PORTLAND, Ore. — They’re not Nike, Adidas, Columbia or Keen, footwear and sports apparel behemoths based in this area with instant name recognition.
Bogs, Skora and On hope to reach that level.
They’re the self-proclaimed little guys, smaller companies in the same industry, content with being in the conversation, happy to share the same territory and admittedly drafting behind the giants in terms of creativity and connections.
The giants have a huge headstart. Estimated sales this year in he USA for Nike is $10.4 billion and $4.7 billion for Adidas; worldwide, $25.3 billion for Nike, $20 billion for Adidas. Nike employs more than 44,000 worldwide, and Adidas more than 46,000.
“To start out in the Silicon Valley of the sports shoe industry is not a bad place to be,” said David Allemann, co-founder of On, which was originally based in Switzerland.
Footwear, as SportsOne Source analyst Matt Powell told USA TODAY Sports, is “a very difficult market to break into. Initial production costs are very high. The market demands continual updating. This is why you see so few new shoe brands succeed.”
But David Sypniewski, founder and CEO of Skora, sees an upside for these smaller companies: “The talent pool is here, no question. … When I knew early on that I was going to launch Skora, saying the next new running shoe was launched in Jacksonville, Fla., wouldn’t have had the same ring to it.”
So, no, their initial offerings might not have been forged from a waffle iron and sold out of the back of a VW van, as in Nike’s history, but their stories also have unique origins.
Arriving at Bogs’ headquarters in southeast Portland, a mature and sizable dog greets a visitor at the door with an eager and loud bark. It’s momentarily unsettling, but the dog quickly retreats, racing down the hall and joining another dog.
Employees are encouraged to bring their pets to work, any day, any time. Combs didn’t want it any other way. Pets are part of the family, and he’s surrounded by his when he arrives at work — his two sons are the vice presidents of sales and his wife also was employed there until her recent retirement.
It’s quirky, and it might be off-putting for some, but then again, that’s Portland.
“Everything is relaxed,” said Combs, whose manufacturing background includes initially tending to the needs of farming and agricultural types.
Combs believes Bogs, with its extensive line of waterproof and weather-resistant products, is uniquely suited for the Northwest.
The thing about Portland is, we’re in the outdoor business, but we’re in the industrial boot business, the snow boot business — and we have all of that weather here,” Combs said. “We can go out to one of the dairies we’re working with or be at Mt. Hood in an hour.
Combs touts Bogs’ Neo-Tech, a four-way stretch material that is waterproof and insulated, and Everydry, a lightweight fabric that absorbs and evaporates sweat.
“It works,” Combs said. “Plus, we control the moisture — our boots don’t breathe.”
Combs, who sold Bogs to the Weyco Company in March 2011 but remains president, transforms into a science teacher in describing how DuraFresh works. When the body sweats, the partially decomposed odor-causing bacteria yields a smell. That’s what happens in shoes and boots. With Dura-Fresh, the sweat is treated as a food source, broken down into carbon dioxide and water, eliminating anything to feed on for the odor-causing bacteria.
Once upon a time, boots were utilitarian. Now, appearance, especially for women, must be stylish. Even baby shoes must have some appeal.
“It’s all about us taking the same technical functional features and spreading it out over more categories,” Combs said. “That’s what has helped us grow. … Waterproof, warm and machine-washable.”
All three are vital in the Northwest, where Bogs seems to be a perfect fit.
“Nike, Adidas, Columbia, Keen, all of those vendors want to be here, catering to those people,” Combs said. “It’s great for little people like us to have that around. If we need a certain type of leather, we can call a guy up and he can come over in the afternoon — it’s a huge advantage.
“The whole atmosphere here — it’s very creative, so you know what it creates? Competition. We’re all buddies, buddies with the folks at Columbia and Keen, and we all respect each other. But the bottom line is we want to win.”
Sypniewski thought he would have to give up running after being unable to shake a nagging IT band injury. Orthotics didn’t work, and doctors were suggesting surgery. That wasn’t appealing, so Sypniewski went online to investigate running form.
That was about a dozen years ago. It was also the first time Sypniewski ran barefoot. Days earlier, he couldn’t run 10 minutes. But barefoot, he managed a pain-free 30 minutes. He was hooked.
Still, he set out to design a better solution. He had moved from Calgary to Florida, where the searing heat was a problem — his feet would need some protection. Initially, he took regular socks and poured latex rubber into the sole, creating a thin membrane. He thought maybe, just maybe, he would be able to sell enough online to other frustrated runners to make a few bucks.
But then Nike introduced Free — “specifically designed to let your feet move more naturally and freely than traditional athletic shoes,” the company states — and Vibram launched FiveFingers, billing its product as “barefoot shoes.”
The minimalist movement was afoot.
As more products were introduced, Sypniewski decided to act. It was 2007 and he had little money. Over the next four years, he moved across the country, cobbled together his team, located a factory in China and raised his first million dollars of working capital. The official launch of Skora was in 2012, men’s only, but a women’s line followed six months later. Skora is in Nordstrom’s, and Amazon is moving product, too.
All the while, Sypniewski continued to mine his own pain for guidance. Was the purpose of footwear to be a tool? And if so, how should it be used and what responsibility belonged to the manufacturer? Should there be education?
“The whole goal is to bring an honest approach to design and really provide what a runner needs and nothing more,” he said. “We took everything out of the shoe, all of the BS stuff. You are the technology. … We want people to be healthy for life, to love their run. We don’t want people to blow out their knees by 45.
“You can run until you’re almost dead, but you have to do it in a smart, training way, with the right training tools that allow your body to give you that information. If your calves are sore, don’t push through it. Go home. Relax — you’re done for the day. It’s a return to a balanced approach, and our shoes take that approach.”
Sypniewski explains that his shoes have minimal cushioning, not unlike those crude socks he constructed almost a decade earlier. The difference now? Quality — fine goat leather provides elegance and strength.
The response has been positive. Sypniewski said Skora has distribution in 10 countries and is adding every quarter.
But dedicated runners remain the core customers, and as a result, the most support — and the focus — remains in Portland.
“People here love cool gear,” Sypniewski said. “They love their bicycles, they love their shoes. … It all stems from crafting something better. Maybe it’s the food trucks, or the craft beers, but there’s this common thread — people here appreciate something that is (custom-made).
“One of the most challenging parts of the world for us to get momentum is California. Why? You’d think it’d be progressive and liberal. But they’re not early adopters — they’ll look at what’s happening or what’s cool in New York and copy that style.
“Here? People say, ‘Oh, you’re a new running shoe company?’ Local or not, they love that,” Sypniewski said. “But they’re like, ‘It’s different, and I will give you the opportunity to try it.’ “