How Carol Haffke went from being a journalist to opening a niche shoe boutique

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After university, Carol Haffke worked as a newspaper journalist in Queensland, Namibia and in Portugal. She then moved into the world of public relations, working in Brisbane and with the UN in Vietnam, and after that had a wonderful 10-year stint working in fundraising and communications back in Brisbane. For 23 years, she was involved somehow in communications and was an employee within the government, corporate and not-for-profit sectors.

Now she is the proud business of of niche Brisbane store, The Shoe Garden and author of In My Shoes: What it’s really like to start your own business.

1. How did the concept come together? 

I was inspired by 30+ years of not being able to find gorgeous shoes that fit my slightly-longer-than-average (size 12) feet. I knew there was no one in Brisbane offering shoes that went to longer sizes, let alone were fashionable and gorgeous. If I was desperate to find shoes, I figured there would be many more women and girls in the same boat. To be honest, my research was quite sparse. I just knew as a consumer that there was a niche desperate to be filled so I went ahead and did so.

After making the decision to open my shop (as described in the next answer), I spent 11 days pondering it; speaking to my parents, accountant and bank manager. Then I gave three months’ notice and put my townhouse on the market. I told my real estate agent that I wanted to sell to an investor and I could see that she was doubtful. But that’s exactly what happened and I still live there today. I lost my house, but not my home. I was much more comfortable using my own capital to start my business and then within five months, I opened The Shoe Garden on 14 April, 2012.

2. What was the motivation to transition to running your own business? Do you remember when you chose to make the idea a reality?

I will never forget that moment! It was a Sunday in November 2011, the day after I had overseen the organisation of a major gala fundraising dinner that didn’t go as well as I had expected. I was devastated and woke up that morning, crying and feeling hopeless. I was done. It had been a tough year with lots of change and challenges and the gala dinner was the proverbial last straw. I didn’t want to stay in my profession, let alone my job, and then suddenly, four hours later, it hit me. I was going to open my women’s shoe shop specialising in longer sizes. I had never, ever thought about or planned to work in the shoe industry, let alone open my own business. The day before I would have told you that you were crazy; that day and every day since, it just made so much sense.

3. Where did the passion for opening your own small shoe business come from?

I think the realisation that I no longer wanted to work for someone else, and waste time and nerves worrying about and dealing with office politics and poor behaviour, was a starting point for wanting to go it alone. I was excited about the idea of creating something from nothing and ensuring it met and exceeded my standards. I also knew how sparse choices were for women and girls with longer feet and after doing some research online, realised that more brands than I realised did “go long” but other shoe shops chose not to stock those sizes.

4. What was the worst advice someone gave you?

Fortunately, I don’t think anyone has given me bad advice. To be honest, and it may sound a bit crazy coming from someone who had no idea what she was doing, but I didn’t ask for or seek advice. I was so determined to go it alone and do it my way. That doesn’t mean I didn’t ask a stack of questions though. I guess I reverted to being a journo and kept asking questions until I understood. That’s especially true about financial-related matters as I’m not a natural when it comes to understanding numbers. One of my favourite quotes is by Confucius: “He who asks is a fool for five minutes. He who does not ask is a fool forever.” Well, I was being “a fool” in five minute increments some days! But for the most part, that worked fine, however there were certainly things I learned along the way that, upon reflection, I wished I had done differently.

5. You started a business without any formal business training, what advice would you give to others wanting to do the same thing?

Believe in yourself and your business idea and never stop. When you’re creating your own business, you must be proud of what you are doing and live and breathe that every day. People will respond to that; they will want to do business with you. But you also must be humble especially when, as in my case, you come from a successful career and then, suddenly, you know nothing. Then you can’t be afraid to ask questions and to learn as much as you can. Each day you should learn something … about your business or yourself.

6. How do you keep motivated?

First and foremost, every time a customer comes in and leaves happy, carrying their gorgeous new shoes out the door, or sometimes even wearing them, that’s what motivates me and makes me happy and keen to keep going. When they laugh and cry happy tears that they have finally found some gorgeous shoes for their long feet, that’s super inspiring. I also love the challenge of running your own business … it’s like a giant puzzle with so many moving parts, many that you can’t control, and you have to be nimble and alert and proactive and flexible and innovative and I love all that.

7. What’s business all about to you? 

It’s about earning a living in the best way possible. For me, that means I get to go to my beautiful shop each day and make people happy. I get to do things my way and to my own standards, which I love and take great pride in.

It’s about behaving ethically, so being honest and transparent with my customers, suppliers and peers. It’s about creating a welcoming environment that doesn’t bully or push people with crude sales and marketing tactics.

And it’s about giving back. I’m a proud not-just-for-profit business, which means from every sale in-store or online, I donate a portion to Microloan Foundation Australia to help women in Malawi start or grow their own businesses. I was fortunate to travel to Malawi two years ago and see for myself the difference these loans, and the associated business training, have on their lives. It was an unforgettable experience.  

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