Some stories are told as a way to pass down information about a people’s culture from one generation to the next. Others are created to teach or inspire individuals to take action.
The Manitobah Mukluks story is about both of those things and so much more.
Our tale begins with the vision and mission of a self-made entrepreneur – to not only help keep the spirit and culture of his heritage alive and thriving, but also to build something that has meaning both to him and to the young people that he is teaching to become their own personal heroes.
But before we introduce you to the protagonist of this story, we need to take you on a short journey back in time.
A Métis Entrepreneur’s Road to Success
The dawn of the North American fur trade in the 1600s led to the birth of a new people in Canada – the Métis. When the province of Manitoba was formed back in 1870, Métis artisans were creating and supplying handmade goods to sell to emerging markets.
But as demand for mass produced clothing and footwear grew over time, the art of designing traditional handmade mukluks and mocassins lost steam in Canada.
That is, until Sean McMormick – a Métis entrepreneur living in Winnipeg – opened up a trading post with his family in 1996, trading tanned hides for handmade moccasins that were created by the women in his community.
“I didn’t know anyone in business when I was young, so it was sort of an accident that I started a company,” he says. “I knew I needed to do something that could build capacity in my community and I wanted to do something positive that could bring capital and opportunity to Aboriginal people. My family is my biggest inspiration. My mom, specifically, influenced my socially consciousness side.”
After Sean launched his first footwear company in 1997, Blue Moose Clothing Co., his products began filling the shelves of gift shops and select retailers through B2B distribution channels.
That is, until he discovered a photo in a magazine of Kate Moss wearing a pair of his mukluks in 2006.
It was around that time that Sean knew his business was about to take off.
“One day, someone called looking for more of these one-of-a-kind moccasins and I didn’t have enough to sell them,” says Sean. “That was my ‘aha' moment.”
What happened next was a series of serendipitous meetings with like-minded entrepreneurs and marketers – all of whom believed in using digital sales channels and storytelling platforms to bring new life and global appeal to a staple of Canadian Aboriginal culture and heritage.
Soon after celebrities started showing up in photographs wearing his mukluks, Sean attracted the interest of Josh Fine – a distributor of Canada Goose jackets with experience in global product distribution.
“I was with Canada Goose for 13 years and saw that growth internationally,” says Josh who is now the Vice President of Brand and Distribution at Manitobah Mukluks. “I then started to look for another authentic Canadian product that could be just as successful. When I found Sean, I knew he was the guy to do it.”
So, in 2008, Sean and Josh launched the Manitobah Mukluks brand with a very limited marketing and distribution budget.
Finding the Right Platform to Tell the Brand Story
Today, Manitobah Mukluks is the fastest growing footwear brand in Canada and is competing internationally with the likes of Ugg and Sorel Boots – with ecommerce customers from as far away as Japan and Scandinavia.
Since 2008, the company has grown from a small business to a medium sized business that now ranks in the top 200 fastest growing companies in Canada on the Profit 500 list.
And it’s because Sean and Josh knew they would need to take their business online to reach more customers and to tell their brand story.
They looked around at many ecommerce platforms but chose Shopify because it was the best solution they could find to integrate with the necessary channels to help them tell their brand story online.
“We knew we had to present the brand to more people and tell our own story,” says Sean. “We read and heard about Shopify from other small businesses and we knew a couple of bright, talented people in Ottawa who had just started working for Shopify. They simply told us about the incredible things Shopify was capable of doing.”
Since they didn’t want to break the bank, or spend all of their time designing their own back-end system, they launched their online store with Shopify which enabled Manitobah Mukluks to get online quickly and scale-up with its growth – all while managing the site with just a small in-house team.
Aron Slipacoff joined Sean and Josh in 2008 to help with the company re-brand and with telling the Manitobah Mukluks story online.
“We knew we needed to tell the authentic story of Sean’s ancestry and his goal to give back to the Métis artisans who helped him start his first business,” says Aron. “However, we weren’t sure if we were going to be able to communicate that brand message on an ecommerce platform. But Shopify has been a great storytelling vehicle that is easy to customize. A lot of other platforms are very rigid.”
Aron argues that many ecommerce business owners think the right decision is the one that costs the most money.
“From our standpoint, the wrong decision is doing what you always thought was the right thing to do,” he says. “But in reality, you don’t need to spend a million dollars on an ecommerce platform to make the right business decision. It’s interesting that we are seen as an ecommerce innovator in Canada. And we are a growing, successful company that was built from ground up with Shopify.”
Supporting and Giving Back to the Aboriginal Community
The Manitobah Mukluks story is about sustainability, keeping culture alive and supporting the community.
“We are literally using Shopify to create ecommerce excellence in the heart of the Aboriginal community in Manitoba. It is totally epic,” says Aron. “What Shopify is doing is something novel. They’ve given the Aboriginal community its own tool to grow from the ground up.”
One of the biggest brand storytelling initiatives that the company is working on is the Storyboot Project. It was started a as a way to enable Métis artisans to preserve the traditional art of making moccasins and mukluks and to teach Aboriginal students across Canada about the art form.
"We sell about 100 pairs of Manitobah Storyboots per year,” says Tara Barnes, Director of Brand Development and PR at Manitobah. “Some pieces can go for $1200 per pair!
When an artist sells their mukluks online, it’s a big deal – it can really supplement their income. That’s why we make sure that 100% of the proceeds go to the artist. The bigger we get and the more eyes that are on us, the bigger impact we can make in the effort to keep the art of mukluk-making alive and to achieve cultural regeneration.”
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As a musician, actor, designer and First Nations cultural activist, Rosary Spence works as a Storyboot artist and instructor – training youth in her Toronto community about the traditional art of mukluk making – resulting in wearable works of art.
“To me the Storyboot Project represents my culture and family. It provides me with a platform to share traditions and teachings that have been passed down to me from my grandparents – a platform which I may otherwise not have access to,” says Rosary. “I am truly passionate and proud to be a Cree woman from James Bay and one of my main artistic goals has always been to be an inspiration to youth.”
Manitobah Mukluks is also giving back to the Canadian Aboriginal community by training local Aboriginal people in Winnipeg to gain commerce experience and business skills.
In fact, 35 per cent of Manitobah’s total staff are Aboriginal and many of those employees can be found in ecommerce.
“Thanks to Shopify, we’re making an impact in our community by training a new generation of people to be computer savvy and to sell products on the Internet,” says Tara. “And because Shopify is so easy to use, we currently have only one developer dedicated to the website.”
Sean is also working hard to mentor Aboriginal youth to become successful entrepreneurs.
“There are greater barriers to entry for Aboriginal entrepreneurs,” says Tara. “Sean succeeded with a unique combination of brain and heart. Now with tools like Shopify, someone can start a business with minimal investment and grow capital from there.
It’s a game equalizer because it provides access to tools that big businesses have. Sean wants to see thousands of Aboriginal businesses like his. He’d like to inspire Aboriginal youth to do what he did while using all the modern tools they have available to them.”
The Manitobah team continues to listen closely to customer feedback online and via in-person connections to help steer the future of the company in the right direction.
“The direct connection to my customers can really turn my crank...or keep me up at night!” says Sean.
As Manitobah Mukluks grows, Shopify Plus will be there to continue to offer new solutions to help the company stand out from the competition online.
Have an interesting or inspiring ecommerce story to tell? Please contact Editor@ShopifyPlus.com for more information.