The Challenges And Rewards Of Starting A Leather Shoe Business

Many of you reading this blog dream of starting your own business in leatherworking or are working hard to grow your existing one.  Today I want to introduce you to a husband and wife team who are doing exactly that: Josh and Jules of Love Jules Leather. They started in Whistler, British Columbia but have since moved to Vancouver where they have their leather shoe business today.

I came across their site and was instantly drawn to the story about how they started and how they have (and are) overcoming the challenges of building a leather goods company. They had some big wins with a Kickstarter campaign that allowed them to grow very rapidly however with that success came a new set of challenges like optimizing production, scaling customer service and maintaining the quality of work.

Their story was a reminder to me that at every stage of your business, you will meet new and unexpected challenges and opportunities. It is how startup leather companies deal with those situations that determines whether they will go on to become large successes. Josh and Jules seem like they are on their way to great things and it’s a pleasure to share the story of how they started their leather business.

Here’s their story as told by Josh:

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In the spring of 2008, on Whistler Mountain… I met the prettiest girl in the world. I still remember the day like it was yesterday. I was playing hooky from work with a colleague, and we’d just stopped into “The Raven’s Nest” for a water break, when he bumped into an old Whistler High classmate named Julia. She and I were introduced, and from that seemingly insignificant moment, our worlds would never be the same.
At the time, I was an accountant who’d recently moved from “back east” to the west coast in search of… something different. Jules was a recent art school grad (Nova Scotia College of Art and Design), who’d returned home to Whistler, B.C. to start planning the next chapter. I was working for a local accounting firm, Jules a floral shop. For a while, our lives together would be entirely separate from our work lives. We had a lot of fun… we fell in love.

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Throughout that first spring together Jules was yearning for a creative outlet. While at art school she had unlimited access to not only studio time and materials, but inspiration and tutelage. As far as she was concerned, she’d stopped growing as an artist the day she left campus, and wasn’t happy about it. So, as a hobby, Jules took up leathercraft. She’d apprenticed with a leather smith her last couple years of art school, learning the basics of the craft, and for someone with limited resources, it was a pretty accessible form of creative expression. All she really needed was some leather, a few vintage tools, and access to a dimly lit garage… check.

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It all started… with a single belt. A gift for me. She signed the underside… “Love Jules”. From there… she made more. She’d look at each strap of leather as a blank canvas, hand-etching extremely intricate scenes with a wood burning pen (drawing is her first love), as well as incorporating recycled components and vintage hardware. Her belts were always more art than craft, and though at the time she was only making pieces for friends, family, and her boyfriend… people began to take notice. So she made more.

In the summer of 2008 Jules was juried into the Whistler Farmers’ Market, and on June 21st “Love Jules Leather” setup shop for the very first time with probably no more than 10 one-of-a kind belts of all shapes and sizes. That day… she didn’t sell a single thing, and as deflating as it was, she accepted the challenge to get better.

Fast forward two years. Jules had quit her day (night) job a year prior and by the time the 2010 Winter Olympic Games rolled through town, Love Jules had evolved into an extremely unique leather accessories company. From her 100 square foot studio in Whistler’s industrial park (Function Junction), Jules was crafting beautiful one-of-a-kind leather pieces ranging from belts to bags to jewelry and more. Still just a one woman machine, local commission work wasn’t consistent enough to pay all the bills, so she’d find herself hitting the road regularly (in our ’86 VW van) to showcase her wares at local (enough) craft shows and fairs. As much as she enjoyed creating for a living, wearing all the hats was beginning to take its toll. Money was tight. Nights were long. Energy levels were waning. The studio was… lonely. Jules decided to take that summer to re-evaluate, and if things didn’t start to “make sense” she’d call it a day, move on, and go get a “real job”.

Enter… me. I’d left public accounting in early 2010 to take an Olympic time position with a local caterer who’d been awarded a handful of Olympic contracts. After the Olympic and Paralympic circuses left town, I too was at a crossroads, and figured I’d use the summer to decompress and enjoy anything and everything that didn’t involve being confined to a cubicle indoors. When I wasn’t hiking or biking I was hanging out with Jules, and a lot of that time was spent in studio, just watching her do her thing and helping out as best I could. It didn’t take long to see that with only so many hours in the day (and night) Jules was struggling to balance it all. She had to pick her battles, and she’d tend to naturally focus on those tasks she enjoyed, which usually involved design or production. So, I started helping with the rest. And by summer’s end, though we hadn’t really figured anything out, Jules knew she wasn’t ready to quit, I knew I wasn’t ready to go back to working for someone else, and… we seemed to make a pretty good team.

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A lot of trial and error ensued. What makes sense for one, doesn’t necessarily work for two. We no longer had a secondary income to support the business when times were slow, so we tried our best to mold Love Jules into something not just creative, but something that could support the ski bum lifestyles we’d grown accustomed to. We streamlined designs, launched an Etsy.com shop, began supplying retailers. We hit the pavement often, knocked on doors feverously, and moved the ‘shop into Jules’ parent’s garage to give ourselves a little breathing room (literally). We made it work as best we could.

