On Starting A Footwear Brand: How I Designed And Patented A Shoe From The Ground Up
My name is Bret Rasmussen, and my company is KURU Footwear. We are a direct-to-consumer shoe brand focused on helping people with foot pain, including plantar fasciitis, heel pain, fallen arches, and more.
Our customers tend to enjoy an active lifestyle, seeking to improve the quality of their health. Many of our customers spend a significant amount of time on their feet in their professional and personal lives, and most have a health-forward mindset.
Coming off the best year in company history in 2021 and recently named one of Newsweek's Fastest Growing Online Shops, KURU Footwear has helped millions with our unique footwear technologies.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up as a citizen of both the United States and the world. I have triple citizenship. My father's career allowed our family to live in several states and abroad. Growing up, I spent time living in Utah, Indiana, Italy, and Taiwan, before eventually returning to the US and graduating from high school in Texas.
I then attended Brigham Young University in Utah, where I studied Business Management with an emphasis in Finance. After university, I decided to pursue a dream I had in the 5th grade to start a shoe brand.
One of my classmates came to school with a brand new pair of Nike's and bragged that he could run faster, jump higher, and perform better. This moment stuck with me, and I became fascinated by the idea that the things we wear could enhance the way our bodies function.
I built upon this idea and thought, "If I can build an orthotic directly into the shoe, it will be better, faster, cheaper, and easier for the customer.” To do this, I researched shoe developments and patents and studied foot biomechanics.
Armed with this knowledge, I developed and patented technology. At the time of invention, I was not attempting to alleviate foot pain; rather, I wanted to create something biomechanically and scientifically sound that would provide the finest possible heel support.
Unbeknownst to me, shortly after our market introduction, customers came to KURU claiming that we had solved their plantar fasciitis and heel discomfort.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
When I first launched the company, I had no idea how to design or make a shoe. However, I had researched the biomechanics of the foot and knew that I wanted to create something superior to anything else on the market.
To do this, I created a technology that was dynamic and designed to adapt itself to the wearer. I started networking and found a design firm in Utah that had worked with a handful of other brands to design shoes. Working with them taught me a lot about the industry, and in the process of working with them, I began patent research.
I came across a book called "Patent it Yourself," and I began the process of filing for a patent. Our innovation is a sole that can flex inward to protect the fat pad of the foot and provide support, stability, and cushioning.
I went directly to the source and began networking and visiting factories in China to learn as much as I could, and after refining the idea, we created prototypes. We had dozens of these initial prototypes tested and made adjustments to the shoe until I felt we were ready to go to market.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When we first launched in October 2008, we debuted in a handful of retail stores. However, the Great Recession forced me to rethink the business model - the customers who had purchased KURU were starting to call in to order a second pair.
In addition to running the business, I was also customer support. People would tell me how KURU changed their life. They had plantar fasciitis pain, and couldn’t walk for years. And thanks to KURU, they could walk again.
I knew we had something special but that we needed to pivot. We stopped selling KURU through wholesale and instead focused exclusively on our e-commerce store.
The decision to transition our model online, direct-to-consumer changed everything, and we began to see massive growth. Our timing was great because, at the time, shoe brands and retailers weren't doing very much digital marketing.
Because we had few online competitors, it was more affordable for us to get in front of our customers. We launched initially with pay-per-click ads on Yahoo and, over time, expanded our digital footprint.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Imagine that you have foot pain, plantar fasciitis, or something similar, and you search for foot pain solutions. We bid on those keywords on Google and Bing. We divide our paid search into branded and non-branded channels.
Each corresponds to one of our website's three categories: foot pain types, specific activities (such as hiking), and work-related. The third category, work-related, is important to us, as many jobs require workers to be on their feet all day. These could include warehouse workers, retail employees, nurses, teachers, etc.
Over the last two years, we've invested heavily in email marketing. Two years ago, we faced the same challenges as many companies and retailers—we were utilizing separate providers for email and triggers to piece together our program, which wasn't working.
As problems persisted, we saw the need for a partner who could supply best-in-class email technology. We consolidated platforms improving deliverability and enabling us to drive engagement, lifetime value, and growth.
We upped our cadence from 3 sends per week to 5 sends to our engaged audience and doubled our revenue via that move. In my experience, many marketers assume their list behaves like they do (the marketers) and in aggregate that's often not the case. While doubling revenue, we maintained our prior unsubscribe rate.
