SSL Sole Spotlight| Staavias Founder Gustavia Lui Has What It Takes To Make Major Queen Feet Moves

How One Millennial Mom-preneur Is Shaking Up The Footwear Biz One Size At A Time

Gustavia Lui, 31, is NOT your average founder. For one, she’s not male and secondly, she juggles more than one major role beyond the Founder title. Lui is a Queen Feet wife (12 W), mother of three, and entrepreneur who has joined a new wave of Millennial Mums who are used to redefining social norms and professional expectations.

Since 2015, Lui has been fully invested in her youngest baby, Staavias, a private label footwear brand based in New Zealand that especially caters to women with larger, extended sizes. Today, Staavias continues to serve its Queen Feet community as it offers stylish yet practical shoes for the modern woman.

Lui has been on my Specialty Shoe Lover (SSL) radar for quite some time, so I wanted to take a leap of faith and reach out to her. She was so gracious as to share her story.

SSL: Gustavia, I’m not super familiar with the native Pacific Islander ethnographic makeup. Could you please explain, in your opinion, the makeup of the average woman in New Zealand? Is “Queen Feet” or extended women’s footwear sizes the norm or the exception?

New Zealand is made up of four main ethnic groups, which are European, indigenous Maori, Asian and Pacific Island People.

I personally believe extended footwear sizes is the norm in NZ. It’s actually very common in NZ for women to have bigger feet and struggle to find shoes that fit right.

Founder Gustavia Lui checking out photos at Staavias shoot

SSL: What were you doing full-time before launching Staavias? At what point did you decide that launching your company was the right way to go? What were the initial steps you took in creating your private label footwear brand?

Before Staavias, I was working full-time as a Case Manager for the Ministry of Social Development also known as Social Welfare. I administered financial assistance and other social services to the community. I absolutely loved my job there! I did it for 9 years, from the age of 18.However, after 9 years, the job  just wasn’t as challenging anymore. I knew the job inside out.

The business idea was just so exciting, it kept me up late at night, and I was always talking about it. I had traveled to a few different countries on business, and I knew in my heart that’s what I wanted to do every day. So, I woke up one day and decided to hand in my notice. And that’s exactly what I did. I was scared. And even though I didn’t feel ready, I told myself, “You’re never going to be ready. Just take the step of faith.” And I did.

It was really difficult in the beginning, having no prior experience or knowledge, I pretty much just went with what I thought was best. I did a Small Business course, and from there, I was hooked.

So first, I learned a little bit about business. Second, I exposed myself to the footwear industry by attending a trade show in Las Vegas. I then completed a 3 day workshop making a pair of shoes from scratch in New York. New York was where I confirmed my decision to start a footwear brand. After the workshop, I knew my next step was to find a designer to make some unique designs and a manufacturer to make them.

“You’re never going to be ready. Just take the step of faith.”

SSL: With your background, how did you develop your brand and business support system (investors, mentors, strategic partners, etc.)? How much time did it take you to realize the Staavias dream from your initial concept to the brand’s launch?

My whole background had been in social services, which is completely different from the footwear and business. However, I do believe that due to my life experiences, I became a fighter. So, all I knew to do was fight my way through it. If I came across barriers, then I’d look for solutions and wouldn’t stop until I found one.

As part of the Applied Business Growth course I did, my tutor Roberta also acted as a mentor. Roberta was great to bounce my ideas off and put things into perspective. I came up with the idea of attending a trade show, and she encouraged me to go. It was the best decision I made as the tradeshow was pretty much the beginning of my journey with Staavias. I also did another business short course and again, had access to a mentor Ian. He is a well respected businessman with many different ventures. He also gave me great ideas and motivation to keep moving forward. This was all before 2015.

It took quite a while, so I thought of the idea in 2010/2011. I had my last baby in 2012, so I studied again. I attended the trade show in 2013 and then spent the rest of 2013 travelling to New York and China. By the end of 2014, I had a full collection, samples made, and production was ready to start, which meant we would go LIVE in July 2015. I left my job in May 2015. However, I ended up having a disagreement with our factory due to false promises and ridiculous prices, then I was left with no supplier. It felt like a huge kick in the face and although I was down, I only allowed myself to be down for a day or two. To save time, I paid for a sourcing company in Brisbane to find me a supplier, and they found me a few factories, so I flew to China to meet a few factories. From there, I went into contract with one of them and we were able to launch January 2016.

I wrote a blog to launch my business, and some women who read were so encouraged and inspired. These women also happened to be reporters and journalists. They were willing to write stories on my journey, and Staavias grew from there. The media support was huge!

Founder Gustavia Lui posing at Staavias shoot

SSL: I’ve definitely heard of women’s feet experiencing growth during pregnancy. In a prior interview with Talanoa, you mentioned your feet have grown every time you’ve become pregnant. How much did your feet grow with your pregnancies? How were you able to manage these drastic footwear changes before you launched your brand? What are your biggest tips for pregnant Queen Feet ladies?

Omg yes!! It was the most depressing thing ever, throwing my shoes away. And I’m a shoe fanatic, so I had heaps of pairs. I think my feet went from normal 10 to 12 wide over my 3 pregnancies. I didn’t know how to manage my feet changes, to be honest.The only solution I could come up with was to find bigger shoes –not knowing how much of a hassle that would be. I guess you could say it was a blessing in disguise.

