#98. BILLY Footwear exchanges laces for zippers. We talk with co-founder Billy Price about how the adaptive shoe brand spiraled out of a personal need, only to grow into a solution for a wide swathe of customers in search of both convenience and design. The Loose Threads Podcast features in-depth discussions with leaders across the rapidly changing consumer economy.

Check out the full transcript below.

Richie: [00:00:07] Welcome to the 98th episode of the Loose Threads Podcast, a show about the rapidly changing consumer economy. This episode is brought to you by Loose Threads Membership, which gives you actionable analysis, insights and events that drive growth, and Loose Threads Espresso, your energizing and high-pressure filter for consumer news—in context. We also have a newsletter that features the latest analysis of the consumer economy. Check it all out at LooseThreads.com.

Richie: [00:00:35] Joining me today is Billy Price, a co-founder of BILLY Footwear, a brand that grew out of Billy’s quest to find shoes he could put on himself after becoming wheelchair-bound. While the products and brand started with a personal need, they have since grown to be a much-welcomed and needed solution for people of all ages and abilities.

Billy: [00:00:53] I was fortunate that I was able to make a choice to shift my trajectory in a positive direction and it’s been a grind for sure ever since, but it’s been a grind in the positive direction.

Richie: [00:01:05] Billy’s inspiring and empowering story is a tale of not waiting for others to create the solutions you want to see and one about turning tragedy into opportunity. Here is my talk with Billy Price.

Richie: [00:01:18] So why don’t we start. Talk a bit about your background then we can work our way up to BILLY existing.

Billy: [00:01:24] Sure.

Richie: [00:01:24] The company, not the person.

Billy: [00:01:25] Gotcha, gotcha. I’m in a wheelchair. Let’s start there. I’m in a wheelchair. I wasn’t always in a wheelchair. I broke my neck when I was a freshman in college. Unfortunately, I fell out of a three-story window and when that happened, it broke both my neck and my back. It was a spinal cord injury which left a permanent paralysis. Prior to that time, I grew up in a very small little town called Issaquah. When growing up, I was very active in sports, loved to be able to put things together with my hands. I always was intrigued by being able to take things apart and put things back together and just very intuitive. I was very independent for sure and when I broke my neck, things definitely changed. So there [were] definitely some pivots that had to happen and [I had to] just pick up the pieces and move on.

Richie: [00:02:05] And so talk about the first inkling or origin of what would become this company.

Billy: [00:02:09] So our company is for shoes and the way our shoes are set up, we have zippers in our shoes—and I would certainly be the first to admit that having a zipper in a shoe is not original. There’s so many brands out there that have zippers and shoes. But one thing that distinguishes us away from the pack is [that] the zippers in our shoes goes around the outside of the shoe, around the toe so the whole upper of the shoe folds over and you can put your foot in flat and unobstructed.

Billy: [00:02:33] So the question would be: Where did that idea come from? As I mentioned, I’m in a chair and when I broke my neck, there were a lot of things I used to be able to do that I could no longer do. It’s a bit of a laundry list but one of those elements is certainly putting on my shoes. I figured out how to dress myself. I figured out how to drive, feed myself. I basically knocked back to square one. But the one thing I never sorted out was shoes and there really wasn’t anything on the market that satisfied both the function level and the fashion side of it that I was looking for. So I gave up. People had been putting my shoes on for me ever since that day, which spanned about 15 years.

Billy: [00:03:09] And then, finally, I got connected with a longtime friend. His name’s Darin Donaldson. He’s the other co-founder of our company. We grew up together. We rode the bus together. We had known each other basically since the beginning of time, but we lost contact with each other and when we got reconnected, just within that conversation, catching up, I basically asked him, “What have you been working on?” And he had a shoe project of his own. And when he said that, I don’t know if I came up with the idea right there on the spot or if it was something that was deep inside me that I never really vocalized. But it was a matter of saying, “I’ve got a new idea and let’s put a zipper in a shoe and I bet if we do that together, I’d be able to put my shoes on independently again.” So that was really the starting point and there’s really been no looking back.

Richie: [00:03:46] So it’s interesting—so you spend basically 15 years without the solution [because] it just didn’t exist? Did you know the zipper was the solution during that time?

Billy: [00:03:54] After getting injured, my life was really just transformed. I was in the hospital for five and a half months just basically piecing my life back together, trying to sort out what wheelchair was gonna replace my legs for the rest of my days. There were a lot of really heavy things I was dealing with at that time and it was a matter of really focusing on what I had to work with instead of focusing on what I lost. So the shoes, being an example of something that was really challenging, that kind of got categorized in something that I had lost because there really wasn’t a solution there. I just kind of moved on to do other things. And then beyond that, since there wasn’t really a solution, it wasn’t really weighing on me. I just kind of moved on from it. Over time, it was just like, “Dude, there’s got to be a better way to do this.” So really just staring at my feet, the idea just kind of came to the surface.

Billy: [00:04:45] Because I’ve been asked this before—if I had been thinking about that idea for 15 years or longer and just a matter of why didn’t I pursue it? And I have a hard time answering that because I don’t really know what the answer is. It’s just that in that moment in time, when Darin was talking about what he was doing, for whatever reason, the planets aligned a bit and the idea came out. But the thing was, when I made that comment, it was really internally self-focused, going, “This would work for me,” trying to remove that challenge of having to stuff my foot into a shoe. So that’s what we set out to do. We set out to fix that goal of something that I couldn’t do. When we achieved it, immediately it turned into something bigger. It was like, “Wow, that was pretty amazing. I bet there’s a lot of other people that would be able to have similar experiences to me.” But at the same time, we don’t want to make an adaptive shoe. We want to make a mainstream shoe and the only way we can really make this a business, if we’re gonna turn this into a business and make it work, is it has to be something that is desirable and fashionable for mainstream and stood on the shelves of the major retail partners out there like the Nordstroms of the world, like Zappos and whatnot, and be something that everyone would want to wear.

