Have you tried Taft Shoes?

What do you still go to the stores to buy? Food, surely — at least your fresh produce, meats, eggs, and other such perishables. Hardware, I’ll wager, like nuts and bolts and screws and duct tape and other sundries needed for DIY projects or home repairs. And you probably still buy a fair amount of your clothing from brick-and-mortar locations, because you have to make sure it not only looks great of its own volition, but that it fits well and looks good on you. That’s especially true when it comes to shoes; you have to try them on to make sure they fit properly, as shoes not only anchor your outfit, but support every ounce of your body all day long.

So wouldn’t buying shoes from an online retailer be a bit of a risk? Not really, not when you can exchange them for a different size without even paying the costs of shipping.

But what about the risk that the shoes fit fine but don’t look all that great? When you’re buying shoes from Taft, that’s really not a factor, because since the company launched back in 2014, they have yet to release a single pair of men’s shoes or boots that are anything but striking and stylish. And comfortable, too, for the record.

Husband and wife team Kory and Mallory Stevens, and unlike so many similar ventures, their idea actually worked. And not thanks to any crazy luck or black magic or anything, but for the simple reason that their company began offering notably good men’s footwear for reasonable prices. In fact, by their own calculation, a pair of Taft shoes (or boots) costs almost 50% less than would footwear of equal quality bought from a traditional retailer, those savings all coming thanks to the elimination of the wholesaler’s fee, the retailer’s margins, and the retailer’s markup.

When you buy a product from Taft, you pay for the basic production costs, which include the leather, wool, rubber, and other materials that go into the shoes along with the labor costs of the artisans working in Portugal and Spain. You also pay for a fraction of the company’s overhead, like staples and electricity and printer ink. And of course there’s a markup, because they need to make money to buy things just like you do.

All told, you can make off with a pair of shoes priced around $250 that would have cost about $500 at a fine clothier. Taft keeps prices relatively low thanks to a direct-to-consumer business model that minimizes spending on advertising and cuts retail expenses. Taft

When you buy said shoes, here’s what you can expect, in three words: quality, comfort, and style. I list these attributes in that order because I think they are most notable as such. Lots of shoes look great and might even feel good initially, but break down quickly, losing their looks and their supportiveness. And lots of shoes are comfortable, but often shoes that look great do so at the sacrifice of comfort, and at the end of the day it’s more important that your apparel performs well than looks good.

With that said, Silicon Valley is obsessed with the ethos of bootstrapping. Yet, even in an Eric Ries-inspired lean startup world, the story of Taft Clothing is unique. Here are some essential bootstrapping rules from the Taft Clothing playbook.

  1. Market where you have advantage. In most established industries, upstarts are never going to win on SEO or Google AdWords. Many of the most effective marketers find their initial footing on social platforms.
  2. Avoid the inventory trap. Inventory is the Waterloo of retail. Effectively managing orders, especially in the early days, is often the difference between those who make it and those who don’t.
  3. Ignore early calls from VCs. For many start-ups, interest from venture capital firms is the ultimate validation. But the longer you can make it without them the more value you preserve. Smart founders ignore those calls as long as they can.
  4. Outsource the back office. Start-up founders often take pride in doing it all themselves. But bootstrapping well means knowing when to outsource to someone else.
  5. Own everything customer-facing. While effectively outsourcing the back-office can be a boon to the business, relying on third parties to build your product or brand is fraught with risk.

Taft Clothing has continued to grow, adding new hires and a real (albeit tiny) office. But it took three years of bootstrapping to earn a $15 million valuation. Can you do the same?


Check out my related post: Do you like Milk Makeup?

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