By Patricia Caso/June 15, 2013
Photos Courtesy Milk & Honey
Like many women, I am constantly searching for the perfect shoe. Somehow, I always wish I could change this or that. In 2011, entrepreneurial sisters Dorian and Ilissa Howard used all their hard-earned money to launch milkandhoneyshoes.com, a unique store on the internet! They made it possible for anyone to go online and and literally design a shoe of their dreams! Finally!
“We just want to make a beautiful high quality product and make people happy. We want to provide options that people didn’t have before.” Dorian Howard
Dorian is based in Los Angeles, the company headquarters, while Ilissa is in Hong Kong supervising production. I caught up with these two innovative siblings in the midst of their always hectic schedules to find out how this all works…
EYE: Why the name Milk & Honey?
DORIAN: If we could make the shoe in the exact color and exact style and the exact feel that the woman would want, it would be like the Garden of Eden, or the Land of Milk and Honey.
ILISSA: Where everything is perfect—perfect shoes!
EYE: Whose idea was it to leave top careers to do this?
ILISSA: We both always wanted to do it. We just had to figure out the right thing to leave our careers for.
DORIAN: Ilissa would travel in Asia and come home with shoes that she had made there. In her study abroad during college she came home with a suitcase full of shoes! When she would visit me, I would say I love those, but I’d like red, and, in a 3” heel. So then she started making them for me. We talked about how there must be other women out there who would love to do the same thing.
“Our parents taught us, ‘If you can’t find something, do it yourself.’ We took that to heart.”
EYE: Do you love it as much as you thought?
DORIAN: Yessss! It’s like how mothers feel. I couldn’t imagine how hard it would be, but I couldn’t imagine how much I would love it!
ILISSA: It’s more amazing in some ways and a lot harder in others.
EYE: How did you decide to target the shoe market?
DORIAN: I was in the shoe department at a huge department store in New York City. I just couldn’t find what I was looking for.
I wasn’t looking for anything crazy, just something simple–a navy blue pump with an ankle strap that I could wear to work. It was so difficult.
There had to be some place where you could get exactly what you wanted, but unless you were the buyer for a Nordstrom or Anna Wintour from Vogue, you were not going to get it! Our parents taught us, “If you can’t find something, do it yourself.” We took that to heart.
ILISSA: The shoes that are available on the market tend to cater only to trends and common needs. Many women need a shorter heel because they are tall or an ankle strap because otherwise their foot slides, etc. Also color is a big thing; finding that color you are looking for was tough before Milk & Honey!
EYE: How long did it take to launch your company?
ILISSA: It took us years, actually. We were both working full-time and we had to flush out the concept, plan, suppliers, etc. We’ve had a lot of advice and some of it invaluable, and some of it wasn’t so helpful.
The important thing was deciphering who and what to listen to and why! And, of course, not losing sight of our goal and purpose at the same time.
EYE: How did you begin this great undertaking??
DORIAN: We got started by having shoe parties. We would bring our samples; they would tell us what they were looking for and we would see if we could make it. We had to see if there was a real interest. We did not start off with a real fine business plan and a whole lot of investors.
We started off with attraction, e- commerce, a growing place to do business and a space where we could fit with an idea that no one else was doing at that time.
EYE: What is the best part of your job?
DORIAN: I love happy customers! When they say, “Just perfect!! I’ve been looking for this for four years!” I love it!
ILYSSA: Designing shoes, of course!
EYE: Although you are sisters, you are very different from each other. How does that work for the success of the company?
DORIAN: Because we are so opposite we look at every angle differently. Ilissa has ideas every minute, and if it were up to her we’d have a new website every day. I’m more like “wait a minute”…more detail- oriented! She pushes it along and I see that it’s right. That is a really good thing in business!
We both share impatience, the one similarity we have. And, that is great. We want to make the best changes fast. On the other hand, I like morning meetings. She likes late meetings. She’s a big thinker and I’m more of an editor.
ILISSA: We are incredibly different. Dori is outgoing, great at all sorts of PR and more detail-oriented. I tend to be more strategic and creative with coming up with new ideas.
EYE: What is your core philosophy?
DORIAN: We just want to make a beautiful high-quality product; make people happy; and provide options that people didn’t have before. It’s also important to have fun on the job.
We work nonstop, coordinating with people around the world about fabric, orders, marketing, etc. We are making custom shoes. It should be creative. And there should be joy in that, which we try to instill in our company culture.
“You can have a white button-downshirt and jeans with a red polka-dotted pair of heels, and be dressed up for a night on the town.”
EYE: Do you see shoes as art?
