Podcast Episode 110: Tony Post CEO and Founder Topo Athletic Shoes | Making Room To Listen
Bob Phibbs interviewed Tony Post, CEO and Founder of Topo Athletic shoes near Boston. He talks about his journey in footwear with Rockport and Vibram and on to founding his own athletic shoe company as well as how any brand should build customers by partnering with brick and mortar stores
Tell me something good about retail
Tony Post CEO and Founder Topo Athletic Shoes: Making Room To Listen
• Create new products based on your own understanding of the marketplace
• Make time to listen to the people who most touch your end user
• Take the long view of customers who align with what you're trying to accomplish.
Tony: That's a good question. So if we're live, I'll go ahead and start. I'm Tony Post. I'm the Founder and CEO of Topo Athletic. Topo Athletic is a footwear brand. We produce running shoes that encourage national movement, natural running. And I've been in the footwear industry for probably 35 plus years now. I've been a runner for 40 years. So I have a long history in this. And I guess that's what we're here to talk about.
Bob: Absolutely. It is. And you have so many interesting points. But I understand that you started out, what, at a ski shop in Colorado, and then you kind of found your way into being a runner and you thought that was gonna be the path and then realized that maybe that wasn't the path and you went on for a big company and all sorts of things. So filling us in a little bit. I don't wanna take too much, but whatever you're comfortable sharing.
Tony: Sure. I mean, I grew up in Colorado. It was a great place to grow up. Went to school at University of Tulsa in Oklahoma. When I was at Tulsa I ran on both college track and cross country team. I was captain of both teams in my senior year and really love the sport. I kind of fell in love with running in college. I was a late bloomer and did reasonably well in college division one. So I wanted to see what could happen if I trained with better athletes. So I moved to Boston. This is back in the early 80s. There were a lot of good athletes. Good runners in this area at the time. People like Bill Rogers and Craig Meyer and really lots of really good runners. It was a wonderful place to train but, you know, I was a good regional runner, but I wasn't going to be a world class runner. And so I realized if I wanted to do things like pay the rent and eventually I have a career, I was gonna need a real job.
And so I went to work for the Rockport Company, which was a shoe company. I was interested in footwear, of course, as a runner like a lot of runners are. And Rockport was intriguing to me at the time because it was a small company, family-owned, it used athletic shoe technology in casual shoes. And I thought that was a novel concept. And Bill Rogers at the time was also a spokesperson for the brand so that kind of in my mind probably gave it a little more credibility and legitimacy. And so I went to work there, ended up becoming their first product manager for men's footwear. My career kind of grew as the company grew. We did a lot of fun and interesting things. I used to take product out on runs at lunchtime to wear test different styles and models. And when we created our first dress shoes, I warm and came back from a lunchtime run, I said, "Man, these are so comfortable. I think I could run a marathon." And I said it kind of tongue in cheek, but our marketing director...and that sparked the idea. And so I ended up running the New York City in London Marathon in Rockport dress shoes.
Bob: Oh, my gosh, that is so cool. I actually sold Rockports when I was putting myself through college. So I'm familiar with that brand. They were comfortable.
Tony: Yeah, it was a really lightweight, comfortable shoe. And so it was made in some ways, kind of like a running shoe. So it wasn't a big stretch to be able to do it. And, you know, I had a lot of fun with that. And we kind of took that idea and extended it into different categories for the brand. We started to make trail shoes and we got associated with an event called the Leadville Trail 100. This is back in the, again, probably early to mid-90s. Leadville, Colorado was a small mining that had fallen on kind of hard times and a local there had started this race as a way to try and encourage tourism. And so we loved it because, you know, kind of like the...it's really almost a theme for any of your listeners who remember the old Timex watch brand. You know, takes a licking and keeps on ticking. It was almost that same kind of idea that we were doing with Rockport wear. You know, you would do things unexpected. So we created some trail shoes and use Leadville as kind of our proving ground. It was 100-mile foot race along the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I never went below 9,000 feet, went up to just below 14,000 feet. So it was a really rugged test for us and helped us to develop some interesting product. And we kind of took that same idea and extended it into boat shoes and other categories. It was fun. I spent 15 years at Rockport. Headed up all a product and marketing for them. And along the way we were bought by Reebok.
Bob: Right. Well, it's an amazing story. And I wanna make sure we get enough time to talk about your current company. But also in between your current company and there, you ended up coming into creating something that a lot of runners have certainly used. I'm sure you're familiar with it. I think a lot of other people have seen and wondering what the hell are those things.
