At the Harborplace Mall in Baltimore nestled next to Starbucks, there's a vending machine that doesn't sell salty snacks as a quick-fix to hunger, but instead displays comfortable shoes for the woman on the go who needs a break from the pain that often accommodates a pricey pair of heels.
The vending machine is called Sole Savers, and it's the brainchild of 33-year-old business owner Melodie Narain.
Like many entrepreneurs, it started with a problem. When Melodie slipped on a pair of heels just two months after giving birth, she quickly discovered that she could no longer wear her stylish pumps for more than a few hours.
A conversation with her mom and business partner, Teresa, who also could no longer wear heels due to knee surgeries, soon turned into an idea of creating affordable shoes that any woman with aching feet could conveniently purchase on-the-go.
But creating a vending machine to push out a rollable pair of flats was no easy feat. In fact, when Melodie first came up with the concept for Sole Savers, she didn't intend for her mother to be her business partner. "Initially when I started coming up with the concept, I didn't want to share it with my family yet because I was like they're going to say that I'm just bringing another business idea to them. So I said okay, I'm going to fully develop this and I'm going to share it with some of my investor friends that have high net worth."
Utilizing business relationships from previously working with CEOs and executives, Melodie brought her idea to a friend and investor. He was sold, but when the duo presented the idea to his wife they ran into a roadblock. “She didn't really want him working in a business partnership with a female, so she rejected the concept," says Melodie. “And who am I to argue with the wife?"
The quest for a perfect partnership didn't end there. She brought the idea back to her mom, who jumped at the opportunity to also bring a philanthropic element to the business through the mission of helping others and donating to non-profits organizations.
With her background in fashion marketing and her business acumen, Melodie was able to wear two hats as both creator and strategist. She first researched all of her competitors to determine if there was room in the market for what she was offering, even going as far to reach out to let them know that she was starting the business not just for profit, but in hopes to help others such as her two-year-old niece Teyana who was born with Congenital Heart Disease, by partnering with non-profit organizations.
She also heavily researched her product to find the right kind of shoes and material that would be convenient and compact enough to fit into a pocketbook, and read everything she could find on vending machines while looking for the best places to launch her product. With vending machines averaging a cost of $10,000 to $25,000 depending on the level of enhancements from touch screen features to digital ads, it was important for the Maryland native to make sure that her business plan was foolproof.
“A lot of times when people want to start companies they have this idea but they don't do any kind of research, and then they launch something and it completely bombs because they don't do the market research," Melodie says. “The times that we live in everything is so accessible to us, so a person that doesn't do their research, they're just not making a smart decision."
Despite all of her legwork, they still ran into some challenges. When the first machine arrived it wasn't configured properly and instead of buyer's being able to see the shoe through a transparent container, they had to hope that they selected the right color numerically on the touch screen, making it more confusing for her customers. They also realized that the shoes weren't thick enough to comfortably walk on rockier terrain, and had to create a second prototype with a thicker sole to provide the right amount of comfort and cushion.
After a year of planning and designing the product, Melodie and Theresa launched Sole Savers this past September. They placed the first machine in a nightclub, logically thinking that the hundreds of women ready to kick off their shoes after dancing the night away would do well for business, but Melodie, who wanted her customer's to not just buy the product, but to also connect with it, felt like the club scene didn't fit their target customer. So they moved the machine to the Gallery at Harborplace in Baltimore—an area with heavy foot traffic and tourism. Within the first day Melodie had already sold eight pairs of flats, which retail at $19.95 a pair. Though the website generates most of their revenue, she's hoping to expand into bigger markets and into convention centers in the near future.
Working her full-time job in real estate while running a business on the side and being a mother to her two-year-old son leaves little time for self indulgence, but Melodie credits her prayer life and having help from the father of her child to her being able to get through the days where she's burning the midnight oil. Her mother, who also still works full-time with the government, takes care of the philanthropic aspects of the business, focusing on smaller non-profit organizations with less notoriety. For the entrepreneurs, Sole Savers is just as much about saving souls as well as soles.
“We try to find charities that people don't really know about because while Sole Savers is in the infancy stage now, I see it being such a major storm in households, convention centers, conference centers and churches, and I'd like for these other charities on a mission to really help grow with our business."
Recently, Sole Savers launched their spring collection, which includes the red “Teyana" flat named in honor of her niece who has had two open-heart surgeries before the age of two. “When we talked about Sole Savers in the brainstorming stages, we were talking about when Teyana becomes an adult that we will have an avenue that will provide for a very strong quality of life for her."
The remaining shoes were designed to fit the woman who may not be up on the latest trends, but they always put their best foot forward in all areas of their life.
“A stylish woman isn't always trendy. It's a certain level of class and elegance that a woman has and I think that's what's important for me in branding sole savers. It's very stylish; it's very current, but it's not trendy."
While it may not be about the clothes, it's certainly about the mission of doing something that's rooted in love and passion. For Melodie and Teresa it starts with saving soles, one foot at a time.
To find out more about Sole Savers and how to grab you a pair of comfortable flats, head over to SoleSavers.co.