In today’s episode of the Part-Time Money podcast, I speak with Steven Sashen of InvisibleShoe.com . We discuss how to start a shoe business. Steven stumbled upon a unique shoe product idea associated with a popular trend in the running world: barefoot running. Steven makes “invisible” running shoes based off of the traditional Mexican running sandals of the Tarahumara. Here’s what Steven had to say about his part time shoe business pursuit:
I started a side-biz on Nov 23, 2009 making “barefoot” sandals (at www.InvisibleShoe.com). Actually, I have to back up. Id been making running sandals as a hobby. Then a coach suggested I do it “for real.” I pitched this idea to my wife, who totally shot it down. “Youre right,” I said to her. And I waited until she went to sleep and built a website 😉 We started making money right away. And then within 4 months, our “side” business became our full-time business! Now were about to do a retail expansion that should take us into the mid 7 figures within 12-18 months.
Listen to the Podcast
Here are the questions I ask Steven in the podcast:
- Why did you want to start making part time money?
- What made you choose shoes/sandals?
- Describe the shoes for us.
- How did you actually make the shoes?
- Was there anyone else doing this?
- How did you catch the wave or trend of barefoot running?
- How did you make the shoe business take off?
- How did you promote the business online? What sites did you use?
- What did you build the site on? What about the e-commerce site?
- How do you manufacture the shoe?
- How much time did you spend on the shoe business?
- How soon did you generate income?
- What skills did you have going in?
- What gave you the confidence to go into business on your own?
- What about structuring the business? Did you formalize that?
- I notice the site has a toll-free number? How do you handle customer service?
- How are you supporting the culture in Mexico?
- What mistakes have you made along the way?
- How do you drive traffic to the site? Organic or Adwords?
- Tell me about your call to action on the homepage?
To see the full transcript, click show
Welcome to the Part-Time Money Podcast, Episode 8: Making Extra Money By Selling Invisible Shoes. I am your host Philip Taylor, creator of PT Money Personal Finance.
Alright, today I am here with Steven Sashen of InvisibleShoe.com, and Steven started his side business back in 2009 making barefoot sandals. I will let him tell you a little bit about what that is, and we will dig into the different aspects of his business.
Philip Taylor: So, Steven, welcome.
Steven Sashen: Thank you. Thank you.
Philip Taylor: Why did you want to start making some part-time money?
Steven Sashen: Well, my wife and I were in what is kind of an unusual situation. We were retired, but we also saw that the things that allowed us to be retired, which were some investments, were changing. The world was changing, and the investments were changing with it, and so we calculated that we had about a year’s worth of income left to enjoy, and after that we did not know what we were going to do, so we started looking around to find some ways of supplementing that and eventually replacing that.
Philip Taylor: I see. So, at the time you were not working at all?
Steven Sashen: I did not have a job.
Philip Taylor: So, when you decided you needed to go out and make some more money, what made you think about sandals?
Steven Sashen: Nothing. It happened the exact opposite. We actually were starting 2 or 3 other businesses. I have done a lot of search engine marketing in the past, so we were looking to sell search engine marketing services. I had also taught meditation around the world, and I had put that into a course. We were selling that online. What happened was I got into barefoot running. I am a 48-year-old sprinter, and I had some injuries and got turned on to barefoot running and heard it might cure some of my injuries. Then I got into that, and I really liked it. In fact, it did help. Those injuries I had went away. Geek that I am, I discovered these barefoot sandals. They are sometimes knows as huaraches, sort of like the tire sandals that the Tarahumara in Mexico wear. I bought the materials to make some for me and a couple other people, and about 20 more people said, “Hey I want those.” So, I made about 20 or 25 pair. The last pair I made was for a local barefoot running coach who said, “You should do this as a business.” I said, “Yeah, I don’t think so. I’ve got other stuff going on.” He said, “Well, I’ve got a book coming out, and if you had a real business, like a website, I would put you in the book.” So I came home, and I pitched this idea to my wife who summarily shot it down. She said, “Oh, it’s just another one of your distractions. Stick to the stuff we’re working on.” I said, “No, you’re totally right.” So, when she went to bed, I built a website. It took me about an hour to build the site but then about 2 weeks of part time to put all the pieces in place that I wanted, and then we launched at the end of November, so it happened completely by accident.
