Chill

#046: Stacey Head @ she wear

This week on Chill, Overdose’s Elliot Schoemaker and Stacey Head @ she wear will discuss entrepreneurship, growth challenges & successes, digital solutions, and ecomm trends & strategies through pandemic recovery.

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shewear

#046 : This week on Chill, we’ll chat with legend Stacey Head @ she wear—an Australian company specialising in safety, work, and fashion footwear designed to fit women correctly and comfortably.

As Founder and Managing Director, Stacey oversees company operations including design, research & development, manufacturing, importing & exporting, wholesale, retail (ecommerce & brick & mortar stores), sales & marketing, and business operations.

Overdose’s Elliot Schoemaker and Stacey will discuss entrepreneurship, growth challenges & successes, digital solutions, and ecomm trends & strategies through pandemic recovery.


she wear

she wear is Australia’s only functional work footwear company focusing solely on the needs of women. Founded by Stacey Head after a nail-in-the-foot incident made her question why there were no suitable safety boots in the marketplace to keep her protected while she worked. It was 2011, and she was on the tools in her property development business. The only boots available were unisex, and consequently, heavy and ill-fitting.

Within a couple of years, Stacey had stepped in and created she wear, bucking the industry standard where women were forced into men’s shoes. She started small, literally on a shoe-string, offering just two styles in three colours, but they took off and she ran out of stock.

The concept in place, it was then onto the hard yards­­—research, due diligence, customer feedback, and design development­­—all the layers needed to grow the business; all dedicated to the presiding mission to ensure women have correctly fitted, safe, and comfortable workwear.

Now, she wear is a fully-fledged, burgeoning business with a growing catalogue retailing a large range of workwear and PPE for women across countless industries—health, retail, education, hospitality, trades, mining, and so forth.

As founder and managing director, Stacey oversees company operations including design, R&D, manufacturing, importing, exporting, wholesale, retail, sales and marketing, and business operations.

The challenges of starting out as a solo-entrepreneur

When Stacey started she wear seven years ago, she says it was a pretty solo and lonely journey. Mentors weren’t around. Incubator hubs weren’t around. There were no business grants.

So, instead, she just talked to women. She did her research and due diligence by speaking to the people that needed the boots. She had much to learn—from the ground up, “I had to teach myself Australian standards and compliance, let alone what makes a good shoe.”

The growth journey

In the early days, Stacey says the business was really a hobby, a side hustle for her to get a little bit of cash in. Then, after ten months, a couple of rounds of prototypes, visiting factories, figuring out standards and compliance, and going through audits, the hobby went to market as a home-based startup.

One of the few plans she had in place was the sales channel—it was always going to be a direct-to-consumer business. To this day, it remains largely a D2C digital-based business.

A lucky break came about three months after she wear had launched—the boots were worn by the female contestants of The Block. Everything changed. They had to move very quickly into a commercial premise, and they ran out of boots within a couple of months. “I guess it was a forced journey rather than a planned journey and I’ve certainly learned a lot along the way about not having systems in place and processes. It was a bit of a wild ride if I’m being honest.”

Empowering women

As she wear took off, it became evident that there was an unintended consequence embedded in the business idea. The notion of female empowerment was not front-of-mind when Stacey sought to supply the gap in the market—but it was there by default.

By building a women’s product that helps women doing physical work, or keeps them safe, or even the mere fact that the product acknowledges women have roles in certain male-dominated fields, it became a quest for equality.

“I think it’s still phenomenal that the world is still not really putting women as a focus. They say that the world is made for men and I don’t want to take that gender arm, but a classic example is the NASA space suits a few years ago—crash test dummies are generally men and women get more harmed and hurt in accidents.”

Stacey finds it hard to believe that women’s workwear wasn’t even considered by the bigger brands. “I’m a huge believer in equality. I think if a woman wants to be whatever she wants to be, she should be given that opportunity. She should be given the correct fitting and safe and comfortable footwear, workwear, PPE—whatever it might be. We have to cater for every need and every want and every foot type and every body shape.”

As she wear has grown, the empowering women ethos has cemented. “I think it’s really important that we showcase women,” Stacey says. “We have really good conversation and lots of networking with our customers and they share their stories.”

“So many of our customers are in roles that you don’t even know exist or don’t think it’s possible to go into that avenue. I think it’s really important that people can see others—there are some pretty amazing women out there and I love showcasing that. That’s one of my favorite parts of our brand.”

But it’s been challenging to get women to talk. Stacey says they often don’t want to tell their stories—by nature, women aren’t comfortable with talking about themselves. She says the same goes for her—she’d much prefer to be behind the wheel pushing it than talking about her own journeys.

Affecting change

As hard as it may be for Stacey to be in the limelight, she knows she’s playing an important role by showcasing and empowering women through she wear.

“The beauty of being able to shine a light on these industries is that companies are coming on board and giving women specific-fit clothing and footwear.”

And it’s not just in the retail sector, other organisations, too, are embracing change. The Motor Trades Association of Queensland, for example, is launching a new course specifically for women.

“It’s creating a safe space,” she says. “It’s not to counteract the men in the industry, it’s more the fact that there are all these statistics around women not feeling safe when they’re one-of, in a group of a hundred. So, it’s great to see change there as well.”

There’s still a long way to go. In trades and construction, for example, on average 2% are women—which is a tiny percentage, but, importantly, it’s increasing.

A new segment. A new competitive environment.

Stacey was really a pioneer of a segment. She was the first to notice there was a gap in the market and the first to fill it. At the time, other workwear brands—even huge brands that had been in the industry for 20, 30, or 150 years—were only catering for the male customer, or at best, they were offering a male boot, that had been ‘girlied up.’