Tony: Yeah. And so, of course. You're probably talking about my period of time at the room, I spent 11 or 12 years of the room as president and CEO of Vibram USA. Actually I helped start the Vibram U.S.A. Vibram is an Italian company. So we started the U.S. subsidiary company. And, you know, for the first four or five years, we made the sole platforms for a lot of different brands that people know, primarily in the outdoor industry. You know, brands, like Merrell and Vast. But we also made platforms for brands like Nike and the North Face and Timberland and, you know, lots of great companies. I always felt the brand was worth more than that. And our owner in Italy had acquired the rights to a particular idea. He bought the rights to this prototype that was made by a design student of the original Vibram five fingers. And when we saw that prototype, we decided to try to turn that into a business. You know, it was something that was different that none of our sole business customers would be interested in. We showed it all of them. They all thought it was kind of crazy and wacky and said, "Yeah, if you wanna turn that into a business, we don't see any conflict." And it was it was fun. I had kind of gone through a personal experience.
So there was a little bit of selfishness. By that time, I probably had been a runner for, you know, 25 years or something. And I was having some knee problems. And, you know, like a lot of runners who push themselves, we have a tendency to overdo it and kind of push our body to the limit sometimes and sometimes get injured. And so I was like looking for a way to share some of these injuries. And a friend of mine back in Colorado had talked about training barefoot. Of course, this was probably four or five years before the book "Born to Run" was written or, you know, before anybody talked about barefoot training or barefoot running, or any of that. And I thought how ironic that he mentioned this to me and here we have this prototype of this product. So I started using it in the gym for strength training and mobility and got stronger and was feeling back to pretty good health and decided to just take them out on a little test run. And so I did. I was planning to just go a couple of miles, but for the first time in years, my knee didn't really hurt.
And so I ended up running eight miles that day. And , of course, the next day, I could barely walk, you know, my solid muscle was sore, [inaudible00:07:51] of my feet were tender, calves resource. I thought, "Well, jeez, if wherever we're gonna do this, you know, we gotta warn people to take it gradually and kind of take their time." It was fun, you know, because it was a new idea and a new way of thinking. But what I realized, what I discovered was over those 25 years or so that my form had kind of eroded, you know, and I wasn't running the way I ran when I ran back in college. And that was with more of an upright posture, mid foot strike, my feet under my body, a little shorter stride, putting less impact on my body. And when I wear those Five Fingers, it was a great training shoe. It forced me to run that way. I didn't have this vision that people would go out and, you know, only run in Five Fingers, but I thought, "Wow, what an interesting training tool to be able to use and kind of interject on your easy days and things like that. Plus, it's a shoe that, you know, you can use in the gym. It really helps you to engage the muscles in the feet and lower leg." So...
Bob: For those who don't know what it is, it kind of look like a black glove for your feet, right? Each toe has its own little place.
Tony: Yeah. You know, we made other colors, not just black. But it does. It's like a glove for your feet. And what it did was it allowed each of the toes to work independently for balance, agility, control. There wasn't a lot of cushioning and protection under foot. And so it forced you to land with more of a mid-foot strike. So you'd engage the medial arch and some of the other muscles in the feet. And it was really a different and novel idea. I think it kind of turned the running industry on its head for a few years. But as I said, you know, it was a great product. I don't think it was the panacea for everybody and nor was it a shoe that, you know, I thought you should necessarily wear all the time or for longer runs and things like that. So we had grown that business. I kind of wanted to make other types of shoes. The other shareholders thought that it would be better that Vibram did not. They didn't want to put the company in competition with their customers and respected that. You know, I think that was the right decision. And so we agreed to kind of part ways. I ended up resigning from the company. I gave them, you know, along notice so that we were able to transition the company really easily and they've continued to succeed. And actually will be introducing products this fall with Vibram souls in our Topo athletic line.
Bob: Well, that brings us right up to your current company. I wanna make sure also [inaudible 00:10:31].
Tony: Yeah. That's kind of the point of the story. And so, you know, through all these experiences, all these years and this love for kind of a more natural sensation of running, you know, something that has a little more visceral feeling, where you feel more connected to nature and your body. I wanted to create Topo as kind of the ultimate experience in natural running. And so by doing that, we knew that we had to have certain ingredients in the shoes. We knew that, first of all, it's not five-toed product. You know, it looks a lot like a traditional running shoe. But there are some differences. The toe box area is very roomy, so your toes have lots of room to spread and splay. You need those toes for balance, agility, control, propulsion. And we really want you to be able to use those small muscles in the feet.
