Josh Stiles, founder of the minimalist footwear brand Shamma Sandals, used to loathe running. An athlete his whole life, he explained how “running was often the punishment for your team losing or playing poorly.” It wasn’t until he drastically stripped down his footwear that he actually found the activity rewarding, and much to his surprise, even enjoyable.
The year was 2010, and toe shoes were just becoming popular. One night at his men’s league softball game, Josh noticed a teammate with peculiar looking footwear. He didn’t think much of it. “It’s Santa Cruz, and we’re all a little weird,” he laughed.
But, those goofy looking Vibram FiveFingers piqued his interest. So much so, it persuaded Josh to throw off his shoes and see what it was like to run barefoot. “I fell in love with it right away.”
He knew he couldn’t sustain running completely barefoot, though. So, he excitedly ripped out the 4mm lining from a pair of leather moccasins, put them on, and took a jog down Santa Cruz’s popular West Cliff Drive. “I looked ridiculous,” he laughed. “My poor wife probably wasn’t too thrilled to be running with this moron with moccasins on his feet, but I was trying it.”
What came next was Josh’s first rendering of a minimalist sandal. His father-in-law Mike picked up a sheet of rubber from the water department where he worked. “I like to say he stole it,” Josh laughed.
Using the rubber and some paracord, Mike made Josh a pair of sandals. Even though they were crudely crafted as if “a cave man made them,” Josh took the creation back to West Cliff Drive for a test run.
“It was as if you slapped a rubber pancake to your foot. They were the most awful, terrible thing to run in.”
Ultimately, Josh vetoed the rubber pancake pattern, purchased a pair of FiveFingers, and running felt good again.
But, his needs were still not completely met.
“The problem with the [FiveFingers] is you look like a weirdo, and they stink.” He likens the olfactory experience to owning a single pair of socks as your footwear, “and maybe you washed them once a week.”
To his excitement, around this time more companies were rolling out their own version of minimalist footwear. It was a big deal when Merrell released its Trail Glove. “Finally, a minimalist shoe that looked normal!”
Josh wore them “like crazy” but when springtime rolled around and the weather warmed up, he was in need of some sandals.
He found a pair of simple sandals from a company in Seattle. He loved them. They were simple, lightweight, and didn’t make his feet hot, stinky, or soggy. He wore them constantly.
But, he was embarrassed to tell people how much he spent on those sandals because they were so simple. He thought, “I can make them myself and save a bunch of money.” His quest to save some cash resulted in the footwear brand he runs today.
Using his background in construction, he set up a 10x20 lean-to-like shop on the side of his house. With his refurbished, hundred-year-old Singer sewing machine, Josh started selling his sandals to family and friends.
A few of those family and friends are even among the Shamma squad today. Father-in-law Mike makes the toe plugs for the brand, and Josh also employs his brother and a couple of close friends too. He’s found these business relationships invaluable.
“You always need help from different people,” Josh attests when starting a brand. He compares it to a Legend of Zelda fetch quest. A simple “please” or “thank you” has opened many doors for him along the way. “I’ve always tried to ask for help, build good relationships with the people [we’re] working with, and they will help you through a lot of problems.”
Nothing beats the gratitude Shamma receives from customers who re-discovered running after transitioning to a minimalist Shamma sandal. “The fact that someone likes the product and it benefits them, that’s the best and the highest praise we get.”
When asked about goals for his brand, without hesitating, Josh mentions his wife and their four daughters. “If I can provide a better life for them, then that’s success to me. After that, it’s just gravy.”