Why “Coming Soon” Takes So Damn Long
On the go? Listen to the audio version of the blog below!
The end of the year brings with it a chance to look back on the last twelve months not only to see where you have come but to also glean insight as to how best to move forward.
In many ways, 2017 brought some big opportunities for ICANCHU. I was able to partner with an incredible designer who has the ability to take the abstract notions of this minimalist lifestyle I believe in and bring alive in concrete form. I found an artisanal, family-run factory in Italy willing to let ICANCHU grow within its walls. We released a new design - our minimalist CHUKKA SNEAKER - which was well received within the ICANCHU community (for what it is worth, these are the most comfortable shoes I’ve ever worn).
Yet, with all that being said, when looking at all of the work and effort that went into ICANCHU in 2017 I can’t help but ask myself: is that it?
The natural follow up question then becomes: why does it take so damn long to get anything done?
To shed some insight into the overall process, here are some thoughts and issues faced when trying to get a new pair of shoes made and delivered to you.
(Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 2:00 - The Process)
On average, it takes 18 months to take a shoe from design to finished product. 18. Months.
That is a long time.
Now, being a small start-up, there are not as many levels of approval required as a company like Nike has. The flip side to this, however, is that I don’t have as many resources as Nike has.
So, in order for ICANCHU to have any success, we have to find a way to dramatically shorten that lead time for introducing new shoes. Taken at face value, this might sound like a simple solution. But since ICANCHU has to rely on other parties, a streamlined process is not always possible.
Here are the general steps involved with creating a new shoe. We are getting more efficient in some areas, while others still require work.
Step 1: Ideating (2-4 months)
(Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 3:27 - Step 1: Ideating)
Like anything else, designing a new shoe starts with an idea. My approach for new ideas are straightforward: what needs do I have that are currently not met?
(Sidenote: this is how the original concept for the DERBY, our minimalist dress shoe, came about. I hurt my back in an NFL training camp en route to spending 14 months rehabbing. This rehab was centered around barefoot training, which helped with my overall alignment, body control and core strength. After trading in the cleats for a pair of dress shoes required for office life, I immediately felt the negative effects that come with traditional dress shoe design. Looking for a better solution and coming up empty is what led to this pursuit of a new approach to dress shoe design.)
With a design concept in mind, the idea gets kicked up the ladder to Louis. Louis is an incredibly talented designer who spent a decade in corporate shoe design before deciding to start out on his own. He continues to work with some of the top footwear and lifestyle brands around the world, breathing life into new designs with his innovation and creativity.
What makes Louis such a good fit for me is that he himself lives the philosophy behind ICANCHU. He is able to take the abstract values we believe in and make them come alive in actual designs.
Doing so requires some research before proceeding with a couple rounds of sketches. In putting pen to paper, Louis will create, 30, 40, 50 different sketch concepts.
Each of these initial concepts will differ (some hugely so, others slightly), until Louis has exhausted most of the creative possibilities. At this point, it is time to let the dust settle so we can take a step back and see what is there.
Once the ideas have had some time to sink in, Louis begins to review, making notes on which ones stand out. In some cases it can be one specific element within a sketch while for others it can be the entire sketch.
From here, another round of sketching takes place. With the concept having been further refined, Louis will start to combine different elements to uncover new design possibilities. The end result is usually three to five standalone concepts.
With these distilled designs in hand, we will begin to review and talk through each. During this process, Louis shares what his inspiration was and how or why he came up with specific elements. Here we settle on which designs to pursue and take the next step with.
Throughout this ideating process, we are constantly eliminating the excess, the pieces that don’t belong. By doing so, this gives us a chance to focus on what really matters for the design, amplifying the essential.
Step 2: Prototyping (4-6 months)
(Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 8:00 - Step 2: Prototyping)
Once we have distilled the design into a single starting point it is time to set out on the path for bringing it to life. Taking a 2D sketch, where everything fits together nice and neat, and realizing into a functional 3D shoe can be a real challenge. For this reason, it is essential to have a factory partner that believes in you and is willing to set aside the time and resources necessary to get the design right.
I am not saying finding this type of factory partner is like finding Sasquatch, but it is an uphill battle.
The last thing a factory wants to be is a sample house. Making samples requires allocating skills, materials, and time to z project that might not even get off of the ground. It can be a huge time suck that does not always pay off.
For this reason, factories will charge a (high) sample fee to realize a prototype (anywhere from $500-$2,500 + material costs) and in some cases require a high minimum order quantity (MOQ). In other words, you have to commit to the factory to do a run of a certain number of pairs per color per style before they agree to get started (more on this later.)
So once you have found a factory who understands what you are trying to achieve and is willing to work with you, it’s time to get work. But prototyping is not an overnight process.
Prototyping can take a long time for a number of reasons:
- You are not the factory’s only customers. Understand that the factory is working with a number of other clients. And if another client is in production (i.e. actively bringing in money for the factory), they tend to be the priority. Because smaller, artisan factories have limited manpower, they have to be judicious when allocating time for team members to step away and focus on prototypes. Finding time to immediately fit into the schedule rarely happens.
