SME Magazine catches up with Simon Bourne, founder of the Hand Dyed Shoe Company who starts by telling us how the idea for the business came about
It was all kind of an accident waiting to happen. I worked for a wonderful furniture manufacturer who specialised in handmade, hand dyed leather Chesterfields. Naturally there was quite a bit of waste so, to keep myself busy, I would bring the scraps home and make them into a bookmark or a key ring, that sort of thing. I then started to sell them, before the idea of ‘what else could be made from raw leather and dyed’ kept smacking me in the face every morning. The answer was at my feet, literally! Shoes!
A one-off, handmade pair of hand dyed leather shoes. That was more than a hobby! That was a business. And it went from there really…
Once you’d come up with the idea, how did you make it a reality?
Like all businesses, it wasn’t straight forward. I loaned money, lost money, worked with the wrong people – good people but the wrong people – and the idea collapsed probably two or three times before I had a model I could work with. I remember, for the first 18 months I didn’t do anything other than meet people and talk. I met people in the leather industry, people in marketing, finance, coaches, other business owners. I am surprised I’m not still wired today to be honest from all the coffee. But what it did was give me a platform of advice and guidance and, most importantly, confidence to stay resilient and to keep pushing.
What were the challenges in the early days?
The supply was the biggest one, alongside financing it. I didn’t have any money so whatever I was doing meant borrowing, and with that came great risk and concern. But, my wife rightly tells me all the time when I want something I’m like a dog with a bone, so I just kept finding a way. But the biggest problem was supply. I couldn’t make the shoes myself, that’s a proper time served skill – I could dye them – but what workshop out there is interested in producing one pair at a time. You find one, but the price is too high. Another, the quality and attention to detail was too poor. And with every workshop I found to say yes, it cost me hundreds to produce samples and so the cycle just kept going around until one day, I found the right combination and in truth, got lucky.
Talk us through The Hand Dyed Shoe Company experience. How does the fitting work?
We do everything by appointment because The Hand Dyed Shoe Company experience is about far more than shoes. We want it to be about you! In order to do that, we created our private studios in hidden away spaces – kind of like those secret gin bars you find in basements and in the back of laundry cupboards. When you arrive, we get you a drink, get you settled and then take five measurements of each foot. Then the fun starts! We educate our customers so that they can narrow down millions of options to one – what is formal, what is smart casual. What goes with what. As we work through it all, we use our fantastic technology to design your shoes on our big screen, bringing your vision to life before we’ve even cut a piece of leather. Lastly, we give you all the tools you need to maintain your shoes.
This isn’t a ‘size 10 thanks very much’. This is an hour-long, slowed down collaborative retail experience. Tailoring for your feet.
Where are your outlets and how do you engage with your customers?
Well we have two permanent studios, Durham and Leeds with plans to open more through 2023 and 2024. We use all the regular platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram etc and we exhibit a lot which is how we introduce the idea. After all, designing a pair of handmade shoes isn’t something a lot of people will have ever done before. We rely a lot on our customers, because they are the best advocates for what we do. Once you’ve had the experience, it’s kind of inevitable that our customers will tell others about it and subsequently our knock-on business is really amazing.
How does technology help what you do?
Our 3D customiser has been incredible. It cost thousands and thousands to develop and we’re still recouping the cost of it, however it’s transformed the business. Historically, the business was based very much on creative imagination which is great, if you’re creative, but not so much for those who struggle to visulise oxblood when they’re looking at tan.
In developing our builder we have created hundreds of unique, one-off pairs of shoes that I don’t think would exist without the builder and that makes me so proud. That’s hundreds of guys out there expressing themselves however they please and that is, top and bottom, what it is all about for me.
How do you hope the business will expand? Where do you hope to be in five or ten years’ time?
I want Hand Dyed Shoe Co to be more accessible. I want more men to experience the concept of unique; a one-off pair of handmade, hand dyed shoes. Not only are they beautiful shoes, but they’re an extension of who you are as a person and that for me is the greatest reward whenever we sell a pair. It’s another man out there owning his own skin and expressing himself. It’s important in this world we live in today. So, my vision is that every man in Britain should be no more than two hours away from the experience. That means more studios, making the concept more accessible. We plan to use third parties, other people passionate about self expression and, of course, men’s shoes and fashion. Beyond that, the world. Why not? Can you imagine we had a franchise in the Middle-East or the USA? I can!
What are your favourite pair of shoes?
EEK! The killer question. How do you choose? We’ve done so many. It’s the hardest thing about my job actually because I can get as inspired by a pair of black brogues as I can about a pair of hand dyed mustard, crocodile embossed Chelsea boots. The reason is because it’s never about the design for me, it’s about what they mean and that’s what gets my blood pumping.
If you ask about my personal style, I am that guy who likes something a little different from the ordinary so I tend to lean towards the blackberry and oxblood tones. I love our olive tan tones and those moody, autumnal colours. So, maybe a double monkstrap in one of those colours would be where I’d pitch my fork.