Starting a Niche Business and Finding Your Audience

Samantha Dong is the Founder and CEO of Ally Shoes, an innovative, fashion brand designed for women by women. Ally is a niche business renowned for designing pain-free heels for power women. Samantha is passionate about empowering women through fashion and making luxury footwear more accessible for women on the move.

After a foot injury, Samantha couldn’t find shoes that fit. She teamed up with some of the best creative minds including designer Sara Jaramillo and podiatry expert, Dr. Roxann Clarke, to design stylish heels for all women. Ally Shoes continues to aim to disrupt the footwear industry with intentional craftsmanship. The team makes heels that are scientifically engineered to alleviate pain. Ally Shoes is a proud member of the Female Founder Collective, a network of businesses led by women, supporting women. FFC's mission is to enable and empower female-owned and led businesses to positively impact our communities, both socially and economically.

The Pull Between Fashion and Fit

Many women have heard the phrase, “Beauty is pain, just deal with it.” Samantha says she dealt with her own discomfort regarding shoes for as long as she could. And then she went on a big hiking trip with a few classmates. They hiked to Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania and on the way down, she fell a couple of times and had some remaining injury in her toes upon getting home. And even after she recovered, it became clear she couldn't wear heels anymore. The pain tolerance that she used to have just was nonexistent. 

It was around that time Samantha began to ask herself, “Why do heels have to hurt in the first place? Why does it have to be painful?” Even though high heels have been around for a really long time, no one has been able to figure out how to solve the pain that so many women face. So Samantha looked into it and learned shoemaking from scratch. She’s originally from Shanghai and there's a big maker's culture there, so when she went home she took the time to visit some local shoemakers and create a rudimentary prototype and actually sold her very first prototype to some classmates from grad school. 

Starting Ally Shoes

Samantha did some very minimal crowdfunding during her second year in grad school and instead of looking for a “real job” after graduating, she decided to pursue her idea fully. She raised a very small amount of Angel pre-seed capital, mainly focused on product development. At this time she was living in Silicon Valley but realized she would need to come back to New York because that's where a lot of the talent is for design, as well as her target customers.

Once back in the Big Apple, the first step was to form an initial founding team of product experts. Without having a background in fashion, Samantha reached out to people cold on LinkedIn. And that's how she found their product advisor, Jeff Henderson, who was a former innovation director of Nike and Cole Haan. Jeff then introduced Samantha to two other amazing women — Dr. Roxann Clark, who's a practicing foot ankle surgeon, and Sara Jaramillo, a very talented footwear designer who works with Jeff. Dr. Clark treats professional women every day on foot issues and it’s her passion to prevent those foot injuries from happening in the first place. Sara works on very fancy Italian dress shoes, but she's also designed for Adidas, so she was perfect for this role. 

And for those who are curious, Samantha used Indiegogo for her crowdfunding. She felt she was able to get really good support from them at the time. 

Growth + Expansion

Samantha and the team focused on building a digital way to sell directly to consumers. Since they offer so many different sizes, they could potentially have a lot of products. This was to try and reduce overproduction in the fashion cycle. So they do a lot of ‘made to order’, which inherently they’ve learned how to have a very quick turnaround, but overall their margin is not really high enough for a wholesale retailer, so for now they are sticking to selling directly. 

They now have a proper office and a storage room and are in the process of looking for a fulfillment center. Samantha explained that for footwear brands because they have so many different sizes, it can be a challenge to find the right fulfillment center and urges other niche business owners in his position to research this well before deciding on one. 

The Rest of the Niche Business: Marketing, HR and More

Samantha recommends a book called Traction. “..what I really liked about that book is this methodology of testing, iterating, and then testing again. And that's sort of how we approached our marketing as well. And interestingly, that's how we approached our product development as well. You have a few kinds of hypotheses and you test out a few different channels that you think would work. Test it for a little bit and then go back to see which ones actually work and kind of double down on those. And then continue kind of working on those until they don't work anymore then you find something else.” 

When it comes to marketing, Samantha has worked with Facebook marketing, Google Adwords, influencers, and hosted trunk shows. But when it came to crowdfunding, they pushed heavy with Facebook marketing. She then started looking into other things channels that might work. It happened to be that offline events and trunk shows really helped them take off. Ally Shoes started to partner with women's organizations or women's conferences and they were the perfect captive targeted audience. 

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