Making Something From Nothing: Ahriana Edwards Of Vaila Shoes On How To Go From Idea To Launch

An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis

Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

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I wish someone told me to factor in extra weeks on my launch timeline when it came to production and shipping my products from overseas.

As a part of our series called “Making Something From Nothing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ahriana Edwards.

Ahriana Edwards is the proud Founder and CEO of Vaila Shoes (est 2021), where she provides women of forgotten shoe sizes (size 9–14) with access to modern dress shoe options that they desire and deserve. Ahriana noticed that the fashion industry has made strides in plus-size apparel, but there was still a gap within the plus-size footwear market (specifically dress shoes) that needed to be addressed. Vaila utilizes the trends of today to create a seasonal dress shoe brand that satisfies size variety, fashion flexibility, and event-specific shopping. She’s on a dual mission to redefine beauty and retailer representation in the footwear industry.

Ahriana has participated in business accelerators with notable organizations such as Black Ambition by Pharrell Williams, Future Founders, and Techstars to push the needle with the success of building Vaila. In addition, she used her background in sales and marketing to raise over $70K in non-dilutive funding from pitch competitions before Vaila launched. She also utilized her network to formulate an advisory board with over 35 years in the footwear, apparel and e-commerce industry. Her efforts and outreach has led her to be affiliated with organizations such as Entrepreneur, Black Enterprise, Combs Enterprises and Ebony Media (to name a few).

Aside from her business, she has a background in Business Entrepreneurship at Fayetteville State University and a certificate at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Footwear. She professionally held several sales and marketing roles with industry leaders such as Toyota, Nestle, and Facebook while also serving on the board of the Women’s Business Center of Fayetteville and mentoring with the Future Founder Entrepreneurship Junior Program.

At her core, Ahriana is motivated by creating a generational legacy and aims to use her innovative mindset and creativity to create a social impact for the undervalued, underestimated, and underrepresented.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

My long for entrepreneurship honestly started when I was really young. My mom knew that I was going to be an entrepreneur before I knew (as she says). I found myself always being a problem solver and innovative thinker at a young age. Whenever I ran out of ingredients for my easy-bake oven and my mom didn’t have the money to buy me more; there I was googling ways and testing out baking formulas with household ingredients for an easy bake oven. When I was in middle school and I wanted to save up money to attend a summer camp, I sold candy (airheads were my bread and butter too!). When I lost all of my childhood weight and didn’t have enough money to buy clothes, I bought a sewing machine and taught myself how to hem my pants tighter. Whenever I didn’t have a solution to solve my problem or desire, I always found a way to get it done. So even as a young girl — I believe entrepreneurship was naturally engraved in me.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You can’t say the right thing to the wrong person and you can’t say the wrong thing to the right person.”

Whenever I’m hearing all of the no’s and rejections as I go through my entrepreneurship journey, it reminds me that the right person and opportunity will be for me and there’s nothing that needs to be unnaturally forced to get there. I’m a very futuristic individual, so it reminds me to calm down and truly take things for what they are and not forcing it. If it is the wrong person or opportunity, it doesn’t matter how pretty you paint the picture or how much effort you give — the opportunity or person just won’t be for you. But if it is the right person or opportunity, the situation will naturally work itself out and be in your favor regardless of what presents itself.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I’m a huge podcast person. I listen to multiple podcasts that help me in all aspects of my life. There are two podcasts that I cannot go a week without listening to and they are “Slay Girl Slay” and “The Product Boss”. Slay Girl Slay has had a significant impact because it comes out on Mondays and it gets my mindset ready for the week. Ashley preaches about all aspects of boss women trying to accomplish their dreams (between the good and the bad). Whenever I’m struggling through this (sometimes) lonely journey of entrepreneurship, I can always count on that podcast to get me out of my negative state of mind. The Product Boss is also an amazing tangible podcast that really helps breakdown strategies on how to achieve success as a product-based business. Many of my systems are based off of that podcast.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. Can you share a few ideas from your experience about how to overcome this challenge?

