About this episode

This week’s guest is an absolute fireball of a human being. I’d like to introduce you to Neely Powell, the founder of The Charleston Shoe Co. Her story runs at 100 mph from the minute her journey gets rolling. She started her business as a side hustle in college. Since then, the growth that The Charleston Shoe Company is experiencing is remarkable. At the time of this recording, Neely has opened 20 stores and is in the midst of opening another 6 stores nationwide within the next 6 weeks!

In this episode, we will discuss how powerful the belief in your own ability can be, even in the most challenging environment. We also talk about how shifting your perspective of an obstacle to an opportunity can change your business dramatically. Also, we will talk about how important it is to stay focused and to not allow the turbulence of a problem to distract you. However, it is important to remember that while we may have zero control of the output, we have full control of the input. Begin to shift your perspective onto the challenges, I mean opportunities, that are facing you at this very moment. I present to you, Neely Powell’s startup story.

In this episode, you will hear

  • How being raised by entrepreneurs shaped Neely’s lifestyle and how she saw opportunities everywhere through her creativity
  • The realization that life is short so it’s important to make the best of it - don’t procrastinate
  • A good perspective is so important - people amplify what the worst case scenario might be and that is what paralyzes them; but Neely says, “I really did not think about the possibility of failure. I just saw how big the opportunity was.”
  • What it was like opening her store in Savannah, the importance of having fun with customers, and offering a product that customers absolutely love
  • Dealing with factory issues, wrong orders, and how to make the best of the situation
  • Expanding the business to a second store in Charleston, trunk shows, a wholesale business, and ultimately many other locations
  • The fact that she has faith in humanity and continues to trust others even after dealing with fraudulent activity
  • Overcoming the practice of being involved in all aspects of the business as it grows beyond that level of management and her expectations for the future of the company
  • The importance of and her gratitude for the family and friends who helped her get to where she is today

Resources from this episode:

Connect with Neely on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/neely-woodson-powell-366401148
The Charleston Shoe Company: https://charlestonshoeco.com/ -- Neely has extended a gracious offer to our listeners: enter the code “startupstory” at checkout for a 15% discount on all purchases!
Follow The Charleston Shoe Company at: https://www.facebook.com/CharlestonShoeCompany

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Full Episode Transcript

Special Guest: Neely Powell.

Sponsored By:

Episode transcript

The Startup Story - Neely Powell

Neely Powell: I'm Neely Powell, the founder and CEO of Charleston Shoe Company, and this is MY startup story.

James McKinney: Every wildfire began with a spark. Every superhero has an origin story. And every single startup has a moment that they point to as their beginning. And every founder has a purpose that drove them in the midst of all obstacles. THAT is The Startup Story.

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James McKinney: Before we jump into our episode this week, I want to share a review that was written on iTunes by Hurdles1, who gave The Startup Story a five star rating and wrote, but let me just warn everyone, this is a great write up. It's a little lengthy, but it's so good. Hurdles1 wrote: "We have all read or seen or heard of the startup that came from nowhere and had immediate success. However, if you dig a little deeper, you will find that the entrepreneur driving the successful startup often didn't have overnight success. Instead, their journey was one of obstacles, challenges, doubts, false-starts, restarts, transformation, and unrelenting drive toward their vision. The path to success is far too often a solo journey, but it doesn't have to be. The shared knowledge of founders, entrepreneurs and change-makers can now be accessed through this great podcast. James McKinney has a natural conversational style that allows his guests to clearly and concisely share their journey, their insights and their best-practices allowing you to tap into the collective knowledge of other great entrepreneurs. I have enjoyed each episode and look forward to each future episode. You should definitely check out this podcast if you have a curious mind and desire to understand the road to success!"

Wow, I'm speechless, Hurdles1! I can tell you've been listening to these episodes, because you're using some of the same language that we use in the podcast. Such powerful stuff. This website an unbelievable review and I'm incredibly grateful for the time you put into it. I hope you will copy and paste this review and share it, along with a link to the podcast, in your LinkedIn profile. This was meant for entrepreneurs and our LinkedIn networks are just flooded with entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs, so let's get this out there on LinkedIn. We are a startup ourselves and getting the word out about the podcast is a top priority. These founder stories are for the masses. So if you've found value in any of The Startup Story episodes, please leave a review. I'll continue to read one each week, so plug your brand in the review as well. Giving your business a plug is the least I can do if you take the time out of your day to write a review.

Now let's jump into this week's episode. Our guest today is an absolute fireball of a human being. Her story runs at 100 miles per hour from the minute her journey gets rolling. Our featured founder today is Neely Powell, the founder of The Charleston Shoe Company. Neely's name was given to me by a male listener who simply reached out to me via email and let me know that, to use his words, "You will be floored by Neely's story." Well, he was not lying. The growth that The Charleston Shoe Company is experiencing is remarkable. At the time of this recording, Neely had 20 stores open and was in the midst of opening another six stores nationwide within the next six weeks. Like I said, Neely is growing The Charleston Shoe Company at an unbelievable rate.

In this episode, you will hear exactly how powerful a belief in your own ability can be, even in the most challenging environment. You will learn how shifting your perspective of an obstacle to look at it as an opportunity can change your business dramatically. And you will discover how important it is to stay focused on the issue, and not to allow the turbulence of the problem itself to distract you. Neely started The Charleston Shoe Company in 2011. Well, technically she started it during her time in college. But at the time, she only saw it as a side hustle. But those were her college years. Like all great stories, we need to start at the very beginning, and Neely's story, much like the growth of The Charleston Shoe Company, starts off very, very different than most others.

