A kitchen table in Spenard had $10,000 worth of shoes on it. Four shoes. But none worth wearing.
It's hard to make a good-looking shoe that expands to fit swollen feet. But if the three women behind a local startup manage it, the market for their product could be in the tens of millions of people.
A lot of people seem to think they can. Pandere Shoes has won prizes in a series of business competitions, including last year's national 1 in a Million contest, given by the Kauffman Foundation, which brought a $25,000 prize and a series of trips to learn from business advisers.
But while the women have proved they can win contests — they've placed between six and a dozen times, depending on how they count — they don't have a product yet. That's part of the adventure of being entrepreneurs. Will it work?
Laura Oden had the idea. She is a 54-year-old singer-songwriter (and my friend) well known in musical circles for her many community efforts. She also works in business planning at Southcentral Foundation, the regional health care provider for Alaska Natives.
Oden has lymphedema, a fluid buildup that swells her feet to different sizes, due to an operation she had as a teen. For people like her, and others with diabetes, arthritis or injuries, attractive shoes can be impossible to find.
In 2015, after another operation, she found a Facebook page for people like her.
"For the first time in my life I had gotten connected with a larger community of people with lymphedema," she said. "I never knew they existed."
No one on the page could find shoes.
"My very first thought was, 'Who is going to solve this problem?' And, 'I could be one of the people who could be good at solving this problem,' because I tend to be somebody who says, 'Let's just get in there and do it rather than waiting for somebody else,' " she said.
Writing songs, booking gigs and recording albums makes you a small-business person. But manufacturing shoes is something else entirely.
In January 2016, Oden took her idea to Startup Weekend at the Boardroom in downtown Anchorage, an event where entrepreneurs compete with business ideas. She was a company of one.
That wasn't going to work. The competition required teams to work together. Through the course of the weekend, Oden convinced her co-worker, Celia Crossett, to join her. They recruited the only other person available, Ayla Rogers, who was helping run the event.
The trio turned out to be a good team. Rogers had worked in startups before. Crossett is a whiz at social media.
Besides having complementary business skills, age and gender made the team mesh. They said they speak the same language. While Oden is twice her partners' ages — they are both 27 — that seemed to create a balance of perspectives.
They won that first competition. They started the company. And then they kept winning other competitions.
"They are solving a very specific, unique problem that people can pretty quickly understand and value," explained Ky Holland, who works supporting the startup community.
Contest prizes have been the company's major source of funding, more than $36,000 so far.
That's important, because none of the women knew anything about making shoes. They had to hire consultants outside Alaska to design the shoes and craftsmen overseas to make the prototypes. They also hired a lawyer to patent their idea.
Meanwhile, they studied the market. A Facebook support group the women started brought immediate feedback. They attended a walk for lymphedema sufferers and measured the volume of people's feet.
Traditional shoe sizes measure feet in two dimensions, length and width. People whose feet are unusually thick often must buy shoes that are too long or too wide. If each foot is different, they may need to buy two pairs.
Pandere shoes will be adjustable in areas that are normally stiff, expanding in volume where feet swell. Each shoe will adjust separately, so one pair will do.
The women estimate more than 40 million people in the United States need these shoes.
Unfortunately, the problem is not solved. They have not yet created a shoe that expands and looks good.
After spending their money on design and construction of a prototype, Oden said, she felt like throwing up when she saw the result. Their ideas had not translated. The shoe didn't work, and it looked ridiculous.
More contests, more money, more prototypes. They found new consultants, new craftsmen to make the prototypes, and they've gotten closer.
Meanwhile, they still own the company without investors. They hope to get an interest-free loan soon from Kiva, a crowdfunded, nonprofit microloan website. They don't want to sell a share of the company.
If all goes well, the product will be ready early next year. With their now-enormous web-based network, the women hope to pre-sell shoes and use that revenue to have the shoes produced in Mexico and drop-shipped to customers.
Those early customers' feedback will allow further improvements, getting the product right for the broader market of traditional sales.
I hope it works. If it does, it will solve a real problem for people all over the world and will employ people in Mexico. And three women in Alaska will win their biggest prize, which they will deserve.
For other Alaskans, the moral of the story is that we don't need to sit around dreaming. The internet and the nurturing of the Anchorage startup community can leverage Alaskans' ingenuity out into the world.
I went into this column thinking these women were brave for risking this work. And they are. But when I finished talking to them, I realized they weren't risking as much as if they had never tried.
As the business mentor Holland pointed out, "The biggest risk people have is of being afraid to move and share an idea, and the risk of that is that you never do anything."
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