Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name, as the brand would suggest, is Tanya Heath. I’m something you almost never hear about; a generation X entrepreneur who left a classic career path to follow a dream. My company, TANYA HEATH Paris created the world’s first multi-height shoe with removable heels for professional women who don’t want to be held back by their footwear.
We have 3 collections. The Power line is mostly pumps and they are supposed to take you from day to night, the Liberty collection is all about Parisian Chic and the Seduction collection can be for anything from a night out to a wedding.
There are now TANYA HEATH Paris boutiques in Paris, Toronto, Beirut, Beijing and the next one that will open is Hong Kong. Americans are our largest client group on the website and my dream would be to open a boutique in New York, San Francisco, Miami or any of the mega cities, but that won’t happen until the company earns millions or we get funded!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started my professional life as a anglophone working in Paris France. The first day that I came to work I changed from ballerinas to high heels at my desk. My French colleagues found this ridiculous and they called me “the New Yorker” (Paris is the only city in the world where this is an insult).
Product development took a long time. I had to hold 4 entire years without a single sale and no venture capital so I was paying for everything myself.
Because I knew my life would be here (my husband is French) and I was trying to integrate into my new surroundings, I stopped wearing flats while walking, and spent the next 10 years including work, travel, babies and everything else that life throws at you, wearing high heels.
Predictably I ruined my feet and by the end of the craziness I couldn't even imagine wearing heels for an entire day. I used to think out each day based on how far I could get in heels, would I be able to take the metro; or would I have to come back in a cab? Silly I know, not to mention bad for your feet. So at the same time I was always looking for a comfortable pair of high heeled shoes because by then it was becoming clear that my future would be flats or sneakers.
At the same time I was angry with the footwear industry. I reasoned that if we could launch satellites and sequence the genome, that we should be able to create a multi-height shoe that would enable women to go from a high to a low heel, on the same shoe, whenever they wanted to. When it was apparent that no one else would do it, I thought why not give it a try myself?
People often ask me why I am the first to have really got multi-height shoes right, especially since I don’t have a background in shoe design. While that is true, I do know a lot about disruptive innovation. Creating a shoe where the heel clicks off and on and where you can change from a chunky walking heel to a towering stiletto is certainly disruptive! I had previously worked for several French technology startups and I taught a course on the marketing of disruptive innovation in a French engineering school so I had a skill-set to actually think about the innovation.
I’m guessing the other reason that I ultimately succeeded is that I have lived and worked with engineers for a good part of my life. I knew the solution would ultimately come down to engineering a nonclassical shoe with several moving parts that would be easy to use and safe.
At that time everyone thought I was crazy, except my husband. The R&D was VERY expensive and the start)up capital came from our life savings, which were pretty good at that time because we had just sold our Paris apartment.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
The product design and manufacturing stage of my company was epic. I started looking for a solution in January 2009. My first hunch was to buy an existing concept and I really did look into this, but unfortunately the existing concept tested badly, with some of my friends comparing the shoes to a dead donkey, bizzare and bad.
So by July of 2009 I started reaching out to factories, engineers, product designers and shoe experts. The shoe experts weren't on board because they thought the concept was both ridiculous and impossible so I had to start without them but they did join the team 1 year later, when I was able to convince them that it was only my credibility and reputation on the line, not theirs.
At the same time it wasn't just ridicule, some entities did take me seriously. For example I was accepted by Agoranov Paris which at that time was France’s leading incubator which gave the concept quite a bit of credibility. I also won ADC which is a leading French fashion design program for handbags and shoes.
To make a long story short the entire R&D phase took 14 engineers and shoe technicians and we had a proof of concept by July 2011. It took another 2 years to get the supply chain right as in the early days we were struggling with quality, delivery times and style. I consider our official launch as a brand to be September 2013, but it was still a soft launch. At that time we didn't have heel walls or shelves to display our shoes. Those came later and nothing was obvious.