Neely Powell: My father was a… he developed a lot of real estate and conceptualized about 30 restaurants and bars in Memphis, Tennessee in the seventies. He was straight out of college and him and three friends opened all these restaurants and bars in Memphis, Tennessee, and brand them. Came up with concepts. The main restaurant there was TGI Fridays, which was the first Fridays outside of New York. So this was a big deal for Memphis. The day that he opened all of those restaurants and bars, he had liquor by the drink passed in the state of Tennessee. So prior to that, no one could go into a bar and order a drink. So this was a huge thing for Memphis, and a huge thing for the mid south in general. So there was a lot of excitement all through the seventies and early eighties. By 1985, he got pretty burned out and he moved myself, my six month old sister, and my mother to Costa Rica where he started a fishing rod company while he was looking for a place to build a resort on an island. This was going to be his retirement, right? So he gets a call in '85 that there's an island for sale in the Florida Keys, and we move there. You would have thought for my grandparents that we had moved to Africa. But we moved to the Florida Keys and while we were living there, my mother she had a bunch of retail stores in Memphis, ladies clothing stores. She also started importing furniture from a small colonial town in central Mexico. So we spent our summers there, going and she'd bring back suitcases full of product and have trunk shows every week selling clothing, furniture, accessories, all of this. Of course, I was raised in those stores, in those restaurants, in the hotels, and in all these trunk shows that she was doing. And the manufacturing side of things as well. So yes, I was definitely raised by two very ambitious people, but I just thought that's the way everyone was. So it wasn't like… I really just wanted to be an artist or an architect in the early days.

James McKinney: If you think to your high school years, what were you thinking your trajectory was? Was it to start your own enterprise or something else?

Neely Powell: No, I really did want to be an artist or an architect. So I actually out of college, I was accepted into the architecture program at the University of Miami and I was supposed to attend. I ended up taking a few months sabbatical before I went in San Miguel, Mexico which is where my shoes are made. I was working in the factories there and that's when everything changed.

James McKinney: Let's talk about, before we jump to San Miguel, because that is where things change for you.

Neely Powell: Right.

James McKinney: Being raised by entrepreneurs or not being raised by entrepreneurs, it has a way of shaping our mindset and how we… what we think of our future. I was raised by an entrepreneur and for me, I fought it. I do not want this life, I do not want this grind, do not want the heartache and the challenges that come with it. So I did not want that for the longest time. But inevitably, it's who I was. I couldn't avoid it. What was your thought process, having been raised by entrepreneurs? Was it something you fought and wanted nothing to do with it, or was it something you embraced and saw some opportunities in architecture and art, which is what you were passionate about?

Neely Powell: I think I pretty much embraced it, but I'm kind of that way with everything. I don't really say no to anything, and I don't really think about being from something as an obstacle. I only think of it as being an opportunity. So that's probably the mindset that they taught me. So I was constantly coming up with every project I could come up with, and there was always this sense of urgency, and this sense of I just need to go and do this, and I'm not really going to think about how I'm going to do it. I'm just going to go have fun and do it.

In summers I was running children's camps that I started. There was always a business going on in my head, but it was all for fun. It was never really about money as much as it was just these creative projects that I did for the fun of it.

James McKinney: See, that's interesting. You mention these children camps. So I assume that was before you went off to college. So what were some of these other, I'm assuming that's not the only hustle you had early on. What were some of the other ventures you started as a kid?

Neely Powell: Yeah. So my sister was young and I was taking care of her anyway, so every summer I'd have these summer camps and have all of her friends. We'd do all kinds of arts and craft projects. Then I'd serve them lunch. This was before I even knew how to drive. I was probably 10, 11, 12 taking care of these three, four, five year olds. Then I kept doing it until I went to college. It was the Creative Kiddie Camp was the name of it. But instead of your typical lemonade stand, I'd be painting rocks and shells and selling them on the side of the street or in my mother's stores, or in my dad's restaurants, or in the hotel. I played piano a lot and so my dad would pay me to come and play at the resort at dinner at night. I'd meet all of these characters. The resort was very eclectic. It's a small, five acre resort, only accessible by boat. There were only… he built 30 thatched bungalows and it was one of the first chateaus in the country, so it was very upscale and way, way before its time. He had no TVs or telephones in any of the rooms. The phone number was 1-800-3GetLost because he wanted people to come and decompress. This is before we even had cell phones, so no one was walking around with a cell phone anyway or a laptop, but his vision was you're going to come here.

So we had a lot of the Bushes, Rod Stewart, all kinds of characters that would come there for a week or what have you. I'd be in there meeting all of them, entertaining these people, and playing the piano for them at night. Then the next day I'd get in a boat and go to school in a trailer in the Keys.

James McKinney: Oh my goodness.

Neely Powell: Half of my class was a lot of them were from Cuba. They had come over here with their grandparents and parents, and it was such a difference for me, the juxtaposition to go to Little Palm at night or during the day, and then go to my normal childhood life in the Keys, barefoot, running around, taking a boat to school was so different. It taught me how to be able to interact and talk to any walk of life, if that makes sense.

James McKinney: Oh, that's incredible. What a great childhood. So now, let's jump to time in San Miguel.