Philip Taylor: Okay, so describe the shoes a little more so people can kind of picture them. I know what you are talking about. There is a culture in a part of Mexico that would run barefoot, but they would use sort of … well, you describe it.
Steven Sashen: Sure. The Tarahumara are in the Chihuahua section of Mexico, and they often do run barefoot, or if they can find a scrap of tire, they will cut out a piece of tire that will basically be the shape of the sole of their foot and then strap it to their foot with some lace, whatever they have, leather or hemp or anything they can get their hands on really. So, this is sort of a modern version of that. It is a high-tech version of really a 10,000-year-old idea. You can find archeological digs where people had sandals like these that were made out of leather, sometimes from bear actually. These are made with a very high-performance rubber that is only about 4 mm thick, and then the laces are nylon polypro, so they are waterproof, and they are really soft. You can wrap them around your foot in all these fun ways. They come in different colors, so there is a fun, decorative aspect to it as well. Essentially what we give you is the closest feeling that you can get to barefoot, but it is barefoot plus – plus protection; plus performance because they are very lightweight, and they work really well for any kind of running, ultra marathons to just walking around; also plus fit (they are custom made to fit your foot). If you see people in flip-flops, they are always falling off one side or the other, but these are made to fit your foot either with a do-it-yourself kit or we professionally make them for you. So, basically if you remember being a kid and running around in the summer barefoot, we let you recapture the fun of that but with some extra safety so you can feel the world.
Philip Taylor: Awesome. So, those first prototypes that you were making for yourself and making for your friends, were they made out of the nice material that you use now?
Steven Sashen: Yes and no. They were made out of the material that we are using now, but that material is designed for boot outsoles. It is actually a shoe product. We are in the middle, maybe 8 weeks away, from having our own product that we have designed specifically for barefoot running that is a very similar product in terms of the composition and performance but then designed specifically for this application.
Philip Taylor: I see. So, was there anybody else making these shoes at the time?
Steven Sashen: There was one other guy who was doing it and who still is who when I went to his website I could not figure out what to order. It was kind of confusing. He was not really treating it like a business and said, “It might take 3 or 4 weeks till I get to your order.” It also seemed overpriced. So, that was the competition that was out there. I also just did some looking to see what his search engine placement was, and I realized that while he had very good search engine rankings, it was all because he had no competition. So, I realized that with what I knew from search engine marketing and just from doing marketing that we could offer a better product at a better price with an easier sale and then dominate search engines.
Philip Taylor: From what I remember of my past running career, about 2007-2008 is when the concept of barefoot running really started taking off. It seems like this product just sort of caught that wave. Am I correct in that?
Steven Sashen: Absolutely. It was a shock to us. It was in 2008 when it started getting some attention, but it was really last year (the end of 2009 and 2010) that the wave started to move. Again, when I started this it was not like, ‘Hey, let’s start a sandal business, and we’ll make a bunch of money.” It was, “Hey, we’ll put up the website. We’ll see what happens, and maybe we will make a car payment.” Then, after 3 months we realized we were making way more than a car payment. And, 6 months later it was our full-time job. We had advisors from big shoe companies coming in and helping us. We totally caught the wave. That is what has made all this happen.
Philip Taylor: Well, I guess you really were not sold on the idea until the running coach really pushed you into it, right?
Steven Sashen: Absolutely! That was the first step when he said it. The second step was 2 weeks later when he was doing a talk at a local running shoe store about barefoot running, which I thought was kind of interesting. This particular shoe store owner knew that even if people were walking in with the idea that they would not wear shoes, he had other stuff that he could sell them. He had clothes. He had training. He had a bunch of things. So, I went up to him and said, “Hey, this is the business I am in – making these barefoot running sandals.” And he said, “Oh, I would love to carry those.” I went, “What?!?!” He said, “I would like to sell those.” Then I went home just ecstatic, realizing that it was much bigger than what I had thought of up until that point. Again, my wife was very reticent. She was like, “Calm down. We just got started 2 weeks ago.” So, it was not in our minds at all that this was going to turn into our full-time income let alone a business that we are now really trying to expand dramatically.
