Starting Smaller: Why This Shoe Brand Only Sold Socks For 3 Years

Starting Smaller: Why This Shoe Brand Only Sold Socks For 3 Years

taft clothing shopify masters

There's no one-size-fits-all way to launch a business or build a brand. Some approaches seem counter-intuitive at first, but dig a little deeper and they not only make sense but also mitigate some of the risks inherent to entrepreneurship.

In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn from an entrepreneur who launched his business with a related product (socks), years before launching his flagship product (handmade men's shoes).

Kory Stevens is the founder of Taft Clothing, a company that specializes in men's shoes, handmade in Spain, and men's fashion accessories.

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“If you don’t do something different or if you just offer the same thing people can find elsewhere, they’re going to go elsewhere.”

Tune in to learn

  • The downsides of launching a smaller product before your flagship product
  • How to determine which differentiators matter to your target customers
  • Product photography tips for beginner photographers

Show Notes

Transcript:

Felix: Today I’m joined by Kory Stevens from Taft. Taft specializes in men’s shoes handmade in Spain and men’s fashion accessories. It was started in 2015 and based out of Provo, Utah. Welcome Kory.

Kory: Hey Felix, thank you. Good morning.

Felix: Good morning. Tell us a bit more about your store and popular products that you sell.

Kory: We launched our shoe line about 14 months ago and we’ve really hit our stride since then. We started a couple years ago. In the first year we were basically building our audience and product testing and getting a litmus test for the market. Then 14 months ago we launched shoes, and since then our boots have been really popular. We’ve continued to roll out some smaller accessories like belts and shoe trees and just supplemental products like that. Yeah man, it’s been a dream. Shopify has been obviously extremely instrumental in the success we’ve had so far. Yeah man, I’m happy to share what I’ve learned and hopefully be able to help in small ways to others.

Felix: What specifically about shoes or men’s fashion, why did you choose this industry?

Kory: It really was, I saw an opportunity. My background, I started Taft right out of college. My background was in linguistics, so nothing to do with shoes or men’s fashion. I just saw an opportunity and a niche that wasn’t being filled very well. Rather than me being a lifelong shoemaker or anything like that, it was more about seeing the opportunity and preparing myself to be able to successfully go into that niche and make some noise.

Felix: I guess in your words, what was that niche that you felt was under-served?

Kory: Direct to consumer footwear, there are certainly other brands doing it, but you look at how obviously Warby Parker, one of the first, but then you look at Casper, Lisa, Purple, Blue Apron, all these companies doing really creative things with direct to consumer and products that you wouldn’t necessarily think would lend itself to the direct to consumer model. At this specific price point, plus being direct to consumer, and then really unique shoes. I don’t design your plain boring [inaudible 00:03:11] shoes. I design the shoes that you wear out with your friends. Typically, these types of shoes are extremely expensive. They would be considered designer shoes. We’ve created luxury designer shoes that are super unique that can’t be found anywhere else and still offered at between $200 and $300 because we only sell direct to consumer. We do not wholesale at all.

I saw that niche and I saw that if I wanted something like I had in my head, I couldn’t find it anywhere or some designers, I could see it on the red carpet but that’s about it. It wasn’t accessible for the normal layman. I saw the opportunity and I just jumped right in man. It was a big risk and a big leap of faith for me, pretty uncomfortable at times. I’m so glad I’ve done and I’ve learned so much.

Felix: For most people, when they see an industry model, a business model and then they recognize that this doesn’t exist in the industry that I’m in, it’s a pretty daunting task to think about how do I unravel all of this and essentially take a business model of industry and apply it. Like you’re saying, Casper, the mattress industry, and then I’ll apply it to high end shoes. What were the first steps? How did you even begin to understand how can I build out a supply chain? How do I build a business around this model that didn’t really exist before?

Kory: [inaudible 00:04:39], right? Because the industry has been prepped and operated in such a way for hundreds of years basically, which is specifically in the shoe industry it’s all about wholesale. It’s these huge brand groups that just keep pumping different brands through their same distribution channels over and over. Even the relationship with our factor, it’s been really uncomfortable for them and very, very different. These quick turnaround times, these unique shoes, unique textiles, it’s very uncomfortable for them too. I’ve had to do a lot of grooming and helping them to see my vision, and now they’re starting to see it and we’re their biggest client at this point.

Early on, no one understood what I was looking for and how I was looking to do it. Also, it goes back to the end consumer as well because direct to consumer, it requires a lot of education and trust because guys our age don’t really want to buy shoes online. Many men need to try it on in person, see it, feel it, smell it. It requires a lot of education, a lot of intent behind captions and emails and everything I can to help them understand why we do it this way and how we’re so different. It requires a lot of trust because people don’t want to buy shoes. There’s many products that people don’t want to buy online, and shoes is probably one of them for many people. We have to do a good job of presenting our self. Anything public facing has to be really good because we have to gain their trust and confidence for them to throw down a few hundred dollars on a brand they’ve never heard of and a product they’ve never seen in person.