Richie: [00:05:50] I’m curious to step back a bit. Talk about the process into 2012 and into the development. How did it unfold in a very cadenced way?

Billy: [00:06:00] That’s a great question because certainly we didn’t just immediately start jumping into shoes. One reason why is [that] shoes cost a lot of money. So we came up with the idea in 2011 and then we formed our company in 2012, in February of 2012. The name of our company is, still is, BillDon LLC. So it’s kind of a play on words. Billy Price, Darin Donaldson—BillDon. But also it’s a matter of building on what you have instead of focusing on what you lost. So it’s kind of a play on words there. From there, we didn’t immediately go into shoes. What we did was we made a rendering drawing to formalize what we had in mind. Darin already had some contacts in the shoe industry to make prototypes, but we just didn’t quite pull the trigger on that because we weren’t ready to really expand. At that time, it was more of a focus on, “We need to generate some capital to be able to get this thing off the ground.”

Billy: [00:06:50] When I was in the hospital trying to piece everything back together, there was a lot of remembering of what I used to be able to do that I could no longer do and one of those things was skiing. I skied a ton growing up. I was very active in sports and skiing was certainly one of those sports and it was a sport I wanted to continue. And I knew that, in the wheelchair community, they have adaptive skiing and I was just totally hell bent on giving that a shot. So basically what you do is you lift me up, you put me in this little sit ski and you strap these outriggers to your arms, which have little skis on the end of them and then you just put on a helmet and bomb down the hill. But the challenge is, similar like with the shoes, I just don’t have the hand dexterity. I can move my wrists, but I just don’t have the grip. So the challenge there is, one, putting your hand into a glove because I can’t really extend my fingers to put into a five-finger glove and, even if I did, it’s still a matter gripping that outrigger.

Billy: [00:07:41] So my dad actually came up with this adaptive ski glove idea where, essentially, I’m holding onto a PVC pipe and that PVC pipe is completely incorporated into a glove like a big mitten and that pipe goes over the outrigger peg of which you would typically squeeze with your hand. And then there’s Velcro in them with the straps that basically allow me to hold on my outriggers. So that prototype was already in place and not really knowing where Darin and I were going to go with our company, we started with that prototype. We started to make that manufacturable and we did a Kickstarter campaign, which was very successful. We sought out to have a goal of $7,500. We ended up making over $20 Grand and that was really the start of being able to have some money to move forward to do bigger things.

Billy: [00:08:26] The thing that was really cool was, about two years later, there was a recruiter that reached out. It was a recruiter for a reality television show called “Quit Your Day Job,” which later aired on the Oxygen Channel. He reached out to us because he saw the success of our Kickstarter campaign and in that moment, he asked, “Will I see you at the ski lift? What else do you have?” And that was the opportunity [when] we were able to pull that rendering drawing of a shoe off the shelf, basically dust it off and say, “Well, we have a shoe idea.” And that turned into them saying, “Well, tell us more.” And then we told them about it and they said, “Do you have a prototype?” And then Darin and I kind of looked at each other somewhat frantic[ally] because we hadn’t connected that dot yet and it’s like, “Yeah, we’ll get back to you.” And about four weeks later, we had a prototype. From that prototype, I was able to put my shoes on again, independently, for the first time in 18 years. So in that moment, there were a lot of things that were kind of colliding, but in that moment, I was able to gain some incredible independence to satisfy that goal that we originally talked about when we first spitballed back and forth in 2011 and then also be able to satisfy the requirements to get on this reality television show, which later was the catalyst to really kick us in the butt to move forward.

Richie: [00:09:33] How different was that rendering and that first prototype from what it is now?

Billy: [00:09:39] The rendering that we had, it still had the basic zipper concept where it would go around the outside and around the toe so it would open up. But in terms of fashion-wise, it was really rough. It was basically just a receptacle you put your foot in, but the basic functionality—the concept—was really clear. From that, we had a little bit more of a stylized rendering that was put together to send to the prototype producers and they made a shoe that was essentially kind of like a Vans, I guess, or like an old-school Airwalk. It was black, black all the way to the floor, very basic. They put a zipper on it that allowed it to just open up. So I guess the original, original rendering we had, functionality-wise—it was spot on. Style-wise, it was a little different. But then we made a second one that was more revised and the way the rendering looked and the way the product came back to us, it was one of those shocking moments where I was like, “Oh my gosh, we just took something from paper and we now have a working widget and it works for me and I can put my shoes on by myself. Oh my gosh, we’ve got to share this.”

Richie: [00:10:38] And what did the factory think of what you were doing?

Billy: [00:10:40] We weren’t working directly with the manufacturer. We were working with kind of an agent.

Richie: [00:10:44] Yep. What did they think?

Billy: [00:10:45] She was pretty excited. They were immediately looking for orders. But at that time also, it’s a matter of their business is making shoes. So if you come up with some sort of an idea and then you have a prototype and whatnot, they’re gonna say, “What do you think? Are we going to move forward with this thing?” Because the numbers get big in a hurry, real big in a hurry because they have minimums and whatnot. Maybe you can make 600 pairs as the minimum, but oftentimes it’s closer to 1,200 and that’s for one shoe. So you really have to be committed before you move forward.

Richie: [00:11:13] Does that include size runs?

Billy: [00:11:15] Right, so given a certain size run—For example, our kids’ shoes right now, they start at a toddler ten and go up to a youth size six. So there [are] ten different sizes within that category. If you have just a red high top, the minimum for that would be 1,200 pairs. But you can’t just go out with one high top. You’ve got to go out with a bunch of them. Oh my gosh, 1,200 times ten. Oh my gosh, we have a lot of shoes all of a sudden. And it costs money. Oh my gosh. Where does this money come from?

Richie: [00:11:37] On the second prototype, it starts to get where you kind of were dreaming of it getting. When is that time-wise?

