Air & Grace: from SEIS funding recipient to £1m turnover business
Now available in 40 UK independents, Startups.co.uk caught up with shoe brand Air & Grace, which received SEIS seed funding via Worth Capital
We last spoke to you in 2016. How has Air & Grace developed over the last two years? Any major milestones reached?
The last two years have been transformative on every level. When I look back I can hardly believe how far we have come. Two years ago it was pretty much just me.
Now we have a team of three full time and four part time and we’ve out sourced our distribution as it was becoming way too much for us to fulfil all the orders in house.
Our sales reached over £1m for calendar year 2018 and we are now profitable. As well as the growth in online sales, Air & Grace is now stocked in over 40 of the UK’s best independent boutiques and is the best performing brand for many of them.
We’ve won a few awards too including Stylist Live’s best Independent business and the Footwear Friends award for innovation. And the patent for our Tender Loving Air comfort technology (the hidden wedge that makes our shoes incredibly comfortable) has been published in UK and Europe. USA is following soon.
What did you invest the initial competition funding in?
The funding allowed me to get Air & Grace to market. When I won Worth Capital’s competition, I had a sample range which had exhausted all my personal funds. I needed to be able to buy stock and launch a website.
So, I used the investment to get the website live and buy the range of shoes I had created. Shoe making is very expensive and set up costs for lasts, knives and molds were significant.
What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?
I’m not sure I can name just one! It’s fair to say I have faced more than my fair share of challenges. Finding the right manufacturing partners was the biggest hurdle in the early days. The way we make our shoes is different to traditional methods. It’s not easy, but it’s what makes them extremely comfortable.
It was difficult to find a partner who shared my vision, and who was willing to go through the many rounds of sampling required to get the product to our high standards.
Shoe manufacturers don’t like making samples and our products take around a year to develop. It was a barrier to entry. I’ve now found great manufacturing partners in Portugal and Spain who have faith in what we are doing and fully understand the business model.
The other challenges are time and money. There’s never enough of either! My one single biggest piece of advice is “know your numbers”. Cashflow is always a challenge, once you come through the start-up phase, then there’s the growing phase.
Similar struggles – but the figures get bigger! We’ve had some really difficult times in the past when finance options fell through, but I did whatever I could to make ends meet. At one point we pulled everything back to basics, moved out of our office to save costs and I did absolutely everything myself until things turned around. I was working around 100 hours a week. You have to be flexible and resilient to keep going. Up until very recently I sacrificed my own salary to be able to invest every penny back into the business. I’m glad to say the strategy has paid off, the business has grown, as has the team and I finally got my weekends back.
How have you use bloggers and influencers to build your brand?
Social media has been instrumental in the growth of Air & Grace. Luck was on my side for once as we started at a time when this was a relatively new and effective way to raise brand awareness.
We were also lucky that the brand was picked up by a variety of influencers who introduced us to their audiences for which I will always be thankful. Instagram in particular is a very supportive community, especially for independent brands.
For us it has always been a totally organic process, I either met or was contacted by influencers who liked what we were doing. We didn’t have the budget to pay for posts, but we could gift and because as there is a genuine love of the product people are happy to feature us.
There is some controversy around gifting, but I would say that it is an essential part of a start-up brand’s journey. Our USP is comfort – so it makes sense to get authentic reviews. The influencers who feature Air &Grace have complete editorial control and their views are 100% genuine.
In 2017 we launched our first design collaboration with Zoe De Pass from Dress Like A Mum which was a huge success. We asked Zoe if she’d like to design her shoes of dreams and she jumped at the chance. We created two limited edition ranges together and both sold out. There are some more exciting collaborations in the pipeline for 2019.
What’s next for Air & Grace?
Lots! We are full steam ahead with re-launching our boots category. The first styles have had an incredible reaction and there are more to be added for the Autumn season.
I’m working on the holy grail – comfortable heels. Our styles take around a year to develop as we go through many rounds of testing and we’re trialing to ensure they are as comfortable as possible.
We’re launching a new website, welcoming new stockists, and we have a very exciting new design collaboration. We like to keep ourselves busy!
To win equity investment to either launch or grow your start-up, enter the Start-Up Series today.