Invisible Shoes for $50

Last Fall I read Chris McDougall’s best-seller, “Born to Run,” about the Tarahumara Indians who run (and easily win!) ultra-marathons wearing no shoes, or simple sandals, called huaraches, made from tire rubber and some rope. Inspired by that book, like many others, I decided to start running barefoot. It just so happened there was an active barefoot running community here in Boulder, Colorado, and 2 great coaches to work with.

After a few runs I wanted to try out some huaraches. Instead of tires and hemp, though, I tracked down some high-tech sole material and colorful nylon laces and bought enough to make a pair for myself and a few other barefooters. People loved them and others asked for pairs, so I bought some more material and made another dozen or so. When I made a pair for the coaches, they said, “You should do this as a real business.” “No,” I replied, “I’ve got other things I’m working on.” “Well,” they responded, “We have a book coming out and we’ll put you in the book if you change your mind.”

That changed my mind.

I came home and said to my wife, “How would you like to be in the shoe business?” “I don’t think so,” she said, “we’ve got a lot of other stuff going on and it seems like a distraction.”

While I agreed with her, I couldn’t shake the idea, so after she went to bed, I spent a week building a website at www.InvisibleShoe.com.

We launched the site, and our new business, on November 24th with $50… the money we had spent to get our first batch of materials.

Luckily, one of my skills is Internet marketing, so I planned an elaborate search engine marketing campaign, and I tracked down the three or four most popular running forums where people were discussing barefoot running.

The combination of the search engine work, participating in the forums, and the luck of having a product for a market that was just beginning to expand, turned out to be magic. From the day we launched, thinking it would be a nice, tiny, 4-5 hours/week sideline, Invisible Shoes took off, growing at 100%/month for the first 5 months. Every penny we made, we poured back into inventory.

In fact, the biggest challenge we ran into immediately was finding enough of our material inventory at a price that allowed us to sell at the price point we wanted. One day, my wife called our distributor to place a new order and, almost as an aside, asked, “Do you have a shipping tracking number for that order we’re expecting to get today?” “Didn’t we tell you,” they answered, “that we’re backordered for 2 months?”

Uh, no, they didn’t, and we had orders stacking up!

This emergency sent us scrambling, but eventually led us to finding a better source for our inventory, and it also made it clear that our little side-line business was going to require more of our time, and more management than we’d ever expected, and had ever done.

Some days, we’re still stunned at the kinds of conversations we’re having and the decisions we need to make. We never imagined buying tens of thousands of dollars of rubber, and needing to time our purchase with the delivery schedule of the manufacturer and our anticipated (but impossible to predict) growth rate. We never thought we’d become experts in the assessing the qualities of nylon/polypropylene cord, or learning to clean rubber. We never planned to be working full-time in a business that we started as a lark.

And, frankly, we never imagined how satisfying it would be to put in a hard day’s (or week’s) worth of work making sandals for people, and how gratifying it is to hear back from customers who love what we’re doing.

We also never thought about how our customers would tell us how we should expand our business — quickly we found that people were using our Invisible Shoes for more than just running, and just as quickly we found that people of all ages love the feeling of making their own shoes. These discoveries led us to change our focus to include running, walking, hiking, trekking, and water sports… as well as developing our fashion and kids line.

We’re on track to have a low-to-mid six-figure first year, with the entire venture funded on cash-flow… all from a business we didn’t want to start.

I’m not much for giving advice since, as you can tell from our story, we’ve gotten to where we are through mostly of unreproducible, unpredictable, rare, odd, and almost random puzzle pieces that fit themselves together. But if I had to sum up my entrepreneurial life in something that sounded like advice, it would be: Don’t be so attached to your “plan” for how things will unfold that you miss the signals to take the detour that turns out to be better than you ever imagined.

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