Billy: [00:11:43] I put my shoes on for [the] first time in, I think it was May of 2015. And that was right when we were working with that reality television show and that show later aired in April of 2016. As a company, we wanted to leverage that exposure as much as we could. As I say, it was the catalyst to make us move forward. So after the show ended, or I should say the recording ended, [it was] just a mad dash on our part to be able to scramble to be able to put product together, to be able to meet the demand when it did air. Now the timing didn’t quite line up quite right. So what we did was we made another Kickstarter campaign, kind of more like a pre-sale sort of deal, and we set the goal there for $30,000. And we got $30,000, but it really generated a lot of hype of what was coming. When [it] arrived, we started satisfying those orders, which was spectacular.

Billy: [00:12:32] But there was one thing that we did discover that was a very memorable moment in time. Because we were basically selling shoes before we actually had them in our possession. So we really didn’t have a gauge on the quality and when they did show up, the quality was bad. It was really bad. We had two kids’, two women’s and three men’s. So that was a total of—what would that be? It would be three, five, seven–seven different SKUs and the minimums we were able to get on that were 600 pairs. So it was 4,200 pairs of shoes came in and 80% of them were blemished, just garbage. It was just like, “Oh my gosh.”

Richie: [00:13:09] Just like the whole thing?

Billy: [00:13:10] I mean they were functional, but the zippers were really wavy and, aesthetically, they just didn’t look good. And there was a real tricky spot for a couple of reasons. One was we spent like over $100 Grand on these shoes and they came back and it wasn’t really a good representation what we wanted to portray. So that was one challenge. The other challenge was you have all this product and really the next steps are gauged on the sale of these products. So it’s like, “Okay, where is new money going to come from to be able to move forward?” But the other part of it was, if you’re just focusing on the function, they wanted the function. So people were saying like, “We’ve got to donate the shoes.” And we would have loved to do that, but it’s still a representation of the quality of our brand. So even though you’re donating them to do something positive, it’s still going to come out and looking at it like, “The BILLY shoe is going to look like this,” you’re like, “Well, that’s not exactly how it’s supposed to be.” So it was a real challenge. So we were able to offload them and basically we had to ship them overseas. Again, they got donated. But it was a matter of we were able to feed something positive without really letting it get mainstream to be able to, again, be a representation of our brand.

Billy: [00:14:11] But from that disaster, we got connected with some incredible people. They’re called The Sourcing Partner and what they do is they have contract relationships with a bunch of manufacturers and they have the clout and the capital to be able to go to a manufacturer, if they don’t produce something that’s of quality, they have the ability to go back to them and say, “Hey, if you don’t make this right, we’re never gonna work with you again.” So when you have that type of clout—and they manufacture millions and millions and millions of shoes a year—chances are you’re gonna have a good product. And they’re the ones [who] are manufacturing our shoes now and they’ve been awesome and the market certainly shows that.

Richie: [00:14:44] So a new order comes in for the second time to your standards?

Billy: [00:14:48] Correct. From that disaster, we started working with our sourcing partner whose name is Top Line. It was a matter of what are we going to do? Because, as I mentioned, during the Kickstarter stuff we just had two kids, two women’s and three men’s. It was a matter of, “Which way do you expand?” Because we didn’t have the capital to expand in all three directions at once. So we chose just to expand into kids to start. So Top Line was able to put together an eight-SKU display to really start our brand and it was great. It worked really well. And then from there, we started more runs. So we have a lace low-top now, we have a lace high-top, both of which have the zipper inside of them. And it’s been great. So now the success of that has propagated further success and has allowed us to be able to expand into women’s and men’s which is coming this year, which we’re really excited about.

Billy: [00:15:35] Just so I understand correctly, into the second run, you basically realized you couldn’t do all of these different styles. You started with kids and so kids actually launched, were the first, focused demographic to launch with.

Billy: [00:15:47] When you talk about launching, the product that came in that was blemished—we did have an ecommerce site on our website and that was for the two kids, the two women’s and three men’s.

Richie: [00:15:57] Okay.

Billy: [00:15:57] When we expanded, we shut down our ecommerce and just did kids.

Richie: [00:16:03] You expanded by narrowing.

Billy: [00:16:05] We expanded by narrowing. Right. All three demographics respond really, really well and we were excited to go in all three. We just financially couldn’t pull the trigger. So talking to various people and whatnot, it seemed to make a lot of sense to start with kids.

Richie: [00:16:18] Talk through some of those discussions and how you formed that opinion.

Billy: [00:16:20] Sure. So there’s a couple things going on there. One is it seemed like, as a child, you’d be more open to start with something just totally unique.

Richie: [00:16:28] If people were putting wheels in their shoes and all of that.

Billy: [00:16:30] Oh yeah.

Richie: [00:16:31] Very experimental.

Billy: [00:16:32] I’ll tell you what, those wheeled shoes, I wish those wheeled shoes were around when I was growing up because that would have been fun. But the other part of it too is it just felt like a no-brainer. Especially because all I could think about was how a parent, when they’re trying to get their kids out the door in the morning and just that daily morning battle with the kids not wanting to put their shoes on, zippers are intuitive. To be able to provide something to a parent, they can empower their kids to put their shoes on, not only independent[ly], but quickly, it really sets your day up with this success. And then if you start your day with a success, there will be more success as the day progresses. So instead of starting off with a daily battle, you’ve paved the way for something bigger for the rest of the day. That’s one reason.

Billy: [00:17:17] But the other part of it too is the days of having a parent squeeze the toe of a shoe, going, “Does this fit? Is that your toe?” It’s like, why don’t you just unzip the shoe and check for yourself? To kind of set the stage with the kids line and then you introduce them to it. So as they grow older and as their feet grow, you can kind of grow the company with them.

Richie: [00:17:36] It’s super interesting though because both of those reasons had nothing to do with your own experience.

Billy: [00:17:40] Oh, totally.

Richie: [00:17:41] Or for people [who] were in your situation. They were just: Can you make a better shoe?

