Episode 89 “Happy Feet!” Steven Sashen Co-founder and CEO of Xero Shoes

Steven Sashen is the CEO and co-founder of Xero Shoes, makers of lightweight casual and performance shoes and sandals with foot-shaped designs that allow for Natural Movement. He and his wife (and co-founder), Lena Phoenix, appeared on Shark Tank, where they turned down a $400,000 offer from Kevin O’Leary. Sashen is a serial entrepreneur, Emmy award-winning television host, former professional stand up comedian, and a Masters All-American sprinter.

How did you get into the industry?

Xero Shoes was an accident!

I got back into sprinting after a 30 year break (this was in 2007), and was getting injured ALL the time. A friend suggested I try running barefoot to see if I learned anything about my running form and injuries. Well, I did… and by being OUT of my traditional running shoes, I learned what form problems were leading to my injuries, and how to change my form so that they went away… never to return. I wanted that barefoot experience as much as I could have it, and started making minimalist sandals for myself, my wife, and local barefoot runners.

One day, a running coach said, “If you treated this sandal making hobby like a business – like, if you had a website – I’d put you in a book that I’m publishing about barefoot running.”

I rushed home and built a site and, the next thing you know, 7.5 years later, we’re a complete lifestyle footwear brand that makes natural movement shoes and sandals that customers in 94 countries enjoy for everything from taking a walk on the beach, to Crossfit and yoga, to running 256k+ ultra marathons.

Any emerging industry trends?

Athliesure is the big trend of late – people wearing shoes and apparel meant for the gym or for serious activity… but wearing it casually.

Happily, we have many products that work for those people.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

The biggest challenge is the changing face of retail. Retailers are closing, left and right, and those that remain aren’t pre-ordering as much product as they used to, either asking us to drop ship (at the same terms as if they purchased wholesale) or carry inventory for their at-once business.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

We believe in FEET! Your feet are meant to bend, flex, move, and Feel The World. Most shoes prevent you from doing ANY of those things.

In the same way that people equate Natural and Food as something better for you, we want them to realize, and experience, how Natural + Movement = Better… and then be the leader in natural movement footwear.

What’s next for the Business in the near future?

Our business has almost doubled every year since 2014 and we project it will continue to do so, or better, thanks to an expanded product line and capitalizing on the success of our recent products.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

Our biggest initiative is simple: continue releasing products that, when people put them on their feet, make their eyes pop out of their heads thanks to the freedom, comfort, and natural feel of Xero Shoes.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

With a business growing as fast as ours, the biggest challenge is always finding capital to sustain that growth. We learned something that every small business learns when they need cash – banks are happy to lend you money when you no longer need it.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

Our shoes have a “foot-first” design – wide toe boxes let your toes spread and relax, a non-elevated heel for proper posture, low-to-the-ground for balance and agility, a super flexible sole to let your foot move naturally, and a sole that gives you protection while also giving you the stimulation your brain and body want for optimal function.

Combine all these features and when people wear our shoes and sandals, they’re amazed at the light weight and comfort. Our goal is for them to never want to wear anything else.

How do you motivate others?

I don’t believe in motivation. We only work with people who share our mission and vision. They don’t need motivation other than to hear how the business continues to grow, how we’re making that happen, and how they can participate in that future and benefit from it. If you call that – telling the truth – a motivational tactic, then, I understand. 😉

Career advice to those in your industry?

When we started Xero Shoes, we had a number of industry veterans tell us, “We love what you’re doing and we’d love to do it with you, but we’re not stupid enough to start another shoe company.” We understand what they meant. This is HARD. The simplest advice applies to any business – make sure you can easily find people who have already demonstrated that they want what you plan to sell; just because you think your idea is great, doesn’t mean it’s a business. Then LISTEN to the feedback and react accordingly.

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