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A screen grab from a Damn Heels promotional video.

THE CHALLENGE: Design and manufacture a new product when you're not a designer or engineer

Hailey Coleman is the founder of Damn Heels, a business which sells portable and fashionable footwear. She came up with the idea in the summer of 2007, when she was still an undergraduate student. Like many people with great product ideas, she didn't have any design or engineering experience. How could she create a product that people would actually buy?


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Ms. Coleman got the idea for Damn Heels when she was walking home from a party in London, England and her high heels were killing her. "Wouldn't it be great," she thought, "if no woman had to go barefoot with her heels in hand ever again?" The solution was a pair of soft, comfortable ballerina-style flats packaged in a small expandable bag that fits into a clutch or purse. Before going out on the town, you slip the bag into your purse, and when your feet get sore, you can wear the flats and put your high heels into the expandable bag.

Before launching, however, she had to figure out how she was going to design and manufacture the shoes, as well as the bag; two skills with which she had no experience.


Using the Internet, Ms. Coleman found a designer on Craigslist. The designer didn't have any shoe experience, but did have experience with soft pattern-based designs. Ms. Coleman also found manufacturers in China on the website Alibaba. She contacted many of them and then created a short list, depending on which ones responded promptly and sent pictures and samples of their work.

All was going to plan until she realized she would have to send a prototype to potential suppliers, and couldn't find the right material. "I knew I was in trouble," laughs Ms. Coleman, "when a shoe repair man told me not to bother looking for that material because he had been looking for three years to fix a pair of shoes!" So instead she bought shoes made out of the material she wanted to use, cut them up and pasted them together using the pattern that she had developed with her designer.

Once Ms. Coleman had passable samples, she sent them to several Chinese manufacturers, who then created real shoe samples and sent them back to her. There were a number of iterations. "In the process of tweaking the samples, I got a good feel for which manufacturer would be best to work with," she explains. "I knew that it would be easier if the same supplier could make the bag and the shoes. And in deciding who to go with, I weighed heavily our ability to communicate with each other."

Although Ms. Coleman had to pay for the samples, they weren't terribly expensive. What was important was ensuring the product was right before she placed an order, because there was a large minimum unit requirement. The cost of making a mistake made the entire design process was quite stressful. "I hardly slept the entire time," says Ms. Coleman. "But once I placed the order, I felt calm because it was all outside of my control at that point."

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Ms. Coleman launched her first product in December 2009, selling online and in hair salons and restaurants where family and friends worked. Her shoes – priced at $20 – were must-have Christmas gifts. She won a business plan competition that month and another the following March, netting $32,000 and lots of attention from the media, investors and entrepreneurs. In September, she appeared on Dragons' Den and accepted a $50,000 deal from Arlene Dickinson. She is now weighing all distribution offers that have been coming in. She also fit in a visit to China. "I knew that building relationships is important in China," she says, "but I didn't realize how important until I received cases of green tea from my supplier. I needed to see the factory and meet the people and talk about how we can build an even stronger relationship."

Not bad for a relationship that was started online with a rudimentary cut-and-paste sample.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Becky Reuber is a professor of strategic management in the Rotman School of Management of the University of Toronto.

This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Your Business website.

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