Footwear entrepreneur Kerri Sengstaken, co-owner of rainboot brand Däv, likes to have fun on the job. And according to Sengstaken, that’s easy to do when you’re in the shoe business. Ever-changing fashion trends, coupled with a fun cast of industry insiders, keeps her creative juices flowing. Here, Sengstaken talks about the challenges of the business and what keeps her inspired.
My leadership style: Because of our entrepreneurial business, our managerial style is a bit hands-off. We set our to-do list each week with the team and depend on each person to be responsible. Some people thrive in that environment and others don’t, so we try to give everyone a reality check before coming on board.
Sharing responsibilities with my husband and co-founder, Dave: We keep a hard line that separates our duties. That way there are few arguments. He designs, handles manufacturing and operations. I focus on marketing and PR. We’re both creative and chaotic, so we’re tolerant of each other’s forms of crazy. Somehow it works.
Best advice I’ve ever received: When I was young, I worked for a photo lab in Dallas while going to school but felt frustrated. Big dreams seemed so far away. The owner, Charlotte Kennedy, was wise and experienced and said, “Pay attention and learn — you’re already doing great things.” At the job, I processed orders for photographer Richard Avedon, who did a series for Neiman Marcus. We created huge Avedon murals for Neiman’s windows. How much greater can you get than that?
Lesson to live by: Be original. Being trendy is only good if you’re the one to start the trend. If you’re a follower, no one will look to you for anything but copies and cheap prices. Sometimes we’re too ahead of ourselves, then we get copied before our new designs really hit. Timing is everything.
What excites me most about the footwear business: I love the fact you can create your own brand image with original, authentic content. The more authentic you are, the better. Gone are the days of trying to be something you’re not or trying to be bigger than you are. Customers don’t want a slick, made-up marketing image.
Most challenging part of my job: It’s hard to stay on top of the endless, fast-changing forms of social media. As soon as I am an expert on one form, another pops up. My brain literally hurts from the endless, intense learning curve.
Biggest change in the business: It’s been painful to see our brick-and-mortar retailers try to survive. Customers try on shoes in their stores, then go online right then and there, and buy the same shoes for a cheaper price, and have them delivered with free shipping. They do this to save $5. This is impacting manufacturers as well, who are being forced to drop-ship more and more because the end consumer demands it.
Best-kept secret about the shoe industry: It’s full of funny, foulmouthed, creative people who all know and love/hate each other. We are a lot of crazies, and I sure miss the huge shoe trade-show days, when we were all concentrated in Vegas — what fun, and what stories we have.
When we’re not at work: My husband and I ride our horses and work on our small farm in Ojai, Calif. We have animals that need constant care. Nothing keeps you more grounded than shoveling manure.
If I weren’t in the shoe business: I’d be an upholsterer. I love to pick up old chairs and sofas trashed on the side of the road and re-cover them with wild, creative fabrics and textures.