Philip Taylor: Awesome! Man! Where do I go from here? So much to ask you about.
Steven Sashen: Well, let me just say something about that really quickly. I was at a great conference last night about entrepreneurial things. There was one guy there who had started and run a number of businesses, and he kept saying something that I am living but I have also been saying for a long time which is, “There is no secret to these things. It is not like there is some formula that you can follow every time and it works. So much of business is about just happening to be standing on the right street corner at the right time.” That is totally the way I feel with this. It is like I happened to be standing under the building when somebody yelled “baby” and I put out my arms. The only thing that we have done is once it became clear there was a there there, is we decided to really run with it.
Philip Taylor: Okay. So talk about that a little bit. What has been “running with it” for you? You talked about getting the website going early on. Coming from, it sounds like, the search engine marketing mindset, I can understand your desire to get the website up as quickly as possible to see if you could get some traffic there, but just talk about your initial marketing plans for the business.
Steven Sashen: I think “plans” is too much of a word. It gives me too much credit, although that is not totally true. The initial plans were to do what I already knew how to do as a search engine marketer. That involved creating a lot of content, building up a website, getting that content on the various social networks and article sites and all the places where people were already looking, looking for where people who we might sell to were already congregating and participating in the conversations.
Philip Taylor: That is a key point as a content marketer. You know that that is probably the first step in getting yourself known online. It is to go where the conversations are already happening. I just wanted to stop and make a point of that. Anyone looking to start something online – that is the key – go to where the conversation is already happening. Okay, go ahead.
Steven Sashen: But then the second part of that is then participate in the conversations. If you try to get in there and pitch yourself, people do not like that. If you actually have something to say or something to ask (even better), then you can become one of the people in the conversation. You will notice on any forum or newsgroup or Yahoo group or Facebook page, there are always just a couple of people who are the real active participants, and it does not take a lot of work to become one of those people. You just need to have something to say or ask or something to offer. Go do some research, find content that no one has talked about yet, and bring that to the room. So, it is not like you go there and start fishing. You go there and start swimming with everyone else who is in the pool.
Philip Taylor: So, how is that working out for your business?
Steven Sashen: Great! To this day really that is all we have done – that kind of marketing. Other than finding bloggers or people who might review our products, that is essentially the entirety of what we did for the first year.
Philip Taylor: So, what were the sites that you went to or the forums?
Steven Sashen: Oh gosh! There is a Google group that is about minimalist running and barefoot running. There is a runner’s world forum. I do not have them all in my head right now. I have them bookmarked. I just go to them everyday and see what is going on.
Philip Taylor: That is great. So, what about the website itself – what did you build it on?
Steven Sashen: WordPress.
Philip Taylor: Yeah, there you go!
Steven Sashen: I have a friend who just spent a lot of money on a site, and I looked at it. I said, “Not only does the site itself look like it was built in 1925, but the code looks like it came from the 1800s.” There is no reason not to just grab WordPress, install it with 1 click, find a template you like, maybe pay somebody $20 to tweak it a little bit and change it to make sure it is something you want or put your header on it instead of what came in the template, make it your own. It is too powerful of a platform with too many free things that can be very helpful for you as a marketer.
Philip Taylor: Yeah. So what about your storefront? Are you also using WordPress for that?
Steven Sashen: No. I am in the middle, literally like in the next couple of days, of switching from a shopping cart that we used call Ecwid that I went with for a number of reasons. One was that it was pretty robust, and at the time it was free. In fact, it still is free for the basic level. Then I think it is only like $17 a month for one of the higher levels. The problem with Ecwid is that it runs on someone else’s server, so you have your site on one server and the shopping cart on another server, and the problem with that is some computers see that as a security problem. That has caused us some problems. Also, just not being able to control the code to get things done, changes made that I want made, since I am not in charge of it, that got to be too much. So, I spent a bunch of money and bought the Interspire shopping cart, and I have a programmer who is working on that to tweak it and make it do exactly what we want to do. We will be launching with that hopefully within the next couple of days.