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In the Spring of 2012, things had come to a head. I began working graveyard full-time at one of the local hotels to help take the pressure off. Things were evolving, the business was growing… just not fast enough. On an early morning dog walk, in our sleep deprived hazes, we discussed the harsh realities of our situation. Not only was our lil’ company not paying the bills, but to squeeze a concept that was always very organic into a traditional business box, it felt like we’d handcuffed ourselves creatively. So if it obviously wasn’t for the money, but it also was no longer creative or fun… than what was it all for? The reality check… hurt. We’d had the blinders on so tightly for so long, we’d failed to realize what was happening until it was seemingly too late. This thing we’d created was not sustainable, and even if it was, we didn’t love it anyway. Fuck. Jules decided to take the day off. She wasn’t in the mood to make belts after our little chat, and I couldn’t blame her. As we sulked home, she noticed the sole of one of the boat shoes she was wearing was coming loose. She took it off, held it up to her face, and told me she was going to make a pair of boat shoes. No more production… she just wanted to do something new and fun. I said “okay babe”.
Back to the studio… she almost skipped, then proceeded to surgically dissect her broken-down boat shoe. She’d made a few pairs of moccasins in the past, and figured a moc-toed boat shoe wasn’t a huge leap. Within a couple of hours, she had the pieces of the puzzle all laid out on the workbench. She copied the pattern, we laser etched a pistol on the tongue (our friend up the road had a laser the size of a small house…), and she proceeded to reverse engineer an extremely wonky, yet badass handcrafted boat shoe.

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I’m not going to lie, I thought it was the coolest kick I’d ever seen. That next morning I snuck out of the house with that single wonky boat shoe in tow and ran around town beaming like a proud new father… show and telling anyone and everyone who unknowingly got in my way, that we were now… making shoes. What can I say, I was excited. Jules on the other hand… she was mortified. I didn’t care. I felt like we were onto something. I snapped a bunch of pictures, and before Jules could restrain me, I posted one to Facebook. Jules… still mortified. However within 5 minutes it’d felt like the air in the room had changed. People had always appreciated our leather accessories, but the response to that one photo of that one wonky shoe was like nothing before. So… she made more.

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Given Jules didn’t actually know what she was doing, she began to self-teach herself by reading shoe making books, watching grainy Youtube videos, and of course, lots of trial and error. We were the guinea pigs at first, and godammit did our heels suffer for Jules’ art. We continued to make leather accessories, continued to attend craft shows, accept now, in addition to showcasing beautifully crafted belts, bags and wallets… off to the side, we’d have 5 or 6 misfit pairs of wonky boat shoes on display. And sure enough… customers began walking straight past the rest of the stuff we actually knew how to make (quite well) b-lining it for our handcrafted boat shoes.

We began to receive orders. Which gave Jules the opportunity to make more and continue her trial-by-fire education. Each pair was better than the one that proceeded it… she was learning so fast. She was just so excited to sink her teeth into something new again… get creative again… she was a force to be reckoned with. And I was… so proud of her.

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In pretty short order, our leather accessories business turned leather accessories with a few wonky shoes-to-the-side business… had evolved into a full stop leather shoe company… based out of a garage off the beaten path in the mountains of Whistler, B.C. As the story of this couple of ski bums by day, shoe-makers by night started to spread, things began to get so busy, there really wasn’t much skiing happening anymore. All waking hours were spent in that garage, trying to get shoes out the door and our lil’ shoe company off the ground.

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So in spring of 2013, we concluded if we were to give our business the best fighting chance to succeed, Whistler was probably not the answer. We were only fooling ourselves to think we were still anywhere near living the ski bum dream. “Go big… or stay home” I said and with that, we both decided it was time, ready or not, to take the leap and move on down the road to the big city (Vancouver) to give it a shot. In late May we hosted the garage sale to end all garage sales, and with that “seed money”, we Uhauled our lives into a weirdo two-story mall off the beaten path in Chinatown. And surprisingly… we pretty seamlessly picked up where we’d left off.

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At the time, we had two machines – an industrial sewing machine and a leather skiver (for thinning leather). Everything else was done by Jules’ hands – cutting, soling, lasting, etching… everything. To say our shoes were time intensive would have been a huge understatement. On a good day we’d ‘craft and ship a single pair of shoes, though… most days weren’t good days. Despite the grind, we were happy. Rent was getting paid (just), both our business and we ourselves were growing, it was an exciting time to be grinding. The Love Jules Leather Shoe Company felt like it kinda… had legs.

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It’s funny. At the time, most people would have looked at this team of two (and their dog James), living and working amongst a couple of machines in a mall in Chinatown and thought we obviously needed to increase production ASAP to not only take the pressure off, but mitigate risk of burnout… which was probably true. But us being us… we were more concerned about the fact we were finding ourselves to be limited creatively by a supply chain that had run dry years ago, when shoe production had started migrating east. Fuck the money… we wanted to make cool shit, and we felt we were being held back. In particular, we were having to source our rubber boat shoe soles from the one and only source… who’s one and only source was producing in China. Not only did that leave a bad taste in our mouths, but we could only procure limited sizes and colors, which was pretty damn frustrating for a little company that’d built its foundation on doing things a little… off the beaten path.
Long story short, we stumbled upon a way to start making our own rubber soles in-house. In an attempt to fund the expansion we launched a Kickstarter campaign with the help of some good friends, and not only did we reach our goal of $10,000 in 20 hours, but by the campaign’s end, we’d raised almost six times that. With the extra money, we purchased our entire (long term) wish list of machinery, immediately outgrowing our Chinatown location. We moved across town to the 2nd floor of a big blue building in East Vancouver, and we’ve been flailing ever since.

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And that’s the story of the Love Jules Leather Shoe Company. Still a team of two. Still wearing all the hats. Still pulling all-nighters, making cool kicks in a big blue building off the beaten path. Still figuring it all out… one step at a time.

You can find our more about Love Jules leather and their awesome shoes on their website.

Are you thinking of starting your own leather business or do you already have one? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.

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