A pair of gold-stitched shoes launched Megg Riley into an unusual, but lucrative, side hustle.
In 2017, the Paducah, Kentucky, risk management analyst saw a pair of Rothy's on Pinterest when she was seeking sustainable footwear. She started buying the brand, which uses eco-friendly materials such as recycled water bottles and vegan leather, and joined Facebook communities where its fans trade styling tips.
"I saw other people that were customizing the shoes with paint and with glitter, and there were some other thread artists out there, and I thought, 'Well, surely I could do this,'" says Riley. "I am relatively crafty. I'm not an artist by any stretch of the imagination. But I can do stuff."
For her first project, in early 2019, she painstakingly stitched metallic gold thread through her marigold yellow points. It took about 70 hours for just the toe box.
When she shared her design on Facebook, "everybody was like, 'Oh my gosh, you have glittery shoes,'" Riley recalls. "One of the ladies that I had formed a friendship with said, 'Hey, if I send you a pair of my shoes, do you think that you could do something similar?' So I did. I added some metallic thread to the heels of her loafers. And she shared them in the group and everybody went crazy that there was something original."
Requests quickly began flowing in, and Riley decided to turn her newfound talent into a business. Over the past year and a half, she has brought in $18,000 from hand-stitching her custom designs, and made another $6,500 from classes that teach other people how to craft their own.
With the experience she has gained, stitching the toe box now takes her just four hours, and customizing an entire pair takes up to 20 hours. Riley completes 2 to 5 pairs weekly, putting in 40-50 hours a week on top of her full-time job at a fintech company.
"It's a running joke in my family that we do too much," she says. "Pacing myself and setting hours is really not something I do. I work until I fall asleep."
Here's how she built her successful side business.
Riley participates in eight Rothy's groups on Facebook. "These groups have between 4,000 and 24,000 members, so there is a huge captive audience," she says, noting that many of her customers will share pictures of the shoes she makes for them.
"This is my best advertisement. Someone will share a picture of the shoes, and I'll receive 3 to 4 private messages inquiring about placing an order."
She is already booked through the end of 2021, she estimates, with 124 pairs of shoes in her queue.
Riley credits Instagram, where both she and her customers post pictures of her designs, as another huge source of orders. "I always respond to comments and follow many of my followers to create a solid relationship with them," she says. "I think a lot of my success has to do with the building of relationships with people. Even after they get their shoes, I continue to have great conversations with people."
Riley sets her prices based on the complexity of the design, starting from $95 for a cap toe and ranging up to $200 for some heel-to-toe designs. (All prices include shipping and other fees, and customers supply the shoes.)
Her most popular requests are her range of colorful plaids, along with an ombre of pink to brown to white that she's dubbed Captoecinno. Some customers let Riley decide what will look best on a given shoe. "People are like, 'I like bright, bold colors, and I want to do it on a red flat. If I send it to you, you have carte blanche.'"
Occasionally there are the extra special designs: "I got a request to make a pair of shoes to match a BMW, 3 series I believe," Riley says. "And I got a request for the AC/DC logo."
There are unique challenges to working with shoes. Not only does Riley have to create a design that fits the shape of the shoes, but she also has to execute it in a way that keeps the finished product wearable.
"The thickness of the thread can cause the shoe to be tighter, and depending on how tight I pull the thread, it can change the fit of the shoe," Riley explains. "I find a way to ensure that I'm constantly stretching the shoe as I'm working on it so that I'm not changing the fit."
"There's a lot of math to it; there's a lot of finesse to it," she says of the customization process — and she holds her work to high standards. "My goal was if it doesn't look like something that came out of the machine, I don't want it, I need to change it."
Riley noticed more people talking about customization projects while at home during the pandemic. At the time, she was backlogged with custom orders. She realized there was an opportunity to expand her business and bring in passive income with online courses.
"Everyone kept asking if there was a tutorial on how to do what I do," she says. "Seeing more and more people trying to customize their own shoes — out of boredom, financial constraints not allowing them to afford me to do it for them — I thought, 'OK, I'll share what I do.' It was a massive success."
Her first online tutorial went live in August, with 100 people signed up at $40 each. She created a private Facebook group for participants, so people could ask questions about their projects "without blowing up my inbox," she says.
Video by Stephen Parkhurst
Riley has since raised the price of the original class to $95, and added more classes priced at $45 and $75. She also offers crafters a $125 membership that includes access to the main tutorial, as well as advanced classes, live demonstrations, and one-on-one help.
"I am working on making more tutorials including an ombre tutorial, an advanced knot tutorial, another plaid tutorial, a tutorial for creating designs and working with the shoe, and a tutorial for geo-shape designs," she says.
Riley is glad to have found an endeavor that makes both her and her customers happy.
"Something that brings them joy, especially right now in a time when things are a little bit less than ideal, people get just stupid-excited when they open my shoes," she says. "I don't know how to react to it, because I am beside myself."
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