DORIAN: Shoes are absolutely art. I think if I could figure out a way to turn 5” stiletto heels into a vase that people could put flowers in, it would be fantastic. Shoes are also a tone—setter. You can have a white button-down shirt and jeans with a red polka-dotted pair of heels, and be dressed up for a night on the town.
ILISSA: Absolutely! Shoes transform an outfit and you can wear them as often as you like!
EYE: What experience do you utilize from your former jobs as executives?
DORIAN: My job at Paramount was all about storytelling. There is certainly an element of that in Milk & Honey. You can tell a story about a pair of shoes. There’s a narrative to fashion, just like there is your own life. Next, there is a certain way to do business.
I remember when my Boss at Miramax asked me to do something that was impossible. I said, “No, it can’t be done.” And she said, “Sometimes no is not an option.”
It meant go back and figure it out, dig a little deeper, be more resourceful, try it again. We use that mentality here all the time, constantly, figuring it out.
ILISSA: As a product developer at Toys R Us, I brought experience in sourcing, marketing and working with designers as well as in selling products.
EYE: What challenges are constant?
DORIAN: Keeping our customers happy, making sure we are giving them what they want by having the right, and enough, choices. We have to stay on top of the technology, trends and e-commerce.
ILISSA: The biggest challenge is surrounding ourselves with the right people to ensure success.
“Don’t get stuck in a rut. If you are not happy, change it. If you see something you’d rather be, be it!”
EYE: Why do you think you’ve had such success?
DORIAN: The products we deliver meet client’s qualifications and are quality. I think you’ll find most shoe companies were not founded by women. Most shoe designers are not women. We know what it’s like to stand in 5” heels for six hours at a time.
ILISSA: What most women want actually isn’t that complicated, and it’s an amazing feeling to be able to give them the perfect pair of shoes that in many cases, they’ve designed themselves.
Women appreciate advice online. We’ve also been able to accommodate some outrageous requests from Ferrari-shaped shoes to shoes that can accommodate ridiculously long toenails.
EYE: What shoe trends are you seeing?
DORIAN: Now the mid-heel, 2”-21/2” -3” is replacing the current trend, 5”, which you really cannot pull off for long periods of time.
ILISSA: Also the trend is going toward pointed toes and away from platforms that are definitely chunkier.
EYE: Has anyone inspired your entrepreneurial sense?
DORIAN: We come from an entrepreneurial family. Our parents raised us with the attitude, “What are your dreams? Go get them!” Even when we were successful in our former jobs, our parents encouraged us to think bigger and differently. “Don’t get stuck in a rut. If you are not happy change it. If you see something you’d rather be, be it!”
EYE: What have you learned from this process?
DORIAN: It’s about moving things forward, listening to people and giving them what they want. No spreadsheet is going to help you launch a successful business. It may be a good road map, but until you have actual readers and customers, there is no way to judge.
One of my favorite quotes is “If you are thoroughly happy with your final product, it means you shipped too late.” Meaning, until we had customers for the business, we didn’t know if it was really going to work.
ILISSA: Most importantly, you have to believe in yourself, but don’t hold so tightly to your beliefs that you can’t hear what others are saying, as they might be right.
EYE: What have you found to be the best promotion for product?
DORIAN: It really is word of mouth! That will take us to the next level. When someone says, “Hey I love your great shoes!” And the customer says: “I designed them myself!” Hey, that’s powerful!
EYE: Do you have time to just be sisters?
DORIAN: We’ve been sisters for a long time, and we’ll be sisters again someday. For example, my mom, my cousin and I decided to meet Ilissa at the gym early one morning when we were all home. Ilissa goes flying off the treadmill and says to me, “You know what we have to try?” There are not a lot of boundaries with us when it comes to personal vs. business. No doubt, though, Ilissa is my most trusted partner!
EYE: What else is important to you as you proceed in business?
DORIAN: Giving back through charities. We recognize that our product is an indulgence. Being able to spend $200 on a pair of shoes means you are a very fortunate person.
ILISSA: We love being able to give to charities and also be creative, like planting a tree for every shoe sold on Earth Day.
EYE: Do you have advice for entrepreneurs?
ILISSA: Be prepared, know what you are in for, research and do it!
DORIAN: It’s very easy to be hamstrung by things like “As soon as this” happens, I’ll do it. I just need to figure one more thing out.” Having the honor of being an entrepreneur is amazing and very challenging and worth all the blood sweat and tears.
I had to figure that the company was mature enough so that I could leave my job. And that is a very scary move. If you believe in what you are doing, take the chance on yourself! If you are going to bet on someone, then bet on yourself!
EYE: Thank you for your insight and stories! No doubt that Milk & Honey will continue its e-success with you both at the helm!