By Sarah Kelsey
The next time you’re wearing a pair of shoes, take a good look at them. How do they fit? If you’re like 75 percent of the population (this figure could be as high as 90 percent depending on the research you read) they’re probably the wrong size. And the repercussions of wearing shoes that are too small, too tight, too long, or too wide are many — from ingrown toenails to back and leg issues.
“Everyone’s foot is so different, and buying shoes is not like buying a sweater or shirt, where if a seam is not aligned with your shoulders, it’s fine… shoes can be incredibly painful if they don’t fit,” says Sophie Howe, the CEO and co-founder of the innovative app Xesto (pronounced “zesto”). The app uses a smartphone’s FaceID camera to take a 3D image of a person’s foot. When integrated into the e-commerce sites of retailers, a person can virtually figure out which shoes will fit best (the app is accurate to under 1.5 mm). Over 10,000 people have used the tool, and the company now has major partnerships with several shoe manufacturers.
“The first time I saw someone using the app my brain broke for a moment, because it was so surreal,” Sophie says. “But with the rise of e-commerce, it makes sense to have the ability to take a scan of your foot with your own phone.”
Sophie’s journey to become the CEO of an industry-leading, first-of-its kind app started straightforward enough. She studied finance and economics at university and realized that she really enjoyed problem solving. While many of her peers began to look for work in finance, she fell into the “uncool at the time” world of startups because of a friend. And that’s where things began to click.
“I spent a lot of time learning about and trying to understand what technologies could exist in the future. There was a lot of not knowing and having to learn from the ground up.”
With no prior knowledge of how to run a tech startup or build an app, Sophie and her co-founder found themselves knee deep in conversations about the innovative ways smartphone cameras could be used for customization. A few dozen discussions about sizing and e-commerce later, and Xesto was born.
One of the most impressive and inspiring things about Sophie’s journey to date is that almost all of her success has been built on the skills she learned through self-guided education.
“I spent a lot of time learning about and trying to understand what technologies could exist in the future. There was a lot of not knowing and having to learn from the ground up. It was frustrating how bad the resources were if you wanted to learn about something. There were no websites saying, ‘if you want to learn how to code, go to this website.’”
Sophie found herself digging through the Internet and doing deeper and deeper dives into specific areas where she lacked expertise; that would inevitably lead her to another Internet hole of research, and so on. “I would start creating mind maps of how everything was connected in the tech and AI world, and how things could come together,” she says. “I’m always looking for opportunities to learn and grow.”
That digging eventually led her to ventureLAB’s Tech Undivided — a six-month program that emboldens women-led tech companies to scale their business. “We are at an inflection point and have a lot on our plate for the next six months, so it will be invaluable to tap into [the organization’s] advisors and mentors,” she says, noting that building a support system is key to making entrepreneurship work.
“There’s always progress happening. You have to celebrate all of the wins, even if they’re not for certain.”
“It took a long time to get here — like, many years, and that story is never really told to anyone who wants to become an entrepreneur. We went through many years of hitting wall after wall without success,” she says. “You just have to keep on going and figuring it out. Our first idea didn’t involve footwear; what we’re doing now was many iterations down the line.”
Sophie also hammers home the notion that success doesn’t look the same for everyone, and that as an entrepreneur, you have to get used to the idea of imperfection. “Not everything needs to be perfect. Work with a prioritization matrix. What needs to be done first? Things will slip through the cracks. And as much as you hate it, that’s OK. You’ll figure it out. Just make sure that the ball that gets dropped is not one of those things that’s important to the business.”
She adds “founder’s guilt,” if not monitored, could lead to burnout. “What will make you effective is to build a work schedule around boundaries that will keep you healthy.”
Sophie’s next big goal for Xesto is to grow it into a sustainable and profitable business (hopefully with the right venture capitalist who wants to form a marriage with the company), and to acquire more users.
For now, she’s celebrating all she’s accomplished and the big wins she and her team have had over the past year — despite the pandemic. “There’s always progress happening. You have to celebrate all of the wins, even if they’re not for certain,” she says. “I love that we brought something into the world that has never been done before. In spite of all of the challenges, it’s really rewarding to know you’re making an impact on someone’s life.”