- Factories are not “one stop shops.” Smaller factories tend to be specialists and different styles of shoes requires different skill sets. This means that the production set up and machinery is often optimized for one or very few styles. Shoe equipment and machinery are expensive, which means it is not feasible for a factory to invest in a multiple pieces outside of their “specialty.” Often times, the prototyping process is trial and error, seeing if a factory can actually pull off the design you have in mind. And if they can’t, the time spent trying to see if they could is lost and you have to essentially restart from scratch.
- More pieces than just the factory are involved. The factory creates and cuts the patterns and assembles the shoes. They do not tan the leather. They do not manufacture the laces. They do not mold the soles. So when you are looking to create a new design - especially one that is truly “new” and does not use “off the shelf” products - you are at the mercy of the suppliers. As an example, we have been working on a minimalist boot design for over one year. The factory was able to construct the upper but needed a local sole supplier to create the outsole and help with the construction. Well, the sole supplier had a long list of other clients and projects ahead of ours, so we had to wait until they could give our sole attention. So we waited. And waited. And waited. The end result was close but we needed to make adjustments. So back to the end of the queue we went, starting all over again.
With everything lined up, it is time to start cutting and sewing. The factory will get to work on the first round of protos and then ship them over once done.
It is best if you can work on this in person, going back and forth for some rapid iterations. Things will always get lost in translation, but at least you can communicate face to face to sort it out. However, while trips to Italy are great in theory, the costs associated (air, car, hotel, food, etc) quickly add up. (It is even more expensive when your wife has to work and cannot join, albeit an altogether different kind of "cost.")
Step 3: Sourcing (1-3 months)
(Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 13:55 - Step 3: Sourcing)
Shoes might be one of the most difficult products to manufacture thanks in large part to the sourcing of materials that is required. Outside of the factory’s lead time for getting you onto the production line, you also have to line up the orders with all of the suppliers. This means that the logistics involved can quickly become mind boggling.
By way of example, we once did a round of production in China. Our leather came from Italy, our soles came from France, everything was shipped to China where it was manufactured, boxed up and then shipped to the US. That is a supply chain nightmare, it can also be extremely wasteful.
Today, our factory is located in the Marche Region of Italy. We have tried to consolidate our sourcing so that our materials come from within the same region. By and large we are able to do so, but we still have to bring in some outside elements.
One such outside sourcing requirement is our soles, which are handmade in France. These soles are awesome, but they take a long time to make. The traditional done-by-hand process used for these soles means that it takes almost 30 days to make a single pair. While that might seem ludicrous (some fast-fashion retailers turn out completely new “seasons” in that time period), I believe the process is worth the wait. Not only is the material used for the soles sustainably sourced, but the result provides unrivaled comfort.)
In addition to soles, leather is the other big factor in timing. Veg tanning can take up to 2 months to be ready to use, which means you need to have your order in well in advance. There are other leathers available - mostly chrome tanned options - but they require harsh chemicals to produce.
(Sidenote: while veg tanning does not use these chemicals the process does require a lot of water to produce.)
Two strategies we have implemented to help reduce our lead times are 1) work with regional suppliers and 2) work with materials the factory already carries and has “in stock” (and fits in with ICANCHU’s design).
What I mean by “in stock” is that the factory will have on-hand, or place regular orders for, specific materials and colors that they work with often. If the factory has a brown leather that fits our requirements and can be used, this can significantly reduce our turnaround time. Because they work with some of the best suppliers in Europe, I trust in our factory’s sourcing decisions and the quality of the materials being used.
(Sidenote: not all factories source equally. There is more than one story out there of a company sourcing a certain material only to have the factory swap it out for a cheaper alternative while still charging the higher price. This is why it is so important to have a good factory partner and to be present during the production.)
Step 4: Manufacturing (1-2 months)
(Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 17:28 - Step 4: Manufacturing)
As referenced in Step 2, one of the biggest factors in deciding whether or not a factory is a good fit is understanding what their minimum order quantities are (MOQs). Bigger factories offer both more capabilities as well as faster turn around times (usually), but also carry with them higher minimums. The corollary is that smaller factories have fewer machines and a smaller team. This means that the production can take a little longer and tends to be more specialized.
Back to the MOQs. Taking the best case scenario of a 200 pair MOQ (which means that you will need to order at least 200 pairs per color) and doing a run of both black and brown means placing an order for 400 pairs. Using an average price of $75 per pair, that is a $30,000 up front cost - and does not include shipping and import taxes.
In addition to the manufacturing costs, you also have expenses for purchasing lasts (lasts are the backbone for both the design/pattern and the manufacturing process) and any dies and/or molds that are needs. (Cutting dies are used for cutting the patterns from the leather that are eventually sewn together.)
$30k+ is a lot of money for a small business. Heck, it is a lot of money for most businesses. This becomes becomes even more expensive if the shoes don’t sell.