Felix: Kind of a two-part question, how did you learn the steps that you needed to take to get to this goal not just to reach the consumer, to educate them, but then it sounds like a big part of it, especially early on, was educating the vendors, the people that were above you I guess in the supply chain. What did you have to I guess teach them, and how did you go about that?

Kory: A lot of is pretty simple because it’s kind of just by passion for how I want to do it. I go to our factory in Spain very often and I spend at least an hour or two on the phone with them every day. It’s just a lot of teaching and telling them and also the feedback that I give them. The feedback and the critiques, this constant process of critiquing and improving. They can see where my priorities are by the feedback that I’m giving to them. Really early on I spent a lot of time away from my family at the factory. I have two little children in my life, and so I had to go to Spain quite often to help them understand that, “Look guys, this isn’t going to work unless we have extremely sufficient supply chains and really quick turnarounds.” That meant doing things really differently for Taft that they did for their other clients.

Ordering certain materials earlier than expected, ordering in higher quantities, just improving the in factory supply chain as well. There’s a lot of ways that the factory wasn’t working super efficiently. Basically going into the factory and doing a production audit and telling them how when you’re producing for Taft, it needs to be different I X, Y and Z ways. At the beginning they really didn’t want to do it. Everyone fought back, down to like my designs, my shoe designs. They didn’t like them. They were very different. They didn’t like the textiles I was using. They didn’t like the leathers I was using and the colors. It’s very non-traditional for them when they’re used to just European plain brown and black shoes.

Now with all of this work, we’re starting to see the super lean supply chain and the extreme efficiency in production and shipping. Now our turnaround times are down by about 30% and we’re really starting to crank out some great shoes in high volumes and pretty quickly.

Felix: Because you were a small player at a certain point in the early days, how did you dictate these things to much larger manufacturers that I’m assuming were much more used to working with much larger brands? How were you able to I guess enforce these things that you wanted to do?

Kory: I think a lot of it was honestly going to the factory and spending a lot of time with them. I speak Spanish, which helps a lot to develop that initial trust and confidence. You’re right though. It was pretty crazy that they even expected us on as the new client. They have to turn down pretty much everyone. Shoe factories, it seems like everyone wants to start a shoe company. When you do that, you get all of these people trying to sample, but maybe 5% of them make it past the sampling stage. They’re turning away everyone, but I think that our large social media presence made them think, “Oh man, maybe they can do a lot of volume like they say.” I went there right off the bat, I went there and spent a week with them every day in the factory with the factory, the workers, the craftsmen to the owners and management and the office staff. I was there all day every day despite my extreme jet lag at the time.

I was there with them. I was eating meals with them and I was really starting to become friends with them. Now that relationship is what it’s all about for us because early on, honestly it was really lucky and we were really blessed that we were able to work with them because they’re one of the best factories in Europe. They’ve made for Christian Louboutin, Yves St. Laurent, Prada, Gucci. They make these luxury, luxury huge brand shoes. Now they love the way we work. They love the way Taft operates and they’ve become favorable to our style of business, which is awesome. I would say looking really, that brand legitimacy online and on social media helped a lot because I’m sure that they looked at our Instagram account and saw, “Whoa, this is a lot of people that want these peoples shoes, so let’s make for them.”

Then obviously spending a week with them was instrumental in getting to agree to work with us and sample.

Felix: You already had an audience built up by the time you approached these manufacturers? Is that what you think helped a lot to get them to trust in you early on?

Kory: Yeah. Giving you a little bit of background on the brand, we launched a Kickstarter campaign for our no-show socks about three years ago. We did our no-show socks, but the intent was never to just be no-show socks. It was to launch no-show socks, a product that I knew we could improve on and make some noise, and it bought us some time to basically market test our audience and figure out what they wanted. For a year, I was taking and spending a lot of time taking great pictures and building up this audience online and testing in front of them what would perform well. Then that gave me an idea of what kind of products they would want to see.

By the time I was ready to sample with the factory and really started sampling, I bet we had probably 150,000 Instagram followers and a good rapport and a good repertoire of products and a good reputation for quality products and a cool brand that was up and coming, and then we launched shoes to an audience so that we could be spring boarded into success rather than fall flat if no one cared. Launching a new product is much easier obviously if you have a lot of people looking at you.

