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Tomboy Toes Is the Affordable Vegan Footwear You've Been Waiting For

Tomboy Toes Is the Affordable Vegan Footwear You've Been Waiting For

Lauren Craig couldn’t find footwear that fit in the styles she loved, so she made it.

When Lauren Craig went shoe shopping for an important job interview, she wanted to treat herself to some masculine dress shoes to give her some extra confidence. The problem? None of the shoes she was drawn to came in her size. She combed through shoe stores, trying on men’s shoes in small sizes, women’s shoes in men’s styles, and even formal boy’s shoes that might fit her to no avail. Motivated by her frustration, Craig decided to take action and founded Tomboy Toes—a footwear brand that makes the Oxford style shoes she loves available in smaller sizes.

PRIDE talked to Lauren Craig about the importance of affordability, the use of vegan material, and the challenges and rewards of starting her four-month old business while working two additional jobs.PRIDE: Tomboy Toes was born out of your own frustration at not being able to find dressy masculine footwear in your size. What made you feel ready to fill that need with your own business? 

Lauren Craig: The idea had been brewing in my head for months, if not years. It had recently come to the forefront while I was shopping for shoes for an interview for the job at the e-commerce startup I ended up working for. As usual, I had zero luck finding the shoes I wanted, and it reminded me of that old business idea. My boss at the startup jobs had this bubbling enthusiasm for entrepreneurship and was really supportive of his employees when it came to launching ideas of their own. I'd been working there for several months simmering in this wonderful and encouraging environment, and as the summer slow season started approaching I just couldn't get the idea for Tomboy Toes out of my head. I think the thing that sealed the deal for me was coming up with the name. As soon as I said, 'Tomboy Toes,' out loud, it felt real to me. I knew it was a real need, I knew during the summer months I'd have a little more freedom to work on a side project. I knew I had the experience to run it and the safety net of working for two other companies full time if it totally failed, and I just couldn't stop thinking about it. I decided nothing was stopping me but myself.

PRIDE: Why was an emphasis on carrying vegan leather lines and starting at an affordable price point important to you?

LC: Dress shoes, especially masculine styles like Oxfords, are both traditionally expensive and traditionally made from real leather. The LGBTQ community has gotten pretty good about looking at things that are 'traditional' or 'have always been that way' and questioning them. I knew Tomboy Toes would be for serving people who historically had a really difficult time finding dress shoes in the style and size they wanted, so for many of my customers, it would be their very first foray into the world of formal masculine shoes. I thought about people like me, crossing their fingers and taking a risk that these shoes would fit them and make them feel powerful and confident, and I knew I wanted to be able to make that opportunity to feel like your best self as accessible as possible. These are perfectly good shoes if you're a super successful CEO of a tech company in San Francisco and you drive a Mustang to work, sure, but the fact that these shoes are within the realm of possibility for cash-strapped students, folks working badly-paying jobs, people supporting dependents on a tight budget—that's important to me.

The vegan leather worked well with that goal of being more affordable. I knew from talking to people that there were a lot of folks in my target market who would avoid buying real leather whenever given the option. I was honestly skeptical that I'd be able to find a vegan leather alternative that met my standards for quality. When you think of artificial leather, you think of low-quality, clearly cheap looking products. I definitely got some samples that fit that description. When I finally found the supplier I work with now, everything clicked into place. They look just as good as genuine leather, but they help me to bring the price point down for my customers, and they support a lifestyle that avoids harm to animals whenever possible.

PRIDE:How did your background prepare you for entrepreneurship?

LC: The two e-commerce companies I work for have taught me so much in the time I've been there. One of them is an online store that sells really cool gift crates that offer packaged sets of related items, and I've managed a lot of the new product development for that company that has taught me a lot about sourcing suppliers, working with vendors, and the process of finding and vetting manufacturers. Having done it a dozen times before meant that I was a lot more effective and capable at it by the time I was doing it for my own company. The other company I work for is a subscription box brand. I've been able to flex my muscles and deploy a lot of resources in the marketing part of my identity that has given me the experience to know how to do things at a smaller scale for Tomboy Toes.

PRIDE: Could you talk a little about how you manage your time with two additional day jobs? What does a typical day or week look like?

