UV50 Fastest-Growing Companies: No. 4 Taft Clothing

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STAYING GROUNDED: The difficult life of an entrepreneur is not lost on Kory Stevens. “Every day is an emotional roller coaster. I’ve personally struggled with some depression over the years, and entrepreneurism has made it worse. Everyone sees the glamour of it, but it’s an endless amount of work and energy,” he says. “I push through the hard times with sports, music, exercise and family. My wife and kids are everything to me. And when the business gets difficult, I remind myself that shoes aren’t a groundbreaking, life-changing thing. It’s not the most important part of my life. My family is. And that perspective empowers me.” (Photo by Dave Blackhurst/UVBizQ)

Kory Stevens hates being barefoot. “I even sleep in my socks,” he says. It’s this very quirk that led Stevens to dip his (well covered) toe into the world of men’s footwear. Ready to walk a mile-a-minute in his shoes? He and his wife, Mallory, started a business that went from no-show socks, to designing top quality shoes, to a 2017 UV50 Startup to Watch, to $5.6 million in annual revenue in 2017, to a $5 million seed round, to the top 100 of the 2018 Inc. 500, to selling more than 50,000 pairs of shoes this year, to No. 4 on the 2018 UV50. No small feat. (Oh, come on. If the shoe fits, write it.)

I came to BYU in 2007 to study linguistics. But I didn’t want to be a professor, and I didn’t want to get a master’s degree in it. So I changed course and went into management consulting.

I was preparing to graduate in management consulting, but then I was like … “NOPE!” My wife was pregnant with our first, and I knew I would be unhappy traveling five days a week. That wasn’t how I was going to thrive.

My wife and I went to Europe for a five-week graduation trip. We had ten grand saved up, which came in handy since I had no job and no plan.

In Europe, we spent our days sightseeing and our nights discussing business ideas in our hotel. In France, there was this no-show sock company.  You know those sheer nylon socks? I grew up wearing them. I’d steal them from my mom and wear them with my boat shoes. But anytime I took my shoes off, I was wearing feminine socks. So we got this idea to do a no-show sock for men.

This was before Stance and K. Bell were doing it. All we men had were feminine socks where our gnarly feet ripped right through the toes.

I used Microsoft Paint to design my socks. They were that cool. (laughs) I called them Wimbleys. We launched a Kickstarter campaign and raised $50k. It took us a year and a half to launch.

During that time, I was a fly fishing guide. I would wake up at 4 a.m., guide the Provo River, and then come home and design socks. I made maybe $40 a day? I would also buy and sell board games on Amazon. It was crap money. But it was me trying to hustle and be creative.

We launched in the middle of 2014. Then we got a cease-and-desist letter from a tie company called Wembley. Shortly thereafter, I renamed the company after my son, Taft.

To sell our socks, photography was key. We’d go to Nordstrom Rack, buy shoes to photograph with our socks, and then we’d return the shoes. My wife and I were basically living in one big photo shoot. Our pictures were unique and cool. And our Instagram following grew by the tens of thousands. Today, we have half a million followers.

Ultimately, the socks were too niche. But we knew we had a social media account of men who like footwear. It was a logical next step.

I designed some shoes, then went to Spain and made samples. We photographed them, had them ready — and prepared ourselves to make nothing.

[pullquote]“All we men had were feminine socks where our gnarly feet ripped right through the toes.” — Kory Stevens, founder of Taft Clothing[/pullquote]

Back in the day, I would get a “cha-ching!” text message every time we’d get an order. My heart raced every time. One day in mid-November, I was headed to a Christmas tree lighting ceremony when my phone went berserk: “cha-ching! cha-ching! cha-ching!” Turns out our socks were on the homepage of Reddit. And for a day and a half, our traffic was insane. I’d post a picture of our shoes, and we’d get 70,000 views with comments like, “Dude! Those are dope!” Four hundred preorders came pouring in.

I’m not a designer in my soul. I design with smarts rather than passion. I find elements that inspire me (be it a pattern, a sketch, a material), make an organized list, then refine and combine. I am not reinventing the shoe. Our strength is in sourcing unique materials.

We sell direct to the consumer. There’s no middleman department store to bump up the price. A shoe you’d buy at Nordstrom for $500 costs $350 with us. I feel way too much love and loyalty to our customers to ever change that. We want top quality shoes as accessible as possible.

The fashion world lives on the coasts, so it can be hard to hire the right people. And our office is relatively hidden. From the outside, you’d never know we were here. We generally keep our heads down with the door locked and do our thing.

Growing this fast has been like riding a rocketship on level ground. Every sale is hard-earned, every day is a grind, and we’re not nearly as big as I think we should be. My gauge of success re-calibrates daily. It’s never enough. But I know I need to be better about celebrating the victories. I’m very, very grateful for our success. And I’m very, very hard on myself.

There’s nothing quite like seeing people wear your shoes — whether at the airport, at Target or at Cafe Rio. That’s peak fulfillment for me. It’s magic. You design something on paper. Sample it. Create it. Someone spends their hard-earned money on it. And then I get to see it out in the real world. Circle of life.


The Name Game

From the beginning, Taft Clothing has been a family affair. Kory Stevens and his wife, Mallory, started the company and ended up naming it after their son, Taft. They named a boot after Stevens’ Grandpa Jack. There’s also the Hero shoe, named for Taft’s favorite movie “Big Hero 6,” and the Mac Boot, inspired by his love of “Cars.” #route66kicks

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