Monday, October 8, 2012

Steven Sashen of Invisible Shoes/Xero Shoes - sometimes success runs away with you.

Invisible Shoes/Xero shoes are 21st Century huaraches: elegant 4mm or 6mm textured, fitted soles, tied to the foot by any imaginable lacing pattern. One can do self-sizing or have the shoe custom fit. And they're cheap. Try to get any other minimalist shoe for under 20 bucks. The b2d review of the invisible shoes experience is here, from Sept 30, 2012.  In the next two articles, we're going inside Invisible Shoes with its founder, Steven Sashen.


But before we continue the fun from that review, first, a Sale!
Xero Shoes - the new logo
 May 10, 2013: 50% off till May 15 on color

And Now, the interview, part 1, the foot, the business, the journey...

Setting up a business is no small thing; setting up a still-niche business like minimalist footwear is no even smaller thing. The costs and commitments alone can make a person's head spin. So how does one even begin to think about well, putting a toe in the water of such a space?  Is one mad or insanely brilliant?

The following interview (part 1 of 2) shows how blending a personal passion with entrepreneurial spunk can lead to a rolling boil success. In part 2, we'll step back from the founder and the footwear a bit to look at some of the philiosophies that inform this increasingly successful footwear founder.
Invisible Shoes (Xero Shoes) founder, Steve Sashen,
modelling the Xero Shoe custom sole
But here, in part 1, let's take a look at the shoe, the foot, and how a company began, best foot forward.

Steven Sashen of Xero Shoes, Part 1: starting a company, and creating a new Sole

Thanks for taking the time, Steven. The first question i'd like to explore is - has invisible shoes become a full time occupation for you?
Within 3 months of starting the company (On November 23, 2009), this became a full-time job for my wife and me. 
wow, that's fast. 
Tell me about it! And things are accelerating now in a way that makes those 3 months seem glacial. 
We'll touch more on that speed in part two of this interview. But first, how did you come to decide this is something you wanted to do? It's a big deal - usually - to switch from something we're doing to a completely new venture in at the time a very new market - especially where we're talking physical goods. that's an investment.

