Ron Donovan had no idea he would one way be making high-end footwear for a living. He graduated from Georgia Institute of Technology with a degree in industrial engineering and soon went to work in technical design and sales for a Fortune 500 company.
But it was out of necessity that prompted Ron Donovan to enter the footwear business and launch RONDONOVAN Footwear & Accessories. “Having size 15.5 feet, it was extremely difficult finding quality stylish footwear. At the time, there wasn’t anyone who would even entertain making them for me. So, I decided to teach myself the craft,” recalls Donovan, who literally taught himself.
“I tore apart old shoes to study their construction and regularly asked questions of the local shoe repairmen around town that I had befriended. Once I became proficient enough that my shoes stopped looking ‘homemade,’ several of my former basketball teammates began asking me to make shoe for them and RONDONOVAN was born,” he explains.
The products are sold primarily through direct sales platforms, which include private client appointments, private and public trunk shows and e-commerce on their website. Donovan is looking to sell RONDONOVAN Footwear & Accessories at several luxury boutiques starting in fall/winter 2013.
Not only was he creative in his approach in entering footwear, so was his funding strategy. “Finding my initial funding, developing capable/reliable production and building a clientele were the primary barriers of entry I faced when establishing RONDONOVAN,” he says. “I had to really get creative to find funding. The rest was really a function of trial and error; trying proven methods then adjusting them to my particular needs. Most of all, it required an unwavering belief in what I was pursuing, determination and sacrifice.”
Because he was new to the business, Donovan found it difficult to secure start-up funds. “I knew that without a proven record in the business, traditional financing would be difficult at best. So, I got creative,” Donovan explains. “At first, I borrowed from friends and family that I knew simply trusted and believed in me.” And he took in orders immediately—even without a product. “Before having samples, I even pre-sold shoes from my drawings. Later, after a bit of success and advancement, I was able to raise capital by bringing in equity partners,” says Donovan who describes his design philosophy as “classic with a modernistic edge.”
Taking on a partner was a tough but necessary decision. While demand was growing for his footwear he needed capital to fill the orders. “While I have given up a bit of the business, I remain, by far, the majority shareholder. I had to really learn to appreciate the old adage about having part of something versus all of nothing,” Donovan points out. “But with that, I always caution new entrepreneurs to be smart with their equity; to, at any given time, only give up what’s absolutely necessary to keep them moving forward. Shares represent control and gain value as the business grows.”
Still, even with capital now secured, Donovan still finds challenges popping up daily. “I believe my primary challenges at present are maintaining proper capitalization, building an effective and efficient team and expanding brand recognition,” he says. “However, I must say that one of the most surprising means of dealing with all of these issues, has been the use of my network. Every time I reach out and engage my friends, family and associates, I am amazed by how much talent I have access to and how much most people (with some real exceptions) are willing to help. Particularly, once they realize I’m honest and open, they are interested in helping out. Sometimes assistance comes in the form of absolutely free or discounted services or products. Sometimes, it’s just comforting and helpful knowing you’re not alone and that others believe in you. A solid support system is essential.”
Donovan has a clear approach on how to deal with competition in the crowded footwear market. “There are many established, luxury brands in the market; it continues to be challenging to carve out market share. However, I developed and am implementing a multi-phase approach,” explains Donovan, who also reveals he uses prayer as well to deal with his trials and tribulations. But for the business, he has a plan in place. “First, I focused on consistently producing equal and/or superior product (style, quality and fit). Second, I focused on reaching my ‘hot’ market contacts. I then started concentrating on grassroots marketing and now social networking to build brand and product recognition,” he adds.
Despite the obstacles and challenges, Donovan says he enjoys the freedom of entrepreneurism—creative freedom, time flexibility, and the opportunity to travel. “And,” he says, “I also have the real potential to produce a considerable level of income and fame. I believe I have found in RONDONOVAN Footwear & Accessories, what I call, ‘my right livelihood.’”
It helps, he says, that he loves what he does. “Because of limited capital, I’ve had to operate for quite some time by myself. It was imperative that I developed a very thorough understanding of all aspects of the business; from corporate structuring to financial projections to fundraising to design to production to marketing & sales to distribution,” he notes. “That said, I think I most enjoy interacting with my clients; understanding their needs and what drives their purchases; and then incorporating that information into the production of beautiful, quality products.”