Philip Taylor: That is awesome! Great! So, what about the shoe itself? Do you do all the manufacturing? Initially it sounds like you did.
Steven Sashen: Well, we sell the product in one of two ways. One is as a do-it-yourself kit. It is a great family project. During Christmastime we had lots of people ordering pairs for the entire family. They made a big event out of it. Kids love these because you can decorate them and do fun things with them. Mostly we sell kits so we do not have to do anything other than put it all together and send it out. For the custom shoes, we do that here. You trace your foot on a piece of paper and scan that and email it to us or fax it to us or send it in the physical mail, and then we custom make those by hand. I am working with a company now to find a way to automate that so that that becomes scaleable.
Philip Taylor: So early on you were able to spend most of your time then on the business, right?
Steven Sashen: Early on it was kind of like a 2 or 3-hour-a-day job for both my wife and myselffor each of us, so like 4-6 hours total for both of us combined. Now it is a full-time gig.
Philip Taylor: I see.
Steven Sashen: I mean like way full-time!
Philip Taylor: Good. How soon into the business were you able to generate some decent income with it?
Steven Sashen: At the 3-month mark we were making some nice money. At the 6-month mark it basically paid for everything we were doing.
Philip Taylor: I see. So, it is meeting all of your monthly expenses?
Steven Sashen: It was until we started deciding to really grow the business. Now we are pumping a bunch of money into the company to grow it.
Philip Taylor: I see. I see. That’s great. Reinvesting profits.
Steven Sashen: Well, we were reinvesting the profits from day 1 because our sales were growing so fast that we had to. We would buy some inventory, and all the profit from that we had to use to buy twice as much inventory the next month. Now we are doing more than reinvesting profits. I have been talking to investors. As an entrepreneur you often get to the point where you have two choices, go all in or find external money or try to do both. So, we are sort of at a point where we are ready to sell everything we own if we have to, but in the meantime we are hoping that we can raise some more money so that we can get some other people involved in a great opportunity so that we can grow it even faster than we would with our own resources.
Philip Taylor: That is great. So, what kind of skills going into creating this business do you think helped you along? It sounds like you had the search engine marketing side of things down.
Steven Sashen: My joke is, “The most important skills are naïveté and optimism.” I say it half jokingly because I do not know one entrepreneur who 5 years down the line does not say, “If I had only known then what I know now, I would not have done it.” So, really the unbridled optimism, misplaced confidence, and naïveté were the most important skills followed closely by search engine and marketing skills.
Philip Taylor: What gave you that confidence? Speak to someone who may have an idea but may not be ready to jump into it like this.
Steven Sashen: Well, it is simple. You are wrong. Confidence is not really the word. When I say unbridled confidence or however I said it, all that really means is that I knew it was possible. It seemed like there was a there there. That is all I really knew. Everything else – complete fiction. This idea that I know it is going to work – I do not have that at all because anything could happen between now and whenever. So, I do not actually have the idea that I can predict the future at all and that what I am doing is correct at all. It is all a matter of testing and seeing what works. It is all a matter of dealing with the curveballs that are tossed in your direction because things never work in the timing that you want in the way that you want on the first try, and sometimes it is the exact opposite. Sometimes someone shows up out of nowhere who turns into a huge, huge asset for the company. So, I do not try to control the future or my feelings at all, and I have no problem being completely overwhelmingly anxious knowing that that just does not mean anything and I still need to wake up the next morning and do the work.
Philip Taylor: Right. Good stuff. Good advice. What about structuring the business? Early on did you set up any kind of formal business structure?