Billy: [00:17:44] Yeah, and the funny thing about it is our shoes get a lot of attention because of the function and whatnot. There [are] a lot of people that just really, really love the function simply because it’s opened a door to them that wasn’t open before. But the vast majority of our customers love the convenience, which kind of was a testament to, going back to what our original mission was, to be able to create something that can play both sides of the fence. Have the function, but have that fashion and just sit in major, major mass market space instead of more niche.

Richie: [00:18:14] When did you realize that was actually going to happen or that that would be a reality? Or was that the plan from the beginning? That you could satisfy both of those objectives.

Billy: [00:18:22] Ever since the beginning, that was our objective. We definitely received some resistance. People thought we were kind of crazy to do that, basically saying, “Wait a second, that’s never been done.” It’s like what are you talking about? Don’t tell me it’s never been done.” Okay, maybe it has never been done, but everything that’s ever been done has been, at one time, was never done. Part of the reason for that objective was, reflecting back on that ski glove project that I was talking about, that was incredibly niche. Incredibly niche. The market there is so, so narrow. So the people [who] did buy gloves from us, their world was transformed. I mean they were able to do things on the ski slopes that they had never been able to do before. But the thing is, in terms of sales, there really weren’t very many sales because your market is just really, really narrow.

Billy: [00:19:07] We took that experience and [moved] it forward into our shoes, going, “Well, shoot. First off, I don’t want to wear something that looks adaptive.” I remember being on the playground growing up and if you wore something that looked different, you were reminded that you were wearing something different. I didn’t want to have that happen. I wanted to have something that was mainstream and whatnot so we really sought out with that. But at the same time, as I say, we were getting resistance. So we just kind of moved forward with faith that it was gonna work out.

Billy: [00:19:31] But I would say that the real truth to me that we were on the right path was when we finally got on the shelves of Nordstrom. There was a moment in time [when] I went to the Nordstrom store in Seattle, because that’s their main flagship store, and there was a moment where I went in there because we’d worked so hard to get the shoes there. They had just arrived and I just had to go down there to check to put my own eyeballs on it. I was in the store. There was a mom with two kids [who] came in and while I’m looking at our shoes sitting on that shelf, she came over with her kids and she grabbed it and took it off the shelf and went over to have her kids try that on. And about ten minutes later, both her two kids, brother and sister, came walking out of the store wearing our gray jersey high-top. I had to stop them. I said, “I’m Billy. That’s my brand right there. What just happened here is just absolutely incredible. We’ve worked so hard to get on the shelves and just seeing you, you not only grabbed the shoe, but to have you buy the shoe for your two kids, you’ve warmed my heart through and through. I just have to tell you that.” She was like, “Well, wow thank you so much for saying something. I just really really appreciate it. It’s great to meet you.” And she said, “But I gotta say that the reason I bought these shoes for my kids is because these are the shoes my kids wanted to buy for them.” They didn’t need the function. They just loved the trendiness, I guess. They loved the zipper. The loved the ease of putting it on. So seeing that firsthand, that told me through and through and confirmed what we had been thinking all along, that our shoes can very much sit in the mainstream space.

Billy: [00:21:00] Coupled with that story that I saw firsthand, we get emails all the time of parents [who] have kids [who] have foot braces, they have kids [who] may have some cognitive challenges, people [who] have strokes or whatnot, partial paralysis, stories through and through and through. There was one kid [who] had brittle bone disease, which means that they’re just very, very fragile. This poor guy, he had 80 fractures at the age of five. I mean, just crazy. And he’s able to put our shoes on by himself and also be able to put them on without being in pain. So you have that type of story coupled with one that was just in Nordstrom where they’re just two regular kids and we’re playing on both sides of that fence. I just don’t really know of a lot of brands that are able to do that, which I really just find incredible.

Richie: [00:21:43] Yeah. It’s amazing. So I’m curious, to back up a little bit, the kid’s line becomes the focus in 2015, 2016 now?

Billy: [00:21:51] The kid’s line really became the focus in 2017.

Richie: [00:21:53] In 2017.

Billy: [00:21:53] Because after that disaster of a product coming in, it was like, “Okay, we’ve got to focus on one thing and we’ll move forward.” So the focus with Top Line was to make a fully established kids line, which got us into the retail stores.

Billy: [00:22:05] Talk a bit about how you thought about the distribution in terms of, you had ecommerce before, you had done Kickstarter, but how did you think about where you wanted these shoes to live and how people would find them and how the distribution side would work?

Billy: [00:22:17] We were convinced that the shoes would sell themselves. It was just a matter of being able to get the story out and being able to get the product out. Really, what it came down to was the measurement of eyeballs. Also being able to build up retail partners and not undercut them. And what I mean by that is, if you have your own ecommerce, you’re in direct competition with your retail partners. So certainly by going through your own ecommerce, in terms of the business, it makes a lot of sense because of the margins and whatnot. But at the same time, you need to have that relationship with the retail partners. Brick-and-mortar is incredible. Brick-and-mortar is struggling, unfortunately, right now. But if you’re able to be in a brick-and-mortar space and be able to be in a situation where you’re able to have direct contact with the customer and be able to have that conversation, it really is beneficial.

Billy: [00:23:00] So we are positioning ourselves to try to achieve that. Seattle—that’s where Nordstrom started. There is a member on our team. He had some connections with Nordstrom, which allowed us to get in a room, similar to the room we’re in right now, to be able to have a conversation going like, “Hey, look, here’s our brand. Here’s the story. Here’s the product. What do you say about giving us a shot?” And they gave us five stores. We’re in five stores in the Puget Sound area. We did really, really well. And then from there, we expanded into ten stores nationwide and we’re looking to expand further.

Billy: [00:23:32] So, while that same thing was happening, we had the brick-and-mortar sorted out, it was a matter of getting into an online space. That same gentleman also had—who’s on our team, his name’s Patrick Foster—he also had some connections with the Zappos folks. And, again, he allowed us the ability to reopen the door for us to have a conversation with the Zappos team and it was a great conversation and it’s been a spectacular partnership thus far, but it’s gonna be a long-term partnership as we continue go forward.