After she wear had entered the market, offering a women’s specific boot, and began to gain traction, other companies wanted in on the action. Stacey sums it up, “We were the test that the other brands weren’t prepared to do.”

It quickly became an aggressively competitive market. “They all have their women’s brands now. We have been copied multiple times.”

For a small business, without the marketing budget and experience of larger, more established companies, the challenge is real. And the answer? For she wear, it’s about finding their competitive advantages and unique selling points. They are different in a purposeful way: they have a community, they talk to their customers, and they are uniquely positioned as the only female-founded and female-led business offering female-specific safety and work footwear.

The right fit – product development

Stacey’s favourite part of the business is product development. “If I could have my way, I’d probably spend all day doing product development, but it’s a small business so it’s not possible.”

Being an ultra consumer-focused business, most of the product development comes from customer feedback. They take the feedback—the good, the bad, and the ugly—and use it for product improvement. Their highest-selling work boot is specifically built around customer feedback.

Above all, the feedback has shown different designs are needed for different industries and different fits for different feet. Some people have flat feet. Some have a really high arch. Some have narrow feet, others wide. It’s necessarily a highly technical product.

So, market expansion was organic and customer-led. The comfort and technology which went into the earlier safety boot models meant they were being worn by women in unintended sectors, like nursing. But they were unnecessarily heavy with a steel cap—not required for nurses. Rather, they needed slip resistance as a safety feature. As the research unfolded, it was evident so many women weren’t wearing correct footwear—they weren’t compliant, or they were wearing fashion shoes which gave them a sore back and sore feet by the end of the day.

Today, she wear’s catalogue is loaded with options, catering to a customer base in a vast array of fields—forensic cleaners, courier drivers, factory workers, engineers, and so forth. With much more to come, we hear—Stacey says there are a whole lot of new product lines in the pipeline (she sounds very excited, but is guarded about elaborating).

Customisation & B2B opportunities for the future

As business growth steadily climbs for she wear, the opportunity for branching out into B2B does not go unnoticed. Stacey acknowledges there’s a lot of potential and they’re already tapping into it a little with some customized workwear for mining and industrial groups.

“We introduced an inventory management system at the end of last year so that will really help us to focus on, and grow, B2B. Running inventory is so important when you’re doing those larger contracts.”

However, being female-only becomes a real challenge for gaining large tenders and contracts. A lot of these tenders and contracts are predominantly male. “If they’re, say, 90% male 10% female, do they really want to split their supply chain? It’s going to these companies and asking them to think outside the square.”

Wholesale

The wholesale market is another territory where, thus far, she wear have only trodden lightly. Stacey explains it’s mainly because of the narrative they have with their customers. It’s a highly engaged, high-feedback community of customers. If that interaction point with the customer is given over to a third party, there’s a risk of losing touch with the end-user and the narrative disappearing.

The narrative is like a protection layer, keeping customers happy. “We know our product and we know why we designed it. We can make sure that that customer is comfortable from the get-go.”

Also, Stacey worries the customer may not be informed to the same level if they buy through a wholesaler. There is a lot of information provided to the customer—especially in terms of sizing and the technical aspects—information they’ve worked on perfecting for seven years.

She says they’re working on a way around it, “We’re in the middle of rewriting our website, so there’ll be an education piece around that so regardless of whether someone buys through a wholesaler or direct with us, they will still have access to that information.”

Global markets

she wear already sell internationally through their website, but they are gearing up to focus more on the global market. Planning is underway with strategies around 3PLs or distribution centers being devised, as well as product development. They’re already making prototypes for different markets.

“We’re doing that behind the scenes­­—we can take our core products and slightly tweak them for other markets.” For example, in Australia, there’s no need for insulated boots, whereas, in a market like Canada or the UK, it’s required.

They have to get a handle on different sizing, differing foot shapes, and new work categories. But, if anyone can handle this type of adaption, she wear can.

Covid

As for everyone, the early days of Covid were worrisome for she wear and there was no telling what was going to happen. She wear were one of the lucky ones––things didn’t grind to halt. In fact, they experienced phenomenal growth during 2020.

“I guess the fact that we’re functional footwear, it didn’t affect our business,” says Stacey.

Women were still working in distribution centers. They were still nursing. They were still caring for the aged. They were still working on the roads. And so, the warehouse continued to dispatch during the entire time.

The timing was fortunate too­­—they had just implemented a new digital marketing strategy and they had recently expanded, broadening to a wider work footwear market.

Community, collaborations, and charity

For she wear, community is a massive part of the brand value and brand ethos. They believe it’s extremely important to give back to local communities and have donated over $60,000 to charities and people in need around Australia.

They partner with not-for-profit organisations such as IWIMRA (Indigenous Women in Mining and Resources) to whom they donate 100% of the proceeds from their range of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island laces.

As well, she wear supports Rise Up, a DV (Domestic Violence) organisation, and Share the Dignity, which distributes thousands of period products to those in need. In 2020, they set up a ‘Bush Fire & Drought Care Programme,’ sending over $13,000 worth of product in care packs to women affected by the heart-breaking bushfires and disastrous droughts. They’ve donated boots to Queensland Aboriginal communities, and to Queensland RSPCA for their staff and volunteers to wear in their animal shelters. The list goes on.

There’s an immense sense of purpose, of community, of wanting to make a difference.  Without virtue signalling either—Stacey only lightly touches on their contributions—we have to dig into the website to find out more.

“Definitely we like to involve our local community, and I think as a small business operator we have a responsibility for that. It’s probably something I don’t spend a lot of time marketing. I just think it’s an authentic thing that everyone should be doing regardless.”

It’s a remarkable thing when a small business like she wear can shine such a big light in so many ways.

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