Felix: Now when you did start working with these manufacturers because you wanted to do things differently than what they were used to, I guess what a lot of people might expect is that the manufacturers eventually would settle back into a default state. Tactically, how do you make sure that they keep to your standards, keep to your processes, especially if you’re not there on the floor all the time making sure that everything is going to I guess the original process design that you created?

Kory: You’re so right, that’s exactly what happens. They’ve been doing something a certain way for years and years and years, and then for a certain brand that they produce for, “I want it very different.” I go there about four or five times a year, and we teach on WhatsApp and I’m constantly every day giving the factory owner feedback. I’ll take a picture of a shoe and I’ll send that to them and say, “Hey, we can’t have this.” There’s that constant communication literally 24/7 and we have a text ongoing full of pictures and video and feedback. Then I also hired someone to be there to basically be on the floor almost full time so that I can make sure that every shoe that goes into the shoebox is up to my standards and we have certain standards and requirements, and she makes sure that those are met on every pair.

When they’re not, then I have that communication directly to the factory owner to make sure that it is up to my standards. You’re exactly right, it’s just this constant battle with them falling back into their comfort zone, so that’s why communication, open and frequent communication is really important because if not, they’ll just fall back into the way they’ve been doing it forever.

Felix: That’s a great point. They stay in constant communication and this kind of feedback that you’re providing on a constant basis rather than just waiting just to go there every few times a year I think is important to stay in contact through other means. Now are there demands or standards that are now available to you that weren’t available to you earlier on now that you have this working relationship and track record of success in the partnership with these manufacturers?

Kory: Yeah, so the first thing, the very obvious thing would be payment terms. Initially we talked about payment terms and they were very, very against it. They’ve been burned too many times by small American companies. Payment terms now, we have negotiated on a little flexibility there, which is super helpful. It allows me to produce more than I would be able to. Also, our turnaround time is really quick. Now they give me priority on sampling. They give me priority on production time, everything. Now I’ve become their biggest client. They’ve really done whatever they can to help me. Obviously direct communication with the factory are huge. He and I are texting back and forth all day long, which is very rare and unique for our situation.

Some of these opportunities have really popped up. Then another one is better pricing. We’ve negotiated certain tiered pricing that this year if I hit X number of pairs then they’re going to give me an X percentage discount, which again, is a huge motivator for me. It’s beneficial for both parties, and you’re right, talking about it and having this question is cool because it helps me realize that, man, yeah, we do get a lot of preference with the factory and we’ve gained that preference very quickly and it’s a huge blessing for us because it’s really important for our style of business.

Felix: Makes sense. You were saying earlier about how shoe is obviously the main focus today when you go onto your site. It’s the prominently displayed product, but you didn’t always start there. You first started with these no-show socks or with the Kickstarter campaign. I’m looking at it here, the Wimbleys True No-Show Sock. Did you always have this goal from the beginning to first launch with socks just to build this, not just to, but as a way to build an audience that then you could launch shoes to?

Kory: Yeah. That’s reflected in even our URL on our website, TaftClothing.com. It kind of gives you an idea of where my head was at initially and where I see the brand going long term. Yeah, I launched no-show socks because at the time there wasn’t really anyone else doing men’s no-show socks very well. Now you have lots of brands doing it. Back then, if I wanted no-show socks, growing up I as borrowing my mom’s really feminine ones or plain white ones. My thought process was, “Well let me do men’s no-show socks with great, cool, masculine patterns that actually stay up on your heel.” Running a brand just on such a niche product like that, a polarizing niche product like men’s no-show socks is would be really difficult.

The intent was to utilize it as a test product basically to build an audience, gain some traction and then do something that I had more confidence in. Our no-show socks, it was really successful and there was thousands of people that really, really loved them, but from a big picture perspective, it would be really hard for me to just run a brand on no-show socks. I knew that shoes, our audience loves shoes, and I knew that I could design unique shoes that they couldn’t find anywhere else that would only further encourage their purchasing and their loyalty and their brand cult vibes. That was the intent from the beginning and now we’re starting to blossom into what I wanted to be for the last couple years.

Felix: That’s certainly a very patient game plan that I feel like I haven’t seen too many entrepreneurs take. Obviously the big benefit for you was that you now have a huge audience and a customer base to, like you were saying earlier, test products against and then of course launch too, and then all these other boons like manufacturers being willing to work with you because of the following. What about the downsides? Were there any downsides to taking this approach of first launching with a smaller more feasible product before launching your ultimate goal product?

Kory: Part of you would say that the fact that it was men’s no-show socks is kind of a downside just because it’s so polarizing. Someone that found us early on, either you love and need men no-show socks or you think they’re really lame. There’s not a middle ground of a lot of people would say, “Why in the world would I need striped no-show socks? If they’re supposed to be invisible, who cares what they look like. Give me plain black ones.” I think that because they’re such a polarizing product, people pretty early on probably passed on us, which is totally fine. Then the second thing would be early on if someone had a bad experience with our socks, they would check out.

