I'm writing this letter for two reasons in particular. One, I can't continue to try and answer (in a timely manner) email after email from customers looking for individual status updates, 'cause... well... quite frankly, it's a losing battle. I swear, for every email I respond to (or don't) I'm getting two or three in return, and the more time I devote to emailing, the less time I can spend tending to other aspects of running a small start-up such as shipping/ receiving, sourcing, keeping the books (keeping the tax man happy), quality control, paying bills (keeping the lights on)... opening letters.. answering the phone... not to mention... planning for the future. The more time I spend answering emails, the slower our turnaround times are... it's an unfortunate fact. As a team of two, with all hands-on-deck at all times, we are forever picking battles. I'm sorry to say time spent somewhere is a decision to not spend it elsewhere.
Secondly, I'd like to try and explain why we've stopped taking custom orders. To everyone who thinks we're "taking a break", "taking a little time for ourselves", or "slowing down"... that's not what this is. Those who know us well, know (I'm sure frustratingly) there is no "off-the-clock" right now.
So hopefully this helps shed a little light on what this looks like from the inside out. It's time to get real...
It all started back in the fall of 2013 when we launched our Kickstarter campaign.
At the time, we were based (living/ working) in a weirdo mall in Chinatown, recent transplants from a garage based studio in beautiful Whistler, B.C. We were making a single pair of shoes/ day, selling far less than that on Etsy.com, and we were... getting by (just). You can read all about why we launched our campaign by following the link above, but the long and the short of it was, we wanted to start making our own custom rubber soles in-house. We loosely thought that it'd take us $10K to make it happen... we made a video... told our story... and on September 9th, 2013 pressed the big red "launch" button.
We reached our goal in 20 hours.
By the campaign's end (30 days later) we'd raised almost 6 times that, and for a couple of days... we were on top of the world.
But here's the thing. We'd only figured out the first $10K. The rest was entirely theoretical. Before launch, we had one single industrial sewing machine and four hands. As we started making more and more money, all of a sudden we could afford to equip ourselves with additional machinery - a shoe soling machine, another two industrial sewing machines, a sole press... leather skiver... hydraulic clicker (for cutting patterns)... and rivet setter. Our entire wishlist (at that time) of leather craft/ shoe making machinery was a reality... pretty much overnight. So when we needed to start rolling out additional rewards for additional Kickstarter supporters we began forecasting ship dates based on what we thought was our new reality... how quickly we thought we could ship based on our new theoretical production capacity. If we were making a pair of shoes per day before Kickstarter, then surely we could now make... I dunno... two pairs a day? And with that one quick and uncalculated assumption, we were in deep... and didn't even know it yet.
Campaign ended October 9th. We (thought we) were going to make & ship 2 pairs a day... every day... as of November 1... 'till every last pair (200+) had left the building.
Everything took longer then planned. We didn't receive our Kickstarter money 'till closer to the end of October, Anthony (our sole making guru) couldn't make it out to Vancouver from Minneapolis 'till closer to mid-November. Machines took longer to source, and of course none of them were "plug-and-play" (surprise surprise). These were badass vintage shoe making machines... and we were learning as we went. Long story short, we didn't get pair one out 'till December 1st, a full month and 60 pairs behind schedule, and here's the kicker... we actually got slower before we got faster. I'd say we were making/ shipping closer to 20 pairs a month (falling an additional 40 pairs behind schedule each month) from December through February 2014. And the scary thing is... we were so in-it, we didn't even realize it 'til we started getting emails from supporters asking us where the heck their shoes were. It was... chaos.
Now, I know $60K sounds like a lot of money... or it did to us at the time... but the reality is when you're using that money as seed financing to "kickstart" a brand, it goes so... damn... fast. After Kickstarter's take (10%), sole-making know-how and start-up rubber (20%), machinery (35%), materials (25%), branding/ packaging (5%), and a few month's rent... it was all gone. Which would have been fine if we'd shipped every pair on time, as promised. But here we were at the end of February (our last KS pair was supposed to ship in January) with only 60 of 200 pairs shipped and rent coming due. We needed to sell more shoes to keep the lights on. So we did.
What's happened since is a little bit of a blur, but we've been running around like chickens with our heads cut-off for the better part of a year and a half trying to make/ ship as many pairs of custom kicks as we physically can, as quickly as we can. We're learning this whole thing as we go, so the turnaround time we committed to for any specific pair of kicks from February 2014 onward, was our best guess at that point in time. Processes continue to evolve, quality continues to improve as we continue to learn new tricks of the trade (which almost certainly leads to more time 'vested, not less), machines unexpectedly break down, backs get thrown out... so days get lost (not for lack of trying), and we continue to fall behind.
Fast forward to January 2015. Everything came to a head. We'd been going so hard for so long, we'd never taken the time necessary to figure out the fine details. It's so crazy to think we've made as many custom pairs of kicks as we have without answering simple "business 101" questions such as... did the price points make sense? How much time were we investing into each and every pair of custom kicks? What were our true costs of materials - including making our own rubber soles in-house? Was this sustainable? How is it possible we're backlogged 7 or 8 months, yet we're not going to make rent this month? How did this happen?...
We jumped off the hamster wheel and officially stopped taking orders February 1.
I couldn't begin to get my head wrapped around what we were looking at here, until I ceased having the endless custom shoe conversations (easily justified by needing to pay rent) that were taking-up the lion's share of my time. Did you know some email planning sessions with prospective customers have stretched out as long as 50 back and forth messages before we'd nailed down a design? And some of those conversations didn't even translate into sales? Did you know on January 31st alone, over 150 people reached out to discuss custom kicks? Demand completely crushed supply, yet there was no planning going on... just doing.
Fast forward to today. Now having a little time to devote to housecleaning (sorry if you're waiting on an email from me, I've had my head in spreadsheets for the last little while), I can give you a better snapshot of our current reality. We're still to this day only making 20 - 25 pairs a month. Our price points... way too low, we're maybe breaking even if everything goes according to plan (nothing ever goes according to plan). Materials, way too fine & pricey for the price points. We've got a lot of custom kicks on our plates, and... we will not be taking on anymore for the foreseeable future.
Last week we started introducing some new "production friendly" products (lil' hightop boat shoes for example) to hopefully take a little pressure off the passion project. But priority one is, like always, 'crafting and shipping every single pair of custom kicks, as committed, as quickly as is physically possible. I know we're running behind schedule, but we are getting there, and can't thank you all enough for your continued support and patience in this.
This wasn't the plan. But we're here now, so all we can do is simply keep-on-keepin'-on making and shipping killer custom kicks until every last pair has left the building... assuming you're willing to hang-in here with us.
And next time... I can assure you, there will be a plan. I just can't tell you exactly what that looks like right now.
On that note, thanks to everyone who's played a part in us arriving at this place. I know it may seem pretty bleak right now, but believe me, this is nothing. Despite the email backlog, and the production schedule spreadsheet that goes on for days, we couldn't be happier with our day-to-day (this is a dream come true), and we hope that speaks in the products we make. The fact we can't seem to ramp up production is in part due to the fact we refuse to cut corners. Sorry, can't do it. Sure, we've got a mountain to climb, but we've been around long enough to know... it's only temporary. Over the coming months, in addition to continuing to ship custom kicks (and lil' kicks), we'll be devoting some much needed time to, for the first time ever... planning for the future.
Can't wait to tell you all about it.