People often ask so I will mention that the technology is patented and we have a design model for China.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Basically product development took a long time. I had to hold 4 entire years without a single sale and no venture capital so I was paying for everything myself. I did do a friends and family round in 2011 when we knew the concept was possible which allowed us to keep moving forward. We did another top-up round in 2013 and again in 2017.
To be honest, at that time I was so naive I did not know that suppliers could miss deadlines to that extent. Now I build this insight into the way I think and what I communicate to potential partners.
The actual product launch was a catastrophe. Our first physical shop opened with only 12 pairs of shoes and we did not get our full delivery until the first day of the summer sales. We held 5 entire months with no stock. It was awful and a complete financial ruin. The first website didn't do much better. I think we sold 8 pairs of shoes online that first year.
If it could be re-done I would have never committed to a point of sale without knowing if my shoes tested well. To be honest, at that time I was so naive I did not know that suppliers could miss deadlines to that extent. Now I build this insight into the way I think and what I communicate to potential partners. Also with time suppliers have started to take us much more seriously so deadlines if they are missed are missed by days, not months.
The largest underestimation I made is what would be difficult. I truly thought that the R&D would be hard but that once the product existed it would speak for, and sell itself.
Well it didn't. We struggled even to find the vocabulary to explain what we do, we didn't know how to merchandize the heels, we didn't know what sales channel would work, we didn't have the money to pay for a video, customer service took us entirely by surprise… before that I considered myself a marketer but nothing I had done before equipped me for the challenges we faced. I was scared of clients and selling shoes for me was as horrible as selling my kids.
Also I had gone through so many prototypes that did not work that it took fully 3 years until I was convinced that we were selling the “real thing”. I guess I needed to see happy clients walking into my store wearing my shoes and heels to really believe we got it right.
Despite happy clients, awards, excellence and kudos we still aren't taken seriously by the fashion industry. We have never, ever had press in a traditional French fashion magazine and editors of the biggest titles in the country have called me a liar. Being so drastically cut-off from a group of people who say they stand-up for women’s empowerment and innovation in fashion has made getting to where we are today that much more difficult.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We really only have 2 tools to attract and retain customers. The first is word of mouth. TANYA HEATH Paris has never spent a cent in press or in marketing so we rely on happy customers talking about us. They find us by walking past one of out boutiques or they have been following the brand after hearing about us via some kind of press.
Our best retention tool is customer service. Some of my best customers started off as customer services disasters. But by taking their concerns seriously, and by problem solving and by working with them we are able to reassure them and solve their problems. In fact if you look at the comments on our Facebook pages clients often talk about our customer services. This makes me very proud!
I am in the Paris boutique all the time and I’m always interacting with clients so I know what they like and what they think we could be doing better. This insight goes into each new collection that I design. I also know that I don’t know everything, so if I’m in doubt about something, I ask my clients.
Online we are everything that everyone else is not. We are slow, we write emails to clients if we think their order won’t fit, or if it could be better. Since I took over customer service in January I write a cruciform note in real ink to all of my clients. I think this traditional interaction with women I have never met brings us closer. A few are now cyber-friends and it's’ nice to see how they use my shoes.
My best digital tool is the newsletter, because customers want to see new shoe and heel styles, and I suppose my website. The timing of the newsletter is dictated by events.
For example there are clearly more newsletters around Christmas or end of season sales and far fewer in August when Paris is empty except for tourists (we stay open because tourists are good clients). We write about anything from new products to new stores.
Our newsletters are read by about 25% of the list and I think it's because many of our clients just like following the progress of a fashion start-up. We don’t use the normal words that you find in other fashion companies because personally I’m allergic to superlatives and unkept promises.
Many of my clients are busy, powerful and private so they don’t spend much time on social media; this means that newsletters are one of the only ways of interacting with them. Oh and did I mention that all of our communication is bilingual?