It wasn’t a safe product necessarily to test, so if someone really had a bad experience with our no-show socks, they’re probably not going to come back unfortunately. That would be the same for any product. If you have a bad experience early on with a brand, chances are you’re not going to be coming back to them to purchase again despite a new product like shoes. Even though it wasn’t safe, but that’s probably why we had success is because we had a soapbox and we had a platform, and we stuck to our guns. We really were about something. We were really carving out a brand identify rather than just playing it safe and just being a general men’s fashion Instagram account or something like that.

We were really trying to do something, and I think people could see that intent and could see the potential and got behind it pretty early.

Felix: If someone wanted to take this same approach as you where they start with an entry product before launching their flagship product, what kind of questions do you think they should ask themselves to figure out what should that entry product be that could tie into ultimately their flagship product?

Kory: I think it would need to be products in the same kind of industry for sure. Definitely a product that makes sense. Something like socks and shoes obviously go hand in hand. The most important thing would be can you do it differently or can you improve on what’s already being done? For shoes, if we launch shoes to an audience of zero, I don’t think our shoes would have the reputation and the following that they do. Because we were able to launch shoes to a large audience, people were really able to get behind it early, which really propelled, got us a lot of momentum. I think if someone’s considering taking a similar approach that I did, they need to make sure that they can do it differently. Really go into a product that you can market and advertise and build the brand behind it differently than what’s already being done.

Men’s no-show socks, I saw an opportunity and I jumped on it and I was bold in my execution, so if someone is considering this, you have to do something different. If you don’t do something different or you just offer the same thing that people can find elsewhere, they’re going to go elsewhere. If people could have found, if I was making plain brown wing tips like you can find in every men’s shoe store, people would go elsewhere because they don’t want to buy shoes online and they want to buy it from a brand they’ve heard of. There’s a lot of obstacles to people buying shoes from Taft. They can’t try them on, they’ve never heard of them and they don’t know how good they are. If there are substitutes or replacement products that people can get elsewhere, they’re going to get them elsewhere. They’re going to go with what’s comfortable.

Someone that’s considering a new product, make sure it’s really different and cling to those differences rather than trying to assimilate to being the same. You have to be different or you’re just going to get lost in the mix.

Felix: I think the follow-up question to that is if you do of course take this advice and go really different, identify your differentiators and cling to it, the question is I think how do you know which differentiators are actually going to matter to the customers at the end of the day? How did you figure out what’s going to matter to your customers, what kind of differentiators will matter to them?

Kory: Early on I asked a lot of my friends. I remember I sent out, I had just graduated college so I had a good group of guy friends that would be my target audience. I emailed out basically some horrible Microsoft Paint sketches of my socks. They were horrible, but I got their feedback. If you guys were buying no-show socks, what are the pain points? They’re too feminine or they don’t stay up. As long as those differences are solving problems, then they’re going to be accepted different. You don’t just be weird to be weird. That works for some brands. That works for lots of brands, but don’t just be weird and different to be weird and different, but be different to solve problems and pain points because that’s what people will be drawn to, the differences that will make a difference in their lives. That’s what’s important.

Felix: What are your thoughts on when you find a differentiator but you see brand A doing it and then you find another differentiator you want to go with and you see brand B doing it? Combining those two things together, do you think that’s enough or that you need to come up with something that you’ve never seen before in any brand?

Kory: I think the way you execute differently is really important as well. Not only the product being different. Combining two differences is great and that will work, but that alone won’t work. It’s how you take those differences and execute on them and your marketing and your branding and your social media presence. You know what I mean? It’s like any product can be different. You can go on Alibaba and find millions of different products, weird products. They exist and they’re already made, but it’s about taking those differences and really owning them and then executing and expressing those differences and showing how they’re meaningful to your audience.

Felix: Can we talk a little bit about this? Tactically on a day to day basis, how does the company express and make sure that these differences are very clear to your audience?

Kory: That’s the question I ask myself too because initially I thought, “Oh man, people are going to buy our shoes because they’re going to love the business model. We’re doing it differently. We’re saving them hundreds of dollars on this type of quality shoe.” Then I realize that people were buying our shoes because they liked the designs and they couldn’t find them anywhere else. That direct to consumer business model is a really important thing to me, and I think that’s what’s going to really create more virality behind the brand. People rather than just like, “Man, look at this cool pair of shoes I bought. Aren’t they cool? They look awesome.” I want that conversation to go more like this, “Look at this awesome pair of shoes I bought. They only sell direct to consumer, so if this shoe were in Nordstrom it would cost me $500.”

