This is the latest in our “Masters of Manufacturing” series, presented in partnership with The Indiana Economic Development Corporation. Each month we share insights and ideas from innovative, growth-minded manufacturing CEOs from across the nation as they navigate this tricky time in history.
Justin Kittredge has leveraged customized manufacturing to create a niche in the footwear business between the global giants of the athletic-shoe trade and startups that can ignite fads and ride them for years. His Boston-based company, ISlides, takes Vietnamese-made slide sandals, quickly custom-prints them with logos and other images in the United States, and sells them online to shoppers eager to wear homage on their feet to a celebrity, a team, a sports championship or other things – and ships them within 10 days of the order.
“There are big companies with slides but no customization and smaller, low-end promotional companies that do customization – but you have to buy at least 100 of them and they take three weeks to three months to produce,” Kittredge told Chief Executive. “Our whole vision and dream was that we can make one pair of slides and make them the most comfortable they can be, and get them to you quickly. Then we figured we’d have a great niche in the business.”
Indeed, the Boston-based company has achieved annual revenues of several million dollars in only about seven years in the business, employing more than 30 people, and has shown enough promise that Kittredge turned down bidders on Shark Tank in 2016 who didn’t value ISlides as highly as he did. Sales have continue to grow more than 25 percent a year since then.
Footwear can be a dangerous category. For instance, startup Tom’s Shoes has been struggling with debt after mojo from its business model tied to charitable giving ran out and the company was taken over by creditors just days ago. And mass-market footwear titans struggle with everything from marketing controversies to supply-chain challenges to fickle consumers.
In addition to the company’s initial success, there are at least four big reasons Kittredge believes that ISlides is destined to keep growing robustly.
The first is that slides – they’re differentiated from flip-flips because there’s no piece between the big and second toe – remain a fast-growing footwear category even years after sales were growing about 25 percent a year in the three years before Kittredge founded ISlides. He had spent about a decade rising through the product ranks at Reebok and becoming frustrated at the slow speed to market of such giants.
Second, Kittredge switched sourcing of manufacture of ISlides’ blank shoes from China to Vietnam about three years ago, for two reasons. For one, sharing a problem that afflicts many U.S. companies which source from that country, manufacturing costs in China were rising too significantly. Also, Kittredge’s initial bet on China had assumed U.S. membership in the Trans Pacific Partnership for trade; then President Donald Trump nixed America as a signatory to that pact shortly after he took office. Fortunately for ISlides, Kittredge was able to parley a chance personal connection into a good manufacturing partnership in Vietnam and made his move there ahead of the surge of American companies that now have similar urges in the wake of Trump’s trade war with China.
Third, ISlides’ success is based on customized printing and efficient warehousing that occurs on Boston’s edge. Conventional screen printers, Kittredge explained, “mostly can only do one color and do it in a way where you need a lot of lead time.” But for ISlide, mechanical and design engineers created a jig that can execute what Kittredge called “mass customization on an individual scale to do one-offs in a quick and timely manner.” Now, ISlides has six of those giant printers that are the manufacturing key to its business.
“We took an existing printer and tweaked it and built a jig that’s proprietary to us so that we could turn things around quickly,” he said. “We can do any logo and as many colors as you want, and we can [print] the entire strap” of the shoe.
And, fourth, ISlides must have its finger on the pulse of pop culture so that it can recognize people, entities and memes that Americans will want to emblemize quickly on their feet. That’s why the company has licensing deals, for example, with Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and the National Hockey League.
“We jump onto trends or anything that’s hot in the market, licensed or not licensed,” Kittredge said. For example, ISlides produced licensed shoes that said, “Washington Nationals World Series Champs” after the team won the World Series in October and sold a significant number of pairs within 72 hours of the last game.
“Ninety percent of purchases [commemorating] pro sports championships are made within the first 48 to 72 hours,” he explained. “Besides a t-shirt or hat, there’s nothing else really that can be produced the same day and shipped for a championship.” he said.
For 2020, ISlides will be emphasizing a relatively new direct-to-team business in which the company outfits sports teams at all levels with printed slides that can include personalization down to the level of an individual athlete’s name and jersey number. “We’re also exploring non-slide products that could be a good complement to what we’re doing,” Kittredge said.
Kittredge still wants to show the expert investors on Shark Tank that they made a mistake in not offering him an investment in ISlides whose terms he could swallow. One, Robert Herjavec, offered to purchase 20 percent of the company and valued ISlides at just $2.5 million at the time, while Kittredge’s idea of its worth was about $10 million. “I negotiated back to counter him to a $5-million evaluation, but he didn’t want to move,” he recalled.
Sure enough: In ISlides’ most recent round of investment in late 2019, the company was valued at … more than $10 million.