Jodie Fox has lost the love of her life. It’s not her ex-husband and Shoes of Prey co-founder, Michael Fox, although that loss, too, was heartbreaking. Jodie’s great love was her business, Shoes of Prey. A business she devoted a decade of her life to; a business that went from an idea tossed around at the beach by three friends to scrappy start-up to venture-backed global business with more than 200 staff, over $US 27 million in funding and legions of followers around the world.
I speak to Jodie around the time of the launch of her memoir, Reboot: Probably More Than You Ever Want to Know About Starting a Global Business, and it’s clear she’s still grieving her great love. Because although she closed the door in August 2018, it wasn’t until months later, in February 2019, that the company officially went into liquidation. When I ask how Jodie how she’s feeling right now, she pauses. “It’s only now, having written the book, that I’m going through the grieving process,” she says. “It’s a real cacophony of emotions. Having had depression and anxiety in the past there’s a real level of vulnerability with the book coming out and with sharing failure. I don’t think it was until I handed the book over that I realised there was that personal perspective. I’m wondering how that will be received by the world.”
Throwing pregnancy hormones in the mix (when I interview Jodie, she’s 21 weeks pregnant with her first child with husband Vuki Vujasinovic), only heightens her emotional state and vulnerability. But Jodie, by now, is no stranger to being in a scary place. “When you have been squeezed through an intense process like shutting down a business – one that you love – it feels dark, uncomfortable and scary, and hard to appreciate when you’re going through it. It’s the same with my book, right now. But there’s always a silver lining, and when you come out the other side it’s pretty special. I feel a sense of pride I’m getting my story out there. Because if it can help someone else in their business journey, it’s all worth it.”
Jodie, 37, grew up in Lismore, a country town in New South Wales, the daughter of a Sicilian mother and Australian father. Each generation of her family created a better situation for the next generation; her nonna went to primary school, her mother high school, and Jodie was the first generation to go to university. She was brought up in a warm, open family environment and had a sense of possibility instilled in her from a young age; something she’s grateful for. Although she was creative in high school, she felt in order to take advantage of her higher education that had taken generations to come to fruition, she needed to study law; to “find out how the world worked”. But once she started practising, it didn’t take her long to realise it wasn’t for her. “It was my first career lesson; I realised the challenges it placed on my quality of life from a personal happiness perspective, and then I tried to figure out what happiness actually looked like to me in my adult life.” Law was followed by a stint in advertising (and a huge pay cut) before she found her feet at Shoes of Prey – although entrepreneurship was something she never envisioned for herself, even though she was curious about the commerce behind running a business.
It was on a Gold Coast beach in 2008 with her husband, Michael, and mutual friend, Mike Knapp, that the idea for a customised footwear business was floated. Michael and Mike were working at Google at the time. Jodie says there was no lightning strike. “There’s this romantic notion with a business idea that you’re just going to have this bolt of lightning and know it’s going to work. For us it wasn’t in the case,” she says. “We were excited to explore it but it wasn’t this mind-blowing moment for me. It can be as organic as that for some people, but not for us. Jodie’s motto – which she still swears by – is to ‘do everything before you’re ready’. That’s exactly what she, Michael and Mike did – with a sweet trifecta of branding, retail and software engineering experience, the three co-founders had the ingredients to build a global brand. Research indicated it did. Shoes of Prey was born out of Jodie’s frustration of not being able to buy a pair of shoes she loved. After a friend recommended a cobbler in Hong Kong, she designed 14 pairs in one-and-a-half hours. She flew back to Australia, thrilled – and, after the shoes arrived in Sydney Jodie began fielding requests from friends to have shoes made for them, too. Further market research indicated that they weren’t alone. “My co-founders and I always wanted to do something that could be global and disrupt an industry. We thought Shoes of Prey had the potential to do that.”
Shoes of Prey’s rise – well-documented in the media – was rapid-fire. Over the next few months, the founders researched the idea, developing software and travelling to China to build out a supply chain. In October 2009, Shoes Of Prey officially launched, and soon sales were booming.
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By 2011, they employed eight staff and had moved out of the living room of Jodie and Michael’s one-bedroom apartment and into a shiny office in Surry Hills. They also attracted their first injection of funding – $2 million – from investors. In 2013, they’d landed in David Jones. They’d cemented their status as one of the nation’s shiniest start-ups. “It was an extraordinarily fast journey, a beautiful thing to experience,” says Jodie. “For me, the most extraordinary things were the everyday things: pushing open a door to an office that we had built. Seeing people in there working with us. Bringing ideas to life that we’d talked about. Watching designs come through. It was phenomenal. It felt special on a daily basis.”
In 2015, they moved their HQ to Los Angeles, taking 22 employees with them. So began a life on the road as they opened stores around the US, with Jodie living out of a suitcase much of the time. In December 2015, Shoes of Prey made headlines when it raised a whopping $21 million from investors including Blue Sky Venture Capital and US luxury retailer Nordstrom.
On the surface, things seemed shiny; the team all lived in a big house on Venice Beach which was “like a cosy clubhouse”. Jodie was the poster girl for start-up success. But behind the scenes, things were unravelling. All research indicated that Shoes of Prey could crack the mass market. But figures told a different story. While the company was growing, it couldn’t deliver on the hyper-growth investors wanted.
