Think you’re too young to start your own business? Take a lesson out of Mark Teperson’s book, the young entrepreneur who gave the boot to his old job to launch the successful Shoe Superstore chain.
Before founding his own specialty retail chain, Shoe Superstore, which caters for the comfort footwear sector, Mark Teperson was the general manager of Shoes & Sox, and before that, a successful career at Athlete’s Foot. All normal steps for anyone starting their own shoe store chain. The only thing that’s not normal however is Teperson’s age. He’s done all this, and he’s still just 30.
“I think everybody thinks that I’m ten years older than I really am in this building. Sometimes I feel it,” Teperson laughs. Age doesn’t seem to have been a barrier for this young man however, who became general manager of Shoes & Sox at the ripe young age of 22.
“I always saw my age as an opportunity, that I was young and thought differently to everyone else. I know that I challenged the thinking of many of our suppliers and probably the retailers around us in getting Shoe Superstore up and running and pushing it in the direction that I did. Age has probably helped me in a lot of instances,” Teperson adds.
Best foot forward
Despite all his successes at such a young age, hitting the big time in the shoe business wasn’t exactly what Teperson had planned for his life. While studying commerce and business law, he started to work at the Athlete’s Foot part-time, which is where one of his managers spotted his knack for selling shoes. “The training manager at the time actually asked me three times if I wanted a career in footwear to which I responded no three times. It was never my intention, I wanted to pursue a career in corporate finance,” he says, adding, “I did an internship at Ernst & Young, but somehow or other I managed to stay in the industry. They say once you’re in, you never get out; so far I’m living proof of that.”
After working as general manager for Shoes & Sox for 18 months, Teperson saw the opportunity to break out on his own. “Having established a whole bunch of great relationships and partnerships and a detailed understanding of the Australian footwear landscape, I thought to myself that if there was a time to go out by myself and start something, that I had some pretty good leads now,” the young entrepreneur says.
He found a business partner in fellow ex-Athlete’s Foot employee Steve Cohen and was ready and rearing to get going. “My dad had impressed upon me at the time that it was really important to find a partner that you could work with and with whom you could share the successes and failures and build a business together,” Teperson said.
Together they established the Shoe Superstore, a multi-channel shoe retailer with nine outlets around NSW and Victoria. The store’s online presence is also impressive, with 20 percent of total sales being made online.
“As young entrepreneurs, we were very aware of getting into the digital space. I had followed the rise of Zappos in America. When I started following them they were doing about $180 million dollars which is huge business but I think today that is in excess of $1.2 billion dollars. When we started, we launched Shoe Superstore with a website, and I think it was about 18 months after we opened the doors that we started selling online,” Teperson explains. “That started after so many customers called us to make phone orders. In the early days we used to wrap those orders in brown paper and go personally to the post office to send them. Today, we’re despatching upwards of 100-to-120 pairs of shoes a day. With something far more sophisticated than brown paper to pack and send them!”
Selling the company to RCG in 2009 after four years building it up, was one of the proudest moments in Teperson’s career. “It was an acknowledgement of my life’s work. My life wasn’t all that long at that time but it was four years of hard labour working on Shoe Superstore. For somebody else to recognise that there was greatness there or that there was something worth buying was a very humbling moment for me.”
Knowing that online was the next big thing for shoes, and seeing that Shoe Superstore was making leaps and bounds in the space, was one of the crucial reasons why RCG Corporation became interested and eventually bought Shoe Superstore from the two young owners. It’s the retail dream story, explains Teperson. “The company that we sold the business back to is the owner of the Athlete’s Foot in Australia. So I really did come full circle.”
If the shoe fits
While getting into the shoe retailing was never quite what Teperson imagined for himself, he’s taken to it with flair and passion.
“I have a passion for product and people and there’s something all consuming about that in this business,” Teperson says. “Everyone needs shoes, and you bring your own style and flair to shoes, so you can dress to your personality and your shoes can set that off. I’m wearing bright yellow fluorescent-soled shoes with quite a smart brogue on top at the moment. Shoes give you an opportunity to express yourself and they’re a product that everyone knows and everyone needs.”
As everyone gradually discovers the benefits of shopping online, Shoe Superstore’s tailored options to bring in more customers are working. “I think we’re leading the way on the technology front,” Teperson says. “We’ve just launched on the new platform Magento, the fastest growing eCommerce enterprise platform in the world. We’ve also introduced innovative ways to encourage people back in store, so we offer customers the ability to buy online and pick it up from their local store, we offer free delivery, returns and exchanges. That overcomes the barrier to purchase, which is what happens if they don’t fit. Also, if you order your shoes during the week before 1pm, they’ll be despatched on the same day. So the immediacy of the internet and our ability to give the customer the opportunity to purchase in whatever way they like is something that’s driving our business and our innovation as well.”
With Teperson taking on his new role (director of multichannel) within the wider company at RCG, looking at sales for the entire organisation, he’s conscious of who has helped him get as far as he has. “A great lesson that I learnt at a young age was that successful people aren’t necessarily successful because they’re brilliant, they’re just good at surrounding themselves with people that know more about the world or have the ability to elevate them faster than they could themselves. I like to think that I surround myself with very talented people that ultimately help me push the business in the direction that I want to go.”
Just as Teperson says, everyone needs shoes, so for a place for an entrepreneur to find their feet, so to speak, he’s chosen an ideal industry. But despite any reservations he had about starting in the business, each step that Teperson’s taken has propelled him further and further towards success. With a group of supportive people around him, and an exciting new role in the company that took over his own venture, Teperson is looking ahead to a shiny, bright, patent leather future.