Alaska shoe startup ready to step into production

  • From left to right, Pandere Shoes owners Celia Crossett, Laura Oden and Ayla Rogers brought their Alaska startup from conception to design to manufacturing in two years. The shoes are expandable in the toe, arch and heel in order to accommodate people with odd foot sizes due to a variety of ailments. They believe they are the first to market this kind of shoe, which is considered an invention and required the designs to be patented. (Photo/Courtesy/Kerry Tasker)
  • Pandere Shoes expand at three areas to fit people with foot problems that cause swelling or other discomfort. (Photo/Courtesy/Pandere Shoes)

Alaska startup Pandere Shoes has reached a milestone: the business met its goal to pre-sell $30,000 worth of online orders to fund production of the first run of shoes for direct retail.

The three women who invented the patented shoe designs — Laura Oden, Celia Crossett and Ayla Rogers — are believed to have created the first closed shoe designed to expand three-dimensionally up to 1½ shoe sizes. Their market research shows 23 million to 45 million people suffer from some kind of foot ailment caused by cancer treatment, birth defects, edema, poor lymphatic systems or any number of causes.

“These shoes expand where feet swell,” Crossett said. “When your feet swell, they get bigger from the top. But shoes aren’t designed to expand in that direction; they are only designed for length and width.”

Think of the classic Italian and Portuguese footwear expertise that’s dominated style since the Middle Ages.

“Pointy-toed shoes just don’t cut it,” Oden said. “This business was borne out of my own frustration at not being able to find shoes.”

For the past 40 years, Oden has suffered from lymphedema that meant no one pair of shoes would fit both feet.

Looking for a shoe that fits well set Oden off on her quest within the nurturing community of Anchorage startups. Two women, Rogers and Cossett, joined her at a January 2016 Startup Weekend, one of the events meant to brainstorm and fine-tune new entrepreneurial endeavors.

Rogers, raised in Houston, Alaska, is a One Million Cups facilitator, a realtor and a “serial entrepreneur” who’s helped launch other businesses. Both Oden and Crossett are business planners at the Southcentral Foundation. Cossett earned two master’s degrees and did social justice work in Kazakhstan before returning home to Alaska where she earned yet another degree, a master’s in business at Alaska Pacific University.

“When we were doing the research, we found we have a real strong business case when we started hearing all the stories. The first day after we created our Facebook page, we already had 100 followers,” Rogers said. “It was a gold mine of information: we heard from people saying ‘I have an aunt, I have a friend that needs those shoes.’”

From that first startup weekend, they’ve attracted a following of 1,200 people on Facebook who continue to share stories of woeful footwear options.

The current market offers only orthopedic shoes, which leaves out those who need to dress for a corporate setting and multiple other functions. The Pandere partners found people wearing slippers or painful footwear or two size shoes that pinched or left them with other health problems.

After the Startup Weekend, the three women stuck together, meeting at least once a week. They did this while working their full-time jobs.

The trio refined their business plan and shoe designs over the next two years. Along the way, Pandere won awards at six entrepreneurial competitions, including Startup Weekend and the Alaska Business Plan Competition.

The money provided enough funding to help them through designing the shoes and finding a Portuguese manufacturer to work up a prototype of each shoe design. At the end, the cost per shoe was $2,000 because they are hand stitched and adhere to an expanded design specific for the heel, arch and toe areas. After several prototype tries, they settled on two designs.

Pairs of shoes range from $99 to $200 but currently most sizes are sold for around $120. There are only two styles for women so far, “but we’re working on more and on making them for men,” Oden said.

“We were told we wouldn’t be able to mass produce these shoes because there are more parts than to traditional shoes,” Cossett said. “They expand in three different areas, the toebox, the midfoot and the heel or ankle.”

And mistakes were made along the way. A drawing that showed an opening at the so-called toe box came back as a shoe with a small window-like opening that missed the point of expanding in that area.

They went through four shoe designers. They encountered language barriers.

“It was a big learning curve on both sides,” Oden said. “You fail a lot at first.”

Plus, they couldn’t post photos of their inventions until they had received the patent.

But they were armed with market validation and stories of people out there wearing sandals in cold climates — the only thing that fit — as well as suffering painful feet, lifelong embarrassment and immobility. The stories didn’t just come from Alaska. They came from around the U.S. and the world, men and women.

“Our mission plan is to always keep our customers’ mobility, dignity and comfort in our thoughts,” Rogers said.

On April 18, Oden, Crossett and Rogers launched a 30-day Kickstarter campaign with a funding goal of $30,000 as a way to introduce the innovative shoe line to the world and raise funds for production of the first round of shoes for retail sale.

They met the goal, and now will launch their first manufacturing run using a shoemaker in Portugal.

Pandere works out of The Boardroom in downtown Anchorage, a “co-working” space for a community of people who share ideas in financing and resources.

Katherine Jernstrom, founder of The Boardroom and fund manager at Alyeska Venture Management, said the launch of Pandere Shoes is a great representation of an Alaskan innovation ecosystem that has made a lot of gains in the past five years.

“They found a global customer-base looking for a unique solution to their problem and with grit and determination, and a little luck, Pandere will create new jobs and will create new wealth for its employees, owners, investors, vendors, and contractors,” she said.

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected].

05/18/2018 - 11:55am