LC: I feel like most solo entrepreneurs and business owners will tell you this, but here's what I've realized: your time no longer belongs to you. It belongs to your customers. The customer service and operations emails come right to my phone, so I'll be answering emails from the subway platform, from my parents' house, from anywhere I've got reception. I've definitely been hanging out with loved ones on a Friday night, chowing down on a piece of pizza and having a beer after a long week, and gotten an email, and thought to myself, 'Would it really be so terrible to deal with this tomorrow instead of right now?' Occasionally the answer is, 'No, that wouldn't be the end of the world,' because you don't want to completely burn out. When it comes to customers, I know from experience how happy people are to get an immediate answer, and I prioritize that happiness. If it means I have to put down my pizza and beer for five minutes to compose an email, that's a trade that makes sense to me. 

I wake up early, answer emails that came in overnight, have a coffee, shower, and then go to the office. During my commute, I usually listen to podcasts about e-commerce, marketing, or entrepreneurship. I find I get a lot of motivation and good ideas that way. During work hours for my day job, I see Tomboy Toes emails when they come to my phone, so I know if there's something urgent that needs my attention I'll answer it over my lunch break. At the end of the day, sometimes I'll linger late at the office getting stuff done for Tomboy Toes—and again, my employer is totally aware that I have a side venture, and he's cool with me working on it when I'm not on the clock. Generally, when I end the work day and find I have the urge to jump right into Tomboy Toes, it's better to just stay until eight or nine in the office and do it right away. Once I get home, it's tempting to just sit down and snuggle my cats and be unproductive for the rest of the night. But then, sometimes on the commute home, I'll be actively brainstorming and get home with a bunch of ideas I just have to implement right away. So it varies. The stuff that requires more time than just answering emails, I'll do either in the evenings or on weekends.

PRIDE:You avoided the crowdfunding route, which seems increasingly popular. What were the benefits of bootstrapping your business?

LC: The main advantage was that it allowed me to start selling right away, and at full price. For a crowdfunded product, you're offering them at a discount and you're at the mercy of your backers. You don't get a drop of the money if you don't meet your goal, and even if you do meet your goal you don't get access to the money until after the campaign. Even then, the platform you choose to work with takes a cut. Crowdfunding campaigns are a lot of hard work. You spend a lot of time crafting your pitch and making your page as appealing as possible, and then when that's done you still have to do the work of driving people to your page.

There was a time when crowdfunding meant instant exposure for good ideas. Now that the novelty of crowdfunding has worn off, you're a lot less likely to get attention and coverage for a campaign. To me, the costs involved in starting the business were all going to be there whether I went bootstrapped or crowdfunded. I knew it was going to require a significant personal investment of my own money to get going, regardless of the route I chose.

PRIDE: What’s the most rewarding thing you’ve heard from customers?

LC: Any variation on, 'The shoes made me feel good about myself,' or, 'They gave me confidence,' or, 'They made me feel attractive,' fills me right up with joy and reminds me why I started this company. It's not about selling shoes, it's about empowering people. If I can put some strut into the step of someone who has spent a lifetime being made to feel like an outsider for their sense of style, I've accomplished my goal.

PRIDE: What’s next for Tomboy Toes?

LC: Right now my priority is the availability of smaller sizes. Our two core product lines, the Downtown Dappers and the Roguish Brogues, currently come in European sizes 38 - 40. We've gotten the Brogues in 37, and right now our shoemaker is getting the Dappers in 37. We're expecting to have the first shipment of them by late September to early October, assuming all goes well. After that, I'm hoping to be able to offer the 36 sized Dappers by late October to early November.

Looking forward to 2017, I'm hoping I'll eventually be able to offer the shoes in extra wide. I've had quite a few people write in saying that's their biggest challenge when buying shoes, because their feet are both small and wide. I'm a little intimidated by the complexity of developing something like that, especially knowing it's a small segment of an already niche market, but I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I can find a viable way to make that happen.

We’ve definitely toyed with offering accessories like suspenders and belts. I also have dreams of releasing a line of spectator shoes. I haven't done much research yet into demand for that classy, old-school style, but if I can justify it I would really love to be able to offer some. They have a fun history of being associated with debauchery and scoundrels and that definitely speaks to the more whimsical, romantic part of my heart. We'll see!

Photos courtesy of Lindsey of Gryfeathr Photography (Facebook and Tumblr). Follow Tomboy Toes on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr

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