My name is Wyatt Gilmore and I am the founder of Grant Stone, a Goodyear-welt footwear brand.
Our products focus on business casual, leather shoes and boots. This is a niche market that only sees a few brands making up the majority of the sales in the U.S. There are a lot of reasons for this including the production time and complex inventory (thanks to sizing and widths). This makes it difficult to scale quickly even if one did have the demand.
Most of our customers are looking for a product that can be worn for years and can be resoled at some point. Traditional styling and looks play a role but that usually takes a backseat to the leathers being used and the Goodyear-welt construction (ability to be resoled). They also don’t particularly care to hear about the start-up business or the next new shiny product because their favorite shoes that are in their closet are from older brands with decades of history, and they like that. To this day, very few startups have successfully made this type of footwear year over year and many consumers seem to understand this.
We have tried to take a more patient approach to the business, developing products at a slower, sustainable rate, while focussing more on the engagement with the customer versus trying to acquire new ones.
Over the last 4 years, we have been able to achieve 80% - 100% sales growth each year. In today’s world, that is not groundbreaking results but we have felt comfortable with this model and haven’t experienced any large issues that can arise with fast growth.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
My family has been in the shoe industry for a long time now, starting with my grandfather going back 80+ years.
When I was 19, I had the opportunity to visit a few leather tanneries along with attending a bootmaking school before traveling to China, visiting a Goodyear-welt factory.
Making sure you believe in the product/service you are making or selling.
The factory owner was nice enough to let me come see the operation, spending a few weeks to see how it all works. A month later, I began working at the factory and spent the next 8 years focusing on development and production.
The factory had the vision to focus on better grade footwear rather than the only volume which is a different mentality from most Chinese factories that excel with larger orders. The management along with the size of the factory-made this possible. They were open to new projects and taking on smaller businesses that were built around quality. This opened the door to creating a direct to consumer footwear brand.
The product portion was relatively straightforward because it was derived from the samples we had been making over the years. We were using better grade calf from France, Italy and more importantly, internal components such as linings from a supplier in Milwaukee and insole/outsole leather from Pennsylvania. Even today, this type of product coming out of China is not common. In general, companies go to China when focussing on volume and of course competitive pricing. There are always exceptions but most know this. So inevitably, our biggest hurdle would be selling such a product direct-to-consumer that was made in China.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
The first year we launched with a consolidated collection and ordered modest amounts of inventory. I really had no clue what type of demand there would be but didn’t expect much. Our awareness was mainly from our Instagram account, taking photos of samples at the factory. I started this account and became active well before we had a product that seemed to help.
Once we began, the conversation slowly migrated to different forums such as Reddit and menswear forums/blogs. This part took some time (1-2 years). It’s nearly the opposite of paid advertising in the sense of you have little to no control over it but in our experience, this type of customer dialogue that does not come from your brand is very powerful. Consumers want to read feedback from independent individuals. Even blogs can be skewed in a brand’s favor where forums rarely have this.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We are now offering a full collection of shoes, boots, and loafers in three different widths. This has been the main focus of ours since the beginning, making sure that each product being released is 100%. Once something is developed and stocked in the warehouse there is no turning back.
I have had many discussions with marketing companies over the years with regard to advertising, what platforms and what numbers to expect. If there is one thing I have taken away, we had to be very careful with how much budget we should allocate towards paid advertising. Everyone, I mean everyone, is pushing you towards opening up the budget and spending more for increased return. They can’t tell you what that return will be and time is needed for this to be realized. But this is their job and the only way their businesses make money. Unfortunately for smaller companies, there is rarely advisable to focus on organic growth that can snowball and help create a more steady, sustainable demand. Paid advertising is helpful and even essential for many but it can be difficult to get started.
After trying many platforms and working with various companies, we are now handling our marketing internally, focusing primarily on Facebook. This allows us to work at our own pace and still promote our site at a level we can continue comfortably.
Of course, every business and it’s marketing strategy will be different but one metric we are focusing on is the point when your advertising dollar is diminishing. This is very brand/product dependent but it’s something we constantly watch, making sure that we can see results from campaigns that are running.
At one point, we stopped paid advertising for nearly half a year focusing on our social media, forums, reviews, etc. In our experience, strengthening your base allows your advertisements to perform better down the road when you’re ready.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
We are constantly reminded that the product and customer service come first. In our particular situation, more volume or sales isn’t necessarily ideal if we are not ready for the post-sale portion of the service.
Large jumps in demand can be more damaging than helpful in some cases. For example, you advertise to someone for the last 3 months only to have them visit your site to find their size is out of stock.
Today’s customer also seems to be very educated about the product. Many of our customers know details such as the name of a leather supplier in France or even the spec of an internal component. This is our friendly reminder that the product needs to be right. Also, whoever on your team who is handling the customer service needs to know your product.
I have been lucky to have a couple of people around me that have continuously drilled a few sentiments into my head.
Cutting costs by cheapening your product is the beginning of the end. No different than continuously putting items on sale. Your creating habits for your customers and others will catch on. Short term gains are short-lived. Of course, this is very generalized but this always seems to surface from brands that are in trouble and hear this same feedback from customers. Over these few years, we have rarely seen customers complaining about overpaying for products (including other brands) but commonly receive complaints of diminishing quality or customer service. This is market dependent, but it’s something we see on a daily basis.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We have been using Shopify since the beginning and have really enjoyed it. It’s rare to have any website operating issues.
Since Mailchimp’s exit with Shopify, we have been using Active Campaign and found it to be great. The functions are very capable and the options are limitless. Their customer service has been most helpful, designating a person to your account that will actually look at the performance and review any tools with you that are in being utilized.
We moved over to Shipstation a couple of years ago. It’s great for shipping internationally and comparing different services instantly, even in between multiple carriers.
There are a few different out-of-stock applications available and we have found them to be crucial to our business. Most capture emails and promptly notify once the item is back in stock.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I rarely read business-oriented books but The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg probably fits this category. Some of the examples in the book can make you think out of the box and apply it to just about anything. It also sets the tone that you should have a bigger picture in mind and should not get stuck in the everyday routine that ensues when opening the inbox.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
This is the advice that was given to me that has been helpful; making sure you believe in the product/service you are making or selling. Smaller companies that I personally enjoy seem to be run by people who genuinely love their product and still play a large role in the company. Rarely are those companies being built only to be sold.
This impacts the daily decisions being made and how the company is being run. A (poor) analogy might be how someone treats a car they are leasing versus a car they plan on owning for a long time. The latter will focus more on the details and settle those long-term concerns quicker. Customers recognize this.
Where can we go to learn more?
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