designs and the designs that we created with Julia featured a lot of prince or special fabrics that she was using in her collection for gal meets glam and it was our first foray into really building kind of print based collections collections with kind of special fund super unique details because previously we have been focused on kind of building out all of the wardrobe staples, which often meant kind of more simple or pared back designs.

00:25:18 And we had reached a point when we launched these collaborations with Julia where we had all the basics covered, we just needed the confidence than to be able to move into novelty. And what these collaborations allowed us to prove is that there was you know, not just huge appetite for novelty from her customer. There was equally as much novelty appetite for novelty from our customer and so we saw lots of new customers come in with this collaboration but perhaps most shocking to us was the number of our existing Margo customers who react in, you know, silhouettes that they loved with these new have fun print heavy, colorful collaboration styles that we released with Julia, wow, that's so interesting and such a great learning to have, you know, moving forward, which is a great segue for me, what are you looking to do in the future? Where is the brand like currently and what's coming next? Um you know, we want to continue to deliver on this promise of making women feel as beautiful as they do comfortable in their everyday lives, and that starts and continues with her footwear wardrobe, and creating stables that she can come back to again and again um that she can wear every day and that she can count on to deliver both for her and we feel like we have several exciting stables in the pipeline right now are probably more excited about our product than ever before, um that hopefully will come in the course of this spring and next fall and from there, I think we want to continue to expand our understanding of how we can deliver on this value proposition in other ways.

00:26:59 Today we're launching socks, which feels like a very small but exciting step for us in a new way to deliver on that promise, and I think we'll continue to be in conversation with our community to figure out how we can push the boundaries of what it means. The greatest silver lining to what has been a very difficult six months in this pandemic has been the opportunity to be in such a, kind of, a more intimate conversation with our community as we're all living in these digital spaces. We've really taken the time to build out the world of marco and be a little bit more open and vulnerable and communicative with our customers and that has been an incredible exercise of learning from them and hearing from them and feeling like they're so intimately a part of this process and through that we have such clear direction, what they want from us. And so now we get to really work on delivery. Sounds so exciting and I saw the socks, they're absolutely gorgeous, Congratulations!

00:28:00 Thank you. Now I have a question for both of you, I'd love to know what is your advice for women who have a big idea and want to launch their own business? Oh, that's a great question. If we were to, to still it down. I think there are two things that stand out for me is you're never underestimate the power of focus and really being clearer and decisive about your value add to whatever product or community or platform you're building, you understand kind of the why of why you exist and never forget that and kind of keep that central to everything that you do and how you speak to your community, because yeah, that's what will set you apart. It is a noisy time in the e commerce space, It's a noisy time, you know, in so many industries, in the consumer sector. But the brands that will really succeed are the ones who have a point of view and have something to say and are consistent in kind of delivering on that point of view.

00:29:12 And then the second thing is to, you know, I think Alexa and I, one of the, the most wonderful parts of building this business over the last five years is the partnership that we have and our partnership started as a friendship. But and we were very fortunate to have kind of that foundation of friendship to build on. I truly can't imagine going through this roller coaster that is building your own business, you know, on my own, I would never want to and it's made all the more special and fun and enjoyable and dynamic by having a partner that I learned so much from. So I would highly encourage you to someone if they're thinking about. Do I work on something, build a business with someone else that you know, a partnership can be a really incredible thing and a really powerful thing kind of in building your business and scaling your bread. Oh guys, cute not agree more, that was so sweet, I could not agree more. And I think one thing I would have if we've learned anything that you're especially is the importance of remembering to fail fast and pivot faster.

00:30:23 Um, building a business no matter the stage is just an unbelievable exercise and agility and the understanding that there is no like steady state any constantly process of testing, learning, reacting and improving is um I think helpful and remembering that there is comfort in the flexibility of change and constant change and the last six months has been a huge reminder that and you know, when plans go out the window which they inevitably always will. Uh the success of business really lies in your ability to react um and find the opportunity in the shakeup totally. Ain't that the truth? We are up to the six quick questions part of the episode. So again, I'll go through um maybe I'll start with you Alexa and then we'll go to you sarah. Um so that we can go through the page. Question # one Is What's Your Why?

00:31:26 What's my why? Yeah, open to interpretation. It can be your wife personally for building a business, it can be what your you want your impact to be on the world, you know, up to you. Open for interpretation, wow, that's a great question. And I think my why as a person is to bring light into other people's lives in any way that I can and through work it's they're celebrating and amplifying other women and other entrepreneurs um in life it's showing up as a sister and a daughter and a friend and a co founder um and the best way that I can and knowing that the end of the day, that's sort of what matters most totally question. Number two is what's been the number one marketing moment that's made your business pop, the number one marketing exercise that has made our business pop has been the collaborations that we've done because it's um brought our brand to audiences that we felt our fit and right for the product um that haven't yet experienced, um Margot and that has been such an exciting opportunity to stretch.

00:32:47 Um you know, what we do and who we are by working with other creators and designers, but still within the realm of who and what our brand stands for, and that has been um also the most fun projects to work on as well. So exciting question # three is, where do you hang out to get smarter? What books are you reading? What do you listen to, what newsletters do you subscribe to? I think the first thing place that I hang out to get smarter is with other entrepreneurs and other people think there is no substitute for spending time with people who, not necessarily working in your industry, but who are building things or who have built things that can poke holes that the ideas or ask questions and kind of pull you out of the weeds and from what you're working on um and help you think critically um or differently um about what you're spending time with. So I think that's, you know, first and foremost, um what I do to get smarter, um I read every morning before I start my day, but I goal set after that and sickles for the day of the week in a month, and that has been a habit that's come out of quarantine and something that I think will definitely be here to stay, it's really help me prioritize um you know digesting the news in the state of the world and then how that might reflect on my day, month year.

00:34:15 Um and so I think those two habits have been, what helps me on a digital basis? Most amazing question number four, and this might bleed into the last question a little bit, How do you win the day? What are your am and PM rituals that keep you feeling happy and motivated and successful? I would love to say it's perfect every day, but it's definitely in the world will start up. Not that said, there are a few things that I like to do every day because I am a bit of a creature of habit that at least kind of ground me um in the day, I think that's I'm a morning person. So first and foremost I love to wake up early um that is like my time and I get a hot cup of coffee and I said almost in the same spot every day and I read a few different things, I read the news, um some newsletters um and a few other places that I love to read articles after that. I move on to breakfast because I'm a big breakfast girl and during my breakfast is when I do all the goal setting um reflections and three pieces of gratitude every day.

00:35:25 It is a simple thing, but it does make such a difference and kind of pulling you out of the immediate rush of emotion, anxiety or stress that a day can begin with. Um and at the end of the day. Uh and then if I have time exercise before work at the end of the day, the few things that