That being said I already mentioned that I’m a Gen X. I was late to Instagram, I’m still a clumsy on it, and I believe we are still paying for this as a brand.
Same analysis for Amazon. Amazon approached us to be part of launchpad and I was thrilled. It didn’t work out for us at the time, but I think this is partly because my company lacked the skill-set to work in a meaningful way with Amazon.
There are innovative products that I have not bought because they were not sold by Amazon so I can imagine my brand suffers from this. On the other hand Amazon are not experts at selling luxury French shoes.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I would love to tell you that growth is linear and that word of mouth starts off small and mushrooms but this is only part of the story, in actual fact retail is sporadic, and dependent on macroeconomics or current events that are beyond your control.
For example our sales can go down 80% after a major event like the Paris terror attacks or the current crisis with Gillets Jaunes. On the other hand if we get press, for example an interview of me on TV, or once we had an article in the Huffington post, well that can sell easily 400-500 pairs of shoes and countless heels.
One of the disadvantages of being small is I bend with the wind. The advantage of bending however is it tends to mean you are resilient. My cost structure is lean so up till now we have survived.
Today we have sold thousands of shoes and tens of thousands of heels despite being virtually unknown. Clients love what we do and in the Paris store my loyalty rate (that is people who have made a second purchase of either a heel a shoe or both) is 65%. I’m an optimist, which you have to be to have survived so many setbacks and I see a real future for my company. In fact societal changes mean I’m less crazy now.
Women everywhere are in the mood for comfort and there is less stigma attached to female ambition, independence and autonomy world-wide than when I first started out so I think my message resonates with a wide intergenerational audience.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
For me the biggest lesson I have learnt is the importance of finding my own voice and following my gut.
Every time I stand up for one of my convictions or I impose my point of view or I re-work something so that I am happy with it the company goes farther.
I believe that every single error that my company has made, was made in someway because I either lacked confidence in myself or I shied away from imposing my viewpoint on the team.
In business literature you see the importance of consensual decision making and listening to other people’s points of view or even accommodating them… Add to that that I’m Canadian, we are born consensual.
I think this style might be perfect for large companies or perhaps it only exists in management literature, but in real life when you are a struggling start-up, it's important to have a leader who can impose themselves. When I do, the company goes farther. I know I’m not a one man show, and far from it, but I have to bring people with me.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
My absolute favorite tool is Canva. I am not a graphic designer and I learnt everything I know about presentations in the dark ages of powerpoint.
With Canva I can do a credible catalogue or brochure without any Photoshop or Indesign.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My bible at the beginning of the company was The Innovator’s Dilemma by Clayton M Christensen. In fact it was one of the books I leaned on when I taught disruptive innovation. It was already old when I started the company but I think even today it makes some great points about disruptive innovation.
Otherwise I work 70 hour weeks and I have 3 kids so I never got into podcasts. I’ve read the Economist since I was 18 and my way of seeing things is that if it's not newsworthy enough for the Economist I don’t necessarily have to know about it.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I would say don’t let other people define your success. When I started this company I wanted to create something incredible and change the lives of women. I do define success in terms of money, don’t get me wrong, but I truly wanted to do something meaningful that I could be proud of. I think we are there.
Now I have more employees and its perfectly clear to me that I have to monetize and protect my ongoing investment (don’t worry, I have always known this). But I’m really proud to have come this far. I hope the adventure won’t end and I expect it to morph over time but I am proud of what I have achieved even though I’m definitely not rich.
The other answer though is believe in yourself, because no one else will. It's a long, lonely roller coaster. Even today I don’t recognize myself in the fan mail because the people writing can’t imagine your daily.
I’m willing to bet the overnight success stories that everyone talks about are the exception rather than the rule. Even if they are the rule stick with it. As my mentor says starting a company is like being in a boat that is in a storm and your only choice is to get to the other side. I strongly believe that my company will not just succeed but will one day be great.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I would love to work with a digital intern.
Where can we go to learn more?
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Find out how!