So you need that space in that room. But sometimes when you have a roomy shoe like that, it can feel a little sloppy or feel disconnected. So our shoes fit more snug through the waist and secure in the heels. So you still have this feeling like the shoe is more a part of your body, even though there's all that room for your toes to spread and splay. We also like to have what we call a low drop platform, meaning not a lot of heel to toe drop. The thickness of the area and the heel and the thickness under the ball of the foot are close to the same. In a traditional running shoe, you might have, let's say, for example, 15 millimeters heel to toe drop.
Bob: Okay, you're giving us like a lot of specifics. I think that someone in Starbucks told me.
Tony: Yeah, you're probably right.
Bob: Sorry, I know it's your passion and that's why I enjoy talking to you.
Tony: Well, you're right. I'm probably getting a little carried away. But the second ingredient, and really, it's just those two ingredients, the fit. And the platform. The reason that platform is important is when we make a low drop platform, meaning that the heel and the ball of the foot are close to the same plane, we make some that are on exactly the same plane and then some with just a little bit of heel lift. Traditional running shoes have a lot of healing lift and it encourages you to land on your heel. When you take that away, it actually encourages you to land more on your mid foot to engage the media large and some of the other muscles in the feet, lower legs. Now, I just feel like that's a healthier way to run. It's also a healthier way to move, in general, to walk. It doesn't mean that you have to be in thin, minimal platform. A lot of people, you know, may not be comfortable in that. So we make shoes with different thicknesses, some have more cushion, some have less, but they all have that fit. And they all have that low drop platform.
Bob: Gotcha. So with a brick and mortar store, though, you are in high end running stores, I imagine. And it sounds like, you know, your sales people there have really got to understand those differences and be able to kind of explain that in a way that the average guy can. What kind of challenges have you seen in developing a brand new brand? You know, and how did you overcome those?
Tony: Yeah, so a couple different things. You're right, first of all, Bob, that we do focus on specialty retail. So we focus on specialty run shops. And there are a lot of really great independent specialty run shops out there. And their staff is typically trained to be able to, you know, help you to decide what is the best product for you. Because there's no one product that works for everybody. And they are really good at helping you decide, well, what kind of a ride you like, what kind of a field, what type of runner are you, how far you going. All these different things that you need that guidance, I think that the specialty run shop can provide. So we don't sell to, you know, nothing wrong with them, but we don't sell to department stores or large chains. We typically sell to smaller independent shops where we know that sales associate on the floor will take the time to explain and really work with the customer to find the best product for them. In addition to run specialty shops, that we also have outdoor specialty shops. And a lot of those are really good at selling some of our trail run or light hiking type for wear, too. So...
Bob: So give me some of the challenges of that though because you sound like you just started this brand that it all turned out great. So how do you build a brand with a brand new, you know, you come from this heritage, but to a traditional retailer who may have had New Balance or Nike, or there's other higher end companies in that, you had to...I mean, let's face it, it's a push for space on the wall.
Tony: Oh, it is, it's always. But, you know, what's so interesting is consumers, I would say, even more than retailers are pretty open minded. You know, they're always willing to look at and consider new ideas, new technologies, different ways of thinking. So we focus a lot on trying to reach the consumer with our message. You know, that idea of the fit where, you know, a lot of people, for example, might have bunions or we're just have a, you know, need more space up in the toe area, and they can't find comfortable shoes. And when they put a pair of Topos on, they can really feel the difference. And so if we can get that consumer excited about this idea that has helped us a lot, you know, especially in the early days, now, given today, we've, you know, we've been around for a few years so we've got a little more momentum with retailers, but I think in the beginning, you know, just trying to focus on delivering that message to the consumer.
And then for those retailers, we do do a lot of things that, you know, that kind of help separate them. I think they appreciate the fact that we focus on specialty distribution that we, you know, we don't just open any type of store, you know, just for the sake of making a sale, you know, we we wanna do this authentically, and we wanna do it right. And so, we are willing to take a more long term approach and that's paid off for us now, you know. That's hard to do when you're starting out and cash flow is important and, you know, you're really working just to kind of get your brand out there. But I think if you're discipline and you have the patience, it's absolutely the best thing.
