Founders Feature #008 - Vaila
Where business fashion meets extended shoe sizes
Welcome back to Founders Feature, a weekly newsletter all about the journeys of young startup founders.
For this week's edition, I interviewed Ahriana Edwards, Founder of Vaila, an online business & lifestyle shoe marketplace for women with extended shoe sizes based in the US.
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Here’s what Vaila is all about:
🏠 The Basics
Within the US and many other places, footwear retail segregation is a real problem. Women with extended shoe sizes, outside of society's beauty standard of small feet, are often faced with ill-fitting, poorly made, and unattractive options, and most importantly a great lack of choice.
Vaila is an online business & lifestyle shoe marketplace for women with extended shoe sizes. We want to empower women to be able to show up in their world of business and give them the fashion expression that they are currently missing.
I am a solo founder and I have two advisors with backgrounds in footwear design and business development helping me along the way. Growing up, I've always been that innovative person but I didn't really find that I really, truly wanted to be an entrepreneur until college, where I majored in entrepreneurship.
🚀 The Journey
How did you come up with your startup/solution?
I wear an extended shoe size, and I found myself complaining about the severe lack of options available to me. Around August 2020, one of my friends just asked why I didn't just create the shoes myself. I was an entrepreneurship major after all and knew that I wanted to create a business one day, so I decided to just go for it. So, I really created Vaila out of my own pain points. Over time Vaila has transitioned from the original idea of a shoe brand to a shoe marketplace.
I've been wearing a large shoe size ever since I was probably 14 years old. So you can only imagine growing into a woman and growing into your feminine attributes and just having society almost choose what you should and should not wear. I hated that so much. And now being older, it's still basically the same thing. So that's how I started Vaila.
Why is this the right time for this problem to be solved?
Honestly, it is no more important now than many years ago. But it's the right time because there are still so few brands out there providing to the extended shoe size market. I think it's the right time to launch soon because many people will be wanting to get back into their world of work once Covid settles down and show up in fashion they love. For me it's really all about empowering women with larger feet, making them feel like they are, you know, equal. It's about making a statement and telling those shoe retailers and society's beauty standards that hey, I wear a large size, but that does not mean anything. My foot size is both beautiful and classy.
What is a recent success you are proud of?
I always try to celebrate even the smallest wins. So, recently I've been able to get accepted to pitch my business for five different organisations within a span of two months. Through some of those pitches, I've managed to raise some money in funding, which is a proud moment for me. I recently won runner-up in the Draper Competition, an entrepreneurial competition for women in college organised by Draper University, and secured $5k. I also won the Sanders Hand Business Grant of $1,000, and now I'm the finalist for the Black Ambition Prize Pitch Competition (which was founded by Pharrell Williams). Really, I'm so happy about any chance I get to communicate my vision for my business.
What is a recent challenge you have faced?
I think one of the biggest challenges I am facing is that I do not have any fashion or e-commerce background whatsoever. As an entrepreneurship major, I know about the business development portion of the business, but when you're creating a shoe marketplace, you have to have that background or be working with individuals who know fashion trends, how to reach out to the right people, and who know the science of shoes. So I think the thing that I've been struggling with is really learning about fashion and the shoe industry as quickly as possible along the way.
What do you wish you knew before you started and is there anything you would have done differently in hindsight?
One of the things that I wish I would have known is that there are going to be ups and downs along the journey but these are all a part of it. I wish I had known that there is a timeline ahead and that it is unpredictable. Maybe if I had known this, I would have embraced certain moments more and tried to rush some moments less, with the goal of getting to a goal as fast as possible. Had I known all this I would definitely also have been better at planning ahead. Something I really only picked up on along the way is utilising a time budget (time-blocking), dedicating each part of my day to a certain activity to avoid being sucked into an unproductive task for too long. It has worked wonders for me. I would likely also have felt slightly less imposter syndrome in everything I was doing along the way. Don't let the world have its own definition of the timeline of your business.
🧠 The Lessons
What is the best advice you have been given recently?
Pitching is very important in entrepreneurship. One of the biggest pieces of advice that I have learned because I'm actually living it right now, is that it doesn't matter how great your business is if you can't communicate it. When you have these three minute pitches, you have to be able to get to the root quickly, fast, and this is something that a lot of entrepreneurs, especially starting off, should definitely learn.
What's especially important is being able to communicate your business in the simplest way possible and still remaining true to yourself. It can be so tempting to see other people talk in a certain way, and be impressed and feel the need to do the same. But what works for them won't necessarily work for you.
And lastly, when it comes to communication it is also so important to figure out how to communicate with the specific people you're dealing with based on their background. Because, sometimes within your business, a lot of people won't understand that it's a problem. Personally, I have experienced this so many times, trying to explain to either men or women with average shoe sizes, why extended shoe sizes are a real problem.
What advice would you give to other young founders?
One piece of advice that I would have for them is that every entrepreneur's path is their own path. Follow your own timeline, try to compare yourself to others as little as possible and, you know, just do you. Because, you know that if you're doing you and you're doing the things behind the scene that matter, then success will come no matter what. Keep learning, and implementing your learnings, and just go on with your entrepreneurial journey.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned so far?
Remember why you started. I really had to live by this. Along my journey, I've had many people giving me advice on what might be the best for my business, and as much as pivoting can be important, it was really essential for me to keep going back to why I started. You have to realise that if you don't put your foot down on certain decisions you will tumble. You really have to stand on something when you make your decisions and know that you can't please everyone.
Learning how to say no, in general, can be really tough, but is such a vital skill to learn.
✨ The Inspiration
Who inspires you?
This question really requires a two-part answer for me. When I think of who inspires me there's that person who got me to where I am today, which is of course my mom, and then there's the person who inspires me to be where I want to be. That person for me is Dawn Dickson (Founder of Flat out Heels and Popcom). She's an entrepreneur herself and I've watched her as she grew with her different businesses.
What book do you think everyone should read?
Personality Plus - Florence Littauer
This book really taught me how to connect with and better understand others based on their unique personality. It really helped me a lot with networking.