Dawn Dickson is on a mission to save women's feet, and so far it's working.
As CEO and founder of Flat Out of Heels, Dickson has sold more than 50,000 pairs of foldable women's flats since launching her product line in 2012.
"I was out one night, and my feet were killing me," the former marketing consultant said. "I just thought to myself, I wish I could get flats out of a vending machine."
A couple months later, in 2011, she began her Miami-based business with $10,000 from a friend to get it off the ground. An initial test run of 2,000 pairs on her Facebook page presented an early challenge.
"I realized the shoes weren't really good for anything but emergencies. They weren't that comfortable. They weren't durable. They just weren't a good shoe," she said, adding that she donated the remaining pairs to charity.
After going back to the drawing board, the 37-year-old retooled the product with higher-quality fabric and soles and launched her signature collection. Prices range from $19.99 to $29.99.
While Dickson originally envisioned the company selling primarily through vending machines, they currently comprise just a fraction of sales.
About 85 percent of sales come via e-commerce, including Amazon.com. The remainder comes from specialty boutique locations and three vending machines across the nation.
Dickson is planning to roll out additional vending machines, currently being manufactured through her other start-up, Solutions Vending International, an automated retail systems designer that creates custom vending machines.
Dickson launched SVI after a bad experience with a supplier. Her machines offer wireless cashless payment systems and an online interface that allows businesses to track sales and monitor inventory remotely. Once her custom Flat Out machines are available, she will install them in nightclubs, airports and convention centers, where women often find themselves in search of comfortable shoes.
Dickson's shift from selling solely through vending machines to e-commerce has been crucial to building a profitable company. Celebrities like Vanessa Williams and Nancy O'Dell have been spotted in her flats, and Dickson recently earned second place and a $20,000 prize in the Small Business Administration's InnovateHER contest.
"Never be attached to one thing so closely that you can't pivot and adapt," she said.
Even though Dickson had to adapt her business model, she stood by her original goal of creating comfortable foldable shoes.
"Stick to your mission, even if it takes a different path to get there," she said.
Dickson describes herself as a serial entrepreneur. Her two businesses, Flat Out and SVI, currently employ about 15 people.
Yet while the road to success hasn't always been easy, Dickson says even tight situations have always worked out.
"Never give up, no matter what. There's definitely lots of dark days — especially in the beginning," she said.