Neely Powell: We started visiting there in the mid eighties, and my mom like I said would import all of this furniture and accessories. One day, my mother and I are walking through the streets and we stumble into this little maybe 50 square foot store with a dirt floor. Santiago, my current cobbler, was in there with his wife Martha. He was making shoes and I bought a pair, and my mom bought a pair. And every time we'd go back, I was 16 at the time the first pair that I bought. I was 16. Every time we'd go back, friends would say, "Oh, bring me a pair. I want a pair." I would just start bringing back shoes and shoes, and my mom would too. When I got to college, I started going to wholesale furniture markets with my mother on the weekends, and helping her sell furniture. I'd noticed at all the shows that there are all these women wearing uncomfortable shoes, and my mom and I are wearing the shoes we bought in San Miguel because they're so comfortable, and you can stand in them all day. It dawned on me, why don't I start bringing these shoes to these markets and sell them to these women wearing stilettos on their feet, walking 30,000 steps a day? So my mom would have these beautiful booths. She's selling to Neiman Marcus, Target, everything. They're beautiful booths. And here I am, I become this shoe lady. Like all these women and decorators are flocking to these booths going, "I heard you have these really incredible, comfortable shoes," and I'm making a total mess on the floor in her showroom ,while she's trying to write hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of orders to these big buyers, and I'm just creating havoc with all these women and these shoes.

So by the time I got out of college, these women that would purchase them would then get home, and they'd have such a reaction from their customers and their friends, and their clients, that I kind of started a wholesale business on the side. So they've gone, they'd go, " Can I order four dozen pairs and sell them to people?" So by the time I got out of college, we probably had about 200 wholesale accounts.

James McKinney: Wow.

Neely Powell: And I was going to these markets, selling the shoes, and really I mean not making a dime doing it because there were no margins, and everything I received was incorrect. But that's the beginning of that story.

James McKinney: So while you're doing this, though, this is something that you're doing during college, correct?

Neely Powell: Right.

James McKinney: What was your mindset in this? Was this just making money to pay for college, was this something that you thought had long-term play in it? What was your thought process in this?

Neely Powell: There was no thought process. I was literally just selling shoes. I knew that I needed to go to the furniture markets with my mother. I had fun doing it. I had fun with her and her partner, Bob. This was just a side gig that the customers kept me doing it because every time I'd go, they'd come and go, "Where are the shoes?" So there was really no not doing it, if you will.

There were so many points where it was just a nuisance. It was a plain nuisance and a headache, and I didn't think of it as a sustainable business at the time. I was just really working for my mother's furniture business, and this was a total side gig that I never thought had any teeth to it until probably my late twenties.

James McKinney: Late twenties, that's post college. So you finished college. You have 200 wholesale accounts. You said there's no margin in wholesale, because obviously they have to get their margin on their side too. What was that next step for you as you finished college and had these wholesale accounts?

Neely Powell: I just continued to, for the next ten years, work in my mother's furniture business. Like I said, I was doing this to cater to these customers that wanted the shoes. But it was so difficult. I would call the factory. Now granted, this was way before any kind of this technology. I was literally calling Mexico, speaking my broken Spanish. There's no FaceTime. There's no like real email per se of trying to see samples and get samples. I'm calling and I'm saying, "Okay, well I just went to market and I sold 200 pairs of black Monterey's." And I'd place an order over the phone with them. A week later, I'd get 200 pairs of yellow Lafayette's. I'd go, "Well none of my customers want these, and I certainly can't sell a yellow shoe. So what am I going to do?" This continued and these customers that I was getting, I could sell to them individually a shoe, but if they're placing an order for their stores, they don't want the yellow shoe. They want what they ordered.

So it was just a lot of… it was very much a side gig and a headache. I think when I turned 29 I website pregnant with my daughter at the time, and I just kind of quit. I just said, "I'm not making any money here. I'm not doing this," and I quit. Once I had her, I was home for a few months and I said, "You know what? I'm going to start my own shoe business." I went back to school. I went to SCAD, Savannah College of Art and Design, and took shoe design. I registered for just the classes I needed to take. I moved 10 hours away from my home with a one year old.

James McKinney: Oh man.

Neely Powell: And went to school, and learned… I knew how to sew a button maybe, but I literally physically had to make shoes. So I'm in these classes with these 17, 18 year olds and I'm 30 with a one year old, and I'm taking all these design classes. It dawned on me that the person to my left is making a blue suede studded seven inch heel. Who are you going to sell that to? There are very few people you're going to sell that to. I just kind of thought back to the practicality of the shoes that I'd been selling all those years, and took what I was learning from there and realized too, I'm in this town, Savannah, Georgia. Paula Deen's really big then. There are tons of people just being bused in to Savannah, and these tourists are just, there are 12 million tourists at the time a year. If you come to Savannah, instead of buying a coffee mug with Savannah on it, what if you bought a pair of shoes that was comfortable, functional, great for travel, great for walking, and it was named The Savannah Shoe Company? Then it's a tourist item, and at the same time it's a souvenir but it's something you actually want, especially women. I found a store downtown Broughton Street in Savannah before I'd finished my program. I called Santiago, my original cobbler-

James McKinney: The one you had the problems with, right?

Neely Powell: Yes, exactly. And I said, "Listen, I want to do this." My thought was if I opened a retail store and he sent me those 200 pairs of yellow shoes, I can sell that to women that are walking in off the street. I designed these styles with him. We started with like five styles, and five colors each. I opened my door in April of 2010 and started selling these shoes.

James McKinney: Oh my goodness. You covered a lot of ground there.

Neely Powell: Sorry.

James McKinney: No, no, no. That's great. This is great. But now I want to go back and I want to piece and poke at a few things real quick. So you were 30 with a one year old, and you make the decision to leave the comfort and support of family to go to SCADS. Again, that takes a lot of courage and gumption, and I'm sure there's probably listeners out there right now that find themselves with a young child and a book full of dreams, and they're not sure how to pursue it. What was going on with you mentally that you said, "This is a decision I'm making," because it's bold.