I want that to be a part of the conversation. I’m constantly dealing with this how can I educate our consumers? People ae initially drawn to a product because of the way it looks. It’s a very physical, visible product. Every day I’m dealing with this how can I teach them about direct to consumer business model and why our shoes are such a good bang for your buck? In terms of execution, that means my Instagram captions are really thought out and informative. I utilize infographics on the website and on the social media. I’m sending out our welcome to our email subscriber, our automatically triggered email right when someone signs up is about that. I’m redoing our About Us page right now to really reflect this. I’m working on a new social media series where it’s focused on educating our consumers because we have lots of our followers and our audience isn’t intending to buy a pair of shoes from us right now.

It’s through this education that we do convert them into buyers. A lot of people find our shoes and love the way they look, and that’s awesome, but that’s only half of the story with Taft. The other half is our business model. Trying to constantly drive that home with our audience is a struggle, but I’m trying to do the best I can and I’m constantly going back to that and how can I change the website and our social media profiles and all of our email contact to reflect our business model and our unique shoes.

Felix: That’s I guess a very interesting approach because these customers or these audience members are entering your brand’s universe through I guess one type of messaging, which is that they love the design but then once they come in, you want them to leave with a different type of messaging or at least an additional type of messaging, which is about the direct to consumer. I’m assuming this is probably going to be a big challenge or it has been a big challenge for you just because it’s kind of hard to change the way people think about a product, a brand. Which of these avenues have been the most successful for you? You mentioned Instagram, infographics, updates onto your site, email marketing. Which ones do you think has been the most impactful for you in terms of I guess re-educating people on how you want them to think about your brand?

Kory: Yeah, that’s a good question because people obviously are seeing images, so they like the way it looks. People don’t want to read captions. I’m always amazed at how few people actually read a caption. People are joining the Taft family because of an image or a video, not because of a caption or some text. They enter the funnel with only half the story, and so I would say that having that initial triggered email be about this is really key because it really sets the tone and this is our first impression with them, and we’re going to tell you about the value that you’re getting because of our super lame business model.

Then also just two nights ago I posted a pretty lengthy caption about our business model on Instagram and it gained a lot of tragic. I think it had like 30,000 views on the video and it had maybe 200 comments because every once in a while something will hit well and people will realize and it really does help educate them. Unfortunately a lot of times they go on red as well, but I would say that initial first impression email has been key and then working on the new About Us page, which is going to be used also as a landing page. I’m going to be driving traffic specifically to that page because it’s so important to me that I want people to know that and not only see our products.

Felix: When you were gearing up to launch the shoes, what did you learn about during the process of launching the socks that you knew that you had to take those lessons and apply it immediately or that they were so important that you had to apply them at some point when launching the shoes?

Kory: Luckily, thankfully I was able to get a lot of feedback based on data, likes and comments on certain pictures. I was going and buying shoes and taking a picture of them and returning them just to test how my audience would react to a certain style of shoe. I was really testing and I was actively looking for feedback whether good or bad, but some of the things I learned I’d say one would be I’m always constantly in this battle with myself of designing something that I like versus designing something that I think will do well. I have to remember that of course I’m the designer and it’s nice when I love the product and would wear it myself, but it’s also important to put the brand first and my audience first before my preferences personally, Kory’s preferences.

I’m really looking at what they want rather than what I like necessarily. It’s putting the brand before me a lot of times. Another really, really important lesson that I learned is to never rush to launch a product. I have released a couple products sooner than I should have and unless they’re really, really ready and your supply chain and your production is really ready and fine tuned to launch a product, do not launch it until it’s ready because you only get one shot and you never know if that customer’s only going to come once, you want to make sure that they leave with a great taste in their mouth. Don’t rush to market a product unless it’s really ready because I’ve done that and it doesn’t end up well. Make sure that your product is really ready before you put it out there because putting in that time before will you save you a lot of headache after.

Felix: Were these specific to your product, your industry? What were the issues that you were running into?

Kory: Initially I had sampled and designed and had our no-show socks ready and then last minute had to change factories, which obviously set us back a lot of time. I rushed it. Luckily it turned out okay, but later on I’ve tried to introduce new products. I introduced some belts and I introduced shoe trees. I launched our trees and we pre-sold a lot of them on pre-order, and then I got them and they were not right. One of the sizes did not fit our shoes and they totally blew it. It was embarrassing and it was a headache to manage. Hundreds of people emailing me saying, “Hey, these don’t even fit.” It’s just a huge headache. With belts, I’m still a team of one. I run the brand on my own still, which is why it can be so quiet at my office because there’s no one else ever here.

