A hot new teen fad makes athletic footwear company Soap a bubbling success.
According to Chris Morris, few humans can resist the temptation to slide. It’s as simple as a patch of ice on a winter day, or sliding into home plate. “Humans love to slide,” says Morris, president and CEO of Torrance, Calif.-based Soap, a Generation “XY” footwear manufacturer that allows its customers to do just that. “Our shoes are intended to be nothing more than what they are: fun footwear.”
The first of their kind, and the only such product currently on the market, Soap shoes not only perform as stylish and comfortable footwear, but they also convey upon the wearer the gift of invincibility, according to Morris, who previously spent 16 years working for Rollerblade, which introduced inline skates to Southern California. One day, feeling like he had already “been there and done that,” Morris started looking for his next challenge — and found it in a pair of shoes.
Tired of the anger and turf wars endemic in the extreme sports industry, Morris wondered how much fun was being sacrificed as subcultures such as skateboarding, inline skating and snowboarding repositioned themselves as increasingly high-stakes competitive sports. He also was beginning to feel that a career that used to be a “blast,” had become more of a job. So he created a homespun prototype of the Soap shoe out of a pair of Nikes, jumped on a rail, grinded (teen lingo for sliding or creating friction on inanimate objects), landed on his rear-end, picked up a phone, and called his patent attorney. Soon he had a prototype, a preliminary business plan, a video and an investor.
Termed the “bastard stepchild of skateboards, inline skates and BMX bikes,” and with names like “Chernobyl,” “Trailmix” and “Moss,” the shoes come in a variety of colors and styles that are fitted with a concave plastic frame, located under the arch of the foot, and a grind plate fastened by screws to the frame.
From the top, Soaps look like ordinary sneakers. The concave plate fits into the middle of the sole, replicating the shape of the foot’s arch, and can be removed with the help of a small screwdriver that comes with each pair. The plate allows wearers to slide along surfaces that few over the age of 20 would venture upon. Soap’s styles range in price from $69 to $110.
“Soap shoes are not just good-looking, well-constructed and competitively-priced,” says Morris. “They also allow users to slide down handrails, steps, benches, curbs and other inanimate objects in their paths. Skidmarks have never been so attractive.”
The concave shape of the plate helps provide a “talon-like” grip on a rail that adventurous soap-wearers usually mount with their feet near each other, then they slow their descent by widening their stance. After the plates get worn down, they can be replaced with new ones, at $15 a pair. The plates sit high enough in the sneaker that they don’t make noise while walking, and the shoes even come with a warning sticker that says: Users run “the risk of serious bodily harm, including head injury, spinal injury or death.” According to Morris, Soap is released from responsibility as soon as the sticker is removed from the plastic plate, and the warning hasn’t deterred any of the rebellious Generation XY grinders yet. So far, the sport hasn’t proven fatal, though is has produced sprains, broken ankles and other injuries. On the contrary, the shoes have become one of the fastest-selling new products for urban teens.
Founded in early 1997, Soap shipped its first product on October 15 of the same year. Somewhere in between the two milestones, Morris realized Soap could manufacture shoes in time to get them into stores for the holidays, but he didn’t have a single sales rep, any collateral material or even any samples. “I’m a wanna-be Imelda Marcos, so I knew a lot about shoes,” he explains. “I knew, for instance, that the arch was a dead zone. All you need there is support, so there was no reason why my concept wouldn’t work.”
Morris, an unfinished undergraduate quickly a Harvard M.B.A. grad and the former vice president of Vans, Jerry Gross, who currently serves as Soap’s COO, to round out his senior management team. Gross, sufficiently intrigued by the “wackiness” of the idea, agreed to help Morris develop an extensive business plan. At the time, Gross thought he’d be spending a few days making a few thousand dollars and having a few laughs.
“When Chris starting talking about shoes you could grind on, I kept wondering what he was talking about,” recalls Gross. “I didn’t grow up on the beach, and I didn’t have a clue as to what grinding was.” That changed, however, as soon as Morris showed him a video of the Soap shoes in action. “I got it right away,” Gross continues. Immediately sensing where the idea could go, he signed up on the spot as the company’s COO.
With the aid of Gross and a computer program called "Business Plan Pro," Morris put together a business plan that answered all of the strategic and financial questions involved with a start-up company. “I was able to approach my potential investor with a buttoned-down business plan and more importantly, I let the video do the talking,” Morris recalls. “I hadn’t even pitched the idea yet, and within two minutes of starting the video he was saying ‘Oui.’”
Soap takes the concept of reflecting its target audience’s culture to the next level, says Gross. “Professional bankers and lawyers come into the office and look jealously at us in our shorts and T-shirts,” he explains. “But their attitude changes immediately when they see that we are deadly serious about our business and our objectives. They immediately realize that we value substance far more than style.” And that, he says, exemplifies the shift to a new business paradigm that has occurred in the last decade.