Neely Powell: I'm sure that 90% of my friends thought I was completely crazy, and to this day they will say that, that, "We came to visit you in Savannah and we all thought that you had just flown off your rocker." But there really was no… Again, it's kind of the way that I was raised. I really, other than flying, I really don't have a fear in trying something and realizing that life is short, and realizing a sense of urgency, and realizing that if I come up with something in my head, I just want to go do it. That's just the way I've always been. My dad died when I was 21 and I think that there has always been that sense of life is short, let's go make the most of it, and have fun while we're doing it. Just not procrastinate on things.

So I don't know. There was really never any fear. There was just kind of like I had this idea, so let me go try it. I did and I didn't have any money to go try it, either. Keep in mind, I put college on my credit card. I rented a house in Savannah with my one year old at the time, and I had her in this daycare downtown that I don't know how I did it. I definitely maxed myself financially to be able to do it. Then my mom and her partner, Bob, loaned me $5000 to pay first and last month's rent on my store. That was the last dime I borrowed.

James McKinney: I do believe that there are listeners right now that find themselves in a spot that most people would say there's just no way out other than get a steady job and provide. There's obviously nothing wrong with getting a steady job and providing. But you saw something more for yourself and for your child and your future. One of the things that those people listening, where they're kind of stuck, they don't know what to do because they want to pursue more but they have these responsibilities. Again, it doesn't even have to be the single parent. It could be the person that has responsibilities of a mortgage and kids, and maybe they're 60 and they think they're too old to pursue their dreams. If you were to think back to that time, what was the worst case scenario for you to make that move and that jump, and be that bold?

Neely Powell: Probably that I just failed and then I'd come home and continue doing what I was doing. But I didn't really think about the failure aspect of it. I just thought about the opportunity. I just, again, it was just one of those things that this is a fun idea and a creative idea, and I'm going to try it. And if it doesn't work, it doesn't work. Then I'll come home and I'll get another job, and I'll pay off all this credit card debt, and I'll figure it out.

But it was probably a few years ago that I even had the thought process of thinking about failure and thinking about actively making a profit. Everything was just part of the adventure. It really had nothing to do with money, even though I needed money at the time. It really had nothing to do with that. It just had to do with this is something I want to do in my life and I want to go do it.

James McKinney: I think that's one of the things that, in our short time before when we connected before we did this recording, that impressed me most is just how bold you are and how right your perspective is. You didn't think about failure. Just this is what you wanted to do and you went for it. I think that a lot of the reason that people stop and have paralysis by analysis is that they amplify what the worst case scenario is, and that's not even the real worst case scenario.

Neely Powell: No.

James McKinney: To you, the worst case scenario was that you don't succeed and you have a lot of credit card debt, and you come home. It could have gotten a whole lot worse than that, but to you okay, that's the worst case scenario, I come home. Like no big deal. You weren't paralyzed by that, and I think so many people do. That's what I love about your story is that you just didn't let those things stop you.

So now, here you are in the midst of your program, not even finished yet. You're adding to your debt with your mom helping you with that first and last for a storefront. You're talking with your cobbler in San Miguel. Retail's a tough business and now you're jumping into the retail space. How old is your daughter at this time?

Neely Powell: She's two and a half maybe.

James McKinney: So she's two and a half now. Let's walk through those early days of now a retail storefront. You've got staffing you've got to worry about. You've got your program you've still got to get through. What was the early days of The Savannah Shoe Company like for you?


Neely Powell: I opened on the store, it was the busiest store, the kind of main street of Savannah called Broughton Street. There's not a lot of retail in Savannah at the time. I had my daughter and I would go to the store every day and no one was on the street, period. I just went, "What have I done?" So I'd stand outside of the store, every day, with two different shoes on. Every time someone walked by, I'd say hello to them, and they either would say hello back and think I was completely crazy and feel sorry for me and come in the store. Or they'd completely ignore me because they were scared of me. I think that there was this sense then, and it's really never died, of the atmosphere that I was trying to create in this shop which was having fun. Coming into your best friend's closet and talking to these people, and interacting with them. The sideline was that I'm selling this product that is absolutely magical. If you could talk those people into coming in the store and actually putting the shoe on their foot, they just were mesmerized, and they go, "This is the most comfortable thing I've ever put on my foot and I need three pairs."

I remember when I sold our first few pairs of shoes, I went, "Well today I can pay for my electricity bill, and tomorrow I can pay for my water. The next day, I can pay for my child's daycare." There was this constant sense of referral too, which was awesome. I didn't have any money to advertise, so I was literally selling the best I knew how. Trying my hardest to get people in the door, and then creating this impression on these people that made them tell other people. So everyone, it just really got into the water and people just started coming in and saying, "I was at this restaurant last night and this woman had on these shoes, and she literally was a stranger and she let me try them on. I loved them, and that's why I'm here." And that story was every day.

James McKinney: Wow.

Neely Powell: There's a great story about my mother-in-law at the time, she was in another shoe store and this woman looked down at her foot and said, "I love those shoes. I need those," and she goes, "Well, my daughter-in-law sells them. Here's her website. You can go get them there." And she goes, "No, I want them for a wedding tonight." She literally bought the shoes off her feet.

James McKinney: Oh my goodness, oh my goodness.

Neely Powell: But these stories are everywhere. It was these women getting on an elevator and multiple people would be in the shoes. They go, "Aren't they the best?" and they are. They're magically comfortable. They fit so many feet. I was just lucky that on top of the hustle and the entrepreneurship that I had, I was also selling just this very well made, awesome product. It started to take off. So then I hired my first employee and I went back-

James McKinney: Hold on. Now, no, that's great. But how long, so all this buzz is building up on still Savannah Shoe Company at this time. All this buzz is building up on Savannah Shoe Company. You're making an incredible product. People are referring like crazy. People are reselling them off of their feet for weddings, and you still don't have a first employee. What is that times span from opening to first employee?

