(In a new series, “How I Did It,” FN profiles successful footwear and fashion players — from entrepreneurs to designers to top executives at major brands — and reveals how they carved their path into the industry.)
When footwear entrepreneur Taryn Rose sold her business in 2008 for $40 million, it did little to erase the disappointment her parents felt when she decided not to follow in her father’s footsteps and practice medicine.
Disappointment was an understatement, according to Rose, who abandoned a career as an orthopedic surgeon to pursue the shoe business. “They didn’t talk to me for years,” she said of her parents. “It was preordained. It wasn’t a choice. I was the oldest and had to set an example.”
Today, Rose, 51, is back in the industry as creative consultant of the brand, which is now under the Global Brands Group umbrella. With the powerhouse company behind her, she can focus on the fashion side of the business she launched 20 years ago.
“The first time around, if people didn’t get paid, it was [all] on me,” said Rose, who started the business with money from credit cards, home equity loans and support from family and friends. “I was exhausted after 10 years of nonstop designing, marketing and sales, and then coming home and being presented with bills we had to pay.”
Rose grew up facing challenges. She emigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam with her family when she was 7, settling in Arkansas, where they were sponsored by a fellow doctor and his wife.
A gift for the sciences led her to medicine. However, during her residency her life changed course after completing a project on diabetic footwear. “I [explored] how to design a better-looking diabetic shoe that would increase compliance,” said Rose. “The problem diabetics have is, they don’t wear their shoes because they’re so ugly.”
Instead of focusing on clinical footwear, Rose took her idea in a more fashionable direction. “I took my knowledge of shoes and comfort, and put it into fashion,” she said, describing her line that incorporates contoured footbeds and plenty of cushioning.
It didn’t take long before the offering caught the attention of retail influencers such as Neiman Marcus, with Rose creating a new category of salon comfort footwear.
Here, Rose traces her footwear journey.
Was it necessary to make sacrifices along the way?
“I never feel like anything is a sacrifice when you start your company. It’s like having a baby. You’re so passionate and loving of the project. I would say that giving up a career that could have been very lucrative in orthopedics was a sacrifice, then family time. I traveled a lot and worked a lot, probably more than if I had been a surgeon.”
Did you have a dream job growing up?
“It was starting a cosmeceutical company. During college, I worked for Estee Lauder. Back [then], there wasn’t any cosmetic line started by a dermatologist. So I had the idea of going to medical school, become a dermatologist and start a line. I’ve always been entrepreneurial.”
Were there other business ventures you considered along the way?
“I was looking into starting a technology and fashion company. During the time I ran my company, I didn’t have time to study other things. It was a wonderful break to learn about digital marketing and technology, which is so important today.”
What was the craziest thing you encountered in building your business?
“Increasing my prices when everyone else was lowering them. Everyone said I was crazy because I never cared about how high the prices went. I always insisted on the very best quality. I remember meeting with Neiman Marcus for the first time. The buyer said the prices were not as high as they normally carried, so next season, I raised them. I didn’t know any better; I just did what I thought was right.”
When did your big break come?
“I was on the Oprah show in 2001. I went from $8 million to $16 million in sales in one year. I still run into people who tell me they saw me on Oprah. [It happened] when one of her producers saw me on another show called “Radical Sabbatical,” where they talked about people who drastically changed their careers, and invited me on her show.”
At what point did you realize you had made it?
“The entire management team of Neiman Marcus, which included Cynthia Marcus, came to my showroom. They asked, “How do we take this to $10 million as soon as possible?” They had [carried] the line for a couple of years and saw how well it was doing. It was such an honor to have them take an interest in building the business.”
What’s been your biggest disappointment?
“I worked so much that I didn’t have as much time with my daughter. I missed out on building a great relationship with her. I was around more for my sons because I sold the business when they were toddlers. She’s 18 and now in college, and she wants to be a creative writer.”
Anything business decision you wish you could make over?
“I had been offered a licensing arrangement with Easy Spirit. I didn’t do it because I didn’t understand enough about licensing. I think it would have been a great arrangement because I’m very good at the luxury level as a designer and entrepreneur but [didn’t] know that to reach the masses, I needed a company that understood that better.”
Is there something you routinely do consistently to be successful?
“I smile. When you smile when you’re by yourself, it makes you feel better. When you smile around other people, it makes them feel better. It’s something that doesn’t cost anything, but it pays dividends in how you can change the world.”
Any advice for new designers?
“I always stress the shoe business is a business. If you’re a designer, you have to make sure you’re designing styles that your target consumers will want, and not just what you want. I feel that my biggest gift is that I’m able to edit and focus in on what the market wants. [However], I always laugh that the styles I love the most never got chosen. But that’s OK. You need to keep the lights and your payroll paid. It’s is up to the market to vote.”
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