“I’m thinking about copyrighting this saying, ‘Js with a suit’,” Chad Taylor tells me as we kick off our hour long call.
He’s the founder of SockTips, who masquerades during normal working hours as a banker. It’s there that he wears his Air Jordans with his business suit.
“I will wear fresh Air Jordans or just Air Force Ones with a suit from time to time, and wear them into the office. It’s interesting. Some folks love it and they say, ‘Wow, those are really nice. I like those shoes.’ Other folks –– it’s interesting –– will say, ‘Man, that’s a white pair of shoes you have on there.’”
Chad isn’t what you would call a sneakerhead –– or so he tells me (“I only have 30 pair!”), and I am no expert on the number of kicks it takes to classify someone as such. What I do know is that for all the entrepreneurs and scaling businesses owners I talk to, the most successful have one thing in common: they are zealous as hell about their product.
Chad is no different –– and his passion for the industry, and his eventual product, began when he was in seventh grade, after he finally made enough money to buy his first pair of Air Jordans. He made the money by playing Three Card Monte and reselling candy Fire Balls and toothpicks he’d pick up at the corner store and offer to classmates for $0.50 a pop.
“Those were the black and metallic Air Jordan style. This was 1990, the year before the Bulls won their first championship,” he tells me. “They were fantastic shoes. Knowing my foot would grow and having worked that hard to acquire those, I decided to buy them a little big and I would cut the end off of an old pair of socks and wrap it over my toe.”
The purpose of the extra sock? Yes, to fill in the extra room in the shoe, but also to reduce creasing at the toe. The extra sock provided a firmer fit, pushing the material out and allowing for a comfortable wear, even with the larger size.
It was impressive long-term thinking for a pre-teen, but he’d worked hard for the shoes and was determined that no amount of “wear” was going to add any “tear.” And as it turns out, Chad is far from alone in that thought process.
A Brief History of Sneaker Culture
In 1917, Converse revealed its new indoor gym shoe, the All Star, featuring the brand’s signature toe cap, toe bumper, license plate on the heel and a patch over the inner ankle for protection.
Nearly 100 years later, in 2015, the All Star and 150 other iconic sneakers landed at the Brooklyn Museum in New York City, in an exhibition titled The Rise of Sneaker Culture. For any marketer, what the exhibit so clearly presented was the sneaker industry’s ingenious influencer marketing tactics –– all of which started back with the All Star itself.
A few years after the release of the Converse All Star, renowned basketball coach Chuck Taylor joined the company, both to promote the sneaker and to advise on its design and development. In 1934, his name was added to the shoe, leading to the colloquial name for the shoe today: Chuck Taylors.
Since then, Adidas, Nike and even Louis Vuitton have partnered with sport and entertainment celebrities over the decades to give rise (and drive sales) of their newest sneaker collections. These influencers range from tennis star Stan Smith and basketball star Michael Jordan to rappers Run-DMC and Kanye West.
But, sneakers aren’t just for the collaborating. Even politics –– and dare we say wars (cultural at the very least) –– have been fought and won thanks to sneakers.
One such notorious example began in the years leading up to the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Adolf Hitler saw the event as an opportunity to express athletic prowess of German society, and his subsequent theories on racial superiority.
Jesse Owners, an African-American, stomped on those theories, winning four gold medals –– the most awarded to any Olympian up to that point in time. To add even further insult to injury, Owens did it all in German-designed sneakers.
German shoemaker and future founder of Adidas, Adi Dassler, took great political risk in offering a pair of custom-made shoes to Owen. Word soon got around that the fastest man in the world had won gold in Dassler’s shoes. Adidas was founded thereafter.
Sneakers as Collectibles
It’s safe to say that sneakers have been a driving, if not often recognized, force for political and societal shifts over the last century. And the weight of this importance isn’t lost on sneakerheads.
Liken them, if you will, to collectors of Barbie Dolls. The goal is to preserve the bubbling up cultural shifts and creativity as reflected in consumerism. To parse that down, what a doll –– or a sneaker –– looks like in 1950 is vastly different than those of today. And, those differences say something about our society and culture, and just how far we’ve come.
Unlike doll collectors though, sneakers as collectibles also play an important role in fashion. “The sneaker is the most baroque item of dress in a man’s attire,” says shoe expert Elizabeth Semmelhack. “Men take their biggest sartorial chances at the footwear level. They wear larger shapes, embroidery and brilliant color they wouldn’t feel comfortable with in other parts of their dress, so I think men’s fashion is actually changing from the feet up. If you’re wearing gold Christian Louboutin sneakers with spikes, you didn’t buy them to play street ball. You’re playing a different game. You’re playing the game of fashion.”
To be fair –– I had to pull aside a co-worker more familiar with this industry and niche to help me understand.
“In Nelly’s ‘Air Force Ones’ song he says, ‘Give me two pair,’” states Raquel Harris, a project manager at BigCommerce. “A lot of people, if they can afford it, will buy two pairs of all these shoes. One for keeping in their closet, on display. The other, for wearing. And, even the ones they wear, they usually won’t wear for longer than 2-3 hours. You risk permanently creasing the toe at that point.”
OK, fair enough. Sneakers aren’t just collectibles –– they are fashion items too, and some people go so far as to spend double the amount in order to both collect and wear.
But what about all the fans out there who can’t afford to do that, those whom, I’d assume, make up the vast majority of sneakerheads?
Well, that’s where Chad comes in.
A More Affordable and Comfortable Sneakerhead Empire
Chad’s SockTips solution has been 25 years in the making –– with Chad serving as both creator and customer.