Neely Powell: So let's see. I opened the store in April. I think I hired my first employee in July.

James McKinney: So you took off like a rocket then, from the buzz and word of mouth.

Neely Powell: Yeah, I did.

James McKinney: That is amazing.

Neely Powell: Right. I really actually hired that employee so I could go back to Memphis, back to my family. Every time I'd go back to Memphis, the employee that I had in place, our sales would go from $500 a day to like $10 a day.

James McKinney: Oh wow.

Neely Powell: The difference was completely drastic. So I remember it was like maybe August or something of that year, and my mom goes, "We are getting in the car. I don't understand why the sales are doing this. We're getting in the car and we're going to go to Savannah and we're going to figure this out." So we got in the car and we pulled up to the store, and my employee came out and he had headsets on. His pants were kind of down below his waist. He had like a Dr. Pepper in his hand, and my mom goes, "You're trying to get him to sell women's shoes? This is not working." I think we stayed for about a month and sold shoes together, and it was incredible. Then a friend of mine that happened to live in Savannah decided to start working for me and selling shoes, and she just did an incredible job. The momentum really started taking off.

That was in about September, and that's when I got a call from an old friend of my father's who was developing the city market in Charleston. He said, "I heard that you had this shoe business, and we're opening some retail outlets in the city market. Why don't you open a store here?" I went, "I can't even run this store. How am I possibly going to do that?" But of course I said yes, because everyone in this business knows I try everything at least three times.

James McKinney: Your business was still new and there's a lot of things to the business you were now in with manufacturing and shoes. You had challenges with your factory in San Miguel. So how did you solve your capital issue? How did you solve your manufacturing issue and the reliance on it? How did you solve those infrastructure pieces before you could even really truly think to begin on a second store?

Neely Powell: I just didn't see anything as a problem. Everything felt like an opportunity, if that makes sense.

James McKinney: So your factory was delivering orders as they were supposed to? Because that was a problem at one point.

Neely Powell: Maybe sometimes. Maybe 70% or 60% sometimes. It was almost crazy. There was this one shipment that came in that was a whole box of tiger printed boots. I opened the box, and there are these women in the store, and I go, "Ugh, these are not the linen sandals I needed." And I pull them out and the women go crazy.

James McKinney: Oh my goodness.

Neely Powell: It was almost like this sense of excitement to anything that I was getting in, because everything was new and different for people. Even if we weren't getting exactly what we wanted, I was still taking orders on things and figuring out how to work around the situations that I was presented with. My factory was kind of helping to extend credit to me to pay for the merchandise, and in turn whatever I was selling, I was using to pay for rent or electricity or staff, or what have you. So I was just continuing to fund the business with any kind of revenue that we brought in.

James McKinney: So then you were approached for your Charleston location. Obviously, you're running havoc if you will at your Savannah store, figuring things out, making things happen. Let's talk about the expansion into your second store.

Neely Powell: I was approached to open this store and I got to Charleston, and I just thought it was incredible. I did not want to wait until their projected open date of I think it was January of 2011, which was only three months away, but I just didn't want to wait. So I found this temporary, at the time I thought, intermediate location to open. I signed a year lease on King Street. I just said, "Well, I'm going to dive right into this location." It was the same situation as I had in Savannah. There were a lot of businesses closing on lower King. Saks had just gone out of business, Ralph Lauren had just gone out of business. There were a lot of empty store fronts, and everyone thought I was completely crazy to open when I did because, at the time, upper King was where you wanted to go but my thought process was all the women that live south of Broad, which was the lower King area, were going to walk from their homes with their friends and their house guests, and whoever else they had, and they would walk up lower King to the bulk of the mainstream shopping, and they'd pass my store. That was my client for that space.

Luckily I was right. I'd rebranded the company in Charleston as Charleston Shoe Company, keeping with my theme that this is a souvenir so it doesn't need to be Savannah, it needs to be Charleston in Charleston. Everyone had this sense of pride about the people in Savannah had this sense of pride about the Savannah Shoe Company, and likewise in Charleston. So they had this feeling like this is the store that only we have here, and I'm going to bring all my friends and tell all my friends, and I'm the first one to discover this store. It's going to almost be somewhat of a tourist attraction, because it's so different than a normal… You're not going to the GAP. You're not going to JCrew. You're going to this store that's in your town that's so different, and it's fun. All the people in here make you feel fun. They're wearing two different shoes and they're getting in all these random shoes that are not even in boxes at the time. We would literally get these big boxes of shoes and I would dump them out in the middle of the floor, and these women would go crazy. It was a complete frenzy.

James McKinney: Oh my goodness. So Charleston Shoe Company is much bigger now. It's now just Charleston Shoe Company, correct? Savannah now was changed to Charleston Shoe Company as well, correct?

Neely Powell: Yes.

James McKinney: Okay. So now you have two stores. You're still really learning on the fly, because now you're putting processes in place and you've grown exponentially since what year did Charleston open up?

Neely Powell: April of 2010 is Savannah and October of 2010 was Charleston.

James McKinney: So within one year, well really within a few months, you open two stores. What happened after the Charleston Store opened?