Bob: I think they're right, there has to be patience. And I think also it's a challenge for running stores, you know, you get that person on their one pair, and then they pretty much want to either order it online, or just replace it, or just get the same thing. And, you know, serious runners...I wouldn't say are superstitious, but they certainly have, you know, that idea of I've already made this decision. So, it would seem like that would be a hard thing to overcome, particularly in a world where a lot of times you're dealing with younger employees who maybe can't afford your shoes or don't wear them, or they didn't come through it the way you did, you know. You came, this sounds like a natural progression from Leadville all the way up to your brand now, but for an average person, they don't know all of that.
Tony: Yeah. Yeah, I think that's true. I think what is interesting is when people, they might come to Topo because they like, the fit and the feel, and some of those things. And like we all do with, you know, brands that we find that, oh, you know, this offers something that's good in my life that makes life better, easier, or more comfortable, then you want to learn a little bit about the brand. And then they discover, oh, well, this brand is actually started by some people who've been around the footwear industry for a long time, who've had a lot of experience, so then they feel good about the fact that they're buying something that's really authentic. I think that we hear about that from our customers all the time. So then that creates this deeper connection that's really important and part of what we love about the industry.
]Bob: Good. Yeah, and I agree with you. So I want you to imagine you've got a friend of yours, and he rings you up and he says, "I want to talk to you," and so you go out that day, and you meet him at Starbucks or something. And he says, "I'm gonna quit my day job, I'm gonna open a little brick and mortar running store." What would you tell him? What would be your advice to him?
Tony: Well, the first thing I would tell him is, I hope he's got some money saved, because all of these things are expensive. The second thing, but it's really the first thing is, "I hope this is really your passion," you know, because they're gonna be, "It's a roller coaster," you know. Anytime you start a new business...and this is the third time I've been involved in this, it's a roller coaster, you know, they're really good days and they're tough days. And you've got to be up, especially if you're an owner, you've got to be up all the time, and encouraging people and it better be something that you really love, because, you know, it's all consuming. And when you're in it, it can be tough sometimes. But if it's a passion and something you love, almost always, I think that it's going to work out...
Bob: You'll find your way through it. And of course, number three is you better carry your shoes, let me understand. So it's a build on that, you know, when you feel overwhelmed, or you lost your focus temporarily. What do you do to kind of bring yourself back?
Tony: Well, first of all, I'm lucky because we have a really good team and...
Bob: That's never luck. I'm sorry, that comes from awful lot of planning. Sorry, but...
Tony: Yeah, you're right, it is. There's a fair amount of planning. And it's not just to get the right people, it's to keep the right people and to have them grow, and develop and learn and contribute. You know, that's the rewarding part for any business owner, too. It's not just senior companies succeed, but seeing, you know, the personal side, seeing employees really grow and develop and learn and contribute and take that, you know, emotional connection as well. And so, that is the thing that probably lifts me when I'm feeling down. It's that we're always all here for each other. And, you know, that's important to have.
Bob: Okay, good. And the name of my podcast is, "Tell Me Something Good About Retail." So, you know, in a world of naysayers and all kinds of people out there saying, you know, it's all... everyone in the world has got to be, you know, wired into online and will never talk to people or go anywhere, we'll just be in our little cubicles with the blue screen looking at us. What can you tell me something good about retail?
Tony: Yeah, well, so what I will tell you about our experience here, because that's when I'm most qualified to talk about is, what I hear, you know, because I sit very close to our customer service team, what I hear all the time is them talking to people who wanna know a store where they can go in, they can feel the product, they can see the product up close, they can put it on, they can try on different styles, they can talk to somebody about it, they want a more visceral experience. They may do their research online but a lot of people once that's kind of have crossed the point of, "Hmm, this is something I'm interested in," then they really want to get that product in their hands.
And I think if we've done our work working with the sales associates in the stores, then they can provide the best possible experience to that consumer, you know. And by the way, you know, I'm not saying that Topo is the only shoe you should wear, you know, we know our shoes are not always the best for everybody. And I encourage people also to wear a few different shoes, you know, to mix their shoes, just like you would mix your workout, you know. You don't go to the gym and always do exactly the same workout every day, it's better if you can change it up, use different muscles, well, the same works for your footwear selection. So if you can afford it, if you can work it up, it's good to have, you know, two or three pairs of shoes that you can rotate through. And that's another good thing for retailers, you know. When you start to think that way, it's not just about finding that one shoe and then buying it over and over and over. I think it's about being able to introduce consumers to a variety of products.