Billy: [00:23:59] One more thing on that: Zappos started a subdepartment within that company called Zappos Adaptive and Zappos Adaptive launched right about the same time we were coming into the market as well. And, again, it really focuses on the function side of it, but it’s been really, really cool to see what they’ve been working on—a lot of different shoes that Zappos is already selling, but [which] just have somewhat of an alternate entry, alternate way of closing the shoes. So it’s more highlighted on the Zappos Adaptive side without necessarily being an adaptive shoe. Just one more door that opened to us that we were able to step through and step into a bigger space to make a difference.

Richie: [00:24:38] So it sounds like the kids’ line was the right move to really focus on and gave you the benefits that you talked about. When did you start to think about, “We need to do more and get back to all three customer bases”?

Billy: [00:24:51] We never lost focus on the adult line for women and men. It was strictly just a capital thing. It was just a matter of we didn’t have the coin to do it. Our company has been very fortunate recently. In September, there was a gal [who] went to a Nordstrom store in Minneapolis, went to the Mall of America, knew nothing about our brand, went in there and had a very, very positive experience, went home and made a Facebook post to share it with her immediate sphere of influence and for whatever reason, this post got legs. It just got shared a bunch. She posted it on a Wednesday and by that Friday, it had been shared 280,000 times. When that happened, all of a sudden our brand became just a lot of eyeballs.

Richie: [00:25:34] Talk through that unfolding from your perspective.

Billy: [00:25:36] Well, from my perspective, my gosh. This gal, her name is Nicole. Nicole reached out to me directly through email saying, “Man, I just love your brand. What you’re doing is great, worked [well] for my daughter. I just made a Facebook post. I just really support what you’re doing.”

Richie: [00:25:50] So she reached out before it blew up.

Billy: [00:25:52] She reached out before it blew up. I think she reached out immediately after she made the post.

Richie: [00:25:55] Interesting.

Billy: [00:25:56] She reached out again the following morning and she said, “Oh my gosh, we have 216 shares.” Now 216 shares, I mean, that’s still pretty darn impressive. And that was about 7:30 in the morning. And then by 9:00am, she says, “Oh my gosh, we’re at 2,000.” And it just took off from there. And then by the end of the first day, it already broken 100,000. What was going through my mind at the time was—I couldn’t even speak. It was just incredible because—one reason was my email inbox was just blowing up. I mean there were just emails coming in—bam, bam, bam, bam, bam.

Richie: [00:26:29] I think you still have something on your website that’s like, “Please read these FAQs because we actually can’t respond to all these inquiries anymore.”

Billy: [00:26:35] Yeah, you’re absolutely right. I’m still catching up. Those [who] are listening right now, if I haven’t gotten back to you by email, I do apologize. I will make it, but I think we’re still about 3,000 deep.

Richie: [00:26:45] Wow.

Billy: [00:26:45] A lot of people just very, very excited and just wanting to know where they could get the shoes. We’ve been going around and doing these events at Nordstrom to be able to interact directly with the customers as well as the Nordstrom staff. They talk about, when that explosion happened, people were just calling the kids’ department from a long ways out, going, “Do you carry this shoe?”

Richie: [00:27:04] Was that the main place to buy them basically at the time?

Billy: [00:27:07] Brick-and-mortar, yes. That was the only place brick-and-mortar at the time.

Richie: [00:27:09] Did they sell on their website too?

Billy: [00:27:10] They do.

Richie: [00:27:11] Okay.

Richie: [00:27:11] Yes. They have both online and brick-and-mortar. Right about that exact same time, that’s when Kids Foot Locker picked it us up to both in store and online. So everyone was just running to try to find where these things were and the places that did have them on the shelves couldn’t keep them on the shelves. Our sales on Zappos—our previous high was 50 pairs a day and that was in preparation for back to school. Overnight, it went from 50 pairs to 499.

Richie: [00:27:35] Wow.

Billy: [00:27:35] The next day was 486. The next day it was in the three hundreds and then the next day it was down to about 50 simply because they didn’t have any shoes and they sold out. So, at that point, it was all hands on deck on our end to just send as much product as we had to our retail partners to continue moving forward. So in our warehouse at that time, we had about 25,000 units. Now we’re down to less than 5,000 which will get us through holiday and then we have a lot more pairs coming in January.

Richie: [00:27:59] Did you wish during that that you had your own ecommerce that people could have bought from or was it you would have never been able to even fulfill the demand that was happening?

Billy: [00:28:08] So in terms of the business and whatnot, had we had our own ecommerce, that would’ve been spectacular, but we were not prepared to be able to digest that tidal wave. The only way to do that is we would have to have had a huge staff. We would have to have had our own warehouse and whatnot. All this stuff has been contracted out, working with third party logistics centers and whatnot. But that said, with all of this buzz and excitement, it’s given us the ability to pivot in that direction. So we will be having our own ecommerce turned on in the next month or two.

Richie: [00:28:39] Have you been surprised by what products have become bestsellers and what ones have maybe not?

Billy: [00:28:44] Yeah. The one right now that has sold the most is our gray jersey high-top. That’s been the one that’s sold the most. That could possibly be just that was our first real kids’ high-top that we launched with. But some of them we think they’re going to hit and they don’t. A lot of it has to do with the time of the season and the material. For example, you could have some sort of canvas and that doesn’t really do well in the wintertime. The market wants more of a leather or more of something that’s more like a boot. So we get lots of just spectacular suggestions coming in and it’s really exciting because we’ve already kind of planned for it anyways. It’s in the timeline. It’s in the cooker. We’re just not going to be able to satisfy it immediately. For example, boots. A lot of customers reach out. They want to have boots. They want to have something warm. They want to have something stylish. We could get there in fall of 2019 or early 2020. It’s still a year out or so, but we’re going in that direction which is really exciting.

