Working as the IT developer for online retail website Shoes of Prey, Mike Knapp knows IT and selling shoes generally don't go hand in hand. However, the former Google employee and co-developer of the Google Reader application tells CIO how he was able to develop the startup's e-commerce platform in just six months.
What is your background in IT and what other positions have you held in the industry?
I studied computer science and Law at the University of Queensland. Originally I thought I wanted to be a lawyer, and even started off working as a judge's associate in the District Court. However I quickly realised that my true passion was the Internet. In 2005 I joined Google in their Sydney office, which was still very small then. I ended up working for them for four years, in Sydney, China and Mountain View at different times. While at Google I was the original developer of their CRM system, which was built entirely in-house. More recently I was on the development team of Google Reader.
Can you tell us a bit about your role at Shoes of Prey and what the company does?
Shoes of Prey isn't your ordinary ladies shoe company. We allow the customers to create their very own shoes. They pick the heel size and shape, how the shoe will look, and all of the materials. We then hand make the shoes for them within five to six weeks.
There are three co-founders of the site - Michael Fox, Jodie Fox and myself. Michael takes care of our business development and operations. Jodie handles all our our PR and marketing, and I look after the technology side of things.
The three of us all met when we were studying law so we've known each other for some 10 years.
How long did it take for you to set up the Shoes of Prey website and what did your business plan look like?
It took from April to October last year before we were ready to open our doors. A lot of that time was spend developing our Flash shoe designer, visiting China to find suppliers, and running tests with willing female friends.
We didn't actually write a business plan - we just had a good rough idea in our heads of what we wanted to create. Because the idea was very new, and there weren't any established competitors, we were literally making everything up as we went. The business has matured a lot since we started working on it, however the rough projections we had in our head have actually proved to be quite accurate. We're starting to do more formal planning now we've proved the concept in the market.
What were some of the challenges in setting up the website and how did you overcome these?
Because our systems are very specialised, we couldn't use off-the-shelf e-commerce products. Everything was created in-house, which was very time consuming. We also found working with Flash quite challenging. The Flash development tools are expensive and quite poorly designed.
We also fell into the trap of trying to solve non-problems. For example, we thought shoe sizing would be a large problem for us. We spent months trying to solve this problem, investigating a range of traditional and technical solutions. It turned out that the most accurate sizing is actually achieved by simply asking the customer for their regular size. Had we started with this very simple solution, we could have potentially saved ourselves some valuable time and money.
What’s next on Shoes of Prey’s IT agenda?
Over the next few months we want to do more to optimise our website to improve conversions. To do this we plan to be use Google's Website Optimizer as well as Google Analytics to really hone in on customers that abandon potential purchases. We also want to improve our recently developed Facebook Application.
What do you see as the top three issues affecting CIOs and other leaders in the IT industry?
1. Knowing what to build and, conversely, what to delay building. 2. Finding high quality development talent. 3. Building systems that scale, but that also address the immediate needs of the business.
Shoes of Prey recently took home three awards at the Online Retail Awards in Sydney this month, including 'best new online retailer'.
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