Michael Fox says they biggest problem the business faced was what their customers were consciously telling them “and what they subconsciously wanted (to be inspired by trends and shown by celebrities and influencers exactly what to wear – down to the style and brand) were effectively polar opposites”.
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Michael and Jodie were forced to close their bricks-and-mortar stores and make redundancies. Then, Michael – who she’d separated from in 2012 – left the business altogether, forcing Jodie to step up in the business and say goodbye to her ex-husband. In Reboot, she writes, “We had met the week before my 21st birthday, married, started a business, divorced close to my 31st birthday and worked together every day until I was just past 36 years old. He had gone from being a boyfriend to husband to co-founder to ex-husband to brother figure.” With Mike also having left, Jodie suddenly found herself as acting CEO, COO as well as the creative director of Shoes of Prey at the direst of moments in the business. In mid-2018, she was advised to take out kidnapping insurance, as it’s common for factory owners in China to be kidnapped after workers realise the factory might be closing. “I woke each morning to a feeling of fear, sadness and upset,” Jodie writes in Reboot. “But I was so focused on survival that I had no time to dwell and give in, so I clawed my way out of it.
“I pushed it aside by listening to Shake it Out by Florence + the Machine over and over again. It became my warrior song that somehow took all the energy I was giving to fear and channelled it over to focus and strength.”
In August 2018, the company ceased trading. Jodie was devastated. “We went into the business wanting to multiply everyone’s investments; we went in wanting to always be of service to customers, we entered the business always wanting to grow people’s careers,” she says. “So there was a real sense of failure, even though we had tried to take the right steps. We felt we had let people down, and there was loss and shame. Being the public face of the brand was a challenge, too. It was a lot to go through.”
As someone who also suffers from anxiety and depression, there were some dark days in the months that followed. “It was a huge identity crisis. I’d lost the love of my life; the centre of my world. For 10 years, I’d known precisely what I was doing every single day and why I was doing it. Suddenly, I was waking up without that.”
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What she did have was a support network. In Reboot, she writes, “[My husband] Vuki and my close circle of friends provided me with the kind of love and support that gave me the sense that I had a safety net of people who would love me regardless of these outcomes. It was a safety net that would never break. This gave me an incredible baseline of strength to reboot every morning. In these moments I realised that one of my highest values in life and living well was having a true community. Because no matter what age you are or what you’re going through, it takes a village to get to the other side.”
In the days that followed, Jodie says she cleaned every surface in her home and watched The Sopranos from start to finish. She also forced herself to get out of bed and exercise. “I had to make the choice to do those things. I leant on my tools that are there for the dark moments, like talking to my therapist and friends. None were quick fixes. Even now I’m still processing it all; it’s still raw. Those tools are the same ones I go to today,” she says.
Jodie says she has always felt things very deeply; but she wouldn’t have it any other way. “I haven’t lived a life any other way. I think it’s helpful in the way that it can give you a real capacity for empathy. If you have that you can apply that to things that otherwise can be quite corporate; for example, management or thinking about how stakeholders might feel in that moment and be on the front foot of that and act in a meaningful way. On the other side, it means I don’t always see the logical solution instantly, unless I’m in flight or fight mode – then I can process it later on.”
In Reboot, she writes, “Depression is different for everyone. For me it was a chemical imbalance in my brain. It’s not a personality flaw; it’s not a weakness. It’s not a defining aspect of my identity. It’s like a cold – you catch it from time to time, treat it and get better.
“I have finally found a therapist I love and a psychiatrist who works with my therapist and me. I exercise and commit to a twice-daily 20 minute meditation. Having reached this place of being able to detach my personal identity from my depression, and being able to manage my depression, my resilience has increased. Today I have a wealth of resilience that has given me the power to go through situations others could not, with my feet on the ground and my heart courageous. Of course there are still days I feel like a fraud. But that feeling no longer becomes a dark rabbit hole.”
Now she’s able to look back on the some of the bleaker moments with a sense of pride. “When I had to shoulder the responsibility of suddenly being the acting CEO and COO of a company through some tough times, I wasn’t confident I could do those things. But when I got the other side I thought actually, I can do that. I can back myself.”
Although Jodie is still grieving the love her life, she’s got a lot of love around her: a new husband, Vuki, and a baby on the way. She’s also looking forward to downtime over Christmas with her family for the first time in years. She’s currently in the research phase for new business projects, but her biggest role in the coming months will be a Mum. As for what time of mother she wants to be, she says, “I’m hoping to be a mother who gives their child a safe and warm place to grow into themselves.”
Jodie may still be in the rebound phase, but it’s clear she’s ready to move on from Shoes of Prey – after her book launch is wrapped up. When she was writing Reboot, she did have moments thinking she was “crazy”. “I’m like, why am I going through this again?! But my hope is that it’s helpful for someone else. There are so many stories out there – I don’t for one second think mine is extraordinary, but I hope there’s some wisdom that can be gained from sharing it. In business, people can feel like they’re alone or crazy; but I want them to know they’re not alone.”