Neely Powell: Well, I was still commuting mind you from Memphis, Tennessee which was 10 hours away. I had a three year old at the time, and I am staying in hotels, at friend's homes. There was no such things Airbnb or VRBO at the time, so I was just travelling from Memphis to Savannah to Charleston, and back. One day, I'm sitting in the Charleston store and I had my child with me, shoes everywhere, women everywhere. This woman comes in and she says, "Is this your silver station wagon in the back?" and I said, "It is." She said, "I'm about to tow it." I go, "Oh gosh, okay." So I go to the back with her and I'd introduced myself, and she says, "Oh, well I own this building next door. Do you want to see my apartment?" I said, "Sure." And so this woman that was about to tow my car, I'm now renting the above upstairs apartment from her, and that was my first real accommodation if you will. So I rented this apartment right above the shoe store, which helped and I'd probably be turned into child services for this, but my daughter, I'd put her down for a nap and I'd, since it was right upstairs, I'd have the baby monitor and I was basically selling shoes downstairs while she napped.

This one woman came in, Debby Moore. She was adorable and she had just retired to Charleston. She came in and she bought a bunch of shoes from me, and she came back the next day and bought a couple more. Then the third day she came back and she goes, "I just can't sleep. I just don't know how you're doing all this. You have no employees here. It is just you, and you have this child. You're trying to do all this. How are you doing this? I'm going to help you. You don't even have to pay me. I just have to help you." And so Debby Moore was my first employee on King Street. She was so much fun.

James McKinney: So with Debby Moore, she comes to you because she is feeling overwhelmed for you.

Neely Powell: Right.

James McKinney: Was there any, and again when you were talking about commuting those 10 hours back and forth, I was feeling overwhelmed for you. Was there any part of you that was overwhelmed? And just kind of questioning your sanity in anyway?

Neely Powell: Not at all. I mean, I was just on overdrive. I really wasn't thinking about it. I didn't have a social life, per se, because I was on such overdrive. I think at the end of the day, the minute you got me horizontal I was just out cold. Then I would pop up at 4 a.m. and start my day. I never thought about being overwhelmed. There was never a sense of I don't know how to manage all this. I had taught myself how to use QuickBooks. I was using Excel for my PO's. I taught myself how to do payroll. There were all these things that I was just doing off the cuff and paying bills. Then one day, a friend of mine in Memphis was like, "I'm overwhelmed for you. Can I, at night after I put my kids to bed, can I pay your bills for you?" so she started doing my accounting. You know, I was just having so much fun. The high of selling shoes to all these women, it was intangible. I really wasn't thinking about the problems or anything. I was just on autopilot.

James McKinney: Oh my goodness. You are something special, Neely, I'm telling you that right now. So now you have two stores. You have a little bit of help, a homestead for your daughter. What happens after Charleston Shoe Store?

Neely Powell: At the end of January the next year, I opened my Market Street location. We get a call. So I have my one friend from Memphis who's running my store in Savannah and we built our own ecommerce site, like with domain.com or something. So she's running, shipping out of the back of the Savannah store for that. I'm running the Charleston store. She gets a call from this woman in Boca Grande, Florida, and she says to her, "So we do this thing every year. One of our customers owns your shoes, she loves them. We do these trunk shows every other week from January to April, and we'd love you to come and participate in it." Of course, being me, I said, "Of course we're going to go do this."

So we packed up my station wagon, filled it to the brim with as many shoes as possible. Drove down to Boca Grande and in two days, I think we'd sold something like $10,000 worth of shoes. The momentum there was just absolutely crazy. I still have customers to this day, I just went to that same trunk show last week. This is our eighth year or something doing it, but I went to that same trunk show and she goes, "I remember that very first trunk show. You had a pile of shoes, it was a mound of shoes at the end of the show. The two of y'all had to figure out how to match them all back up," because the frenzy that had been created over the past two days, we didn't even have time to put shoes back in shoe boxes.

The organizers of the show were just blown away. They go, "We have never seen two people sell more product in our lives. Can you come back in two weeks?" and we went, "Absolutely." So as soon as we got home, Katie started applying to all these other trunk shows and no one would give us the time of day. Then word started getting out that we had done this business in this show, and so then all these other trunk shows started calling us. That was really a big beginning of an even bigger expansion and just promotion of the business.

We literally used those trunk shows as not only marketing, testing new markets, and just sheer… it was almost like an advertisement budget to us, because we would go to these new towns. We would sell hundreds of pairs of shoes in two days, two individuals, and then the word of mouth started in these other towns and then would just spread. That was a huge time for us, and we were obviously crazy. Now, here we are, doing what I was doing, commuting from Memphis to Charleston to Savannah, and now let's add in I'm also travelling to all these other trunk shows. Vero Beach, Boca Grand, Delray, and so those were every weekend we'd have a different trunk show.

One of the biggest trunk shows that we did that year was a trunk show that there'd been waiting lists for this trunk show for years, and people couldn't get in it, and these women called us and said, "We had a cancellation on this trunk show. We heard about your business. Do you want to take the main spot on the stage of the auditorium?" There are probably 30 or 40 other vendors in this show. We just were so excited, we said, "Absolutely." We got in the car three days later, drove down there, and we had myself, my mother, my employee Katie, my sister, my husband, and my four year old or three and a half year old at the time, were all on that stage. Gigi, my daughter, is like in a bassinet under a table, surrounded by a bunch of shoe boxes. My husband is like ringing up credit cards and talking about women's bunions. My mom and my sister are on stage selling women's shoes. I'll never forget, at the end of the show we went back to the hotel and we calculated our sales. We had done like $27,000 in two days at a school auditorium. I mean, that was one, I'm getting goose bumps right now talking about it because when we got the total, we were just blown away. It was mayhem. It was so awesome.

James McKinney: That is awesome.

Neely Powell: That's really when things started really taking off in a crazy, unexplainable way.

