The Build Cycle Podcast #012 – Altra Running’s Golden Harper

If you want something done right, you might as well do it yourself. That could easily sum up what led to the creation of Altra Running. Founder Golden Harper learned both from institutional research and real world, hands on experience that the design of modern running shoes just wasn’t right. In fact, it was more than just wrong, it was downright damaging to runners’ feet, knees, hips and everything else. But as one member of a small, family owned running store, how could he take this research and test results he’d amassed from modifying shoes in a toaster oven for himself and his customers and get one of the major show companies to make better shoes? He couldn’t, but he knew he was onto something big, so he did it himself.

Fair warning, there’s some geeking out on running technique in here, and we do ramble a bit, but the story of how Golden went from watching his dad hack shoes at home to launching one of the most unique running shoe brands on the market is pure gold (pun intended) for anyone that sees a seriously flawed status quo and thinks they’ve found a better way to do things.

DISCUSSION TIMELINE

  • 01:40 – How Golden’s educational background set the stage for making something different.
  • 06:00 – Why the big companies are doing it wrong.
  • 11:50 – Customer complaints and his dad’s homegrown shoe hacks lead to new ideas.
  • 15:00 – The first prototypes, and the first customers.
  • 21:00 – Gathering data to prove the concept, then trying to get the big guys to bite.
  • 25:00 – Why the big brands like Nike and adidas simply can’t (or won’t) make zero drop shoes.
  • 29:30 – They all said no, so this is how they launched Altra Running and started making shoes themselves.
  • 34:10 – Bringing together marketing, design and manufacturing expertise to make it happen.
  • 37:40 – Challenges with raising money when you’re doing something that’s never been done before.
  • 39:20 – Why they had to make the shoes in China.
  • 43:45 – What their first $250,000 investment got them.
  • 45:30 – How they decided on their original model lineup.
  • 47:45 – More money needed to go to production, and what that first shipment looked like.
  • 50:00 – Good timing and luck leads to an acquisition by Icon Fitness, which really got them up and, um, running.
  • 52:30 – The structure of the deal and his advice to others.
  • 56:00 – The real value of design patents.
  • 57:20 – How they get test athletes and develop new products for new markets.
  • 1:01:00 – Challenges with advanced product development and pushing the envelope.
  • 1:07:00 – What’s up with kid’s shoes, and how do they market their products?
  • 1:15:00 – How is the changing retail landscape affecting their sales? And do they need brick and mortar?
  • 1:17:20 – Parting advice on how to launch a consumer product, and how to defy giants.
  • 1:22:00 – The flip side of being small and nimble.
Golden modifies shoes in the early days.
A shoe modified to have zero heel lift, meaning the cushioning height at the back is the same as at the toe.
A foot-shaped last…doesn’t look like your typical running shoe, does it?

POST GAME ANALYSIS

My biggest takeaway is that just because everyone else is doing something one way doesn’t mean that’s the right way to do it. As Golden lays out, the reason running shoes have been the way they are for so long are because that’s just the way they’ve done it, and that’s what people are used to. Sure, there are some seemingly logical reasons why shoes ended up looking the way they do, but none hold up to actual, real world use. So, if your idea challenges the status quo, it’s worth asking why things are the way they are and having the research and testing to back up your reasons for doing it differently. Remember, different for different’s sake isn’t a reason to launch a product. Different because it’s better, and because there’s a market for it, is.

There are a couple of key financial lessons here. The first is the decision between seeking investments and going it alone, or selling to a larger company that can amplify and accelerate your growth. The former means greater potential profit, the latter likely means more security and a smaller piece of something larger.

If your looking for angel investments to get rolling, it’s important to look for people that believe in two things. You, and the thing that you’re doing. Good angels know they’re betting on the person, that they’ll be able to take the concept to market, and that there’s a chance. Golden had the former, but a couple of them backed out when they saw the enormity of the competition, and while those people still helped bring the shoes to production level, there’s a good chance that had they invested, their worry might have caused internal struggles.

Lastly, Golden lays out the importance of perseverance and believing in what you are doing and the product you’re creating. This is key for any entrepreneur, because no one else is going to work as hard as you are, and it’ll take all of that to launch and grow. As for competing against giants and do something differently, you have to believe in what your doing and commit to it 100%. Don’t water down the product to meet existing conceptions of what is supposed to be – stick to your guns and realize that there’s a market for it and the big brands can’t react quickly enough, giving you a chance to steal market share.

Winning a marathon at a very young age.

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