By Rick Romell
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Kathryn Jackson operates her business from the most modest of headquarters — a windowless office in the Lincoln Warehouse, a nearly 90-year-old industrial building on the south side that has attracted an eclectic mix of small firms, artists and musicians seeking inexpensive space.
“We kind of try to run lean,” Jackson said.
But there’s nothing downscale about Jackson’s market. Her firm, Protect Your Pumps LLC, targets women who spend hundreds of dollars on a pair of shoes and want them to look great heel to toe and top to bottom.
A Tuskegee University business graduate who found corporate life didn’t suit her, Jackson, 28, launched the firm in 2011 after having a brainstorm while selling pricey shoes at Nieman Marcus in Chicago. Now she sells her clear, adhesive shields all over the world.
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Stick them on the bottom of a pair of Jimmy Choo stilettos or Manolo Blahnik snakeskin thong sandals and the soles will stay as sleek and shiny as the uppers.
“It is a bit of a niche market,” said Jackson, who on this day was wearing a pair of taupe Michael Kors pumps. “…There are a lot of women who wouldn’t think to protect the bottom of their shoe.”
But enough do that, so this is how Jackson makes her living, and has been able to hire an employee — a significant step for any venture. The shields also have won notice from the “Today” show, Shape Magazine and other media.
Jackson has nurtured her online business through social media and connecting with fashion bloggers who share her enthusiasm — she has about 70 pairs of shoes — for footwear.
Among her fans is Justine Searle, a 24-year-old Arizona woman who, with her sister, Krystal Petersen, publishes a blog called The Desert Mermaids.
“Most women want to prolong the life of their shoes, especially when they fork up a small fortune on them,” Searle said by email.
“While I only have (the shields) on a few pairs of pumps right now, I would definitely recommend spending a little extra on this product so you can protect those expensive, designer heels later,” she said.
The shields, which are made by a Pennsylvania company, cost $7 to $10 a pair and come in packages of three, 10 or 20 pairs.
They typically should be replaced after being worn five to 10 times, Jackson said.
“Some of the girls buy a 10 pack or a 20 pack a month. And they are not buying $50 shoes.”
“…Some of them are high executives at big companies with a lot of disposable income. Some of them are wives of NFL, NBA players.”
But Jackson said her customer base also includes “that woman who saved for months to buy that one pair of Christian Louboutin or Jimmy Choo shoes, so she’s really interested in preserving them.”
Christian Louboutin — the brand known for its lacquered red soles, on which it holds a U.S. trademark — has posed a few problems for Jackson. In 2013, some women complained on fashion forums that the red paint peeled off when they removed the Protect Your Pumps shields.
Some Louboutin wearers had no problems, but enough reported peeling paint that for a while Jackson simply advised not using her shields on the brand.
Eventually, after surveying customers about their experiences, she posted on her website special instructions for Louboutins — along with a disclaimer of responsibility for any damage. Customers also receive similar information on a card that is shipped with their shields.
One effective method, she said, is to use two pairs of shields, leaving the bottom layer on permanently.
Jackson said her overall return rate during four years in business has run less than 1%.
“Aside from the Louboutin issue that a few people have had, people really love the product,” she said.
Jackson declined to disclose annual sales but said revenue rose about 60% last year compared with 2013.
This month she received an award from the U.S. Small Business Administration as Wisconsin’s “young entrepreneur of the year.”
Pushing for further growth, Jackson recently started offering monthly subscription plans at discounted prices that she hopes will generate a steady revenue stream.
She also is planning to travel to her prime U.S. markets — New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Miami — and show off Protect Your Pumps at shoe parties and other events.
Rising sales could help Jackson in her plans to develop other shoe care products and maybe even prompt her to resume her former pace of footwear purchases.
“I don’t buy as many now because I run a business,” she said.
But the appeal remains.
“For women, a good pair of shoes just gives you the right attitude,” Jackson said. “When you put on a good pair of shoes and you step out, you just step out with more confidence. You stand a little taller. You feel a little stronger — like the world is yours to conquer.”