This is our first store owner interview and we’re thrilled to have Steven Sashen on. Steven is the founder and CEO of Xero Shoes – makers of barefoot running footwear where you can purchase pre-made sandals or kits to make your own sandals. Steven is also a big proponent of the barefoot running movement, is a competitive sprinter, and has refused an offer from Kevin O’Leary on ABC’s Shark Tank.

Below is the summary of the discussion.

Did I miss anything in terms of what you do?

In terms of Xero Shoes, people use our products for much more than running. Also, starting in or around October 2016, we will have more than just sandals as we’re launching our line of shoes. Instead of focusing on barefoot, the way I like to describe what we do is that we are to footwear what natural and organic are to food. So we’re about letting your feet bend, flex, move, and function naturally.

Where did the idea come from for your products? What was the beginning like?

The idea came from watching people running in slow motion to see what they really did or didn’t need in terms of support. We started the company in November 2009. Prior to that, I had been making sandals just as a hobby. Then Michael Sandler, who was writing a book about barefoot running, said that if I had a website then he’ll put me in his book.

So I rushed home, pitched the idea to my wife – who told me it’s a really stupid idea, and so after she went to bed around 9pm, I had the website up by around 10pm. The way I convinced her the next day was by saying that this can be an SEO experiment as I was confident I could own the keyword space and we’ll see what it does – maybe it’ll be a car payment. Two months later, it was a full-time job.

Another thing was that at the time, there was one other guy doing this, but he wasn’t treating it like a proper business. If you ordered from him, it would take three weeks to get something delivered, and I didn’t like the materials he was using and that he wasn’t treating it as a business. So I had my own take on the idea.

One of the first things I did was make videos and PDFs about how to make sandals and just put those out there. Then it was just a matter of selling the pieces and kits to make your own sandals.

I built the website on WordPress. The first eCommerce platform I used was Ecwid because it was one of the quickest ways to start selling at that time. After that, I moved over to Interspire, the self-hosted version of BigCommerce, because I wanted more control over the UI and experience.

How did you end up picking WooCommerce?

Eventually, I needed a solution that did inventory management for product bundles really well because we had individual pieces and also kitted products. WooCommerce had the Product Bundles extension (built by Manos Psychogyiopoulos), and the platform was free and open-source, so that made me shift over in late 2012.

What were some marketing tactics that you used to build traction?

I found the places where people were talking about the things that I was doing, and just got in on the conversations. I started doing some SEO by creating some content, putting videos on YouTube, and set up a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and everything-else account.

Videos are a very important part of what we’re doing. For example, on the footer of every page on our site are videos featuring me and my wife explaining what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and why you should be part of it. Those videos get a lot of views. Part of the reason for those videos is to give people information, but a big part is also to let people relate to us instead of dealing with a faceless company. We’re real people and we relate to other real people.

One of the videos I wish people watched is our foot size measurement video that’s featured on each product page. We explain how to get the correct-sized footwear from our site in that video, and I’m surprised how many people don’t want to watch it because they think they already know their size. If they say they’re size 9, chances are that they have some 9.5s and some 8.5s in their collection as well. So it’s extremely important to measure your size before purchasing.

Let’s talk about Shark Tank. How did you get to be on the show?

Like many small business whose friends tell them they should be on Shark Tank, our friends said that we should be on Shark Tank. So we started watching the show and said we should be on Shark Tank. What I found out was that typically when they’re airing the episodes, they’re not usually casting. So when the casting opened, I applied with an email and a video with me and my wife.

Somebody called back and asked us to fill out an application and submit another video. Then we got a contract which means that we may be called in to shoot on the show. And even then, they only air about 70% of those filmed. So you never really know for certain if you’re going to be aired or when you’re going to be aired. They did select our segment to air on Shark Tank and we were in Ecuador at the time. So I was doing PR calls from Ecuador with a crappy internet connection.

What was something that surprised you on the show?

Here’s a Shark Tank secret, when you walk on to the stage and hit your mark where you stand, they tell you to just stand there. What they try to do is get you anxious and see how you react in that situation. It didn’t work on us as I was prepared for it and my wife and I just kept smiling.

One of the surprising things was that it’s not the same kind of conversational thing that you see on TV. Everyone is talking all the time and you’re just trying to answer everyone’s questions without having people feel disrespected.

If you could change something about your Shark Tank pitch, what would it be?

I would wait for two years before going on the show. We could have maximized the value of the show if we were further along in our business.

Can you talk about some numbers around your business?

We had 220,000 concurrent sessions on our website when we were airing. When we aired, we were on a run rate of $1 million revenue for the year. We’re around six times bigger than what we were on the show.

Back to WordPress and WooCommerce, what’s your most useful plugin?

I think any of the caching plugins. Having a very aggressive caching plans is a good idea. Another thing is any of the optimization plugins to speed things up.

What’s a WooCommerce plugin you wish you had?

We have a relatively shallow product line. What I’d like to have is when we do free shipping over X amount, customers to be able to easily add a product to their order within the checkout process, and ideally with products that are relevant to them and which are discounted. So you create a number of layers of value for people to make that decision to purchase.

The other part would be, one-click post-sale upsell. So after they’ve placed the order, the platform holds the order information before processing so that customers can add something to the same order.

What’s your advice for people starting a business or an eCommerce business?

My advice would be to, as a start, list your product on Amazon and see if you can make a sale. I want someone that you don’t know reach into their wallet, give you money, and leave you a good review. You have to face the facts that if it doesn’t sell, then perhaps it’s not a good idea.

If it doesn’t sell on its own merits, then you’ll be putting way too much effort into trying to get it to sell.

Steven Sashen, what’s your advice for people pitching their business for an investment?

  • Well, first, there are going to be investors who pretend they’re way smarter than they are. You want someone who is on the same page as you, and someone you can live with.
  • Equity is valuable, it’s a real thing, so treat that seriously. You don’t want to give away part of your company to someone who doesn’t do anything for you or hold up their side of the bargain.
  • Look into equity crowd-funding after you have a lot of fans.
  • Biggest thing is that you have to figure out what the investor is interested in and pitch that. It may not necessarily your product. It may be a business model, or plan, or the entrepreneur values, etc.
  • Deals generally take way longer than you think. So if you’re in a jam, keep that in mind knowing that you probably will stay in a jam for some time.

What’s next for Xero Shoes? Where do you want to take the business?

The footwear for the last 45 years has been sold based on lies and propaganda. Every bit of research shows that shoes are no better or worse than being barefoot. In fact, shoes limit your foot’s ability to bend and flex by putting “foot casts” on them. Research shoes that when you have padding in your shoes, you end up stepping in ways that negatively affects your joints.

Our goal is to make footwear that’s demonstrably awesome and compete against these giant companies whose whole business is built around selling shoes that people don’t necessarily need.

I don’t like it when people get lied to or taken advantage of. I like having the truth on my side and I like that fight. I like getting emails everyday from people saying that our products have changed their life, so I want to continue doing more of that.

My goal is to have enough cash to do the things we need to do to let people feel the freedom, feel the fun, and feel the world.

What did you think of the interview? Were there questions you wanted to ask that weren’t in the interview? Tell us and ask further questions in the comments below.

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Posted by Jai Sangha

Jai is a regular contributor to Sell with WP, and helps merchants improve their WordPress eCommerce businesses with plugin reviews, marketing or customer service tips, and tutorials.