I run the brand on my own, and I get a lot of pressure to grow and expand. Sometimes I’ve tried to answer those voices of expansion with new products. One of those was belts. Obviously a very complimentary product to shoes, lots of men only buy a pair of shoes if there’s a matching belt. I found a wonderful family that makes beautiful belts in Spain, but I didn’t prepare our audience to know how to measure their waists properly. We launched a few styles on pre-order, and then everyone got their belts and they were too small for them. Not everyone. Maybe 20% of them got their belts and they were too small. That resulted in 75 people that we had to go through and return their orders and get the belts back. It was a huge shipping issue, tons of emails.

The thing that hurts me most is what if this was their only experience with Taft. Either the shoe trees or the belts. Obviously if they’re a return customer, they know the quality and my standards. They know me and they know what I want and how I operate, and they know how much they can expect from Taft. If it’s someone that’s just popping in and liked the belts and they ordered a belt, then they walked away with a bad experience with Taft and that’s obviously a massively missed opportunity. Those are a couple examples, really true personal examples that are big learning moments for me in 2016 last year that I learned. They were costly but I learned them, and I won’t make them again.

Felix: When you say not rushing to launch, do you mean to say that you recommend people that do more testing? Is it launching to smaller audiences or does it mean spending more time asking specific questions?

Kory: Never sell a product unless it’s really ready. In order to do that, I think that you need to do a lot of testing. Now I utilize fit clinics with all of our new products because I need to minimize returns and exchanges. We offer free returns and free exchanges, which could be really costly if we had a high percentage of returns and exchange. I utilized fit clinics and I made sure that in addition to product pages on the site, you have to have the complimentary information regarding sizing and all of your policies and everything like that. It has to be really well done and really well thought out, and the customer has to have that information, access to that information before.

If they don’t, it’s the same way with any relationship. When expectations are clarified, the room for error, it’s much smaller than the chance that you’re going to have issues. With your customers, you need to obviously offer them the product, but they also have to have the ability to make sure it’s going to be a right fit for them both, physically fit them and be what they’re looking for. I would recommend utilizing more testing, more feedback, utilizing your personal Facebook audiences. I’m always reaching out to my personal network, saying, “Hey guys, new product in the pipeline. What do you think about this or what do you think about that?” I’ll go on my Facebook and I’ll shoot out a new post about, “Hey guys, I’m working on this. Do you like this? Do you hate it?”

If you were a nine and a half in Nike’s what would you say you wear at Taft? I’m always piggybacking off of whatever audience I can because just offering a product is great, but when you lack that background information that the customer needs, that they aren’t getting because they’re not in the store working with the salesperson, you have to make sure that they have that or it can create massive logistical headaches on the backend with your customer support and your shipping and your production. It can just cause a lot of headaches. The more work upfront will save you a lot of time on the backend.

Felix: You mentioned fit clinics. What are fit clinics?

Kory: The fit clinic is where I have a new style that I’m going to launch and I’ll blast it out to our local network and my personal network and I’ll say, “Hey, Friday at five PM we’re going to have pizza. There’s going to be some music, some drinks. Come on into the office. We’re going to measure your foot. We’re going to try on all these shoes, see what fits you. We’re going to record all this data and we’re going to export out a new size guide.” Just making sure obviously you can measure, feet are so crazy man. Everyone’s foot is so different. Trying to generate this really robust size guide is tough, but via fit clinics we’re able to.

For example, last Friday, we have a couple new styles that we’re launching and we brought 40 people into the office and we had some pizza for them and we had good times, but we were really there to gather data and have everyone try on shoes and say, “Okay, if you wear an 11 1/2 in Nike’s or a 10 in Allen Edmonds, what would you wear in Taft? Let’s measure your foot in centimeters, let’s measure it in inches. Let’s measure it on a Brannock device to make sure that our shoes are fitting and the information we’re sharing with our audience is accurate.” Then also we utilize feedback. We’ve had a few events where I get all of our new samples in from the factory and invite everyone I can and we get hundreds of people through and they vote on which is their favorite. It’s not a perfect sample size, but it’s something so that we can not only launch things that I like but more importantly launch things that most people will like the most from all of our samples.

For every shoe we realize, we probably sample like three or four styles. Utilizing feedback both with fit and with preferences has been really valuable for us, especially when I don’t have a lot of resources. I run the brand on my own and I don’t have a huge team to get this information for me, and so I utilize our existing audience and my personal network as much as I can to get feedback.

Felix: When you’re utilizing the existing audience in preparation to launch the shoes, you mentioned that your product testing by just showing pictures of other shoes and shoes that you found, that you bought. Talk to us a little bit more about this? I guess talk to us about this process of testing using other products?

