The Birth of a Shoe Business


A one time complaint at an MBA graduation party turned into a successful business.


When she left business school, Barbara Thornton had every intention of putting her MBA to work influencing the distribution of resources. She thought she'd get involved in bringing power and water to third world countries. But fate had something different in mind. Despite the seeming incongruity, a more personal inequity would eventually launch her next endeavor. As a size 11.5, Barbara, her daughter and, as she would find out later, 37% of women in the USA had very few choices in great shoes in their size. None could be easily found and no one was filling this hole in the marketplace.


It seemed unfair that her tall husband and son would never run out of places to find the shoe sizes they needed. The frustrating fact was that most women's shoes are cut no larger than medium in size ten and under. Thus, the unfair distribution of resources again compelled Barbara to make a move. Barbara took the steps that have made her a very influential woman in the retail shoe industry. But she's not your average shoe seller. 


Committed to learning the shoe industry, Barbara's first step was to take a $6/hour job selling women's shoes in a local mall for Enzo Angiolini, a Nine West Company. Then she began talking to shoe experts, visiting manufacturers, and developing a workable business plan. Soon she was looking around for businesses to buy or turn around. With the support of b- school friends and shoe industry advisors she went through several business plans, an almost partnership, and several "No's" from the banks. Finally, after hooking up with a mentor, a former executive from Stride Rite Shoes, getting an SBA loan, and applying for all the credit cards for which she qualified, she was ready to find a location and order some shoes. Her daughter set up the website, while Barbara scoped out a site for the salon. It was a bumpy start. She survived a UPS strike and other unexpected problems. Finally, in August of 1997 she opened with an e-commerce enabled site and a retail salon on Newbury Street in Boston's fashionable Back Bay. According to the National Shoe Retailers Association, she was the first in the world to sell shoes online.


DesignerShoes is a specialty business niche of fashionable plus-size apparel, salon service and e-commerce, offering women's shoe sizes 4 through 15 and widths AAA through WW in top brand names. Their mission is to empower women "who leave a larger footprint" by providing high quality, stylish and comfortable designer shoes in sizes that fit and a convenient and enjoyable shopping experience.


Since opening the store, her business has grown steadily. Initially, less than half of the customers had access to the Web. By 2002, 70 to 80 percent were either on-line or about to be. So far, by nurturing relationships with designers and encouraging manufacturers to provide styles in wider range of plus sizes and variety of colors, Barbara has seen changes in the shoe industry. But she isn't stopping there. She's endeavoring to correct preconceived notions and use her influence to champion the issue of plus size women's shoes for the thousands of women who are virtually ignored by the shoe industry. With the tenacity of a political campaign, she is gathering the support of the fashion media, sports personalities, and women who'd like to see more changes. Not bad for someone who never intended to sell shoes for a living!