To help be smarter about our production runs, we have introduced pre-orders at a discounted cost to our community. In most cases, you can save up to 25% by pre-ordering a pair of shoes, while also helping us get into production quicker. (Saving up $30k+ at whack is not an overnight process.)
This approach also helps us to ensure that we are not wasting precious capital on designs or sizes that people don’t want. Also, if we get enough pre-orders, we could find ourselves in a position to reduce our unit cost per shoe. This happened when we sold out of the CHUKKA SNEAKER last spring, which allowed us negotiate a cheaper cost with the factory and then to pass the savings on to you.
At this point, every dollar that comes in goes right back into the company. If I have a pair (or multiple pairs) sitting in inventory - either because we order too many of the wrong size or the community didn’t like the style - that is a waste of materials and money. Neither one is a good thing.
Step 5: Delivery (1-2 Weeks)
(Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 20:48 - Step 5: Delivery)
Once the shoes are made, it is time to ship. There are two main ways to deliver shoes from abroad: by air or by water. The cheaper option is to place the shoes in a shipping container and send over by water. The downside to this is that it takes much longer for the shoes to arrive.
However, the bigger issue is that we are not shipping enough shoes to fill an entire container. This means that our boxes will be put into a container with other items being shipped to the US. You really don’t have a say as to what else will be in the container.
For this reason, our shoes are often shipped over by air. This expedites the process, but as I said, is more expensive. It costs about $10/pair to ship from Italy to the US.
Upon arrival, the shoes have to go through customs. Typically, this is a quick process of a couple of days. But there are also instances where it could a week or longer.
After clearing customs, the shoes end up at our shipping partner’s warehouse, where the orders are then fulfilled.
Looking Ahead for 2018
(Listen to this section on SoundCloud: 22:22 - Looking Ahead to 2018)
With all of the above in mind, here is where I am focusing efforts for 2018.
New Casual Minimalist Shoe
I currently have a production run scheduled for late January/early February. We have (hopefully just) one more round of sampling to do before signing off on the design. Once these samples come in, we should be ready to proceed.
I will share more info on these as we get closer, but this design is a casual shoe, perfect for spring and summer. We will once again be using the world’s most comfortable sole, so I am anxious to get these out there.
New Minimalist Derby
Because it is easier to have all of our manufacturing being done in one area, I am also working on moving our DERBY production to Italy. There will be some tweaks to the design, with the main one being the consideration of a re-soleable outsole. While the construction for this type of design is more intense, and the initial out-of-the-box wear does not have the same “broken in” flexibility, I think this is an important design factor to implement.
By creating a design that can you can re-sole, you will be able to have the shoes for years to come. Yes, I would love to get you in a new pair of dress shoes every 10-12 months. But if you need a new pair that quickly, then we are not making shoes correctly. Shoes that can be repaired also means fewer shoes in landfills, which is best for everyone. Given the environmental impact manufacturing in general has, reducing our footprint as much as possible is a priority.
New EDC Designs
Our SLIM WALLET has been a community favorite. Skinny enough to not over-stuff your pockets, yet functional enough to fit 5 cards + ID + cash + insurance card/metro card etc., it has become an essential piece for any EDC lineup.
Our wallets are made by hand in Brooklyn using a single piece of Horween veg tan leather. That might not sound like a big deal, but it is. By using a one solid piece of leather (versus a design that stitches together multiple pieces) we are able to create a wallet that will last.
When you stitch multiple pieces together, you are obviously putting holes in the leather. Even though they are small, these holes compromise the overall integrity of the design. Over time, these holes get bigger and the wallet falls apart.
In keeping the number of stitches we use to a minimum we ensure that our wallets will stay together for a long, long time.
We will be introducing some new color-ways for our SLIM WALLET while also offering other small-batch goods - both made from leather + other materials. We are working on new designs now but hope to get your feedback on designs that you think are helpful.
In addition to creating new designs in-house, we will be working to collaborate with other brands we feel share our approach and philosophy. I will keep you posted as we line up these new projects.
Launch of the Independents’ Day Podcast
I will also be launching a new podcast named Indpendents’ Day. The idea behind the podcast is to have conversations with everyday women and men who decided to pursue their passions. These “independents” did not come from money. They did not have anything handed to them. Nor are they are millionaires, living the life on a beach somewhere (at least not yet!).
They simply had a passion and decided it was worth dedicating their time to it. They figured out how they could pursue it full time and set to work doing just that.
It is far too simple to see someone crossing the finish line and think “that was easy.” The goal for this podcast is to pull back the curtain on the blood, sweat and tears that goes into launching, and then sustaining, a business.
I hope this podcast will also give you a behind the scenes look at ICANCHU, providing a better understanding of what I’m working on and why.
For those of you who have followed along with us from the start, you know that our path has had plenty of ups and downs. While “figuring it out” continues to be a work in progress (for all us, regardless of what we do), I am forever grateful for your support.
I am excited for all that 2018 holds and hope that come December we won’t be asking, “is that it?”