Ladies, there’s not much you can do when your feet grow during pregnancy, you cannot control it. They don’t grow that much bigger though, but I do know the more weight you put on during pregnancy, the bigger your feet will grow. They grow in all directions: lengthwise, sideways and even up ways – if you know what I mean.

I would recommend you do the best you can to look after your feet during pregnancy(e.g. elevate them daily and get a good massage at least once a week). Being active also helps as well. Most importantly, enjoy your pregnancy and embrace all the changes that come with it. If your feet grow bigger, it’s okay. You have Staavias anyway. 🙂

If your feet grow bigger, it’s okay.

SSL: What has been one of the biggest challenges you’ve experienced since you’ve launched Staavias? How have you overcome it?

Finances would have to be our # 1 and biggest challenge. I was told all the time that finances make or break a business, then I finally experienced it for myself and realised this statement was so true.

When I first started out, I had used our savings, maxed out our credit cards, my annual leave, and payout. Every cent my husband and I earned and could loan went into our business. We had very expensive start-up costs as a result of all the travelling and short courses to learn what I needed to learn. We contracted designers to create our collection as I’m not a designer unfortunately. We spent a lot of money not realizing the most important costs hadn’t come yet — our samples and production.

Coming up with funds to continue business, especially with only one income has been an ongoing, biggest challenge. It’s forced me to become as creative as possible. We’ve been blessed to sell out several times, but all the funds would have to go back into our next batch of shoes, and any money we made personally through employment would have to pay the business bills. It is not an ideal business system, but at the time, it was our only option to stay afloat.

At one point, we couldn’t pay for the rest of the production as I hadn’t pre-sold any shoes because I was so busy doing other things in the business. It was a nightmare haha! I didn’t know what on earth to do, so I had to reach out to friends and family who helped me out financially.

We’re finally in a much better position, where we know what we need to do and how to distribute the funds better throughout the business. I’ve created a system as a result of this experience. It’s an ongoing lesson though, for sure. We haven’t quite got it down packed 100%, but we are in a much better space than we were when we first got started.

I’m very big on learning and trying out new things. I read A LOT of books on finances and try my best to implement what I learn. I talk to other business owners as well and learn through their experiences too. Creating solid systems and using accounting software has helped us get through our difficult time with finances. I also have an awesome friend who’s an accountant back home, and she’s given me solid advice. Just when you think you got something on lock, things change and you find yourself finding other ways to complete these tasks.

SSL: Was it difficult to find manufacturing partners willing to help you create extended sizes? If so, what’s been the biggest limitation in creating or maintaining these partnerships?

Yes, very difficult to find genuine suppliers because they all say, ” Yes”, until you show them  a sample, and they realise how big of a job I am asking and bail out. Or they say yes they’ll do it, they see the sample and then say ridiculous things like, ” Okay, you need to fill a container, so that’s like 20,000 pairs of shoes.” Yeah, no thanks!

I’ve had to think very creatively and out-of-the-box to ensure factories will get on board with our vision. We purchased our own shoe moulds and other material and took as much pressure off them as possible in order for them to agree to do our shoes. It’s worked out great so far for both of us, so it’s like finding what wins for both parties.

At first, factories could not believe how big the sizing was! Hahaha! They kept asking me over and over if I was sure. They refused to do big orders in case shoes didn’t sell. They were so amazed when we sold out within the first 2 weeks. They couldn’t believe it and from there, they took me seriously and came on board 100%.

Staavias customer dressed for her school’s formal ball

SSL: Private label footwear companies have a lot of associated costs, as you know. As a woman and a native New Zealander, have you faced funding limitations? What has been the best route for you to initially fund your business?

We’ve been blessed to be able to fund our business ourselves so far. Well, yeah …… barely haha! Our loyal, bomb friends overseas also sent us money to help out in the beginning. We’ve had several investors approach us as well with HUGE proposals, that would’ve helped us get way ahead, but we’ve decided to keep Staavias in the family.

We’re not willing to raise capital funds outside the company. We want to do it all ourselves as we have future plans to pass business on to our children, God willing, one day.

I think it’s different for everyone, depending on why you go into business and what your future plans are. For us, we (hubby and I) believed this was the best route funding wise to take given our future plans.

We have future plans to pass business on to our children…

SSL: Over the next few years, what is one goal that you would like to become realized for the Staavias brand?

The # 1 goal is for Staavias, over the next couple of years, is to be the go-to brand for all women with large feet in NZ, Australia, UK, Canada & the U.S.

SSL: What has been the best and/worst advice you’ve received as female entrepreneur?

Worst advice? I can’t say I remember getting bad advice. I choose to be positive, so when people have negative things to say to me, I never take it in and therefore forget.

Best advice I’ve received is — Truly believe in yourself. I know that sounds cliche, but trust me, when you’re trying to run a business with little to no finances while still being a wife, mum, and everything else, it becomes a lot for one person mentally, emotionally, and physically. Positive thoughts: telling myself I can do it and really believing in my ability to be all that I was born to be, despite the hardships is what pushed me past the line. So I’ll pass on the same advice — Truly believe in yourself.

Truly believe in yourself.

Ladies, have you heard of Staavias? If you’ve purchased shoes from them before, let me know what you bought and your experience with the brand. I’d love to hear from you. If not, tell me which of Staavias’ shoes that you’re interested in.

Don’t forget to follow the brand on Instagram @staavias!

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