Matt Horan of Bristol-based Rollasole got the idea for his roll-up pumps for clubbers after a night out. Since his ‘Eureka!’ moment he’s taken his business international, online and into some of the UK’s biggest high street chains
“My girlfriend of the time always wore high heels when we went out at night and I always ended up having to give her a piggyback home because her feet hurt so much from dancing.
“Over time, I kept noticing girls pouring out of the clubs in high heels complaining about their sore feet. That’s when I got the idea to sell soft shoes from vending machines in nightclubs.
“I did thorough market research. I surveyed more than 1,000 women in Cardiff, London, Bristol and Plymouth. I showed girls prototypes and the feedback I received was all very positive, so I knew I was onto something.
“Finding shoe suppliers wasn’t difficult, but the vending machine part of it was another thing altogether. The product had to fit in packaging inside the vending machine. Vending companies thought I was crazy, but eventually I found one that was prepared to help.
“There’s no vending culture here in the UK, unlike, say, Japan. People don’t like to put too much cash into a vending machine, so I needed to make sure women could pay by card. Guided by my market research, I knew I had to keep the price between £5 and £7.
“I literally got laughed out of the door at several clubs by owners. In the end, one organisation gave me a break. They let me put a vending machine into a club in Bristol. We sold a few hundred pairs in our first week, which was amazing.
“I set up a business bank account with Barclays and they recommended I go to meet BRAVE Enterprise in Bristol. The enterprise agency runs courses for new businesses and I met maybe 20 other people – glass blowers, gardeners, pre-school clubs, you name it.
“Most of their workshops were free, which was incredibly important back then, because I didn’t have a lot of money. I learnt the basics of writing a business plan, importing, tax, accounts and marketing – all very valuable stuff.
“Thankfully, the whole ‘shoe-vending machine’ thing was new and considered a bit ‘wacky’, which was great from a PR angle. In the early days, three or four nights a week I’d be in a club, standing by one of our machines, doing promotional work. I’ve done hundreds of them – it’s bloody hard work.
“Soon, things began to change. People wanted to buy the shoes away from nightclubs, so our main source of income has shifted to online and retail sales. We’re in Next, Oasis, Superdrug and New Look now, with more to follow.
“Retail buyers are notoriously difficult to reach. I had to email, call and send them samples relentlessly. Finally, I managed to get a review in Heat magazine and just door-stepped buyers until they read it. You must keep going until people just can’t ignore you any longer. But be prepared: when you’re dealing with big companies it gets much more complicated. You must involve lawyers, because contracts need drawing up.
“When starting out in business, you must be able to convince others to invest their time and skills in you and your idea for free – you sure won’t be able to pay them. I struck a deal with a designer very early on and we’ve worked together ever since, because he’s good and because he showed faith in me in those early days. You have to try to get people excited about your idea.
“Sometimes people come up to me and say – ‘I had the same idea’. Maybe, but the point is they didn’t do anything about it. Often in business, it’s 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. It takes hard work and commitment.
“What are my plans for the future? We’re continually expanding our design range, following trends, trying to anticipate the future where possible. We're now online and in selected US stores, plus, now we have an agent in Australia, so the business continues to develop internationally and go from strength to strength.”
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