“What happens to a dream deferred?” asked poet Langston Hughes. “Does it dry up, like a raisin in the sun?” Caroline McCulloch wouldn’t know. She took the bold, scary step of turning a business dream into reality – with much success. Caroline is the director of, and designer behind, FRANKiE4 footwear for women. If you know – and love – the brand already, you’re definitely not alone: FRANKiE4 has nearly 47,000 fans currently on Instagram, and almost 60,000 on Facebook. This is because, since its launch in 2010, FRANKiE4 has achieved what so many shoe brands before it could not: it’s turned the “comfort shoe” on its head.
It’s a case study in successful entrepreneurism: identify a gap in the market, envision how to fill the niche, launch your product – and land an eager, receptive and loyal audience. The FRANKiE4 brand is on track to turn over $10 million this financial year – enough said. We chatted with Caroline recently to learn how she put her best foot forward.
Caroline, what inspired you to create your FRANKiE4 brand?
Despite my health-professional background, I’ve always had a love of fashion. When treating patients, it was difficult to refer them to comfort footwear styles I wouldn’t want to wear myself – it felt hypocritical. But it was undeniable: footwear with the right support and cushioning alleviated foot symptoms. Patients always reported better treatment results with the right shoes under their feet.
As a podiatrist and physiotherapist, footwear couldn’t be separated from my treatment if I was to provide the best care to my patients. I needed to get their foundation (footwear) right. But the options of comfort shoes were ghastly. The day a patient nearly cried when I showed her some comfort shoes that would be great for her treatment, I decided to see if I could design my own styles.
How did you turn your idea into reality?
I ran a footwear store within our podiatry clinics for seven years prior to developing FRANKiE4, so I had a good handle on women’s preferences in footwear. To get my idea off the ground, I called a shoe manufacturer in Sydney, told him my idea – and met him the following week. About 10 prototypes later, and lots of wear testing, I signed off on my first two styles to sell in our podiatry clinics. Selling directing to my patients was the perfect way to gauge feedback and tweak my designs.
What is the biggest obstacle you’ve faced along the way to success – and how did you overcome it?
My husband and I met with a well-regarded businessperson who advised us to walk away from FRANKiE4, saying it wasn’t a viable business; there was no such thing as a successful privately owned footwear business; and the bigger footwear companies would cripple us.
I could appreciate why: at that stage, FRANKIE4 was operating at a loss, and sucking every cent of profit out of our podiatry clinics. But I distinctly recall this person telling me that if I continued with FRANKiE4, we would be so broke, we would have to sell my son Max’s high chair.
I cried that night…a lot. I felt embarrassed and stupid that I spent so much time on something that was ultimately putting my family at financial risk. My husband told me to have faith in my shoes, and to think of all the positive feedback we receive from our patients.
I woke at around 2 a.m. that morning, and scribbled from top to bottom, on a white board, all the numbers/ costs, ideas, strategies and forecasts that would give me confidence to keep going with this brand. When my husband woke, I went through it with him. We high-fived, rolled our sleeves up and kept going.
It’s safe to say today that Max’s high chair is safe and the business is profitable.
How do you continue to innovate and keep ahead of the field?
My footwear is all about hiding the support and cushioning in what looks like a fashion shoe. So I’m ALWAYS looking at women’s feet. Market research is an everyday occurrence for me: finding women that present well, and seeing what type of styles they are wearing, help me consider my next styles.
Being innovative is perhaps the easiest part of my job. I am never satisfied with the range, and I’m always looking for ways to improve. It just means each season is always better then the last. I’ll quit the day it isn’t.
How did you build such an ardent fan base?
In my opinion, if your product is excellent, this is the safest marketing strategy. I don’t even have a marketing manager – I manage the marketing with my [very competent] team, and it’s good fun. We are providing a product that women want and are happy with.
How do you find balance in your busy life?
With help, and lots of it! I quit the guilt, and I embrace all the help I need to stay calm and happy while I keep all of these balls in the air. Starting my day with the most important people to me keeps life feeling balanced. With a 4-year-old [Rose] and a 6-year-old [Max], we’re up at 6 am. With our two dogs, we all pile in the car, stop at the bakery for scones and coffees, and head to the park for a Frisbee fling. It’s our morning ritual, and a great way to start the day just as ‘us’.
I also keep balanced by having the right team at work. I’m building a strong team that is capable, competent, can work independently and believes in my dream. Armed with that sort of crew, I can delegate, delegate, delegate. I then allocate my own time wisely on the areas of the business that need my direct focus – and slap myself on the wrist if I catch myself spending time on something that one of my staff can do!
LEARN MORE: To see Caroline’s FRANKiE4 brand in action: (click the link):