You are very correct, there are NO shortages of good ideas out there. I think it’s very important to know that even though you have many ideas, you don’t have to only choose just one and throw away the rest. But rather, it’s important to start with one umbrella idea and build and incorporate the others as you go along. That’s how entrepreneurship works and in fact, that same level of innovation is exactly why a lot of companies stand strong for years. When I first started Vaila, let’s be honest. It wasn’t the company that it is today. I thought it was going to be a subscription or even a marketplace. However, I had to go through so many iterations processes to get down to what the main problem was and figuring out how to build the best company to solve that problem for my customers. When ideas start, they are one-sided because they only live in your head. But an idea definitely translates into reality once you start talking to your ideal customers. Being heavy in the customer discovery phase (in the beginning and to this day) is exactly how I overcame idea overload because I was able to figure out if the business idea was valid or not. But as mentioned earlier, all of the other ideas are still there.. But it may not be the best time to reveal those yet and that’s okay.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

There’s two ways that you can go about this: Primary Research & Secondary Research.

When I started Vaila, I was heavily researching competitors and other companies who were doing something similar to my idea. Guess what, I found a couple of companies who were doing exactly just that: an extended-size shoe store for women. However, that didn’t stop me. Because I was my ideal customer, I still felt that there was a gap within the market but I couldn’t pinpoint what it was and most importantly, why women like me were still complaining. I had to go back to my drawing board because I needed to figure out how I was going to set myself apart from the others. I started digging deep into Primary Research (research that you collect yourself — ie. customer interviews) and Secondary Research (research collected from others — ie. articles). From my customer interviews, I made sure to ask “where do you currently shop”, “when do you shop for shoes” and “what type of shoes are you looking for that you could never find”. Sure enough, they knew of stores where they could find shoes in general, but it was never convenient for them because whenever they would shop, they could never find heels or cute shoes for classy or formal occasions”. With my secondary research, I also found that dress shoes were the hardest category for them to find. At that moment, I knew exactly what my differentiation was within the market: Dress shoes for the Workplace & Afterhours.

I would’ve never found my “AHA” moment if I didn’t conduct primary and secondary research. Through those avenues, you can see exactly what is missing in the market and how you can carve out your niche.

For the benefit of our readers, can you outline the steps one has to go through, from when they think of the idea, until it finally lands in a customer’s hands? In particular, we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

  1. Once you have your idea, you conduct customer discovery and research to find out if your idea is valid and how you can win within the market with your competitive advantage
  2. At this point, you should have a company name and good understanding of who you are → You go on to register your company (example — LLC). Make sure that the name isn’t taken on the trademark website or
  3. You start getting your name out there about your business, you start a social media and landing page to capture emails from potential customers
  4. Then you participate in mentorship centers or programs such as pre-accelerators or incubators to help your flesh and sharpen your idea out
  5. Depending on your company, you can decide whether you want to bootstrap, get bank funding, or raise funding via equity or non-equity (I went the Pitch Competition Route and raised over $70K+ when Vaila was just a concept) — -> Regardless, make sure your business bank account is open to put the money there.
  6. From there, you use your network/mentors to help connect you to a good manufacturer → You test out a manufacturer by their communication (how often do they communicate), their capabilities and their understanding of your company and what you’re trying to build, and their quality of production (you will ask them to create samples of shoes that you’re interested in making)
  7. While this is going on, you’re building your relationship with your customers on your email list who are passionate about what you’re building and you gauge interest on exactly the type of products that they are looking for
  8. Once you receive your samples, test them out and have your customers on your email list/social media to vote on their favorite styles to bring to market first (you don’t want to have too much inventory upfront) → Also gauge their size to estimate what sizes you need to order
  9. Start developing relationships with those who will assist in your operations → Fulfillment centers? Duty/Freight Broker if product is overseas? Packaging Partnerships? Etc
  10. Production starts for your product and this is the perfect time do marketing and outreach → Create a line list of your products and start pitching to retailers to distribute your products (Starting with online marketplaces and working your way up to boutiques and large retail stores) → Make sure to always have your competitive advantage and be ready to prove how your product benefits their product assortment and establishment
  11. You’re getting ready to launch, make sure that before you launch.. You have your legal entities/organization processes in order (trademarks, patents, business organization documents, insurance, website, terms and conditions, return policy, standard operating procedures, etc).
  12. LAUNCH YOUR COMPANY!! You have now made your first sale and your product has made it’s way to your first customer.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started Leading My Company” and why?

