If you have an idea, and the courage to take it to reality, then Edmonton is your city. Poppy Barley is the story of two sisters and their entrepreneurial drive to bring a cool idea to our closets. Inspired by an encounter with a traditional shoemaker in Bali in 2012, sisters and the founders of Poppy Barley, Justine and Kendall Barber, are melding tradition with technology, making custom footwear available online to any woman or man with a measuring tape.
From their base in Edmonton, Poppy Barley is growing its reach across North America and the world. The sisters’ success is a result of strong relationships, with their staff, their manufacturers, their customers and their local community of supporters. And they’re just getting started.
Neither of you come from a shoemaking background. Tell us about starting a business in an unfamiliar industry.
Justine: I have had a lifelong interest in design, in urban planning, and architecture and fashion. I was always reading and working in those areas, and then decided to start a footwear company which I never expected.
You develop an eye for what works, and I think there can be a misconception that you’re either a creative genius or not. Design, just like anything, is a learned skill. It’s something that you get better at with practice, and it’s one of those things where you just need to put yourself out there, put forward your design and really open yourself up to that.
Kendall: We’re literally rethinking footwear — taking an industry and rethinking every element of it. Poppy Barley would not exist if we waited for permission…on anything. I think coming from a different industry, with an outside perspective, you question things. Why are you doing it that way? Have you thought about doing it this way? And sometimes, if you have years of training you can’t ask those same questions. We’re looking at it new every time.
I think that it’s great that neither Justine nor I come from a long history of footwear, and we’ve surrounded ourselves with people who have that expertise and have been working in footwear for over 20 years on our team in Mexico. But here, being able to approach it completely differently, whether that’s from a design perspective or the customer experience, I think that’s one of the greatest things that Justine and I had when we created Poppy Barley.
You’re taking custom online. Your business model is very unique—were there any learnings or breakthroughs along the way?
Justine: What we have done, and I think every business does this, is you have an idea of what your company is and then you get into the market, and the market actually tells you what it wants. One of the reasons why we ended up going fully transparent on our manufacturing is because we found it was probably the second or third question that people asked us. We have a really close relationship with Lupita [our factory owner in Léon, Mexico], and the studio and the artisans but we didn’t initially make it public. We decided let’s just practice total manufacturing transparency. Let’s build up a section on our website where we showcase the people and the artisans and get into the details like what the wages are, what the working conditions are, what the hours are. Now we have a really good answer to that question.
There is literally nobody in this town that I wouldn’t pick up the phone and just ask for help — and I feel that they would be really receptive.
You clearly have a strong relationship with your team in Mexico, but so much of your business happens here in Edmonton. Tell us about the relationships you’ve built through Poppy Barley locally.
Kendall: The number one relationship I think we have with people in Edmonton is with the people who have joined our team and taken that risk to go and work for a start-up that’s not secure, that’s unknown, and choose to walk through the door every day and do some pretty amazing things and overcome some really big challenges. The trust and the teamwork has been outstanding
And the second is customers. Those first people who swiped their credit cards and bought pairs of one through one hundred of Poppy Barley boots — that’s pretty incredible that they took the chance on us as well. Immediately for me, I think our team and our customers, but it goes beyond that. We have investors, people who have funded us, we have mentors, we have advisors. There have just been so many people who have come to the table.
Justine and I always think that we were so fortunate to start the business in Edmonton. We started right when Startup Edmonton started, so we were able to have a place to show up to every day, where we were supported, where they were happy to make introductions for us.
The best thing about being here is that we really feel that we have over a million people cheerleading for us to be successful, and whether that means spreading the word to their friends that live wherever they live, to buying our product, to making introductions. There is literally nobody in this town that I wouldn’t pick up the phone and just ask for help — and I feel that they would be really receptive.
I think that we have the right amount of collisions happening between entrepreneurs, the business community, the political side of things as well as the education side. It’s all of those things working together that’s creating a really strong environment where you can start a company like Poppy Barley, and it’s ok to have a fashion company and be in Edmonton.
The amount of people that Instagram their shipping notification on their computer screen is hilarious. You never see someone go ‘Oh look my Amazon package just shipped, here’s my screen shot!’
You don’t necessarily see your customers in person. How have you tried to strengthen those online relationships, and how have your customers responded?
Kendall: Custom footwear is highly collaborative and it really starts at the beginning with the design process. Justine does a lot of pulling with our community — voting designs, voting in leather colors — so really the collaboration for what’s coming starts there. We also hold design events. Once you’re on the website or in person with us there is a lot of dialogue and feedback.
We’ve built a really strong on-line community, on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, where people are photographing themselves in their boots or shoes and sharing those photos with us. I think in every aspect of the relationship it’s more personal than a lot of other shopping experiences because it’s custom. The amount of people that Instagram their shipping notification on their computer screen is hilarious. You never see someone go ‘Oh look my Amazon package just shipped, here’s my screen shot!’ The relationship with the customer starts well before they wear the product.
What’s next? What’s your vision for Poppy Barley going forward?
Justine: We feel that with our product, our website, and our marketing, we’ve really learned what works and we’re at a new level to really scale our business. So a huge part of 2015 is growth and brand awareness.
As you do get more stable you can worry about other things, so something that Kendall and I have been talking about more lately is what type of impact do we want our business to have? How can we work on elevating craftsmanship? Or make a difference for a foundation? I think one of the best parts of being a business owner is that you really have the potential to have a big impact.
Kendall: Ultimately what gets me excited every day is to really change the relationship that consumers have with the goods they purchase, and I think that can extend well beyond footwear. There has to be a better, more creative, more innovative way to buy things and really care about the things that we’re buying.
We’re thinking about that a lot, and what other products and what other industries can we look at and re-think to deliver some really neat, cool products to customers that are core to what we believe.