Bob: And how do you think you get new product into a retailer when you're not an established brand? Do you think it's just your enthusiasm? I don't know what your price point is but my guess is you're certainly not going in there at the lowest price point...
Tony: Yeah. And to me, it's never about price. It's about, you have to be offering them, they have to share your vision that, okay, "I have a customer coming in here that I think they would really like this," whether it's solving a problem, or it's aesthetically something that they think is going to be, you know, really pleasing. Whatever the issue might be, they've got to share your vision in that. At the same time, I think it doesn't hurt that you have to create a business where you're easy to work with. You know, we do things to try to make it as easy as possible, whether it's through margin that we offer the retailers, or stock positions, ease of reordering, terms and conditions, you know, we try to make ourselves as business friendly as we can, too. A lot of times, you know, when companies get bigger, they can be a little bit arrogant about their business practices. And it's, you know, a little bit of a take it or leave it kind of attitude. And sometimes I think retailers are a little more open and receptive to brands that are trying to help them to succeed.
Bob: Yeah, I would agree. And I think that we see that a lot of times, a lot of brands kind of, forget the ones that got them there, right? They start off with a little independence, and then they grow and then invariably, they get bigger, and they're looking for a bigger market share and kind of forget that being easier for customers to do business with is, is really the key if you're looking to hold on to them, of course, that's it. And what you see in the footwear business, you know, I know for a while, there was a real...when I did the running...I spoke with the running event I think a couple times and it seemed like there was real consolidation going on to the industry and people were worried and...
Tony: It goes through cycles, like all businesses, probably, I mean, this is the business I know, but it goes through cycles. If I took, you know, before we launched the Vibrum Five Fingers, I would say there were probably seven brands in the running industry and not much knew was going on and everything was headed and kind of the same direction. It wasn't so much that Five Fingers was such a revolutionary product, I think what it also did was open people's eyes to different opportunities from a lot of companies. And, I think it also opened consumer's eyes to the different possibilities. And so, you know, I think business always goes through these cycles. There are gonna be periods where things kinda stay the same for a little bit. But then sure enough, somebody's going to come along with something creative, or something innovative, and find a way to, you know, bring freshness and interest into a category either by solving a problem or just making something that people want.
Bob: Yeah, I think that's the key. And also, like you said, that idea that you don't just have one brand and ultimately for the shoe retailers out there to be realizing that your customers are open to things, but it's gonna come down to your employee's ability to say it in a way that doesn't put a personal bias on it, and tries to keep it as open minded as the retailer was when they first brought him in. I think that's kind of the key. And what would you think would be a great...do you have a great retail story of anything you've done recently in going into a store and that not or if not, do you have a great customer service story, or what you aspire to any of those three?
Tony: You know, I spend a lot of time at retail, and I think it's important for anybody who's owns or starting a business to spend as much time not only with your consumer, the ultimate consumer, you know, try to get into in our case. So what we'll do is we'll join a Tuesday night run at a local run club and try to get consumers to open up about the things they like, or don't like. Doesn't matter if they don't like our shoes, we just want to hear what they like or don't like. And I think doing the same thing with sales associates is really important. And I don't know if there's one story that jumps out but I think spending time with sales associates and not just going out once and...but, you know, over time building relationships with them, so that they feel like they can speak candidly and honestly with you about your products and about all the other products that they carry. I think that's probably one of the most beneficial things anybody can do.
Bob: No, I would agree. It's those ears, that's where...and especially the ears on the ground and even if it's their own personal, it's all good information, right? Any information is good when you come to that.
Tony: But it's, you know, you have to force it as a habit. It's so easy for all of us to kinda get trapped in the day-to-day, have to [inaudible 00:28:03] and have to send this work off here, you know. And sometimes it's just, I think, on a monthly basis, it's important for a couple of days just to get out and listen to people, you know, talk to them and listen mostly to what they have to say.
Bob: No, I think that's great. And that brings me to the close of our time together. But I know people will be curious, where can they find out more about your shoes?
Tony: So, to find out more about Topo Athletic, you can go to topoathletic.com. You can see our product line there, it's a pretty tight and focus line. We make shoes for road running and for trail running and a little bit for functional fitness. We also have a new product category we're gonna be launching next month, which is a recovery category which is gonna be very interesting. A lot of people stay tuned for that because that will be an expanding category. But topoathletic.com would be the best place to start.
Bob: Well, that's excellent. Well, thanks again for joining me on the podcast. And may all your runs be successful and your team behind you cheering you on.