 I'm not sure "decide" is the right word. I started the business with just a website, and without a lot of thought. Once it became clear, though, that we had stumbled onto something good (both from a business standpoint and from the perspective of how we were helping our customers), we jumped in with both feet (bare, of course).
Bien sur. Could you talk a little bit about that process? what inspired you to take the leap? how you made that as safe as possible for yourself?
Let me back up. I started making huarache-style barefoot sandals for myself and some other local barefoot runners once I knew I didn't want to be stuck in shoes ever again.
When did this happen? what made the connection for you between this type of footware and you wanting to get your hands on or your feet onto this kind of platform? Running in sandles for distance is not an obvious connexion for most of us. 
I knew about the Tarahumara and the tire-sandals they wore when they won the Leadville 100. And in the barefoot community (small as it was 3 years ago) there was some experimenting with this idea.
 People loved what I was making and the last person I made a pair for (with the materials I'd purchased) was Michael Sandler. He said, "I'm writing a book; if you had a website and sold these, I'll mention you in the book."
What is this with Colorado and runners? is there something in the water? 
Something in the air... namely, BLUE SKY with a big yellow ball, 300+ days /year! Shhhh... don't tell anyone or they'll all move here. [Anyway...]I raced home and told this to my wife, who totally shot down the idea. I agreed with her that it probably wasn't a good idea, that it wouldn't make money, and that it was a distraction from our other businesses.  
And then, when she went to bed, I built a website.
Of course! Were there words about this the next morning??
I think she just growled. But then I convinced her it would be a good case study for our Search Engine marketing business -- I could show how we could build our ranking and Search Engine placement, starting from scratch. I've said before that the most important psychological trait for an entrepreneur is blind naivety.
Great Council. 
Sorry, "blind, optimistic, naivety"
If you don't mind - could we circle back to this for a sec?  when you say "other businesses" - sounds like you're of the self-employed cloth. is that fair? and that your life partner is a co-partner in these enterprises? 
Yeah, I've never had an actual job. I was a street performer, a stand-up comic, an actor, a software inventor (while getting a Masters in film -- which I did while doing stand-up and acting
(examples of Steven's ranging satirical talents)
-- I developed the industry-standard word processing software for film and TV writers, Scriptware, and built a company around that), an internet marketing consultant, a real estate investor, a day trader, a meditation teacher... I know I'm leaving some things out.
I know nothing about writing software... which makes me a great "programmer" because I figure out, conceptually, how things could work... and I can communicate that with programmers. What I developed with Scriptware still hasn't been duplicated 20 years later.
Lena and I have been together for 13 years... her job is to (try to) keep me organized. We were starting a Search Engine marketing business when the idea for Invisible Shoes landed in our lap. 
We didn't think much about this business. We just started it.
With good intuition, informed by some great feedback from your early adopters?
I don't know about intuition. Luck. Recognizing that we were onto something. Seeing the wave of interest in barefoot running growing. And, yes, the feedback was GREAT, which inspired us.  And then, once it got going, we hopped on board for the ride. In other words, it became a real business before we had time to think about whether we wanted to start a business.
What a great problem to have: success!
There are worse ones, for sure!
And then, once you got into this in the first couple months...
 Then, when the former lead designers and developers from Nike and Reebok sat at our dining room table, helping us design our products and craft our business plan (this was 6 months after we launched), we knew we were officially in the footwear biz.
Nike and Rebook and Xero? Ok, this one is really a mind-puzzler for me:  for those of us outside the shoe industry, we would see first of all Nike and Reebok as competitors between themselves. And they'd also be competitors with you, no? SO what were they doing at all sitting peacefully at your table (at different times) trying to help you rather than burn your house down?
These were guys who had worked at those companies at different times in the past (and other companies as well). Now they were working together in their own company as consultants and sourcing experts. 
 The first thing one of these guys said to me when we met was, "Don't worry about the big shoe companies; they'll never do anything like this." 
 They sat at our table because they loved the idea of what we were doing, knew that it could be big, and wanted to help. They gave us many, many thousands of dollars of work at no cost... and continue to as members of our board of advisors. 

Personal Passion and Business - Two great tastes?

Many folks are passionate about their running - even barefoot running - but they don't start shoe companies.  What drew you to saying i want to make this sandal? esp. in light of other folks in the market
Well, when I started the only other sandal was a kit being sold by Barefoot Ted. The only other minimalist product was the Fivefinger shoe (which didn't fit me). I wanted the sandals because I wanted to spend as much time barefoot as I could... but with some protection, and with the ability to get into restaurants ;-) Plus, they look cool.
 Again, I didn't give this nearly as much consideration as you think I might have, or maybe even should have.
Again, who can argue with success or happiness? Where do these shoes fit into your life? Are you particularly passionate about running, or is there another idea or sense of direction motivating invisible shoes? 
I'm a Masters All-American sprinter, which means I'm one of the fastest 50+ guys in the country (I run the 100m in 12 seconds, and hope to be at 11.8 by next season). 
That's very cool to look at improvement over time/age. Way to go. If you improve year on year, how fast do you think you can get? What would be your target?
Well, usually you get slower over time/age. But since I'm still really learning how to sprint, I hope I have a few years of getting faster before I start slowing down. And then I hope my "slow" speed is still among the fastest in the country. I'm not thinking past my 11.8-11.89 goal at the moment. One step at a time (or 49 of them in 11.89 seconds). And, as far as we can tell, I may be the fastest Jew over 50 in the world! ;-)
Sounds like you're the fastest Jew in Sandals, period, sport! that's awesome. 
That and $9.95 will get me a cup of coffee at Starbucks 
 Sheesh. Do you run these speeds in flats or in your sandals? 
But to your question: yes, running is a big part of my life. 
Running fast. Wow, so what are a couple of the attractions to running for you? when did this start for you and did it become a passion early on? 
I was always the fastest kid in school (until I was 16). I always enjoyed running fast. I put it aside and focused on gymnastics during high school (I became an All-American). And then didn't know there was a competitive circuit for old farts until 5 years ago.
It also sounds from the invisible shoes forum that you coach people as well in how to run with sandals - have you been a running coach for awhile?
No, I've coached a lot of physical activities though and am very good at understanding biomechanics. I've taught Tai Chi, gymnastics, Zen archery, body-centered psychotherapy... again, I know I'm forgetting a bunch.
Goodness, well let's shift back to xero or invisible shoes as they began. Could you talk a little about where the name came from? 
"Invisible" came from the fact that when you wear these, it feels like you have nothing on your feet...
hmm - i'm not quite there yet. right now i feel something in particular between my toes. 
Okay, then ALMOST nothing ... and in that nothing, someone put a thin layer of rubber over the whole world. And, if you cut the soles to really match your foot shape, and wear laces that are not too bold, it looks like you're not wearing anything. Our new name is Xero Shoes.
What? you're letting go of an i? as in iShoes?? did Apple get to you??
I looked into "iShoes", but it's too hard to protect. I've been trying to get for 2 years... no luck.
What inspired the X rather than a Z?
It looks very good on the sole of the shoe.  X is cooler!
So the name change was motivated by what? 
We're changing for a few reasons:  The sandals aren't actually invisible (believe it or not, some people thought they would be) 