  1. I wish someone told me about Customs/Duty/Freight/Brokers when it came to receiving product from overseas.
  2. I had already started production and when 75% of the production was finished, I learned that there was an extensive process and documents that I needed to complete in a timely fashion to make sure that my goods passed to Customs. It costs me extra.
  3. I wish someone told me to factor in extra weeks on my launch timeline when it came to production and shipping my products from overseas.
  4. There were multiple factors, such as production & shipping delays and US custom ports being backed up, that were out of my control that consistently kept on pushing back my launch date. It came to a point where I finally announced my launch date to the public and my shipment was running behind, however, it showed up in my fulfillment center three days before launch (whew).
  5. I wish someone told me to not only have a plan B, but have a plan C when things went left.

As entrepreneurs, most of our job is being problem solvers and thinking on our feet. When I planned my launch date, I hoped for the best with my shipment arriving on time. You could only imagine how stressful it became when you didn’t have your operations in order. At one point, I thought about scenarios and what would happen if something went wrong. If the product didn’t show, then I would have to pivot to do pre-orders. But then, what if your timeline was off for pre-orders.. What would you do? Early on, that process taught me to think many steps ahead of time (especially within the fashion industry)

I wish someone told me that not all advice is good advice.

In the beginning, I participated in many programs and I was seeking advice from anyone who could give it. But at a certain point, when my business was clear and established.. The quality of advice that I was receiving didn’t match up. I was seeking advice from those who didn’t understand the industry, business, and let alone vision. This often led me to being confused, delayed, and even questioning the company that I was building. Find those mentors who have your best interest at heart and who actually “gets” your company. It will save you alot of time

I wish someone told me that there is no standard journey in entrepreneurship — for anyone. Anything can happen at any stage in your company. Follow your path and you will be successful.

I started doubting my capabilities in entrepreneurship in the beginning. I saw people on my timeline and feed making “6 figures in 2 months!” and thought that I wasn’t doing enough. Then, when I started getting big deals with retailers as a “rookie” in my business, I started having imposter syndrome because I didn’t see anyone my age in retail. I had to realize early on that my journey does not have a perfect path and that I should not compare it to anyone else’s.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

  1. Register your business and file a trademark and/or patent to protect your company
  2. Set a timeline and factor in extra weeks with delays
  3. Build a community around your product — even if it isn’t there yet
  4. ALWAYS remember why you started your company and use that as fuel to keep going when it gets hard

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

I believe that you need both. One must be able to understand their idea to help the consultant understand their idea and have the first basic steps solidified. Then, once they need more assistance taking it to the next level, it would be best to work with a consultant to put the idea into execution.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

I am a fan of bootstrapping and non-equity fundraising in the beginning of your journey of entrepreneurship. It’s a great way to hold on to equity and have full control over the business. However, if you have an extremely capital intensive product that exceeds loans, grants, and pitch competition money, then it’s best to look into venture capital (more suitable for tech-based options).

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

At Vaila, we are redefining beauty and inclusiveness within the women’s footwear industry. For decades, women who wear a shoe size larger than the standard 8, have been viewed as unfeminine and unworthy of attractive footwear options. It is our mission to serve women of forgotten shoe sizes with footwear that they desire and deserve. One woman at a time. Our foot sizes are only getting bigger and it is time to be the representation that we want to see.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

That’s a great question — It would have something to do with making the fashion industry more inclusive of other aspects besides the standard clothes and shoes. Something like apparel, undergarments, etc. It would also be great if there was a program/movement to get more women to make shoes — since the industry is dominated by men.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

I would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with Serena Williams. She is a mogul not only on the court but in business and she is also on a mission to create an inclusive clothing line while investing in top notch companies. Lots of her engagements align with the mission at Vaila Shoes. But most importantly, she is an individual that gets our mission because she has an extended shoe size herself. I would drop everything to have a conversation with her!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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Fotis Georgiadis
Authority Magazine

Passionate about bringing emerging technologies to the market