Haley Pavone is the CEO and Founder of Pashion Footwear, a convertible heel company that was featured on Season 12 of Shark Tank. We caught up with her to hear the story of how Pashion came to be, what it’s like creating a totally innovative product in a major category, and her advice for other female founders.
To start, tell us the origin story behind the Pashion brand in your own words.
Pashion was born out of my own frustrations with high heels. I’d always been an avid high heel wearer since high school and in college I wore a pair of 6” heels out to a sorority formal. As any woman reading will know, dancing in 6” heels is really more of a “wobble” and I wanted to bust a move. So, I ditched my heels and went barefoot as I’d always done at a formal event. On that particular evening, tragedy & inspiration quite literally struck when another young woman accidentally stomped on my bare foot with the point of her stiletto, impaling me through the toe. Ouch! As I was sitting there hurting, I couldn’t help but notice the massive pile of discarded heels on the side of the dance floor. At that moment, it hit me. Almost every woman wears high heels; everyone knows they are painful and inconvenient, and yet — there was no marketable solution. Women were constantly ending up barefoot, lugging around backup shoes, or just suffering through for hours on end. A lightbulb went off and I became obsessed with finding a better way. I started digging into the market and was shocked when I found out high heels haven’t seen any innovation in over 200 years. I knew it was time for an upgrade, and the idea for a convertible heel was born. I swear almost every woman has thought about how much she wants to rip the heels off her shoes … I kept trying to think of a reason why it couldn’t exist, and I couldn’t find a logical one strong enough to stop me. So, as a 20-year-old college junior with no experience in footwear, I decided to take a chance and see if I could figure it out.
Wow, I know many women can relate to that experience in their lifetime! No wonder the name “Pashion” is a combination of the words “practical” and “fashion”. What was your first major breakthrough for the company?
I’d say our first big breakthrough was when we got the first pair of wearable, 3D printed prototypes. Since they were 3D printed they could only be worn for a max of 10 minutes and were by no means pretty to look at – but the moment I put them on my feet and converted the heels to flats … and they actually worked … that was when I knew we really had something. It had taken us 11 months to get to that point, and for those first 11 months I was told by nearly everyone I met in the footwear industry that a convertible heel was impossible to make. Having no experience in footwear myself, I always had a little voice of doubt in my head wondering if maybe they were right and the shoe wouldn’t work. I can’t even explain how much relief and excitement I felt when that heel came off … it was one of the best moments of this entire journey. I finally KNEW I wasn’t crazy!
It’s so important to ignore the voices of doubt, whether they be in your head or from people around you! Recently you appeared on the show “Shark Tank.” What was that experience like pitching the product and the reaction afterward?
Pitching Shark Tank was absolutely surreal for me. I’ve watched the show since I was 12 years old, and idolized the Sharks my whole childhood. Walking into the Tank … it was really like I was in a dream, I almost couldn’t comprehend that I was there. The Sharks are definitely just as intense as the show portrays, and it was very hard for me as a lifetime fan to walk away from an offer. But I knew it was the right call for Pashion, and now looking back I have absolutely no regrets for sticking to my guns. The reaction has been overwhelmingly positive…it’s hard to quantify the marketing value of 5-7 million eyeballs seeing you overnight, especially for a product like ours. Our biggest obstacle was always that no one knew convertible high heels existed. Google searches for “removable heels” were close to 0 before we started selling.
Shark Tank was our catalyst. The exposure lit a fire under our word of mouth, and our sales have skyrocketed as a result. We’ve grown an average of 55% month over month since airing. It’s been a dream come true.
How do you decide on styles and develop new offerings for the shoes?
It’s a mix! One part trend forecasting, one part ideas from our team members and one part customer requests. We pay very close attention to what our customers are writing about and requesting. We love to do polls on our social media about style concepts with our followers. If anyone ever has an idea for a design, color or pattern they’d like to see from Pashion, don’t hesitate to message it our way — we are always listening!
Customer feedback is worth its weight in gold. Besides deciding on styles and new ideas, what is something else rewarding about running your own company?
For me, the most rewarding thing has been watching these “impossible” shoes get onto the feet of real women and make their daily lives better. It’s crazy to think four and a half years ago, this entire product was just a series of delusional sketches on a napkin. To be at the point where customers all over the globe are sending us videos showing off their heels and leaving five star reviews about how they are the best thing in their closet … it feels like my baby is all grown up, and totally thriving! I’m a proud mom when it comes to these shoes.
What has it been like building a team?
Building a team certainly has its challenges at times. Trying to balance our headcount needs with our budget constraints, build a scalable team culture that I’m proud of and — most importantly for me — learn how to actually manage and lead that team on the fly, has been an adventure. There’s definitely been some trial and error, but I can confidently say that I’ve never been happier with our team than I am right now. Our culture is vibrant and friendly, with a focus on work/life balance that I’m very proud of. We really feel like this crazy little shoe family in many ways. My goal is to maintain this energy and value system as we grow the business in the coming years.