demo'ing the uninvisbleness of Xero shoes multi-tying styles

Ok, that's a surprise, but, come to think of it, i have seen things that purport to be transparent plastic.
Well, we could use transparent plastic, but it doesn't wear as well (rather, it wears out faster), and isn't as comfy. We're working on it, though. Another reason for the name change is that people started making their shoes much LESS invisible, with funky tying styles, bead and charms, and now we have colored soles. 
Also, we think Xero is a cooler name that still communicates the same thing.
I'm looking forward to the shirts - xero sounds very stealthy. you'll be able to sell to the tactical crowd, for sure. I say that in a good way. 
You can order shirts at

Material Sole

Ok, let's talk a bit about the materials of these shoes: you've made a bunch of really deliberate decisions here. For instance, you've recently changed the sole over to new material from new company. what drove that transition? 
 We started with a Vibram outsole material that was made for repairing shoes and boots. It worked well for sandals, but wasn't designed for that purpose. It had some problems, too... the 4mm got a bit too floppy in the largest sizes, and the 6mm (which we didn't sell) was stiff as a board. The top surface wasn't as comfy as I would like. With the help of our Nike/Reebok advisors and their manufacturers, we developed our FeelTrue™ rubber otusoles, the only product made specifically for barefoot-style sandals. 
Personally, the sense that this is a SOLE for these kind of shoes feels really cool - it's like it really IS made for a foot - or in this case - my foot. Is that why you moved away from the Vibram outsole? better sense of fit?
They're a vast improvement over the Vibram in a number of ways:
  • An sized product rather than a simple sheet of rubber (some people can use the soles, as is, but for those that trim them to fit, there's less trimming)
  •   Contoured shape that stays with your foot better
  • Simultaneously, more flexible yet holds its shape better
  • 2-way chevron tread design gives you great traction
  • Textured top surface is grippy yet comfortable  
  • Reinforced, pre-punched ankle holes
  • Better abrasion resistance (which is why we have a 5,000 mile warranty)
Have you explored thinner than 4mm? or is that as low as one can go and still have something there? 
We've played with other thicknesses and this gives a good combination of stiffness, flexibility, strength and wear. The tread is 1.2mm, and you need to put the tread ON something, so the thinnest you could go is about 3mm, but it doesn't seem to be worth it. 

Next Time: Footwear for Barefooting? Oxymoron on Zen Koan: discuss

Cool. This gives us a sense of how spontaneous eureka moments may actually launch themselves into great (ad)ventures.  And from this we have a wee bit of a sense of the personality behind the venture. Let's continue next time with a look at the philosophy informing Xero Shoes by poking the stick in the oxymoron that is "footwear for barefoot running" and where Steven's views of health engage with some related wellbeing practices like - will that be Paleo or Pastries with that Sprint?
Remember, till the Ides of October, you can use b2d's special Invisible Shoes coupon code "themind10" - without quotes - and receive 10% off your Xero Shoes order, too. Thank you Steven.
con't in: Part 2: death to flip flops

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