A trip to Japan and a look into a high-tech mirror eventually gave Aleksandra Jarośkiewicz a start-up idea. After ditching her day job and getting together with some partners, she was off and running in a shoe design business
by Beata Socha
Shoe design was the furthest thing from Aleksandra Jarośkiewicz’s mind when she headed for a holiday after finishing her studies in Japanese language and culture. “I basically sat at a table and talked about Poland,” she said of a job she found in a night club after landing in Japan. “Overworked Japanese people love to hear stories of far-away exotic places, particularly when a white woman tells these stories,” Jarośkiewicz said. But in Kyoto she came across a gadget called the “magic mirror,” a seemingly regular mirror with a computer generated layer that allows you to “try on” clothes, and then tweak them to your liking. “I didn’t think much of it at the time, at least not business-wise, but a few years later, when I was searching for an idea for a start-up, it came back to me,” said Jarośkiewicz, the founder of Fun in Design, a Warsaw-based start-up that lets customers design their own footwear.
Taking the plunge
“I talked to a bunch of people who were at the point in their life where they were tired of their 9-to-5 jobs and were ready to go it on their own, head first,” she said of the company’s formative days. In the beginning there were six partners, but that number was quickly halved. “You need to realize early on that your idea can in fact pan out. And then you are left with a decision whether to take the plunge . . . and put all your effort into turning your idea into something real,” Jarośkiewicz said. Jarośkiewicz jumped in with both feet. She and her remaining partners invested all their savings in the company, but soon found they needed outside investment. “A company that produces shoes requires much more start-up capital, so we started looking for an outside investor,” she said.
Winning PLN 50,000 from Agora Startup Fest, an entrepreneurship competition co-funded by the Ministry of Economy, allowed Fun in Design to develop a new, fully professional website in place of an old “home-made” one. Once the shop came online, talking to investors was much easier, Jarośkiewicz said, and the firm nailed down PLN 500,000 from Skyline Venture, a venture capital fund specializing in SMEs. “We decided to invest in Fun in Design because we believe in these people. They left corporations to pursue this idea, and proved to be very determined,” said Paweł Maj, fund manager. “What made our decision to get involved easier, was that their business was not a ‘power-point company’ but it was already up-and-running at the time, albeit on a small scale. It had won Agora Startup Fest. The media had already picked it up,” Maj added.
Another major challenge was finding an open-minded supplier. “We were looking for nearly a year before we came across ours. When we talked to one shoe producer after another, people who had been in the business for decades, we saw we weren’t getting our idea across,” Jarośkiewicz said. “Once you tell them it’s an internet store, they start looking at you weird. And when you tell them that each pair will be different – what you hear is: ‘That’s just not possible.’” Jarośkiewicz eventually overcame that obstacle by looking close to home, contracting out production in Poland to a local manufacturer from the Mazowieckie voivodship, where bright, shiny, colorful shoes, boots and loafers soon started rolling off the production line. “Looking for a business partner when you run a start-up firm is really tricky. Suppliers were very distrustful at first, afraid of ending up with an unreliable partner who doesn’t pay invoices,” she explained. Meanwhile, Fun in Design soon found that an online shop was not enough. “People feel lost on the internet. They like to come to the shop, even just to talk to us, and then they sit down with one of our tablets and design their very own high heels,” Jarośkiewicz said. Fun in Design now operates its own store on ul. Zgoda, one of Warsaw’s high streets. “The company needed a showroom to make a virtual idea become more tangible. The purpose of the store is not to sell shoes off the shelf but to help the client visualize what she wants,” Maj explained. The company’s shoes range in price from PLN 230 to PLN 490, placing them on a par with regular mid-range brands. “This is a completely new market, one we are still in the process of creating,” Jarośkiewicz said. “People look for originality, for something other than run-of-the mill black leather high-heels. And they want to have fun making their dream shoes. That’s what Fun in Design is all about.”
The best piece of confirmation that your business is taking off is when others follow in your footsteps. “When we were starting out, there was only one other company doing what we do. They started at the same time as we did. Now we have three competitors, but we try to stay on the cutting edge.” The company is about to launch a 3D shoe design service, one that will make the design-to-buy process even more experiential . . . and therefore even more fun. “No one uses this technology for virtual design yet, so again we will be the first ones,” Jarośkiewicz said. According to the Skyline Venture, the business has seen a 100 percent revenue increase since the capital injection it received in June. The firm is also toying with the idea of international expansion. “We see a lot of potential abroad, particularly Western Europe,” Maj said. “I always knew I wanted to run my own business. It was just a matter of finding one that would work,” Jarośkiewicz said. For Jarośkiewicz, the shoe seems to fit.