As you mentioned earlier, business really boomed after your episode of “Shark Tank” aired… How do you keep yourself and your team organized?
Personally, I’m a BIG Google Calendar gal and my planner is basically my sidekick. I have a whole planner system to manage my professional, personal and self-care tasks and goals. If it isn’t in my planner, it isn’t happening. On the team front, we’re heavy users of the entire Google suite, have some fire group chats (if I do say so myself), and manage tasks on Trello. That being said, staying organized as a team of six is one thing … I have no doubt our systems will dramatically shift as we grow in the coming years.
Take us through your day or a week at Pashion. What’s happening behind the scenes?
Honestly, every single day and week is super different. Maintaining such a dramatic growth rate with only 6 full time people means everyone has their hands in a bunch of projects … balancing marketing, product development, and ops needs constantly. For instance last week, I spent two days in LA shooting our first campaign shoot for our summer releases. We got samples of our new fall line for approval, we started biomechanically testing a new heel shape and fit testing a new shoe. We were on the phone with our suppliers trying to book our summer shipment, we built out an influencer campaign for an upcoming drop, we onboarded a new PR partner, and we launched a co-branded giveaway with fellow female-founded brands.
Is there anything that’s important to you to do or not do as you build the company?
It’s very important to me that we stay true to our values and build a company culture we are proud of. I’m a big believer in work-life balance, which can be really hard to maintain as a fast-paced startup company in particular. Pressure is always building to grow faster, find the next big thing, and push for something greater. Of course, I want us to grow and achieve ALL the big things, but not at the expense of our employees’ happiness. It matters a lot to me that everyone loves working here, and that they feel like they can have a balanced life. I never want to lose that.
So, as a business owner how do you start your day to keep yourself on track?
My alarm goes off at 5:30 a.m., then again at 5:45, and I’m rolling myself out of bed by 6 to catch either a spin or lifting class at 6:30. (However, I feel it’s important to mention this is a new development for me. Until two months ago, you’d be hard pressed to find me awake before 8:30AM. I think it’s important to mention this as I know our society glamorizes this “I never sleep” CEO concept. Personally, I’m a big fan of a good night’s sleep). I’m back from the gym around 7:30 and have a cup of coffee and fruit smoothie before getting ready for the day. When I sit down at my desk each day, I write down three things I’m grateful for before getting started. Helps put me in the right headspace to handle whatever is coming at me!
As you’ve created and grown your business from the ground up, what is one piece of advice that’s stuck with you through your journey?
It’s very cliche, but the only thing all successful people have in common is that, no matter what, they’ve never given up. Resilience is the key to success.
The resilience you mentioned is so crucial. What is the biggest challenge you face as a female entrepreneur?
I’ve definitely struggled with feeling like I’m not being taken seriously, or feeling like I constantly need to prove why I deserve to be where I am today. The footwear industry is surprisingly male dominated, as is the venture capital world. I’m more often than not finding myself, as a 25-year-old woman, pushing a convertible high heel to rooms full of men. I’ve had to deal with a fair amount of discrimination around my gender and age while out raising money, but hey — resilience is key after all. I’ve been very lucky to find some incredible investors, both female and male, who lift me up as a young woman founder and understand the shoe revolution we are building here. It may be a little harder to find my people in this industry, but I’m hell-bent to find them one way or another!
So, were there ever moments where you felt like quitting? How did you pick yourself up and push forward?
I can honestly say there’s never been a moment I felt like quitting. There have been PLENTY of days that I thought we weren’t going to make it, but even on those days, I was determined to find a way out. And that’s why we are here today. I never stopped being delusionally optimistic that every problem, no matter how big, had a solution.
Do you have a business role model?
SARA BLAKELY! It’s a running joke on my team that I’d probably pass out if I got to meet her. She seems like the most genuine person, and I look up to her a lot as a fellow young female founder who created an entirely new product and product category in the women’s fashion market (all without any experience in fashion — #twins). I know I could learn a lot from her, so I hope we get to meet someday.
I can’t wait to see that meeting take place! Speaking of work life balance earlier, what is your pick-me-up after a long day?
Curling up on the couch with a charcuterie board and glass of cabernet to watch a movie with my boyfriend.
When you close your eyes, where do you see yourself and your company in 10 years?
I firmly believe convertible high heels are the future of women’s footwear, period. 10 years from now, I see Pashion as a global household name with convertible heels being worn more frequently than our non-convertible counterparts. I see a full shoe line with sandals, pumps, slides, boots, different shapes and heights of blocks, stilettos, you name it. Essentially, I see us being as big as a Steve Madden or a Stuart Weitzman — just convertible.
As a female entrepreneur, what advice would you give to those starting out, especially without experience just as you began your career?
Stop waiting for the “right time.” There’s never going to be a good time to start a business, it’s always going to be scary and hard with a million reasons not to. At the end of the day, if you can’t stop thinking about an idea, and you think that at 95-years-old you’d look back on your life and regret not trying it…then you have to do it. So make it the right time.