Sean McCormick began working in the leather industry in 1997. Ten years later, he launched Manitobah Mukluks, an online store for traditional mukluks and moccasins.
The company is reviving the practice of making this traditional footwear through partnerships with elders and artisans. Through the Storyboot Project, they gather in a boardroom to teach one another the timeless skill of crafting mukluks and moccasins by hand. All proceeds from Storyboots go back to the expert Aboriginal artisans who made them. The Storyboot project is just one way that Manitobah.ca is providing opportunities for these skilled artists.
“From mukluks, to moccasins to crafty Storyboots, each authentic Canadian Aboriginal footwear item is made by local women in the community,” says McCormick. “Manitobah has approximately 75 employees and 35 per cent of them are Aboriginal.”
From e-commerce to high-end retailers
The company began as an online store but has now expanded to having its products carried by Nordstrom, Holt Renfrew, Town Shoes and other high-end retailers.
“Our retailers are broad, diverse and passionate about supporting an Aboriginal brand,” he notes. “At this point we can be found at over 1500 retail stores around the world.”
Manitobah Mukluks still leans on its online store to connect with customers around the world. The company has shipped 45,000 orders since it opened.
“Manitobah.ca became the company’s ‘flagship’ store that goes wherever our customer is and communicates our story for us,” says McCormick. “Our ability to reach out to new potential consumers, understand the costs of doing so, and then being able to scale that, has been instrumental to our growth.”
“Outside of Canada, the USA is our largest market and our fastest growing segment. We’ve definitely found a global network of people who share our vision.”
Traditional designs add authenticity
Made with natural materials and a durable Vibram sole designed for city wear, fans love the functional nature of the soft, beautiful footwear.
“Our designs aren’t far off from the footwear that helped McCormick’s ancestors survive in Canada for thousands of years,” explains Tara Barnes, the company’s marketing director.
“They also connect to our deep and evolving story of cultural survival,” McCormick adds.
Facing the startup struggles
Such a success story doesn’t come without its fair share of startup struggles. McCormick says the company struggled with pricing its product in its early days.
“Our biggest lesson was in understanding the costs of every transaction,” McCormick says of the e-commerce business. He goes on to stress, “Once a company finds an audience that can be acquired for less than their lifetime value, you have the ability to scale that business.”
The company also faces the challenge of financing its growth. McCormick says the Capital for Aboriginal Prosperity and Entrepreneurship (CAPE) Fund has been instrumental to their success.
“Access to capital is essential for any growing business and it can be a roadblock for Aboriginal entrepreneurs in particular,” says Barnes.
Storytelling and community is central to the Manitobah Mukluks brand
McCormick is always thinking about how Manitobah Mukluks’ growth could further benefit Aboriginal communities.
“Every time we prioritize a project, we analyze what sort of short and long-term impact it will make for the business and for Aboriginal people in general.”
Barnes says Manitobah Mukluks sees its future as a social enterprise “with the community as our main shareholder.”
The company employs an Aboriginal hiring policy and gives bursaries to the Centre for Aboriginal Human Resource Development (CAHRD) that helps young graduates go into business.
“Overall, our presence in the industry is indicative of a new era of Indigenous identity that is respected, acknowledged, successful and positive,” McCormick says.
McCormick says his passion for mukluks has a bigger-picture meaning for him and his community.
“It’s an incredible metaphor for cultural survival that a Métis entrepreneur is succeeding globally in business with a product that his ancestors used to survive for thousands of years.”
McCormick reminds entrepreneurs to understand their customers.
“If you boil down our entrepreneurial philosophy it probably looks like this: capitalize on every opportunity, be light on your feet, make a product you believe in, make a positive social impact and be ethical.”
“Everyone who works here is very proud, very competitive and understands how to scale their impact.”
Connecting with Canadian customers with a .CA
Not surprisingly, a whopping 90 per cent of Manitobah Mukluks’ business comes directly from Canadian customers. He says the .CA domain name immediately communicates “Canadian” to their customer base.
“We understand what it means to live here, whether it’s -40 or there’s a Chinook,” says McCormick. He believes the company’s Canadian customer base is as passionate as the company when it comes to improving the relationship with and the lives of Indigenous people.
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