Tip Toeing Over Obstacles to Success

On stages and screens across the country, ballerinas captivate audiences with their dazzling tutus, sky-high jumps, and one the most magical tricks of all, dancing on their toes. But have you ever thought of what those delicate yet rugged slippers, known as pointe shoes, are made from? Entrepreneur Eliza Minden said she was shocked when she found out, so she set out to create a technologically advanced pointe shoe and to convince the dance world that there are some things about ballet that should not remain traditional.

When Eliza Minden was 12 years old, the moment arrived that she had anxiously awaited: dancing in her first pair of pointe shoes. After wearing the sturdy slippers in class, she realized something pivotal.

“I was surprised and dismayed at how much they hurt,” Minden, 51, recalled disappointedly.

Minden stopped studying pointe when she went to college, but she said it wasn’t long before the shoes became a point of frustration again. After graduating from Yale University, Minden was working on the management side of a dance company when she discovered how much financial pain pointe shoes could cause to a dance company’s bottom line.  Despite their seemingly sturdy structure, pointe shoes can deteriorate rapidly. Professional dancers often go through a new pair of traditional shoes during one performance. New York City Ballet spends $550,000 annually supplying their ballerinas with toe shoes. Some young girls studying ballet can wear down a new pair of $70 pointe shoes after a few classes.

“These are struggling non-profits exacerbated by the fact that pointe shoes are nondurable,” said Minden. “They’re also a serious expense for dancers’ parents. And no one seemed to be doing anything about it.”

So, Minden did what the daughter of an inventor and a ballet teacher would do. In 1986, she bought a dozen pairs of pointe shoes from different brands. Using her brother’s band saw, she carefully dissected each shoe to find out what made them so nondurable and uncomfortable. Inside the ballerina’s most essential tool Minden found burlap, cardboard, canvas, leather, paper and newspaper held together with paste and little nails.

“It’s when I saw the newspaper that I really reacted,” Minden said. “These are the most incredible athletes and their fundamental gear was made of newspaper! It made me sure we could do better.”

An avid sailor, skier, and windsurfer, Minden set out on a shoestring budget to build a durable, comfortable, quiet pointe shoe that combined essential traditional elements—satin exterior, leather sole—with high-tech materials used in sports gear. She found a mold maker in New Hampshire who built an injection mold for the interior parts of her first prototype. The interior of the shoe—the box and the shank—was made from elastomerics, resilient and durable rubber-like material. This was pre-Internet, so Minden consulted the encyclopedia-sized Thomas Register to find a company that manufactured shock-absorbent foam used in running shoes. Once the interior was molded and mailed to her, Minden cut and adhered the foam in strategic places. Then, she took the prototype to a shoemaker in New York City that added the traditional exterior, a satin casing and leather outer sole.

Each prototype cost a few hundred dollars to make from start to finish, so the self-financed entrepreneur said she could only afford to order one shoe at a time during the R&D period. Her sister, then a professional dancer, was the first to test the shoe.  Next, Minden took her half-pair prototype to a professional dance studio in New York City.

“Here I was, this woman coming around with one crazy pointe shoe looking for dancers who could fit the shoe, like Prince Charming looking for Cinderella,” Minden joked. She eventually found enough dancers with the same shoe size who were willing to test multiple models.

“When my testers started asking if they could buy my shoes, I knew I had something,” she said.

In 1993, Minden and her husband John launched Gaynor Minden, named after her maiden and married names. While she said eight years was long enough to develop the product, it didn’t fully prepare her for the challenges of entering the pointe shoe market. The traditionalism of ballet was not initially welcoming to the modern technology that defined Gaynor Minden shoes.

Obstacle: Art, as well as athletics

Traveling from ballet school to ballet school in her Subaru station wagon, Minden started out marketing her patented shoes from a common sense approach, promoting their use of advanced materials, durability, comfort and injury prevention.

“It really didn’t get us far,” Minden said. Not even praise from reputable independent medical research institutions, such as Temple University and the American Journal of Sports Medicine, boosted interest or sales. Minden was mistakenly pushing her shoes as athletic gear. Although ballerinas can be considered athletes, their sport focuses on aesthetics. Appearance often takes precedent to comfort and functionally.

“Some dancers will suffer agony rather than appear less beautiful on stage,” she said.

American Ballet Theatre soloist Maria Riccetto, 30, said she was thrilled that Gaynor Mindens relieved her foot pain and lasted twice as long as her traditional pointe shoes, but she admits, “Ballet is all about aesthetics. If my feet didn’t look decent, I wouldn’t wear these shoes.” Minden had to prove to her target market that advanced shoes wouldn’t compromise the beauty of a dancer’s body in class or on stage.

Slowly, Minden said professional ballerinas started paying attention to her product, often because of a recommendation from a trusted teacher or colleague. When Minden would learn a prestigious professional dancer was wearing her shoes, she would reach out to them and begin cultivating a relationship with the high-level artist. She offered to feature them on her Web site and in marketing materials, which helped gain publicity for the dancers while simultaneously strengthening the credibility of Minden’s New York City-based pointe shoe brand.

Endorsements from accomplished dancers were “more persuasive than any marketing copy I could produce,” Minden said. With a better idea of how to appeal to her target market, she said she started watching her ergonomic shoes fly off the shelves.

Obstacle: Technology vs. talent

Skeptics at one point started calling Gaynor Minden a cheater shoe, suggesting that the shoes were so technologically advanced that they were doing the work for dancers’ feet. Minden blamed the response on a lack of understanding about the high-tech materials she was using and how the shoes should fit on a dancer’s foot. So she used a counteroffensive strategy and launched an aggressive communication campaign, delivering the facts about her product line via the Internet, the company catalogue, the podium at sales trips and anywhere else the opportunity presented itself. She also monitored chat boards and public feedback about her company so that she could keep track of what people were saying and immediately address any confusion or inaccuracies.

Obstacle: Earning respect

Minden strengthened confidence in her innovative shoe by strengthening her own personal brand. Equipped with ballet knowledge she had acquired while studying dance and developing her company, Minden began speaking at dance institutes around the country. As the ballet community began to regard her as a knowledgeable educator, she felt teachers and dancers begin to trust more in the benefits of her product. Minden continues to strengthen her brand as an expert on ballet. In 2005, she released a well-received ballet reference book, The Ballet Companion. This spring, Minden will be traveling to Paris to lecture about pointe shoe design to ballet teachers.

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