Entrepreneurship

In a region known for Reebok and New Balance, a new generation of shoe startups is stepping up

Read more at www.bostonglobe.com

From construction boots with hardened toes to women’s cycling shoes to shearling-lined Italian sneakers for the work-at-home lifestyle, Boston is seeing a surge in shoe startups. Many were founded by entrepreneurs who worked for, or consulted to, big local brands like Reebok and New Balance. And while there have been challenges getting access to merchandise over the past year because of the pandemic — especially as countries like Italy and China saw cycles of shutdowns and reopening, and logistics became less reliable — many of these companies found ways to keep growing.

A view of the sole of the Brunt Workwear boot. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

For Newton-based Tiem Shoes, whose gear is often worn for indoor cycling classes, alarm bells started going off in March 2020, when studios around the world abruptly shut their doors.

“These spin classes pack 40 people in a room, everybody sweats, and your instructor is screaming at you,” said Tiem founder Tracey McCloud. “I thought, ‘I don’t know that anybody is ever going to do that again.’” (The company name is pronounced “tee-em,” like McCloud’s initials.)

Instead, she said, people began purchasing Peloton and other home stationary bikes, and many cycling studios began streaming workouts over the Web. But spinning aficionados no longer had the option to rent the specialized shoes they needed at their local studio, McCloud said, “so our business skyrocketed” after a brief pause in late March and early April of last year.

According to McCloud, sales were up about 35 percent in 2020 — solid growth, but lower than her pre-pandemic plan. About half of Tiem’s revenue comes from retailers like Nordstrom and REI and selling through cycling studios, and the other half comes from direct online sales to consumers. The company has 10 employees, and moved into a larger warehouse-office space earlier this year.

Reebok veterans Marcus Wilson and Michael Schaeffer launched the Nobull brand in 2015; the company now has 100 employees, and Wilson said he expects that number to double in 2021. An April funding round valued Nobull at $500 million, Wilson said, without disclosing how much money the company raised. Nobull’s core customer is committed to CrossFit, a high-intensity workout regimen.

“We would see large brands talking to customers and saying, ‘Wear our products, and run faster, and jump higher,’” Wilson said. “The reality is, if you want to run faster or jump higher, you’ve got to put in the work. This no-B.S. mentality is what has connected initially with the CrossFit consumer,” he said, as well as others who participate in bootcamp-style workout programs.

A pair of Nobull sneakers.
A pair of Nobull sneakers.Jonathan Wiggs

Wilson said that when the company stopped doing promotional events and closed its three retail locations amidst the COVID-19 lockdowns, “if anything, our profitability went up. We grew rapidly last year, and are growing even faster now.” Nobull is planning to reopen a location in Boston’s Leather District later this year, as well as a combination office-retail outlet in the former Boston Globe headquarters in Dorchester.

M.Gemi, founded in 2014, is among the oldest of this new wave of shoe startups. It sells men’s and women’s leather shoes, hand-crafted in Italy.

“That put us in a tough bind when Italy shut down,” said president Cheryl Kaplan. “We weren’t getting inventory.” And some of M.Gemi’s swankier styles, intended for a day of important meetings or a night on the town, weren’t selling as well.

Kaplan said the company worked with suppliers in Italy to introduce products more appropriate to hanging around the house — like shearling-lined sneakers and slides. Founder Maria Gangemi also tracked down a factory in Abruzzo that makes leather handbags, and added those to the site’s array of products, along with wallets and belts.

When the company didn’t have inventory it could ship immediately, it began offering products for pre-order in advance. “We had to find ways to get through the pandemic,” said Kaplan. That included a reduction in the company’s headcount, which now stands at about 30.

Girouard, the Brunt boot entrepreneur, is a former M.Gemi employee, and helped that company launch its line of men’s shoes. But he noticed that even when he gave away leather loafers to many of his male friends who worked in the trades, “they weren’t wearing them. They were saving them for a special occasion.” Instead, Girouard said, they would wear their work boots out to dinner, or to a backyard barbecue, or while doing chores on the weekend.

Boots all lined up according to size and style on a rack at Brunt Workwear, a footwear startup that focuses on boots for construction workers and tradespeople.
Boots all lined up according to size and style on a rack at Brunt Workwear, a footwear startup that focuses on boots for construction workers and tradespeople. David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

So he began developing a line of boots with heavy-duty features like waterproof membranes, skid resistance, and insulation from electrical shocks, but with slightly more panache than the standard camel-colored clodhopper. And the interior space is adjustable, so that the boots can be comfortably worn with thick winter socks or thinner summer ones.

Brunt hadn’t yet launched its product line before the pandemic descended last spring. Investors advised Girouard to put everything on hold — “shut everything down and save the capital,” he recalled. “One investor told me, ‘Don’t launch. Nobody is going to buy work boots.’”

But Girouard started talking to friends who were working construction, and they told him they’d been deemed essential, and were heading back to job sites. Factories in China, with many of their orders suddenly put on hold, were happy to move Brunt’s product to the front of the line.

Brunt has eight employees, and in April it raised additional funding “in the single-digit millions,” Girouard said.

While it’s not a cheap business to break into, industry analyst Matt Powell of NPD Group said it has gotten easier to attract customers with social media and to sell directly to buyers without needing to fight for space on a retailer’s shelf.

“The Internet has really freed up a lot of entrepreneurs to follow their dream of having their own footwear brand,” he said, with fast-growing California-based brands like Allbirds and Rothy’s serving as role models.

In Massachusetts, there’s a heritage of shoemaking that stretches back a few centuries, and plenty of people with experience working for big players like Rockport, Puma, Saucony, and Converse. “All the talent is here,” said Girouard — though Portland, Oregon, where Nike is headquartered, is also a major hub.

John Fisher notes that today’s shoe startups are very different from the company his family built in the 20th century, now known as Saucony, and require fewer workers.

“Between all of our factories in New England and Pennsylvania, we probably had 300 to 450 shoe-making employees,” said Fisher, now a senior lecturer at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management. “These new companies may have people who visit the factory to maintain and observe quality, and maybe some expats living near the manufacturing sites, but the numbers of people they employ are dramatically down.”

Still, he said, it’s a plus that the industry remains here in an evolving and Internet-centric form.

And some of the new shoe startups are even returning to old ideas.

Boston-based Artemis Design Co. uses pieces of Turkish carpets to make slippers for men and women that cost $268. Fisher’s great-grandfather, Abraham Hyde, a Russian immigrant, started the company that turned into Saucony doing that very same thing. But back in 1906, Hyde’s “carpet slippers” cost 10 cents.


Scott Kirsner can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.

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