James McKinney: That is unbelievable. So let's advance the story a little bit here. So you had these incredible trunk shows. You started expanding the business through trunk shows. How many stores do you have now?

Neely Powell: I have 20 stores and I'm opening six in the next six weeks.

James McKinney: 20 stores, 30% growth in the next six weeks from a store count. You're frequent on QVC, which requires your participation because it's you recording the episodes with QVC. And trunk shows are still a massive part of your business, correct?

Neely Powell: They are. And on top of that, I thought I would never do this because wholesale was so difficult for me in the early days, but probably near the end of 2011 we had so many requests for our shoes in people's stores from word of mouth that we had to open the wholesale sector up. So we also have a very big wholesale business now. We sell to 400 retailers around the country. So not only are we attending trunk shows during this time, and travelling to all those stores, but we're also attending trade shows.

James McKinney: Oh my goodness. You are an incredibly impressive individual, Neely.

Neely Powell: Or crazy.

James McKinney: You know what, we'll call it that as well. So listeners might be listening and thinking, okay, everything she touches turns to gold. It all has worked out so incredibly well for you. We know that you don't possess any magic powers. You are still a human. So when you look back at your journey over the last eight years, building to almost 26 stores, actually by the time this airs you'll even be closer actually. Still won't have those stores open yet, but close to. So when you look back at your journey, everyone has those low points and those moments where either you question yourself or you question your ability execute. Did you have any of those moments?

Neely Powell: I probably still have those moments. I just don't spend a lot of time on them because I think it's so counterproductive to anything in your life. Again, it goes back to my upbringing and losing my father probably very early that I want at all times people around me to be having fun and not worrying about the small things, or the things that may seem like they're really big. One of the lowest points probably in this last eight years was my bookkeeper at the time, who got married in my backyard, who was very, very close to me, right hand, I trusted her with everything and that's probably in having fun with all my employees and feeling like they're all my best friends, I'm very trusting. That's probably not the best quality. Anyway, one day I went… this was February of 2014.

James McKinney: So three years into your business.

Neely Powell: Or '15, 2015. I went to my bank account and I didn't have any money. I couldn't make payroll. The reason I even looked was because my factory had called and said, "You've been late on these payments. Did you know this?" And when I went to my bookkeeper at the time, she said, "Well, we don't have any money," and I said, "How is that possible? Aren't you managing it correctly?" So I went to the bank and my banker at the time is a good friend of mine. We sat down and we looked at everything, and we realized that there were these exorbitant American Express bills that had been continuing to be taken out of the bank account, upwards to the tune of $420,000 over the period of a year.

James McKinney: Oh man.

Neely Powell: I should be just totally terrified, right? I called my mom and I said, "Mom, I've got to make payroll. I don't know what to do. I don't have any money." At this time, I don't even know if I can borrow any money. So luckily, it was the perfect timing because this was February 15th and my first trunk show of the season started that week. I remember packing up the van, and I just said, "I'm getting on the road right now and I'm not coming back until I have enough money to make payroll." And pay the rent for, at the time we probably had six stores I guess in 2015. I have to pay six of these stores rent, and I didn't have anything. I got on the road and we sold like we've never sold before. At the end of my three week trip, I'm on the phone with my woman that had taken over my bookkeeping. I said, "Okay, where are we? What do we need to do here?" and she said, "Let me get on American Express." She got on American Express and we had a $420,000 credit. They had refunded all of the fraudulent activity.

James McKinney: Wow.

Neely Powell: At the same time, I had been on the road for three weeks and made enough money to pay my bills. I have goose bumps again, because I remember at that end of the trip, just how excited I was that we had done this and we had overcome this situation that could have been completely catastrophic if I couldn't pay payroll and couldn't pay rent.

James McKinney: Wow. That's unbelievable. How has that changed how you have managed the business since?

Neely Powell: Probably should have changed me a lot more than it did. I'm still very trusting. I have too much to do to not be, and I have too much faith in humanity and in my employees and my friends and everything to really imagine that someone could be unfaithful. So I really think that I still probably, that is one of my shortcomings in my delegation, which we all have to do, especially at this stage. I've got to not be involved in every aspect. It would be nearly impossible, even though I continue to remain involved in how much did we spend on pencils last week. I'm still very much a micro manager in that sense.

You have to be. I think if you didn't, there are parts of the business, and I see them when I stop paying attention to certain aspects of the business, I see them going down. You have to constantly reinvent those sectors and reinvent how you're involved in them as well.

James McKinney: Entrepreneurship is not a solo flight. People try to go alone and at some point, they break or they fail. Part of that is maintaining a focus of the shoulders that we stood upon to get to where we are. So when you look in your journey, who do you look back at as so critical to the success you're experiencing now, and the fulfillment you're experiencing now that you just look back with such immense gratitude towards? Who are those people?

Neely Powell: There's so many, and that is one hard aspect of this journey is the regret of where those people in your life went during all of this, if that makes sense. So there's a huge sense of gratitude for my family and my friends, and the friends that came into the business to help. We got so crazy for a while there and we were all wearing so many hats that I feel like there was just where are we going and what are we doing, and we don't know how to stop this horse that all those people that worked throughout the business. From my mom to my husband, people were trying to take care of Gigi and help sell shoes. Obviously, I would not be here if I hadn't had all those people in the early days just never saying no. They were just constantly hitting the pavement with me, and we were all just having a great time. We were really all on this fun high until it became this really big job that no one really knew what to do.

Now we have, I think we sent out 280 W-2's this year. Obviously, each one of those people that plays me in all of those locations really takes every aspect of the job I had when I started and has blown it up into its own job title.

James McKinney: yeah, yeah.