Kory: I was going to Nordstrom Rack like twice a week probably and hitting up multiple Nordstrom Racks. There’s a few in my area. I’d go and buy a couple unique pairs, take pictures of them and then return them. They knew I was doing this. I told them what I was doing, and they were totally cool with it. Yeah, it’s kind of gritty and nontraditional, but that’s what I was doing and it allowed me to get a wide range of shoes and figure out based on data likes and comments and shares and things like that, get a finger to the wind test on what our audience liked. It turned out that they really liked unique shoes, stuff that people would always ask, “Where did you find those shoes?”

We used it to market our product. We were showing our socks with shoes. We weren’t just showing no-show socks with ugly men’s feet. No one wants to look at that and there’s no reason to follow. If we put together really killer outfits and we put together cool outfit grids and showed really beautiful shoes with our socks, it was good for our socks, it was marketing our product, but it was also allowing me to figure out what did people like. When I put a certain product up and people would freak out over it, I’d make a mental note of all right man, that’s something that I could riff off of and people will really like it. Now I haven’t done that since we launched shoes.

Now I can trust myself and I trust my designs and I know our audience well enough to know things that they’ll like, but early on, I was shopping for shoes at places with relaxed return policies so that I could photograph them, build a social media audience, take the best shoe in men’s fashion pictures I could and meanwhile doing market research with my audience.

Felix: Now you’re on the Instagram, which is at Taft. You now have 320,000 followers on there. What’s been the key to growing Instagram to this size?

Kory: From the very beginning, like I said, the team is one person at this point. For me, it’s always been about taking the best pictures. If you put in the effort to take great pictures, you will get the return on it. That means I spent hours taking really unique pictures. I have a large closet of clothes and I take pictures and try and get creative, and I have a really nice camera and I’ve invested money into this because from the very beginning when you take beautiful pictures and you share beautiful content, it gets shared for free. What’s more valuable to an entrepreneur than free marketing?

On Instagram, if you take a beautiful picture, it’s going to get shared. Early on, our pictures would get picked up by a bigger account. I remember specifically the first time we got picked up by this pretty big fashion blogger. He shared one of our photos. I remember I was on a plane and I landed and I had a bunch of new followers. I was like, “Where is this?” I realized how proud I was and how grateful I was for that share. I also realized, man, if I keep taking the pictures that I am and if I really put my resources and time into this, it’s going to get shared for free and we’re going to grow. That’s always been my philosophy and I take my time and I put resources and money behind it because great pictures on photo sharing services like platforms like Facebook and Instagram and Pinterest, great pictures get shared organically and that’s huge for your wallet. I don’t have to pay for that.

The secret for me has always been just taking and producing and generating the best content I can, and not only taking the time but also putting money and resources into that. That means having a nice camera and nice lenses and giving products away to models sometimes. I’m in most of the pictures, but at times I do offer shoes to people if they’ll be models. That’s been really important. I personally do not believe in services like Instagress and those kind of. I really despise them honestly I think that they’re a waste of time and a waste of money because consumers are so smart. They can see through this fake activity on an Instagram account when the same account is commenting the same comment on every account saying, “Whoa, we love this. We love this, heart eyes. We love this, heart eyes.”

When some huge company is liking some individual’s picture that has nothing to do with their product, it’s like, “Duh.” People can see through it. With how smart consumers and with how smart the general population is, I just think what is the point of having a follower if they’re not going to be a buyer? Obviously I have tons of followers that will probably never buy a product from me. Early on, don’t waste your time getting followers if they’re not going to be advocates and buyers. They’re just dead weight. The more followers I have that aren’t interested in the purchasing means the more difficult it is for me to find and target and educate my audience who actually does care. It’s kind of like white noise getting in the way between me and my customers.

For me, it’s all about content and not about some secret service that you pay $50 a month and we’ll do all this activity and we’ll get you followers. It’s like they’re not meaningful followers. They’re just fluff to beef up your numbers, but who cares? If you create great content, and of course people would say, “Oh that’s easy for you to say. You have 300,000 followers.” That’s true, but early on I didn’t. From the beginning I built a platform and a foundation of great content and engaging with our audience and not artificially being active on Instagram but actually truly being active on Instagram and putting resources behind it.

Felix: That’s a great point, having these large followings that are growing in automated ways or spammy ways is harmful. It can be harmful too. It’s not just you have these great numbers and they’re not going to harm you, but like you’re saying, you’re literally bringing on a bunch of dead weight, a bunch of white noise and now you have to put more effort into sifting through, so you’re essentially adding more work.

Kory: Yeah, especially with the new Instagram algorithm. When Facebook bought Instagram, we kind of all knew where Instagram was going. Now with the algorithm and the limited display, it’s only displaying to about 20% to 30% of your audience now. Obviously it’s set up to target your most active and most loyal followers, but it still means that there’s probably 200,000 people that will never see my product and never see my advertisements and never see my posts because they’re that white noise. Whereas if I had a more targeted and got rid of … it’s just like an email subscriber list. Let’s get rid of the subscribers that are inactive. Let’s cut them off and get more honed in on whose actually reading these emails. It’s the same with Instagram.