“Within two-and-a-half months, we had hired and trained a small but committed sales force and had placed an astounding 90 percent of our initial shipment in key specialty shops across the country,” says 35-year-old Morris, who also founded the Aggressive Skate Association (ASA), the governing body in charge of inline skating and aggressive competition productions for MTV and ESPN. “I’d never seen so many units go out with no advertising or press. I had to bang on doors for several years before getting a similar response to Rollerblade’s line, so this launch validated our theory that word of mouth and what we refer to as ‘sight of mouth’ fuels sales.” And Morris isn’t exaggerating. The company didn’t advertise at all during its first three months in existence, nor did the team actively promote the product, yet the sell-through was spectacular. Almost every store sold from 65 to 100 percent of their orders within weeks, then nearly all reordered.
Since its inception in 1997, the grinding fad has been picking up steam. Soap sold about 200,000 pairs of its shoes in 1998, pulling in an impressive $7 million in 1998. The company, which now employs 17 persons and has manufacturing operations based overseas, plans to capitalize on its momentum by expanding its distribution network and working on a customized distribution strategy.
Morris expected the company's retail distribution to double from 1,000 stores to 2000 stores in 1999. Numerous national retail chains have already requested orders for Soaps, but Morris wants to limit distribution to small specialty stores like Pacific Sunwear, Blades and Gadzooks, thus attracting more hardcore extreme-sports fanatics. “It may be a skate, shoe, apparel or even an Army-Navy store,” says Morris. “It doesn’t matter what kind of specialty outlet it is, so long as the store is the coolest one in the town — the one the kids trust."
On the exclusive list of Soap’s distribution outlets is Memphis, Tenn.-based Journeys. “Soap’s product is innovative and the freshest thing that’s happened in the alternative category in a long time,” says Pete Hicks, athletic buyer for the mall-based chain retailer that sells shoes to Generation XY consumers. “Customer response to their products has been unbelievable.”
Though Soap’s customized distribution strategy takes more time and research than mass-retail distribution would, Morris says he wants his company to be marketed with credibility and, more importantly, with the same kind of passion that his team brings to the shoe. Given the nature of Soap, that shouldn’t be too difficult. “People have to wear shoes,” says Morris. “And like Imelda, I knew that first and foremost we had to make a good shoe at a competitive price. So, we designed the shoe with an eye on its look and comfort. The grind factor was third on the list. We want people to say, ‘Hey, they grind,’ as if it were an afterthought or a bonus.
“The footwear business is really a fashion business, so we’re also working on the styles and improving the technology to give a better, smoother slide,” says Morris. The company’s next product will be a practice rail: a 9-foot pipe suspended at a slight angle that serves as a safe place to slide and grind. “Getting from A to B used to be pedestrian — boring and predictable,” says Morris, whose company has been featured on CNBC, FOX News, CNN and in the Wall Street Journal. “But Soap, the shoe with a bonus, releases wearers from the bounds of linear transportation.”
Of course, it is tough to dominate a hot, profitable fad like grinding for long, and bigger competitors are already throwing their hats into the ring, including Morris’ former employer, Rollerblade. A unit of Italy’s Benetton SpA, Rollerblade is shipping its RB Grind — the company’s first shoe of any kind — in time to vie for shelf space this holiday season at national retail chains, including Sports Authority and Champs Sports. At the same time, the Salomon unit of Germany’s Adidas AG also has a grinding shoe in the works.
But Morris isn’t worried. Since the day he made his first prototype of the Soap shoe, he’s applied for patents on 23 components of his invention, and says that he has a “great patent attorney.” At present, Soap is in negotiations with a sizable company that wants to license the company's grind shoe technology.
Because Soap's shoes were developed by proven talents from the skate and footwear industries, the company has been able to build credibility within its skeptical young target market, who according to Morris, are all experts in product research. One kid does something in a parking lot or schoolyard, he says, and suddenly everyone knows about it. The older markets may take a bit more time, he admits, but they also pick up on “street radar.”
Morris, who's 35, also feels his own youthful approach has given him an edge with the market. “I still ski, snowboard and inline skate,” he comments. “Because we grew up with MTV, we have a younger attitude than people our age did 10 or 20 years ago. We’re less worried about trying things that might make us seem childish, and more willing to experiment with new ways of moving.”
With that knowledge in his pocket, a little seed money and almost no advertising budget, Morris’ initial marketing efforts included assembling a small band of a dozen teenage daredevils who agreed to wear the shoes and grind in public from time to time. With the skateboarders being the “opinion leaders” within the alternative-sports category, Morris says his company’s real marketing challenge lies in getting that group into Soap’s corner. “They yell the loudest when they don’t like something,” says Morris, who advertises to not only his direct consumers, but also to the older “opinion leaders,” like magazine art directors. “We took out ads that almost didn’t play up the utility nature of the product, but played up more of the attitude of the company: fun, irreverent and silly. It’s very challenging to market to the XY Generation because they’re very cynical and advertising-savvy. We do it by advertising silliness and irreverence.”
Founders: Chris Morris
Industry: Sliding athletic footwear
Location: Torrance, Calif.
Revenues: $7 million
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