It’s a story with a Hollywood feel. An entrepreneur sets up a stall in an East End market to sell her own designed shoes and a decade later has customers including Dame Helen Mirren and Joanna Lumley and mixes with prime ministers.
Janan Leo founded Cocorose London in 2008, intent on rescuing the tired and bruised feet of women across the globe by encouraging them to take off their high heels on their way to work or a party and replace them with her foldable, comfortable shoe range.
Cocorose’s leather shoes now turn over £1m a year, is stocked in boutiques across the UK, Ireland and worldwide, has a global licensing partnership with the Royal Ballet and is the official gift partner with BAFTA.
The firm is also such a prime example of UK innovative gusto that former PM David Cameron invited Leo on a trip to the Milan Expo to help champion British businesses in 2015.
Where did the idea for Cocorose come from?
I was 26 and working full time for a company in new product development (NPD). It was in food rather than fashion, but I’d always been interested in the sector. I’ve always been a shoes girl rather than a handbag girl!
I remember my Mum always complaining about the discomfort of wearing high heels and when I got to my twenties I also had the same problem. It’s ridiculous when I watched other women commuting to work wearing these stylish but not very comfortable heels. I thought flat shoes were the answer but back in 2007 they were too frumpy.
I knew I could do better and make them stylish and foldable so you could commute in them, pop them in your handbag and put the heels back on for the office.
How did you move from idea to production?
Well even before I had the lightbulb moment, I started visiting a fashion factory which was opposite my work. I knocked on their door one day and asked if I could come in and see how the process worked. So, I started going there on my weekends, talking to the workers and seeing how everything worked. They thought I was a bit weird but they were very open with me about everything.
I then did a shoe design course at the London College of Fashion in the evenings. I was giving up a lot of my free time but I was determined to learn as much as I could. Honestly, it wasn’t a chore, I was so passionate about the industry.
Being in NPD helped me as I had an idea about taking a new concept to launch. Even now I get emails from other entrepreneurs asking about how to take that step.
I made a prototype using a pair of socks and rubber strips from a notebook and stitched them together. I then tried to find a company who would make them but it was a nightmare.
I was knocked back by over 130 factories around the world. Either they didn’t deal with start-ups or they wanted minimum orders that were just too high. But perseverance paid off as I found a Chinese manufacturer who was ready for a new challenge. We got 500 pairs made and we were ready to launch.
How did the business grow?
With the help of partner and business partner Gareth Austin-Jones, we had our website up on the first day and got the first orders in. They were from friends, but it all helps. There were so many new issues to consider such as importing and VAT, and of course the problem of having 500 pairs in the loft we needed to shift.
I got a stall in an East London market and started selling the shoes at the weekend because at that stage I was still working in my full-time job. I was hoping to increase awareness about what a foldable shoe is and why people needed it. It was great fun until Winter came!
But the exposure worked – a Brick Lane boutique told me they loved the idea and put it in their shop. I then went to trade shows and we gained more interest. I gave up my job in 2010 to concentrate on the business, and we have grown ever since.
How important have international sales been?
I have always wanted to build a global brand especially when the UK was in recession. We met agents and distributors and we’ve now grown quickly in around 20 countries. I’ve found that when selecting international partners you need to ensure that they are really passionate about what you are creating. Do they have your back and do they believe in you?
We received government grants and visited a number of international trade shows to help us grow. The Milan trip with David Cameron, where we also met the then-Italian leader Matteo Renzi, was a once in a lifetime trip.
Has the offering had to evolve?
I originally thought my market was going to be women in their early 20s. But it’s more late-20s women who are buying our shoes. These women are looking for more comfort to get through their day but to remain stylish.
Our range has increased including folding boots and espadrilles and our price point has risen from £35 a pair to between £45 and £120.
What are your future plans for the business?
Our ecommerce business is gaining momentum and it is something we are very excited about. We have been self-funded up to this point and have been very cautious and conservative. But we feel now is the time with trading history, great customer demand and a fantastic brand behind us to raise external finance.
We are looking to raise £500,000 to mainly help grow our ecommerce business and team. It may come from angel investors, high-net-worth individuals, and even a bit of crowdfunding.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
You will get knockbacks, but if you really believe in what you are doing then you need to stay positive.
Do you have a business idol?
Michelle Mone who is wonderful at being able to constantly reinvent herself and always look incredible. I also admire Julie Deane of the Cambridge Satchel Company who just worked her backside off. Both these women built their businesses from scratch so I thought that there was no reason I couldn’t do it either.
Inspired by Janan’s story? Find out the ten best startup ideas for under £10,000 you can launch today
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