Richie: [00:29:33] It’s also interesting to thinking about the fit problem. Zappos, obviously, by providing free shipping and returns, has significantly cut into this, but the general hesitance to buy footwear online, given it’s so specific on fit, it would seem almost in a sense that because of the zipper and the function that you have, it actually makes it a lot of easier to fit into them and to have them become better fitting, which possibly makes them an easier purchase online than a normal shoe.

Billy: [00:29:56] Right.

Richie: [00:29:57] Have you found that?

Billy: [00:29:58] Well fit is definitely huge. I mean, that’s definitely key. We all have feet, but everyone’s feet are different and, now, being in the shoe business, it has become all the more apparent. You have people [who] have narrow feet, wide feet, high arch, low arch, six toes. That’s another wild one out of left field. And then people have foot braces. So there’s just a lot of different combinations in that whole space. Some things that we did on our end to help accommodate some fit or to make a shoe that’s a little bit more adjustable to fit a larger audience is we put laces in our low-tops. When we first launched, we didn’t have laces in our low-tops. It was just more of a slip-on style with the zipper and what we found was they either fit or they don’t. Well, we made a bit of a shift and put laces in it, not necessarily for them to use laces all the time, but essentially you can go in there and you can cinch the laces down, put a double knot, get the fit right and then use the zipper moving forward. So that was somewhat of an adjustment.

Richie: [00:30:52] To kind of lock it in?

Billy: [00:30:52] Yeah, exactly. So if you have a narrow foot, you can cinch it up tighter. If you have a wider foot, you can have it open. Another one was removable insoles. That was a comment that came from the AFO [Ankle-Foot Orthosis] community, wanting a little bit more depth. There [are] a lot of other comments within that space that they want to have more of an AFO-specific type shoe and we’ll get there. We’re just not quite there yet. Yeah, fit is definitely one of those things.

Billy: [00:31:11] Another one is some people, they have a brace on one foot and no brace on the other, or they have feet that are just simply two different lengths. So they want mismatched pairs and it’s challenging to do that through the retail partners. I know Nordstrom does that in store, but online, I haven’t seen it yet. And us starting our own ecommerce, we’ll be able to accommodate that. A lot of fun things in the works and a lot of this is fueled simply by feedback from the customers which is really cool.

Richie: [00:31:37] So, as you started approaching men’s and women’s again—they launch soon, right?

Billy: [00:31:42] They do. We’re working the designs right now and they’ll be available come fall of 2019.

Richie: [00:31:46] Gotcha. The second time around, did you approach them differently than you did the first time? Was it more just now we actually have the resources to produce them? But how have you been thinking about that next iteration? You went from three to one and now you’re going back to three.

Billy: [00:31:58] Right. On the first go, I would say we were a bit naive. We were a small fish swimming in a very, very big pond and we kind of got gobbled up. So now our partners that are in the decision-making process and the manufacturing process and the quality control process—it’s all buttoned up. It’s all good. So there [are] a lot more folks, a lot more eyeballs that are focused on that whole design process, which we didn’t have before. Before it was just Darin and me working with a gal [who] knew a guy. Looking back on it now, it kind of stumps me why we even moved forward in the first place because there were so many red flags that came up, of which now we’ve learned and [they were] great lessons learned. It was a failure, but it was a failure in the forward direction and it got us to where we are right now. So there [are] a lot of people right now [who] are in the conversation to prevent that from happening again.

Richie: [00:32:51] So, sorry—the Facebook post happened—was it this year or last year?

Billy: [00:32:54] It was this year. So it was in September of 2018.

Richie: [00:32:58] It wasn’t that long ago.

Billy: [00:32:59] No, it wasn’t.

Richie: [00:33:01] Interesting.

Billy: [00:33:02] Yeah. Our analytics—it was wild. You look at the analytics and it will paint the country blue that you received traffic and the whole planet was blue. The only thing that wasn’t blue was maybe somewhere in the middle of Africa and Antarctica and Greenland. Everything else, people were reaching out. The traffic on our site went from maybe 150 hits a day on average to over 100,000. We’re not getting 100,000 hits now, but it’s well over a thousand, every single day from around the planet.

Richie: [00:33:30] If that didn’t happen, how would the trajectory have been different? And/or how did it now change the directory as well?

Billy: [00:33:35] That Facebook post, what it did was it allowed us to accelerate our timeline. Everything that we were planning on doing, it was all in the timeline. The expansion, everywhere we’re expanding now, it was all part of our plan that we laid out. It’s just that getting the exposure that we did, it’s allowed everything to just ramp up way quicker, which we’re really excited about.

Billy: [00:33:55] Here’s something that I’m really personally excited about. This company, it’s been a side hustle for me. I was keeping my day job from eight to five and then working on shoes from five till midnight or five to 1:00am every single day and the weekends for the last few years. It was a grind. Just grinding to build up this company. This recent explosion has brought us to a space where I can no longer wear both those hats. It’s allowed me to be able to step away from my day job. So now I can do shoes full time, but I’m already doing shoes full time. Now I can do shoes even more full time.

Richie: [00:34:27] More healthy full time.

Billy: [00:34:28] More healthy full time. Like during the day, I guess I should say, so I’m not a vampire. But, yeah. So that, on a personal basis, it’s really, really special because the day has finally come where the asset can now carry the day and put food on the table. That’s where my heart is, so it’s really cool.

Richie: [00:34:44] It’s an amazing feeling. Talk us through the rest of this year up to the present and then what you’re looking at into next year, where the focus and the priorities are and what you’re excited about.

Billy: [00:34:53] Okay, so 2018 started off really great. So 2017 is really when we first hit the shelves. We were in Nordstrom and then Zappos. 2018 we expanded a little bit more with Nordstrom. Sales have increased, of course, with Zappos. Amazon owns Zappos so we’re also on the Amazon platform even though we’re not working directly with Amazon. We expanded with Kids Foot Locker and now we’re in conversations with other retail partners, like Journeys and Finish Line, and then we’re looking to turn our own ecommerce on. So that kind of takes us through the year of 2018.