Steven Sashen: Yeah. The easy answer is yes. We have a number of businesses where we have organized entities to manage those and to operate those or to own the rights to those, so we had kind of an umbrella corporation that is a management corporation. We had LLCs and limited partnerships that were related to other things that we were doing. So, we ran everything with our existing entity structure, but then when we saw that we were turning this into something bigger than we had originally thought where we might be looking to grab investors, we moved everything into its own corporation.
Philip Taylor: I see. Alright. Kind of jumping around a bit, I noticed that the site has a tollfree number there. Do you have to take on some customer service with this business?
Steven Sashen: Absolutely. For ordering: Some people do not like ordering online so they will call us up; some people have questions before they order; and some people have questions after they order. So, there are definitely some customer service issues. Once that started taking up a bunch of time, I had the great good fortune of getting an email from someone who I knew from Track and Field saying she was graduating with her masters in communications and PR. She is someone who I had known and adored. She is a great cheerleader and a great coach. I do not mean cheerleader literally. I just mean she is very helpful and loves to encourage people. She is literally a coach and just a wonderful person. She said she was looking for a job, and we said, “We don’t know what we are going to do with you, but we are going to hire you.” We brought her in, and she is now doing most of the customer service work and a lot of other great things for the company.
Philip Taylor: That is great. So, the part-time idea has provided a full-time income for someone else. That is great.
Steven Sashen: Yeah. In my previous company at one point I realized that I was supporting 65 people either directly or indirectly, and it was only 12 in my own company but with people who were selling the product and supporting the product and other things. That was a really fun thought, and I loved the idea with this one that we will similarly be able to help other people who are looking for work or looking to be part of this project. Similarly, we have a philanthropic arm to our company where we take a percentage of our profits and donate that to charities that support the cultures that encouraged our being here or led to our being here, and so we are hoping to help a lot of people that way too.
Philip Taylor: Oh, so the cultures in Mexico?
Steven Sashen: Yeah, we are supporting the Tarahumara Children’s Hospital Fund right now.
Philip Taylor: Oh, that’s great!
Steven Sashen: We love them, and we are thrilled to be able to help them because they are doing a lot of good work for people who are living in some very difficult conditions.
Philip Taylor: That is wonderful! So, what about any mistakes that you made along the way, some concepts maybe you could share with someone who might want to start a business? What mistakes would you share with them that you have made to help them avoid those same mistakes?
Steven Sashen: That is a good question. I do not know how to answer it because there are so many. You know, I do not know if it is really possible to avoid them. One of the things that I am known for doing is assuming that people will actually do what they say, and that does not often happen. So, when someone says it will take them a week, it takes a month or 2 or 3 or 4.
Philip Taylor: Okay.
Steven Sashen: So, one of the things that I continually do is plan for future events based on the idea that the things that are on my schedule happen on schedule. There is no way around that. I have not done it yet. I have done it in a previous business. I ran a full-page ad for my product a year before the product was done. It was because the programmers working on the product said that is when it would be done and the magazines had a 3-month lead time. So, I did the math and said, “Alright, here is when we run our full-page ad.” It was a year after that that we released the product. So, there are a lot of things like that, trying to juggle all the timing that does not work out the way you want. So, there is that. A big mistake that I made in the past was not bringing in high-level people who I could not afford at the time, knowing that they would help me grow to the place where I could afford them. So, I am actually in the process of trying to make that happen now rather than going too slowly or not bringing in talented people. I think one of those mistakes was in a way cutting corners early with the technology. I mean I could not have done it any differently than looking for free or inexpensive solutions for like the shopping cart because we did not know this was going to be a business, but I think I spent a little too much time deciding that it was time to change, go to something serious, and spend the money for that. But again, that is hindsight. I do not think I could have made the decision any differently at the time. I think if you cannot look back 3-6 months and go, “Wow! What an idiot!”, then something is really off. I do not know that there is a way of avoiding that. I have talked to a lot of very successful entrepreneurs, and everyone that I have met says, “Oh yeah, it was just one mistake after another that I was recovering from, and I could not have done differently because I was that person then.” So, if anything the advice I would give about mistakes is, “Just cut yourself some slack, shut up, and keep going.”
