WBiz. Could you tell us about your background prior to starting your business?
SM. Sure, I worked in television syndication sales/programming and marketing for about the last 18 years. I started at KCPQ/FOX TV in Seattle as a Program Manager, moved to NY and worked as a Director of Programming for Petry Television where I consulted and advised TV stations on their programming schedules, audience flow, programming strategy, syndication contracts and promotional opportunities. I then sold TV shows in syndication for Universal, Warner Bros hired me and moved me to Chicago where I sold TV shows for them (Ellen, Access Hollywood, People’s Court, etc) to the mid-west owners and General Managers of TV stations. After 3 years, Disney hired me and I moved up the ladder, selling in the same territory. I now sold Live with Regis and Kelly, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Desperate Housewives and many more ABC off-network and produced programs. After 4 years, I was promoted to VP and moved to LA to work at the Disney studios in Burbank. I had no fashion, retail, manufacture, design experience. Hosiery was completely new to me. I had no idea what I was doing.
WBiz. How did you come up with the idea to start Leg Up, LLC?
SM. I was inspired to create Bootights® when I went through airport security at O’Hare on my way to Fargo, ND in the dead of winter. I was feeling stylish in my skirt suite, tights and boots but when I was forced to take off my boots and expose the ugly, white, “man socks” I had layered over my tights for extra warmth and comfort, I was humiliated enough to ask myself, why there wasn’t a better way. After about 2 years of travelling for work and advancing in my career, I finally decided to do something about this idea that would not go away. You see, I love wearing boots (especially when living in Chicago) because they are a warm and stylish way to get around the city in the coldest of days. I also always wore tights and was so sick of having to scrounge around for a pair of socks to layer over my tights; it was inconvenient and really a pain for a busy gal on the go. With the socks layered, my feet would still slip in my boots, the socks would bunch down, crinkle up and my feet would sweat, causing them to freeze. I was also embarrassed when they peeked up over my boots or when I had to take off my boots when visiting a friends’ house.
After seeing Sara Blakely of SPANX on Oprah, I decided that if she could do it, so could I and so I went to work. I contacted the Hosiery Tech Center in Catawba County, NC and the director of the program, Dan St. Louis, thought Bootights® was a fantastic idea and guided me through the process from prototype to finding the right US mills to get me started. I’m proud to say that Bootights® are produced entirely in the USA.
WBiz. What were the most difficult challenges you faced as you began to grow?
SM. I would say knowing when to give up some of the responsibilities and delegate. I have been a one –woman machine for the most part for quite some time and just letting some of it go and getting help has been very difficult. I knew nothing about how to manufacture, produce a product, logistics, finance, patents/trademarks, retail sales, etc. So, I have to say that every step of the way has been a challenge. I have had to educate myself and rely on the many incredibly gracious advisors and friends that I’ve met along the way. I know how to market and have an idea about PR but I don’t know graphic design, IT, social networking (I’m old school) and those are areas that I think I have excelled at. I didn’t know I had it in me.
WBiz. Did you want to have partners or do it on your own and why?
SM. I’m ready for partners for sure. I know my strengths and my weaknesses. I’m a great sales gal and know how to get people excited and passionate about Bootights®. I think I’ve recruited an incredible team so far. I also have extensive media contacts from my background at Disney, etc. I need someone on board that has finance experience and knows how to steer this ship. I would love to find the right female partner that shares my vision and has experience in fashion/retail and is ready to take on a new challenge. I am currently raising capital and a strategic partner is key to my next phase of the business.
WBiz. How did any outside advisors make a difference in your business?
SM. Leg Up, LLC would not be here today without the help and encouragement from some incredible advisors. I mentioned Dan St. Louis at the HTC, Sally Huston, Huston Marketing, Jennifer Weiderman (PR and Marketing professional in the footwear industry), Harry Kubetz (former VP of Operations for Kenneth Cole), SCORE has been a great resource and the list goes on and on. My mills, Wells Hosiery and Mayo Knitting have also been incredibly helpful and patient with me through this process. The North Carolina Dept. of Commerce provided invaluable help.
SM. Funny story. My first account for Bootights® was Dillards. Honestly, I had no idea that being bought by the department store was such an incredible accomplishment. That is how naïve I was when entering this industry. I went there and pitched my product and they bought it. Now what? That was my thinking. I ended up hiring independent sales reps to carry my line throughout the US, obtained Canadian, Australia and UK distributors and we are off and running. I worked for Disney until the end of January of this year so I was doing both jobs for a while and sales have grown tremendously since I left Disney and was able to focus on Leg Up. We are anticipating an incredible season and telling my story has been a huge help in spreading the word. So many women have wonderful ideas and just need a push or a direction to get started. It has been more work than I ever imagined but it is a passion and that keeps me going during the particularly challenging days. I don’t sleep much. Neither does my boyfriend, who has been unbelievably helpful and patient throughout this whole adventure.
WBiz. What are your plans for the future?
SM. I plan to get the right investor(s) on board and take Leg Up to the next level. This season it is imperative that our major accounts, Nordstrom, Bloomingdales, Dillards, Von Maur sell-through and in the next 4 months I will do all I can to merchandise, promote and market Bootights® at these stores. It’s not easy competing with the “big boys”. It takes marketing dollars to get the word out but it has been a bit easier I think, because Bootights® solve a problem and are a stylish fashionable solution to wearing tights with boots. Women love to share a great idea that makes their lives a bit easier, less complicated and more beautiful. Bootights® is this product.
WBiz. What advice would you give someone interested in creating an innovative product?
SM. I would say that it is so much more work than you will ever imagine. I don’t have children but I know many gals who do and have created innovative products and are successful. I honestly do not know how they do it. I can’t even keep a plant alive with my schedule. I would also tell them to use the resources that are available to them. SCORE is a great non-profit organization designed to help entrepreneurs and small business owners and WomenandBiz.com and other sites designed to help and connect women. Also, to network and start talking because I have met incredible people who have been willing to help by just sharing my story. I would also say to make sure that the product or invention that they create should fulfill a need. It is much easier to market, sell your product when it is unique and solves a problem.
WBiz. This issue’s theme is Investing – in oneself, in one’s business, in the community; would you share an investment you’ve made recently that made a difference in your life or business?
SM. I believe that investing in my good health has kept me going. I’m in this sort of hard core work mode right now because I am really trying to grow this business but I do find when I take the time to go for a run or the gym, my day seems less stressful, I’m more relaxed and productive. It’s hard to do when you don’t sleep much and get up at 5am to deal with international and east coast markets but it is worth the effort every time. The balance is key. Invest in balance. I’m not the best person to preach this because I don’t always follow my own advice but I do see the value of it and I try to get down time when I can to maintain my own (and boyfriend’s sanity).
I also believe that investing time in networking is key. I have been the most amazed at how many wonderful, intelligent and gracious women I have met throughout this process. It has been one of the most pleasing aspects of this venture.
I also make an effort every time a woman contacts me with questions about how I got started. It is so important to share your knowledge and if it wasn’t for all the help I received along the way, I would not have gotten this far. Investing in each other is important to me.
WBiz. Thank you, Shelby! For more information about Shelby Mason and her business please visit www.bootights.com.