Billy: [00:35:26] For 2019, it’s continued expansion and being able to bring in new types of SKUs. For example, right now, on our site you just see a lace low-top and you see a lace high-top for kids. We have kind of a jogger, like an old-school New Balance type of deal. So that’s going to be really, really cool. Hopefully, we can get that out in the summer of 2019. Then, of course, the expansion to the adults with both high-tops and low-tops. So that product should be arriving come summertime 2019, but really won’t be available to get on the shelves and whatnot until more towards fall. And that’s just the shoes.

Billy: [00:36:03] So outside of that whole space is also me being able to go around and have conversations like we’re having right now, but also in store. And then also I really want to be able to go around and speak at schools. I want to speak at corporations and whatnot. I was in South Africa a few weeks ago, speaking as a game changer. I mean, my goodness. They flew my wife and I down to literally the other side of the planet, identifying us as a game changer. I just never really thought that would ever really happen in my life. I was an active kid growing up, but when I broke my neck, I was in a spot where it was a real dark place. I had things going through my head, going like, “What is life going to be? I can’t do anything anymore.” I was in a spot where I’d think of things like, “It’s not worth living if you can’t walk.” And it’s like how do you come out of that darkness? How do you make a shift to be able to focus more on the good and be able to move forward and focused on light and ignore the darkness? I was fortunate that I was able to make a choice to shift my trajectory in a positive direction. It’s been a grind, for sure, ever since but it’s been a grind in the positive direction.

Billy: [00:37:09] I’m excited to be able to go out and have these kind of conversations and to be able to share that story and really remind people that we have so much capacity in each and every one of us. We have so much potential. It’s just a matter of being able to get teamed up with the right organization or the right association that allows you to be able to make those positive decisions and make big choices in your life that could really positively influence you but impact hundreds of thousands of other people. So I think if we focus on the goodness and whatnot and live our lives to the greatest it can be, I think it will really benefit everybody.

Richie: [00:37:40] I’m sure a lot of other shoe brands have approached you for wanting to work together. I’m sure licenses have been discussed and so forth. How do you think about that piece? Collaborations, generally, are very big in this kind of world right now. Are you interested in working with other brands from a collaboration perspective? Are you interested in using your functionality or is it really this is yours and you want to keep it that way?

Billy: [00:38:05] Collaboration is amazing. We’ve actually not had those conversations yet with other shoe companies.

Richie: [00:38:09] Do you want to?

Billy: [00:38:10] Well, yeah. But one thing we want to lock down though first is our design is patent pending right now. We have a utility patent for it and the two types of patents are the design paten and the utility patent. The design patents are pretty easy to get around. You can change a couple of things. No one sent us a new design. But with the utility, the part we’re patent pending on is the unobstructed entry. So being able to open it up and step your foot in it without any sort of stuffing, if you will, that’s what we’re patent pending on. So before we really open ourselves up to these collaborative type discussions with other brands, we want to lock up that patent first. But it would be awesome. It would be really, really cool to do something similar to that.

Richie: [00:38:51] What’s been the cheapest and most expensive lesson you’ve learned building the business?

Billy: [00:38:55] There’s so many different ways you can play that. Because, one, you can think about the actual money side of it or, two, you can think about the actual impact side of it. I would say on the money side, it was that first manufacturing disaster. That, by far, was a punch to the gut that I did not think we were going to be able to recover from that episode. For one thing, we lost all of our money. And secondly, it was one of those, “Where do we go from here?” [moments]. It was either lean in or lean out and we decided to lean in.

Billy: [00:39:22] In terms of the cheapest, the biggest lesson would be just the importance of relationships, the importance of integrity. So, here’s the thing. We want to be a successful brand, but we really want to be a significant brand. And there’s so many things we’ve been a part of along the way that reminds us of the importance of being a significant brand and making those relationships and just doing a positive thing.

Richie: [00:39:45] What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about the brand that you would want to change from a perception perspective?

Billy: [00:39:51] I think it’s just important to realize that our shoes are not to be pigeonholed as adaptive. That was the big thing. When we were on that reality television show way back when, the people that [who] involved that program essentially told us you either go mainstream or you go adaptive. There’s no bridge between the two. And it was interesting because the wall that they were building up right in front of us was the exact same wall we were trying to tear down. We were trying to make something functional and fashionable in a main space, tear down that wall between adaptive and non-adaptive in the spirit of universal design. So when customers reach out and they’re able to have benefits from our shoes in terms of just function, there are a lot of improvements that we can make to the shoes that would better serve the adaptive market. But we’re not there yet and it’s simply because it’s a mainstream shoe. It’s meant to be able to work with someone [who] needs functionality or someone that doesn’t need functionality. They just love the convenience.

Billy: [00:40:49] So the folks [who] are wearing our shoes right now [who] really want this robust, just incredible shoe for a really large, may it be a foot brace or something like that—that’s more of a niche type model. We’ll get there. We’re just not there yet because essentially, unfortunately, niche shoes are very expensive. And the reason they’re expensive is because the market’s not big and in order to keep things competitive, you need to produce a lot of shoes. So the idea for our company is to be able to make a lot of mainstream shoes that generate revenue, which will allow us to make niche shoes and keep them at the same price point as the mainstream shoes.

Richie: [00:41:26] I was going to ask, how has your thinking evolved around price generally, given there are so many different places to play in the footwear market? Where did you want to land and what informed that decision?

Billy: [00:41:36] We wanted to be competitive with Converse and Vans and basically just taking a stroll down through Nordstrom and seeing the shoes on the shelf and seeing what’s popular and analyzing that price point and just understanding, in the spirit of survival, we need to meet that price point.

Richie: [00:41:50] Where does that range generally?

