Q&A With Pedipeds’ Founder

Despite having no background in shoes, new mother and entrepreneur Angela Edgeworth took a gamble in 2004 and jumped into one of the footwear industry’s most competitive segments: pre-walk.

“Not many of the baby shoes [at the time] appealed to me, either from a style or health standpoint,” said Edgeworth, who founded Pediped with her husband, Brian Edgeworth, CEO. “I had an idea for a soft-soled shoe that could be worn both indoors and outdoors, but was also good for kids’ feet. They also had to be stylish — something I’d wear myself or would like to see on my kids.”

With that in mind, she created a line of shoes, retailing for $32, that combines sophisticated, fashion-forward styling with a construction designed to promote the healthy development of little feet. Based on doctors’ recommendations that babies learning to walk should go barefoot or — when that’s not practical — wear soft, flexible footwear, Pediped’s shoes feature thin, coated leather bottoms. According to Edgeworth, the padded bottoms provide protection and support while still enabling babies to feel and grip the ground beneath them. “We consider our shoes to be the next best thing to bare feet,” she said.

Many consumers agree. In five years, the Henderson, Nev.-based company has climbed to the top of the crowded category, with distribution in more than 4,000 stores in 41 countries. What started as a husband-and-wife team has grown to 270 employees.

Last year, the company made a much-anticipated brand extension by launching Pediped Flex, a line of rubber-soled toddler shoes. “Customers were complaining because their children had outgrown our Originals line and they didn’t want to leave the brand,” Edgeworth said. Retailing from $38 to $58, Flex makes many of Pediped’s most popular, soft-soled styles appropriate for active kids.

As it marks its fifth anniversary, Pediped is keeping an eye on the future. Further expansion overseas — particularly in Europe — is a major focus. The company continues to bring on new sales and distribution agents in key global markets. It also is broadening the product offering with new initiatives such as the limited-edition Couture Collection, debuting this fall, and a hair accessories partnership with No Slippy Hair Clippy.

Here, Edgeworth talks about turning a mother’s instinct into a booming business, what’s fueling the fierce competition in the baby category and why, for first walkers, going nearly barefoot is best.

FN: Pediped turns five this year. Are you surprised by how quickly the company has grown?
AE: Yes, but we were always working hard, so we didn’t have much time to enjoy it and sit back and pat ourselves on the back. [Considering the rapid growth], we quickly revised our plans and goals for the company, and since then, we have been on track — even in the downturn.

FN: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in growing the company?
AE: With any growth company, finding and hiring the right people is always the biggest challenge. We have been fortunate over the past year to get some great people in sales, marketing and product development. We have gone from just Brian and me to more than 270 people in only a few years, so we are always seeking talented people with experience who can make our company better.

FN: You didn’t have a footwear background when you started Pediped. How did you go about learning the craft of shoemaking?
AE: We hired industry experts and weighed their opinions before we made major decisions, and we combined this with actual real-world testing. Our Originals line was continually modified for more than 18 months before the product was ever ready for market. We had parents providing constant feedback as we evolved the design we ultimately brought to market in 2004. Some of the most valuable advice came from doctors who had recently become parents.

FN: When it comes to baby shoe construction, what are some of the biggest “no-nos”?
AE: I cringe when I see babies in rigid, hard-bottomed shoes — those shoes unnaturally mold their feet. We begin life with unformed bones in our feet and over time, they fuse into the 26 bones we have as adults. This process takes a long time, and shoes that are too rigid or too tight are effectively changing the shape of a child’s foot. This is true of shoes throughout childhood, not just during the baby years. Most experts agree this process of forming the foot bones does not end until you are 25, so children should never be in tight or restrictive shoes.

FN: Why do you use coated leather bottoms on the Originals shoes instead of the more typical rubber?
AE: One big problem we see out there is the amount of rubber used on many first-walker shoes. While grip is great for adults — who push off with every step and have a standard-length stride that is developed over time — new walkers have not figured out their perfect stride length yet. First steps are tentative: Infants do not plant their foot and then push off. Instead, they slide as they take different length strides and learn just how far down the ground actually is. With rubber bottoms, the shoe grips when the sole first hits the ground, so the foot jams forward in the shoe and the child can trip. Our Originals shoes, which have leather bottoms, mimic most closely what it is like to walk barefoot.

FN: Why did you use black soles on the Originals?
AE: There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it is to make the shoe distinctive and recognizable from a distance. The second reason is more functional. During the testing stage, we found that other colors looked dirty too quickly. The black looks nicer for a much longer time.

FN: What has been the response to the new Flex line for older kids? Why was it important for you to make this brand extension?
AE: The response has been very encouraging. The line continues to evolve and improve every season. Flex was planned from the start, but took a lot longer to develop. We heard from thousands of consumers who were complaining because their children had outgrown our Originals line and they didn’t want to leave the Pediped brand. Now we have a complete offering.

FN: How has being a mother of two young girls influenced the product?

AE: Being a mother influences a lot of things. For instance, I am very value driven. While I am willing to pay $70 for shoes for my girls, [ages 4 and 5], the shoes better be worth it. I expect value for my money, and a lot of mothers feel the same way. Our mantra from the start has been “comfort, quality and style delivered at a fair price.” We keep our costs and margins lean so the customer can get the quality of a $90 shoe at a $40 price point. That is passing value on, and we believe our target consumer is savvy enough to figure that out.

FN: Why has the baby market, in particular, seen such a sharp increase in competition recently?
AE: There were a lot of voids in the market that were identified by a new generation of smart, driven parents. It’s far more common for a new parent to be older and have more life experience than [previous generations of parents]. At 30, I had a lot more confidence that my opinions would be shared by others, and I had the life experience and resources to start a company. The higher-end baby consumer is more demanding and discriminating than ever before, and the market has to address that. This has provided opportunities for new brands to come in and fill the demand. This can be seen across the baby market. Look at strollers: There have been a lot of innovations that have made them much more functional and stylish.

FN: What are your thoughts on the new lead regulations for kids’ footwear? Do you believe they’re too stringent?
AE: We were surprised when we started the company that the U.S. did not have guidelines for lead and other harmful substances for the baby industry. From the beginning, we self-imposed testing and adhered to European toy standards. It’s good to see that regulators have come up with something to protect our children. So we definitely are in favor of the new laws. Pediped had been testing its leather long before [the changes], so it wasn’t a difficult transition for us.

FN: You invest a great deal in marketing, which is somewhat rare in the kids’ market. Why is it so important to your brand?
AE: Marketing is essential to support our retailers. Advertising drives people into the stores that carry our brand, which is our entire goal. We want to get customers into the store and then let them touch and feel the product.

FN: Pediped has had rapid international growth in the last year. What’s the next focus?
AE: We are currently sold in more than 4,000 retailers in 41 countries. We recently hired a great agent in the U.K. to focus on Western Europe, which is where we see the most near-term growth opportunity. We now have a total of five sales reps in the EU and are set up to distribute shoes anywhere in the EU within three days after an order is placed.

FN: Has the economy affected your business?
AE: The economy has affected everyone’s business. We believe we have been somewhat insulated by keeping our products at an attainable retail price, but everyone felt it from October to March, when it seemed like Americans basically stopped buying anything. Let’s hope the worst is over, so we can all focus on brighter things.

FN: As you continue to evolve the product offering, will you eventually expand beyond the toddler range?
AE: It is a definite possibility, but not until we are first recognized as the dominant brand in shoes for infants to size 12. Our focus right now is to perfect our offering in these sizes and to keep gaining market share and mind share.

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