KURU has been in business for thirteen years. While we contemplated the retail route, we quickly realized that a direct-to-consumer strategy would better allow us to engage with our target demographics on a more personal level and help us create stronger, deeper relationships—a crucial competitive advantage in today's marketplace.
In my opinion, a precious currency for a brand is customer trust. Through positive word-of-mouth, we've experienced growing loyalty among our customers. We've been able to develop mutually-beneficial relationships and keep customer loyalty for years, presumably because our customers have faith in our ability to deliver on our promise. We value a more personal relationship and think if we moved to retail, much of that would be lost.
The growth we’ve seen has been incredible. A core focus for us in the coming months revolves around building brand awareness. Potential opportunities could include advertising on television, radio, and billboards. If you’ve got foot pain, we want to be at the forefront, there when you need us.
We upped our cadence from 3 sends per week to 5 sends per week to our engaged audience and doubled our revenue via that move.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Since our founding in 2008, we've withstood several shifts and trends in the industry. Today, KURU is a profitable, bootstrapped company dedicated to the growth and maximizing of our Direct-to-Consumer eCommerce potential. While we don’t disclose our financials, we posted record sales in 2021.
Similar to other brands, we are evaluating the industry and ensuring that our digital investments are profitable. The exact strategies that succeeded during the pandemic buying surge are no longer effective. Customers and organizations are diversifying and spending differently, making it more crucial than ever to fine-tune our messaging.
We attribute much of our growth to creating a truly exceptional product and world-class customer experience. Our KURU GURUs deliver on customer expectations, while our eCommerce team is optimizing our online store to make the purchasing process as simple as possible. This will continue to be the core focus for us in years to come.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Here’s one lesson that comes to mind. As a product company scales, many times it makes sense to diversify our factory base. When adding or switching to new factories, it’s imperative to not be penny-wise, pound foolish. For us, it can be tempting to ask the current factory to transfer the tools and molds to the new factory to save on capital investment.
For us, those capital investments can be upwards of $100,000 for one shoe platform. In the past, I once tried to save money by transferring the molds and tooling from the incumbent factory to the new factory.
Needless to say, the incumbent factory was not pleased that we were moving our business, and they made it exceedingly difficult and expensive. It would have been less costly and saved time to simply purchase a new set of tooling and molds for the new factory.
Another is to have a partnership mindset. I've discovered that the more I approach relationships with a partnership mentality, the more value the partner brings to the table. Everyone has a contribution to make. And I believe that approaching relationships with partners, factories, consultants, and others with a partnership mentality that fosters a win-win relationship generates far greater value.
Lastly, always research what the competition is doing and apply those learnings within the business. If you want to offer the same items or services as your competitors at a similar price point, you may not achieve substantial results. It’s important to bring meaningful differentiation and value to the market that convinces your customers to buy from you and not the competition.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Shopify Plus: We understand that providing an exceptional customer experience is crucial to the success of our business. We recently moved to Shopify Plus and it enables us to build and develop our website with a greater focus on the customer with improved search functionality, faster page load times, a more user-friendly interface, and improved customer support tools.
Rockerbox: Rockerbox has enabled us to progress up the customer funnel for demand generation purposes with a degree of assurance that contributes to enhancing directional results. Using real-time data and analytics, we can make better-educated business decisions.
Gladly: Our partnership with Gladly has provided us the capability to give more personalized experiences, that include better customer understanding, relationship building, and white glove service, while at the same time improving efficiency by 30%.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
First, focus on the problem you aim to solve and solve it better than anyone else in the market. Market demand for your product may not exist if you aren’t solving a real problem. Since the founding of KURU, our product has helped with common foot ailments including plantar fasciitis. We never set out to ‘fix’ foot problems like plantar fasciitis. It just so happened that many sufferings from foot problems have fallen in love with the results they get from our KURUSOLE technology.
Second, trust your instinct and believe in yourself. So many individuals in the shoe industry advised me that entering the market was risky and that the likelihood of success was low. This greatly diminished my confidence in myself. Yet, my intuition was strong. This created inner conflict, and the more I leaned into my intuition, ignoring the naysayers, the more quickly things moved forward. Whereas the more I doubted, the more obstacles I encountered.
Finally, find advisors and mentors. Outside of KURU, I didn't have a mentor. While my father worked alongside me in the business, I believe it would have been beneficial to find a more seasoned entrepreneur or advisor who could have championed and coached me towards what I wanted to accomplish.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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