Starting a Shoe Brand From Scratch


Guest writer Jeff Henderson – owner of And Them Design and Ninety Nine Products – shares his journey of design, development, and engineering for those interested in where shoes come from.

Photo: Jon Lopez Photography

GETTING STARTED

Starting a new business can take several paths. Nike started with a particular need from runners and Phil Knight’s Stanford business plan. Superheroic came from Nike-alumni Jason Mayden and his family’s battles with being healthy at an early age. Puma probably started over who Mrs. Dassler loved more.

The point is that anything can lead to a new shoe company. The key to being successful is understanding how to properly connect the product to the operation to the business to the consumer in whatever order works best for you.

The project I’m working on today, NinetyNine Products, started as an extra credit project at a factory that I work with in China. I found myself joking with my partner Scott in Shanghai about selling one of our made-for-China projects in the US. “If this shoe is good enough,” I joked, “I’ll sell it in the US!”

A month later these simple running shoes with full-length carbon fiber plates arrived in my NYC mailbox. I was a little shocked.

“If you’re going to sell them in the states,” Scott said, “you probably want to have a name.”

THE BUSINESS

I had a good shoe in the works, but that doesn’t make a shoe company. Allbirds figured out an amazing strategy to go with it’s wool shoe. Their focus on connecting with tech consumers in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles helped create a $1.4B business that never touched traditional sneaker consumers. Even if you don’t like the shoe, you have to appreciate the hustle.

THE CONSUMER

Last year I had the pleasure of helping Everlane create their sub-brand Tread. I learned how a start-up company uses data – both interactive and customer surveys. Their ability to satisfy their consumers in real-time is a large reason for their customer loyalty. Like most companies, they use that data to understand how many pairs of shoes they should make, what colors to put in the line, and how much the shoes should cost. The business is way more than just a good shoe.

THE PRODUCT

One of my favorite success stories that I have nothing to do with is the Hoka One One line. When everybody was preaching low-profile and barefoot running, these folks went HAM in the other direction. Their unapologetic midsoles were everything I was taught not to do in a running shoe and they nailed it. Consumers responded positively and their business became undeniable. Sometimes a great idea is the best way to start out.

OUR TURN

People who know me immediately expected me to do something linked to community or a social cause. I liked what Tom’s Shoes had created but I couldn’t get the numbers to work out.

That’s when my Uncle Walter asked me how much the shoe would cost. My uncle was an Army and Education veteran. “Nephew,” he’d tell me, “I want to be able to say I bought a shoe you designed.”

I knew what Uncle Walter meant. As a former Teacher, he didn’t have the money or the access to a pair of Yeezys or Air Max – unless I gave them to him. So I knew I had to keep the price low for the 99% of people that couldn’t afford the shoes that I worked on. I wanted them to have all of the technology and style available from other brands.

I landed on $99 shoes that would use 99% of our marketing money to celebrate and support people who help people: NinetyNine Products.

We will add Journalists and Veterans as we grow. But for now, we are going into classrooms and saying ‘Thank You.’

– Good things.


Jeff Henderson

After graduating in engineering from Georgia Tech, I worked at Nike for 16 years. I worked in blueprint, Young Athletes, Basketball, Running, NSW and opened the Tokyo Design Pod before moving to NYC to build Cole Haan's Innovation department. I left to start my own creative agency and design for brands like Koio Collective, Under Armour, Everlane and Yeezy. I even helped one of my first mentors on a Converse project. Still a dream job. Still in NYC. I'm sharing with you because I get a lot of questions from people on how they can get into the footwear business. Weartesters is allowing me to answers those questions by talking about a new project I'm working on. From designing a logo to traveling to the factory, I'll be sharing as much as I can - old and new. Good things.

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