Neely Powell: I had all those 280 jobs at one time, and now It's amazing that there are that many of them. So it's so exciting to see some of them. Right now, I have four employees currently, at least four, that started working for me when they were 17, and still work for me today. Two of them run their own division of the company and they basically were responsible for creating that division. They're my children and everyone always goes, "Well, you only have one daughter. Are you going to have more children?" I go, "I have 280 children."

James McKinney: That's awesome.

Neely Powell: And they're women, so you know they're coming to me about everything. Some of them live with me sometimes and so I'm very thankful, and I'm very grateful for all those people that were in my life when I first started, and are in my life today, and have all put up with my crazy whirlwind life.

James McKinney: Oh my goodness, that's incredible. So the last question, I'd like you to picture yourself sitting down for coffee with one listener at a time, and this listener is someone who has started a company and just has a tremendous amount of frustration that it's not getting the amount of traction that it's getting, or it's a lot harder than they had thought it would be when they started. Or maybe the person you're sitting down to coffee with is someone who is working a 9 to 5 and has a mortgage and kids. Maybe they're later on in life, but there's some narrative they have in their head as to why they can't pursue this book of dreams they have, these ideas and these concepts that they want to bring to market. They know they'd be more fulfilled by it, but there's just something that is holding them back from it. Or maybe this person you're having coffee with is an individual that has tried numerous times to bring a product or service to market and has failed. To any variable degree, but they've never succeeded at something when it comes to their entrepreneurship. What do you say to one or all of those people during this time, where you're just sitting with them one on one?

Neely Powell: That same very first question that you asked me. What do you have to lose, other than the short life and the experiences that you're going to have pursuing it? I just think you have to take the fear factor away and really decide if this is something you really want to do, just do it. Nike. Just do it. I know that's so easy for me to say now, having succeeded somewhat in this wild dream that I had, but I still have those every day. Opening New York is terrifying to me, but if I don't try it, I'd never know if it would have worked.

James McKinney: There are so many powerful learnings from Neely's story, but there are two specific items that I want to key in on. The first is the power of having parent that is there when it gets ugly. Now, I don't mean a business partner or a loved one, although their support is incredibly important as well. I mean a financial partner. We don't talk about this enough, but it's so important. See, just four years into the growth of The Charleston Shoe Company, Neely discovered a loss of $420,000 due to internal fraud. American Express walked along side her during that time and made her whole by crediting the entire $420,000 within weeks. It was not a long, drawn out process. American Express is such a huge supporter of small businesses everywhere, so consider Neely's experience when looking at your next small business loan or credit card. Pick a partner that's going to supposed small business like ours, that will be there when it matters most.

The second key takeaway was how powerful Neely's perspective has been throughout everything she has been through. Throughout her journey, Neely kept saying that she did not see things as an obstacle, but as an opportunity. She did not think about the possibility of failure because she saw the opportunity. She always tried things at least three times because of the opportunity. Do you hear that? The opportunity. Can you pick up what makes Neely so unique? It's her perspective and presence in the moment. Think back to how she handled the situation when she discovered her close trusted employee had embezzled $420,000. Her response was to simply focus on the opportunity at hand, and that was to ensure payroll was met. She was not distracted by the panic that could have set in because she was out the $420,000. Her years of seeing the opportunities above the challenge or obstacle enabled her to focus on what mattered most. She did not get distracted by worry or fear or panic. She locked in on the opportunity.

Now, Neely's story turned out great in this case, as she was able to earn that money by weeks on the road doing trunk shows, and she had the powerful backing of American Express who credited her account for those fraudulent charges. I know it does not always work out that well. In fact, my dad built a multimillion dollar print shop, only to have it shut down due to an embezzlement situation. We have zero control of the output, but we have full control of the input. Begin to shift your perspective on the challenges, I mean, the opportunities, that we are facing at this very moment.

As if Neely didn't already provide us with a tremendous amount of value, she's extending a discount offer of 15% on all purchases at CharlestonShoeCo.com. We will have a link in the show notes, so make sure you check that out. Buy whatever you like and just enter the code "startupstory" when you check out. Based on Neely's story, I know I'm a fan. I'll be picking up a few pairs for my wife. Again, use the discount code "startupstory" when you check out. We've included a link to her website in our show notes as well as a copy of the discount code. Also, make sure to follow them on Instagram, CharlestonShoeCo. Awareness is incredibly important to our founders and we hear from every single founder how hard it is to get the necessary visibility, so let's show Neely and The Charleston Shoe Company some love on Instagram.

Now, for my personal ask. The Startup Story community has been so incredible with sharing our podcast with others, but we have more stories to tell and more people to reach. We are a startup and the most powerful way you can support The Startup Story podcast is to leave a review on Apple Podcast or wherever you get your podcast. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram @TheStartupStory.co. Share The Startup Story on your social media, either with a link or a screenshot. Make sure you tag or mention us @TheStartupStory.co so we can see your help and say thank you for it.

Lastly, share the podcast on your LinkedIn profile. The Startup Story is for entrepreneurs, so please do not underestimate the power of sharing The Startup Story on your LinkedIn profile so other entrepreneurs can discover us. In fact, most people struggle to share good content on LinkedIn anyways, so if you want to support The Startup Story then search for The Startup Story company page, follow us, and share our posts to help encourage other founders and spread the word about the podcast. Every single founder has a story, and the startup stories we bring you every week can encourage and inspire another founder. It might just be what they needed to hear to keep moving forward on their dreams. I look forward to sharing these stories every Tuesday with hopes to inspire you to start YOUR story.

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April 02 2019
Neely Powell, founder of Charleston Shoe Company

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