I wish that if I could, I would say, “Hey Instagram, anyone that hasn’t seen one of our posts in the last month, please remove them from my followers list to make it more lean, more targeted.” It’s obviously nice for brand legitimacy and validity and confidence in the consumer to have a lot of followers, but it just gets in the way of targeting and the ability to target who you really want to be targeting because it’s all these people that follow me for my pictures and not for my product necessarily.

Felix: When you were creating this content early on, for anyone out there that doesn’t feel particularly creative, what kind of conscious creative decisions or what kind of creative tips do you have to offer when taking these kind of photos that you’ve had success with on your Instagram?

Kory: I am not a photographer. Neither is my wife. When we started this, we knew nothing about taking pictures, but early on I was eventually hired by big shoe companies to take pictures for them. This was before I launched our shoe, before I launched Taft shoe line. You don’t have to be a good photographer to take some of the best pictures on Instagram. That’s why professional photographers are hurting right now because with the tools of Instagram and VSCO Cam and with how easy it is to shoot great pictures now, you don’t have to be a photographer to be a photographer on social media. Some of my tips would be to get a decent camera. You don’t need an amazing camera.

I shoot on a Cannon 5D Mark II, which is a very expensive camera, but I’ve slowly upgraded. I used to shoot on just an iPhone, and then I shot on a Cannon Rebel and I’ve slowly upgraded. Some tips would just be get a decent camera. I would also say a lot of people like the look of a 50 millimeter lens. You can get a 50 millimeter lens 1.8 for like $100 and it will give you that really professional look. Some people struggle to articulate that look that they’re going for, but I’m guessing a lot of times it is the 50 millimeter look of that shadow or depth of field. Get a decent camera. Posting often. Post two or three times a day, even if it’s difficult. Repost good pictures that you’ve been tagged in that are relevant to your product.

I utilize VSCO Cam. I was shooting for big shoe companies and I was editing the photos just on my phone. It’s amazing what we can do with an iPhone and a couple apps. Utilize things like VSCO Cam and Photoshop Express apps to be able to edit on your phone and turn a mediocre picture into something that’s really beautiful online.

Felix: You mentioned a couple times that you run the company completely yourself. Can you give us an idea of how large or successful the business is today?

Kory: We are certainly on our way, we’re doing millions of dollars of sales with tens of thousands of orders and we’re growing very quickly and very rapidly and we’re just really starting to advertise. Last year our marketing budget was pretty much zero because we were always sold out, but this year we’re starting to really hone in on some good ROI channels for us in terms of marketing. This year we will do many millions of dollars, which is awesome for a company of our size and of our age. We’re really getting there, and it’s really exciting.

Felix: Awesome. TaftClothing.com, T-A-F-T-C-L-O-T-H-I-N-G dot com is the website. Where do you want to be this time next year?

Kory: This time next year I want to have some employees. It’s long overdue, but I’m really taking my time. I’ve been recruiting for like six months now, but I’m really taking my time and I’d rather stunt the growth of the business than to make a bad hire. I’m really taking my time and finding the right people to bring onboard because at this point, a bad hire could really negatively affect the culture of the business and that’s what’s most important to me. I’d rather take it slow and grow a little more slowly and hire really well than just rush into some quick hires and end up regretting it later. At this point next year, I hope to hire. I hope to be in maybe a couple more categories, not just shoes but maybe something else. I hope to keep loving what I do.

Right now I love what I do, but there is also a lot of things that I don’t like about Taft. Obviously there’s things about every job people don’t like. I hope to get some of those things on my plate so that I can focus on what I love to do and what makes me happy and what I do well. For me, Taft is working because I’m happy doing it, and that’s really important to me. How I feel about the brand, how I feel about doing this ever day for my family, it’s obviously really close to my heart and I hope to continue developing a deeper love for my customers and a deeper love for my products over the next year.

Felix: Awesome. Hopefully some ambitious listeners will reach out and apply to work with you. Thank you so much again for your time Kory.

Kory: Thanks Felix. I appreciate it.

Felix: Here’s a sneak peek of what’s in store for the next Shopify Masters episode.

Speaker 3: You can really represent your brand across all facets from typography to all the imagery. I think always do a Shopify store in tandem with an NC Store.

Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the eCommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit Shopify.com/Masters to claim your extended 30 day free trial.

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About the Author

Felix Thea is the host of the Shopify Masters podcast, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs, and founder of TrafficAndSales.com where you can get actionable tips to grow your store’s traffic and sales.

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