Minimalist footwear pioneer and professional sprinter Steven Sashen is the CEO of Xero Shoes, a sandal and shoe company that thrives on providing a real, ergonomic barefoot experience with just enough built-in surface protection.
I had the privilege of sitting down and talking with Steven about Xero Shoes’ emergence in the running world and all the captivating stories and insights that come with it: customer run-ins, the rewarding chaos of running a startup, and yes, even some close-call shark encounters. Enjoy our Q&A!
So, how did Xero Shoes originally get its start?
I’ve been an internet marketer for a long time, so I thought I could turn this into a nice little case study for a search engine optimization business that we were running. But what happened is it just took off, and within three months it was our full time job, and away we went.
You mentioned Born to Run and the Tarahumara Indians on your website as sources of inspiration; how have these elements factored into your vision for the company?
We used to half-joke that Born to Run was the unofficial marketing department for the first year and a half, because that book got very popular and actually influenced us as well. It was a great read.
I knew about the Tarahumara before reading the book, and how they had run the Leadville 100—the highest ultra marathon in the world—wearing their huarache sandals, which are essentially tires strapped to their feet. So, that’s how they came back next year with a shoe sponsor, and they made it halfway through the race before kicking off their shoes and doing the rest barefoot.
It really woke me up to the idea that there's way more to this notion of natural motion and how major shoe companies were ignoring everything that has to do with how your feet really work. That’s what moved me from, “hey, this is a neat little thing for people who want to try barefoot running” to “okay… we’re on a mission now.”
What’s the most rewarding aspect of running Xero Shoes? (no pun intended)
My favorite part is what we hear everyday from customers. There’s literally so many things on a daily basis that we’re hearing from our customers that make us really happy. We’ve heard things like, “These have really changed my life” or, “Hey. I packed like five pairs of shoes to go on a trip and the only ones I wore were yours.”
All of the compliments are wonderful, but especially ones from people who were unable to walk, run, or hike for most of their lives and are now able to do it more enjoyably or more easily.
Even back when we were selling just the DIY kit, there were some people who I met who said, “You opened up my eyes to making my own footwear, and that led me to making a whole bunch of other things that I used to spend money on ... I have so much more control than just buying something from a company.”
It’s all the stuff we hear from customers on a daily basis that keeps us going, cause running a business is hard, and getting all this positive feedback is the best motivation.
So I’m sure you get a lot of questions regarding your appearance on Shark Tank, in which you and wife and business partner Lena showcased your original DIY sandal product. I’m wondering if you had any exciting off-camera experiences?
Most of the people don’t realize that the show is edited. When you’re in the tank, as it’s referred, you can be in there anywhere from 20 minutes to 2 hours, and it gets cut down to somewhere around 8 to 12 minutes.
So the objections that you hear the sharks give, we just hit it out of the park—but you don’t see that. So when David says “this is just rubber and string” I said, “David, you of all people”—he makes jeans and t-shirts—“know a brand is worth the components of a product,” and Cuban points to him and goes “Perfect answer!” And David kind of slumps in his chair.
Robert at one point says to us, “So, what do you think about all the competition, including Five Fingers,” and I said, “They’re just creating a wave and we’re surfing on that wave,” and he jumps out of his chair and he yells, “You guys have a perfect answer for every question!” like he was really upset by that. And I just looked at him sort of incredulously and said, “This is our business.”
And then there’s little bits. I mean, Barbara expressed that she did not like me, but in real time she hated me with a level of vitriol that I don’t think I’ve ever experienced, which I found hysterical because, you know, what are you going to do about that? Just because I look like her ex-husband.
Have you had any notable face-to-face experiences with customers?
So, seriously thousands, I don’t even know where to begin. Well, one of our early customers: he had an unusual name that was shared by my father’s great-aunt, and I emailed him saying, “Are we related?” and turns out we are. Like through a great-great-great grandfather, something crazy like that.
Another big memory was when a customer came in and put on our shoes, sort of walking around outside to test them and was amazed at how much he could feel the ground yet still be protected, and turns out it’s a really big deal for him because he’s blind. He said it was like having another sense, which is really interesting to me and we’re trying to work with that community more.
In fact, there was some research done wherein some guys put little vibrating insoles in the shoes of elderly patients and found that it helped improve their balance, and I wrote a blog post saying, “You don’t need magic vibrating insole ... just take off everybody’s shoes and go for a walk outside.”
You just need to stimulate those nerves; get your brain to wake up and pay attention to your feet again. And I got an email from a guy who was 80 years old, he said “I was looking for the magic vibrating insoles and I found your article, and since I couldn’t find the insoles I put your theory to the test. That was two weeks ago and I just threw away my walker.”
So I really appreciate the people who tell me they were never really into running, and then they end up running an ultramarathon because they had so much fun wearing our products.
Looking back on your company’s journey, are there any insights you’ve picked up that have been most valuable?
There’s this phenomenon where we started this just as a goofy little business and all we were expecting was that we would be selling DIY kits or ready-to-wear versions of the DIY kit, and the fact that this has turned into a full-on lifestyle, aspirational performance footwear line ... we would’ve never imagined this in a million years.
Someone recently said a quote from Earl Nightingale and it was something like, “A life without a plan is like a ship without a rudder,” and my response is, “bullshit.” None of the things we’ve been doing for the last eight years were things that we planned; it was all completely spontaneous, evolved out of luck and chance and fate and curiosity and hardwork.
Some people say success leaves clues, or something like that ... I think it’s a Tony Robbins line. But so does failure, and there’s more of those; but more importantly there are a lot of things that people think of as failures that later rise from the ashes.
Everything’s strangely simpler and more complicated than we want them to be; simpler in that you work your ass off, listen to your customers, keep iterating, and cross your fingers; more difficult in that that which I just said is not really a plan, because everyday you walk in and have no idea what the hell’s going to happen. And you’ve got to figure it out and deal with changing economic tides and changing perspectives and changing perceptions, and there’s no ... there’s just no answers.
Anyway… I like that we’re living that reality instead of pretending to do some guaranteed way to make something happen.
Xero Shoes donates a percentage of certain products to the Tarahumara Children’s Hospital Fund, improving the living conditions of countless Tarahumara Indians who have suffered from drought, poverty, insufficient medical care, and drug abuse.