In September of 2014, Chad decided it was time to take his extra sock idea to the next level. After all, what “the kids” were using in place of a sock just looked … well … ridiculous.
“There’s a competitor in the market, sure,” Chad tells me. “Have you ever seen a steel-toed boot? It has a thing in the toe, right? It’s a cover. It’s a plastic shield like that, that you cut to go into the shoe. It works for creasing. The problem is, it’s uncomfortable. Say you’re out walking with your significant other, in the park, you want to do a pickup game. You’ll cut your foot if you try to catch a pickup game on this thing.
And then, the kids! They will keep the tissue in their shoe and walk like a duck to prevent the creasing. It’s a serious thing I’ve learned, with the high-schoolers and whatnot. It’s probably much to the same reason I did it. You spend a lot of money on these shoes and you want to prolong the aesthetic appeal.”
Now, Chad comes from a pretty hands-on family. Both of his parents worked in the furniture industry –– his dad on woodworking and his mom in sewing. A couple years ago, he sat down at home and asked his mom to teach him a few sewing basics. He then took his SockTip prototype to a hosiery manufacturer.
Then, the product testing kicked in –– lasting more than a year. He needed to be sure the product was right and that it worked. He needed it to be comfortable and reliable. And, he knew exactly who his best test subject would be.
“This is another test that I did on myself,” he tells me, rattling off all the different ways he tested out his product. “I bought a brand new pair of Air Force Ones and wore them 30 times –– the right one with SockTips, the left one without SockTips. I took pictures over time, and you could see the difference.”
OK –– so he proved his product works. He was good to go to market. The only other thing standing in the way?
Well, everything else he learned during testing.
Businessmen, Athletes, Cowboys –– Oh, My!
Turns out that it isn’t only sneakerheads concerned about their toe creases. This attention to detail and desire to keep the toe box crease-free spans the entire shoe industry –– especially where price, luxury and longevity come into play.
“I learned something interesting [during my tests]. One of the big men’s dress shoe stores that carries Prada, Gucci, you name it, and that sells those shoes for $600-$1,000 a pair or more, they’ll have people try them on. The leather is so nice, so soft. It’s fine if the customer buys them then and there, but after they try them on too often, they’ll crease –– and that store will have to send them back to the brand.
Then, some guys, they pay big money for snakeskin boots and he’s now worried to death about getting a crease. These guys are uncomfortable when they’re line dancing, whatever.
Thing is, nobody wants a crease. Doesn’t matter who you are. You don’t want it.”
Chad’s only problem seems to be in figuring out which markets to target first. He even admits that he needs to focus. It’s just that he’s designed such a well-functioning product, and doesn’t want to limit it only to solving toe creasing.
For instance, SockTips also have moisture-wicking technology, and silicon beads for a secure fit. This means the socks won’t slip or make your feet sweat –– allowing anyone to use them daily in low cut shoes like closed-toe high heels or even for athletes.
He’s even gone out and talked to podiatrists –– and they’ve verified that his socks help to relieve bunions, corns, hammertoes and Raynaud’s syndrome.
“I think it’s the material wicking away the sweat from the underlying sock and then providing that comfort fit, that form fit in the toe box, that has been shown to reduce those pains,” says Chad.
Solving for Distribution and Awareness
SockTips has been live for less than a year. Add to that the fact that this isn’t Chad’s full-time job. It’s his side hustle –– albeit a serious and successful one. He already has tons of fans, and is gaining traction daily.
The problem with a product like his, though, is that you can’t see it.
“It is an invisible product. Let’s go back to athletes, even if LeBron and Steph Curry are wearing them on the court, you don’t know it –– not unless there’s a t-shirt or a hat or some shoestrings. Maybe some SockTips fat laces that I come out with –– that’s just an idea.”
On top of that, distribution is hard. Chad needs to get in where the getting is good –– i.e. at the stores selling the sneakers.
“The feedback initially was from one of the big ones was: ‘It’s not a no forever. We carry your competitor. I want to see you develop your social media following. I want to see how it starts to progress, then we can talk in six months.’ That clock is ticking.”
What Chad does have going for him is solid operational efficiency and production processes which allow him to price his products cheaper than the competition –– a whole 15%. Plus, you aren’t putting plastic in the end of your shoe, which is a priceless benefit in and of itself.
And, Chad has the connections. He’s been in banking for years. He knows the right investors and how the talk the talk. He’s been into sneaker culture for years, as well. There, too, he knows the right conferences to attend, the right influencers to gain tractions and, of course, how to walk the walk.
In all, it comes down to his passion. Building a social media following as requested by one of the larger chains is no easy feat –– especially with a full time job. But Chad sees the light at the end of the tunnel.
“That’s the vision. You purchase a pair of shoes, whether it be, to use an example, at Foot Locker, or Nordstrom or Neiman, wherever it is. You take your shoes to the counter and they say, ‘Hey, would you like some polish and extra strings and sneaker repellent?’ Whatever. Then, ‘By the way, have you seen these SockTips? They help keep your toebox nice and fresh and they’re versatile in other areas, too. You can read about it on the back.’ You look at it. You haven’t seen them. ‘Sure, absolutely. I’ll take a pair. If it’s going to help this $200 or $2000 investment that I’m making right now –– sure I will take it.’”
And that’s just it. A simple enough product, well-designed, which solves a myriad of issues at an affordable cost, with a passionate founder who won’t take no for an answer. That’s the formula for success.
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