Billy: [00:41:52] For our kids shoes right now, the lace ‘los are sold for $50. The high-tops are sold for $55. For the adults shoes, we haven’t quite landed on the price point yet because we’re still working with the manufacturer and whatnot. But competitively speaking, if you go to the store and whatnot, you can pay $75 to $80 bucks for those and that’s what we’re trying to target.

Richie: [00:42:08] Have you been wearing the shoes for the duration of the company even though they haven’t been out yet?

Billy: [00:42:13] I have. So I was wearing, as part of that blemished debacle and whatnot, I was wearing a pair of those shoes.

Richie: [00:42:20] I guess you had a lot to choose from.

Billy: [00:42:21] I did have a lot to choose from. But since we have the production samples for what’s coming in this coming year, I’ve been wearing those shoes.

Richie: [00:42:27] You see a lot of companies today where the founders will make something for themselves that really has very minimal resonance beyond a very specific kind of market. You then see cases like yours where you make something for yourself and then it actually has very wide application. Were there times were you doubted or challenged that? I feel like everyone takes the same approach, but [it] can go so many different ways. It’s great to start that way, but that’s not always how scaled businesses get built.

Billy: [00:42:55] Yeah. Doubts, you bet. That’s kind of life. You’re going down whatever path you are in life and the questions you asked yourself of: “Am I moving in the right direction and whatnot?” And certainly as a business, those ideas have come past us for sure. We’ve had people [who] have tried to partner with us […] business-wise [who] bring to the table a lot of things that are very appealing and could really accelerate the brand in terms of growth and then it turns out to be somewhat of a toxic relationship. We’ve skirted a couple of those bullets already. But when you’re looking at investing or investors coming in, you look at it like, “Is this going to be adding value to the company? Is this just a money thing? Do we need just the money to move forward or is it a relationship? How is this all going to play out?” Those are the ones where doubts really come in, going, “Can we do this on our own or do we need to have some sort of financial power to move forward? Do we want to give up part of the company? What does that do? What happens if we start growing and growing and then all of a sudden there’s another person [who] owns more of the company and then you lose your company? What does that look like?” So that’s when it turns into a real mind game.

Billy: [00:44:00] In terms of the actual shoes that we’re bringing to market and having the interaction with the customers and answering emails, we’ve always been very consistent on that one. There’s never been any doubt there. It’s just a matter of how to deal with growth. That’s when you start having these mind-trip conversations.

Richie: [00:44:15] Has the company taken on outside funding so far?

Billy: [00:44:19] Well, it’s all been internal funding. We’re continuing to do that. The players on our team are being able to self-fund it. It’s great because we’ve finally reached a point where the company is sustainable and profitable moving forward.

Richie: [00:44:31] Do you think you could run this for the rest of your life or would you want to?

Billy: [00:44:36] Well, yeah. I think so. But, obviously, as we continue to grow, we’re going to have to make big decisions about having our own massive warehouse to be able to do our own shipping or having a big staff or whatnot. Or do you contract that out to a third-party logistics center? I don’t know. There’s just a lot of really fun questions that are on the table right now that we need to start, not only asking ourselves, but answering. Within the next year, there’s going to be a lot going on in terms of the transformation of us behind the curtain. The storefront out front is going to remain the same consistent integrity and whatnot. But it’s gonna be cool to see what happens behind the scenes to be able to continue to meet the demand of the customer.

Richie: [00:45:13] How big do you want this to get? Can it get too big?

Billy: [00:45:17] Well, I don’t know. That’s a good question. I’ll let you know when we get too big. I don’t know. Shoot. We could be a $25 million dollar company, $50 million dollar company. In the shoe world space, that’s kind of small potatoes, it seems like. For me, that’s a big number. Throw that around. I never would’ve thought I’d be throwing numbers around like that, may it be a year, two, three years ago. But given the demand from the market, I could definitely see us growing to meet that demand. But if there’s a big partner that comes along, like Nike for example—because it’s a matter of adding value to the customer and if there’s a partner that comes along that has the firepower to add that value more so than us, sure. Let’s do it. Let’s collaborate. Sure. Yeah. You want to buy the company? Great. But it’s a matter of just be focused on the end user and being able to, again, be that significant brand, not just a successful one.

Richie: [00:46:01] My last question: How did you land on the name?

Billy: [00:46:04] When we first started, the company was actually Billy’s. It was BillDon LLC, doing business as Billy’s. And when we were part of that reality television show—one of the best things that came out of that show—we got connected with a branding and marketing firm in downtown Seattle by the name of Tether. They donated some time to help us with our logo and help us with our branding. We already had a logo in place. It was much more complicated, but they were able to refine it to make it scalable. When I mean scalable, because our original logo had a lot more detail, when you made it really small, it got muddy. You can make it big, which is fine but it going small was challenging. So they were able to look at it and grab the essence of just the goat, basically. Something that has tenacity and grit and be able to have perseverance if they’re faced with any sort of problem and blast right through it. They were able to still embody that same attitude with a much simpler logo. And it was those guys [who] said, “You know what, don’t make it Billy’s. Just make it BILLY.” And I was like, “Okay.” I was kind of on the receiving end of that. I wasn’t driving that train. I’m like, “Okay guys, as a team, what do you think?” It’s not a matter of being some arrogant, “look at me” kind of deal. That’s the last—I mean, oh my gosh, that’s not me. But the team said, “Look, it’s kind of based on your story so let’s call it BILLY.”

Richie: [00:47:20] Thanks so much for talking.

Billy: [00:47:21] Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you.

Richie: [00:47:26] Thanks for listening to the Loose Threads Podcast. You can read full transcripts of the podcast and join the newsletter at LooseThreads.com. Feel free to leave a review on iTunes—we always appreciate it. And thanks to George Drake, Jr. for editing this episode. We have a great roster of upcoming guests including Ming Zhao of Proven Beauty and a special guest for our 100th episode. Thanks for listening and talk to you soon.