Philip Taylor: Yep. Yep. I like it! You mentioned advertising, and I know I am jumping around here a bit, but how do you drive traffic to the site now? Are you doing any Google AdWords, or is it all organic?
Steven Sashen: No. It is all organic. In fact, when I started I ran some AdWords campaigns, and I saw that I was driving a lot of traffic, but the traffic was not converting. In other words, people were clicking, and I was spending money to get them to click, but then they would show up at the site, and they would not buy well. So, I found that it was not a cost effective thing for me to do at the time. There are other variations of doing AdWords ads that I am looking into that I will track and see what works. The biggest thing that I can say about advertising is, “Try everything. Track everything. If it does not work, see if maybe you can find a reason that it might not have been working and change that. But, at some point just be ready to realize that you were mistaken and you wasted a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. There is no escaping wasting money, so just be willing to cut your losses as quickly as you can.” So, right now I am not doing any paid advertising, but I am looking forward to doing some because there are some new things that we are doing with the site where maybe it will work, but I will not know until I test it.
Philip Taylor: Awesome! I noticed you have a real strong call to action on the homepage at InvisibleShoe.com. You have a big banner across the front there with a buy now button. Is that something you have recently added?
Steven Sashen: No, no, no. That was there from day 1 – make it easy for people to figure out what to do to give you their money in a short form. There are things that I am doing now to actually make that even more obvious. I cannot tell you the number of times where I will get an email from someone saying, “Hey, do you ship internationally?” where there is a big thing that says, “We ship all around the world.” The key points are like, “It is safe!” “You can order online or call this tollfree number.” “Here is what to do next.” You want to make it as simple and obvious for people as humanly possible.
Philip Taylor: Awesome! I like it! Well, any other comments before I let you go today, maybe something I did not ask you?
Steven Sashen: Oh my, I cannot think of anything off the top of my head other than when people ask me questions about business stuff, they have this idea that wherever I am now, some number of months past where they are, I had something different happening for me when I was them. Maybe they are feeling insecure or they do not know if they want to go for it or they do not have enough information or whatever it is, they project that I had all that happening then, and I did not, and to this day I do not. On a daily basis I am dealing with a dozen things where I am completely out of my element where I have no idea how to do it or even how to find someone who does it, and at this entrepreneurial event that I was at last night, I was talking to some guys who have made hundreds of millions of dollars who were saying the exact same thing – just on a daily if basis, if you know it all or you talk to someone who says, “Oh yeah, I completely know how to do that, and I can just walk in and go x, y, z, and it will happen.”, they are lying. There is no shortcut to making a business work, and there is no shortcut to getting past the insecure anxiety stage. In fact, it is a requirement I think. So, what that means is that if you are feeling nervous or insecure, that is not an obstacle to taking action and building a business. At some point you have to be able to look and see whether or not it is actually working. You should have those signs pretty quickly. If you are not getting leads, if you are not getting sales, if you tweak things and that does not change, you know you might want to take a look at it. But, even if you are making money and getting great results and business is growing, that does not mean you are not going to wake up every morning going, “Oh man! I have no idea what I am going to do today!” Even if you have a big to-do list, that does not mean you are going to wake up and go, “Oh great! I will just go check, check, check, check, check!” My fantasy is that one day my to-do list at the end of the day will be shorter than it was at the beginning of the day. It has not happened yet. So, that is a very long version of the Nike slogan of “Just do it!” There is no required feeling. There is no required skill set. There is nothing that you are too dumb to figure out or learn on the fly. I just see too many people have this idea that they need to know more or feel some particular feeling before they really take action, and I just do not see that that is accurate.
Philip Taylor: Awesome! That is great advice! Good advice to end on. Steven, I really appreciate you being with me here today, and I am sure everyone out there has gotten some good insight from you, so thanks again.
Steven Sashen: My pleasure. Thanks so very much.
That does it for this week’s podcast. This has been Phil Taylor with the Part-Time Money Podcast. You can contact me at PT@ptmoney.com or just visit me online at ptmoney.com. Again, thanks for listening, and see you next week.