Julia Grinham, Co-Founder & CEO, Upper Street: Design Your Dream Shoes Online!

The NextWomen September Food & Fashion Theme.

Julia Grinham is Co-Founder and CEO of Upperstreet.com, the company that allows women to design their own beautiful, hand-made shoes online. 

The business, which Julia set up in 2010 with her sister Katy, is currently bucking gloomy economic trends. Since its launch, the London based company has doubled its revenues every year. And in the last six months alone has grown so much that it has secured 50% of its customers. Not bad for two sisters who had no experience of designing shoes when they started the company! 

Upperstreet.com is absolutely loved by its customers (one has just brought her 26th pair of shoes!) as well as the fashion industry. Fans include a well- known fashion designer who designed shoes for his London Fashion Week show, fashion editors from Grazia and Vogue, as well as celebrities Jodi Kidd and Tess Daly. 

Julia believes this is down to the very personalised service that they offer customers, which includes free alterations, free studio appointments, design advice and beautiful packaging. 

UpperStreet.com is part of the ASTIA business accelerator program, which is a non-profit organisation aimed at supporting high-growth potential, women-led businesses. Astia's goal is to redress the balance that only 4% of venture capital funding goes to women-led businesses. 

We spoke to Julia about how she scaled her business in a time of economic downturn; about having her sister as her business partner; and how it feels to see celebrities wearing Upper Street shoes!

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for UpperStreet and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

JG: We stumbled upon the idea for the business when my sister Katy moved to Hong Kong. She found it hard to find fashionable shoes in her size, so she started getting them made and because she enjoyed the process so much, it soon became a habit.

When I saw the beautiful shoes my sister had designed, I thought how wonderful it would be if we could offer that service online so women all over the world could design their own high quality, unique shoes from the comfort of their home.

And from that initial idea UpperStreet.com was born. We wrote the business plan in 2008 when my daughter Maddy was just three months old and Katy was pregnant with her first child, and we launched in March 2010. 

TNW: What makes your company different from your competitors?

JG: When we first launched, there was nowhere else women could design their own high quality, beautifully made unique shoes online. Having shoes made to order in places like Mayfair costs at least £700, and for us it was important to make our shoes more affordable, sitting below designer prices but at high-end of the high street prices. Our range is £195-£350.  Over time, the online shoe design market has become more competitive, but Upper Street still stands head and shoulders above those competitors for a number of reasons; the high quality, beauty and comfort of our shoes; the uniqueness of our true-to-life and easy to use 3D Shoe Designer; and our obsessive attention to customer service. Key to this is the personalisation of the whole experience which includes beautiful packaging, a handwritten note in the box, personalised swatch books, free studio appointments, special orders, full design advice, free alterations and a no-quibbles returns policy.

TNW: What is your marketing strategy and what has been the most effective source of new customers so far?

JG: As a new brand in the fashion space, PR has been core to our strategy; the fashion press have fully embraced and endorsed Upper Street which is so important in giving customers the confidence to buy, and the great coverage we’ve had has also spread awareness of both the concept and the unique qualities of our brand to our target market. In parallel, social media has enabled us to reach out to and fully engage directly with new customers, as well as being a really effective tool for our customers to spread the word themselves by sharing their experiences of Upper Street and their shoe designs with their friends.

TNW: What is next for your company?

JG: We’re growing rapidly at the moment. Since we launched, the company has doubled its revenues every year. In the last six months alone we have secured 50% of our customers.  So we’re going to focus on continuing our growth and we have ambitious plans a-foot to expand our business first in the UK, and then internationally in 10 major cities around the globe in the next 10 years. We’re working on some exciting new platform developments at the moment, and will also extend our brand off-line in the near future as we know how much our customers like to experience the Upper Street concept in the ‘real’ world as much as online.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

JG: To celebrate Upper Street’s first birthday we did a marketing promotion for buy one pair of shoes, get the second pair of shoes for free. It was so successful that we had the most amazing amount of press coverage and we did over three months worth of business in one day. I never thought I would find myself saying that I wished the orders would stop coming, but that’s kind of how we felt! It was a real challenge fulfilling all of those orders, and we made it by the skin of our teeth, but it did almost break us. We did learn from that that you should always think through all the consequences as much as you can, not only what you will do if your idea fails, but also what you will do if it is a roaring success!

TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company, which you remember as the highlight so far?

JG: There have been many proud moments – from taking our very first order, opening our studio last summer to how quickly our business has grown. But the highlight so far has to be how well our business has been received by the hard-to-impress fashion industry.

We were particularly proud to see our shoes on the catwalk at London Fashion Week in 2011 when Jasper Garvida designed a range of Upper Street shoes to go with his beautiful collection.

And seeing Tess Daley wearing her Upper Street shoes on the Christmas Day edition of Strictly Come Dancing was also a great moment.

TNW: How has Astia helped your business?

JG: Astia has been hugely beneficial to our business, mainly in terms of helping us think through how we can grow the business to meet our ambitions. The network of ASTIA advisors that we are working with are phenomenal in terms of their skills, experience and contacts – they both support and challenge us as a management team on our strategy and operational implementation. As entrepreneurs it’s great for us to have an external view, and to kick the tyres of our business on a regular basis.

TNW: If you could get on a soapbox and get something off your chest about the world of entrepreneurship, something you’d like to change, what would it be?

Female entrepreneurs in particular I think need to be encouraged to realise the potential of their ideas by thinking big and understanding how to get access to capital to help realise growth. 

TNW: What are the pros and cons of having your sister as your business partner?

JG: For us, I can honestly say that there aren’t any cons. But the pros are numerous. We always wanted to work together and we get on brilliantly. We both bring very different but complimentary skills to the business, and that’s probably one of the reasons it works so well. Katy overseas all the production and I’m responsible for marketing the business. We are also share the same attitude to having a healthy work-life balance, and when we wrote the business plan for UpperStreet we were very honest with each other in that respect.  We also agreed that we would never let the business affect our relationship. And it never has. Although we do talk about work rather a lot, and sometimes forget to talk about anything else!

TNW: What is your advice for entrepreneurs looking to scale their business in this time of economic downturn? 

JG: I believe that if you have a strong idea, with an excellent team behind you, then you can succeed even in a difficult climate. Make sure you don’t run out of cash and, if your growth curve is flattened by external forces, like a recession, then work hard to get the investment you need to grow the business over a longer time period.

Whatever you do, don’t compromise your brand or personal values, because that’s what’s going to bring you success over the long term.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with our readers?

JG: Well of course I would say that I would strongly encourage all of you to have a go at designing your own shoes. Your personal style statement says a lot about you, and it makes a significant difference to how you feel about yourself. In business, it’s important to uniquely brand yourself as well as your company, and what better way to do that than with your shoes! We’d love to offer all The Next Women readers an exclusive 20% discount off their first purchase. 

Upper Street is offering The NextWomen community a 20% discount off a first purchase. Click here to start designing your own shoes! Offer expires 31st October 2012.

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