Tony Post was wearing two different shoes last week: one neon green and black, the other blue and steel gray. This was no fashion statement. Post is preparing to debut his new company, ToPo Athletic, at the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show in Utah this week. As ToPo's chief product tester, he doesn't have time to audition his shoes in pairs.
Post conducted a quick tour of his under-construction office space in a former Raytheon facility in Newton, Massachusetts. Then he led the way to ToPo's temporary digs, where the entire 18-SKU line marches across a conference-room table. First thing you notice about these babies is the split toe, which separates the big toe from its subordinates. Second is the whisper-width steel cable that stands in for laces on some styles and can be cinched with a small knob to perfect snugness. Pick up a shoe and it's as light as a newborn kitten. "I love that when I put these on they feel so light and secure to my body," says Post, palming a bright pink version. "It's got a generous fit, but my foot isn't sloshing around inside it. There is nothing clunky about it."
Two Toes Vs. Five
Though visually-distinctive, Post's new offering will likely prove less polarizing than his previous hit: the FiveFingers. That shoe--which with its individual toe sockets looked like a foot, or a glove masquerading as a shoe--was intended to make running a more natural experience. Some mocked it as ugly. (Endearingly primal is probably a better description.) But it also attracted fervid fans and racked up close to $100 million in sales last year.
Post popularized the FiveFingers while CEO of Vibram USA, the American outpost of a venerable Italian footwear company. ToPo, which he launched last summer, is his if-not-now-when start-up.
"A lot of people, when they reach my age, kind of start thinking about how to wind things down," says Post, explaining his resignation from Vibram, which surprised some industry observers. "I felt like, I'm already 55. I really want to create a company. I wish I were smart enough to start a company that could solve global warming. But shoes are where I can add value."
How ToPo Got Started
Post has been designing shoes for nearly 30 years, the first 15 at Rockport, where he was vice president of product and marketing. (He also starred in the company's commercials after running the New York City and London marathons in Rockport dress shoes.) The extensive professional networks Post developed there and at Vibram helped him pull together ToPo in a sprint. After settling on the idea for the new shoe--based on 100-year-old Japanese tabi footwear--he hired a designer to build a prototype. Between September and December he made several trips to China where a factory cranked out many. Post would don each iteration, dash around for a day, then come back with corrections, and improvements.
Post invested some of his savings in the venture and in October, he closed on $5 million in series A funding from Norwest Venture Partners. "Given Tony's stature and respect in the industry, we were fairly confident that the channel would be interested in purchasing the initial line of products," says Northwest general partner Jon Kossow. "We see an opportunity to build a very large brand that will be lasting, and from what I've seen will eclipse what FiveFingers did."
The sweet spot of that channel is specialty retailers. Chris Cohen, ToPo's vice president of sales, is stitching together a team of third-party reps to educate stores on what makes the shoes so distinctive: lessons he believes might get lost in low-touch big box chains. "The market is very homogenized right now, but we have a product that is very exciting and unique visually," says Cohen, one of five employees in the Newton office (two others work in China). "It's very important we work with people who can communicate all that."
The Running Landscape
ToPo shoes, which will retail from $100 to $130 when they reach stores in May, obviously compete with FiveFingers. But not as much as you'd think. FiveFingers is a "minimalist" shoe, which means it emulates as closely as possible the experience of running barefoot. ToPo aims to provide some advantages of minimalism: Post says his shoes "amplify the body's natural biomechanics," essentially helping the foot do better what it already does. But ToPo's shoes have more substance and structure.
Post lined up one of the split-toes alongside a FiveFingers as well as lightweight models from Nike, New Balance, and Merrell. Except for the cloven aspect, the ToPo shoe most resembles the Nike. "I know this is going to sound arrogant, but we view Nike as a key competitor, Brooks as a key competitor, Asics as a key competitor," he says.
Before launching ToPo, Post did not seek Vibram's blessing. "I felt like once I left the company and I was free to do what I wanted, I didn't go ask for permission," says Post.
'Communities to Communities'
When it comes to marketing, Post intends to replicate the Vibram experience. In 2006, he seeded FiveFingers with selected members of running and fitness groups and encouraged conversation about the product online. By the time the shoe debuted at the Boston Marathon, Post had signed just 24 dealers. But in three months he sold out his initial run of 10,000 pairs, with close to 90% of sales direct-to-consumer. "At Vibram, we didn't run an ad for four-and-a-half years," says Post. "We're doing the same--lots of social media. People talking to people. Communities to communities."
The close, ongoing conversation with consumers should also help ToPo repel the knock-off scourge. That was a significant problem when Vibram failed to deliver FiveFingers quickly enough and counterfeiters stepped in with shoddy product that dinged the brand's reputation. Post expects if the problem arises at ToPo he will take legal action and step up production, but mostly educate customers so they don't get taken. "If our business starts to grow and people like it enough to copy it, I'll worry about that then," says Post.
"Let me say," Post adds, "that's a great problem to have."