Launching in 2009 during the Great Recession made things tough for direct-to-consumer sneaker startup Kuru. But 10 years later, the Salt Lake City-based company, founded by Bret Rasmussen, has persevered and developed a devoted fan base via problem solving and clean aesthetics.
Here, coming on the heels of Kuru’s two latest sneaker releases — the Atom and the women’s-only Cruise — the founder and CEO shares with FN insight on the brand’s acclaimed KuruSole tech, the company’s approach to retail and gives advice to footwear entrepreneurs.
Footwear News: How would you best describe the aesthetics and performance of Kuru? And who is the Kuru customer?
Bret Rasmussen: “Kuru draws inspiration from the clean, timelessness found in Scandinavian design. We are able to use higher grade materials and constructions to bring added value to Kuru wearers. Our customers tend to be those seeking to improve the quality of their health and those that enjoy an active lifestyle. Many of our customers spend a significant amount of time on their feet in both their professional and personal lives, and most if not all, have a health-forward mindset.”
What has surprised you the most about the footwear industry and how people have taken to your brand?
BR: “I’ve loved shoes since fifth grade, which is when I dreamed of starting a shoe company. But, until I became seriously entrenched in the industry, I didn’t realize that footwear is a combination of art and science. Nailing both elements is critical to success. It’s difficult to articulate the nuances between engineering a great-fitting shoe and designing one that meets the fashion sensibilities and preferred market trends. Footwear that manages to strike the perfect balance of utility, comfort and trend adds the most value to consumers. I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished with the KuruSole, an innovation for which I hold a patent, as it represents the successful convergence between art and science that I refer to as biomechanically-correct and scientifically-sound. Yet, what is most rewarding is how much our brand means to people, especially when they call to say ‘this shoe is going to change my life.'”
Why is the KuruSole beneficial to the wearer?
BR: “When I started Kuru, one of my goals was to design footwear that encouraged more movement, movement with comfort, and most importantly, a design that allowed the human foot to function as it was meant to through proper alignment and protection when active and in motion. Each human foot has what most refer to as the ‘fat pad’ underneath the heel bone. It is an anatomical gift designed to provide natural cushion with every heel strike, bounce, jump, skip and stride. What I learned was that a healthy fat pad is essential to long term mobility. The more we remain on our feet — whether standing all day as we work — or weight-bear during activity and exercise, the greater the risk of decimating the fat pad over time. And, there is no surgical implant or way to plump up this part of the foot as the fat pad wears away, often leading to either orthotic use or footwear with significant cushion in this area to provide relief and comfort. Otherwise our mobility becomes more limited due to pain and discomfort. Our KuruSole was specifically designed to keep this natural cushioning where it belongs and protect it. Unlike anything else, it does so by dynamically cupping the fat pad of the foot with each step, preventing it from getting smashed and flattened. Our customers have raved about how our shoes have literally changed their lives because of the unique flexing of our design that not only keeps the foot properly aligned within the shoe but relieves the ‘smashing’ pressure that most experience with standard footwear.”
Why employ a direct-to-consumer model versus selling to retailers?
BR: “Kuru has been in business for 10 years, and while we considered the retail route, we quickly realized that a direct to consumer model would provide greater ability to communicate more personally with our targeted demographics, and would serve to help us build stronger, deeper relationships — an important differentiator in today’s market. People want to trust the brands they do business with and we’re fortunate in that opting out of retail has helped us establish customer trust, which in my mind is the most valuable currency for a brand. All of our metrics have shown a sizable and growing loyalty, further extended by positive word-of-mouth. The steady scaling of our customer base has allowed us to establish beneficial bonds and maintain customer loyalty for years— likely because they trust us to deliver on promise. We’ve also made it incredibly easy for customers to shop, communicate, and exchange or return products. Because of that, they reward us with positive feedback and repeat business, which feels, on its own, a valuable measure of success. We value the more personal relationship and feel if we moved to retail, much of that would be lost.”
Do you want to be in stores with retailers aside from what you’re doing with direct-to-consumer now?
BR: “Really, no, for all the reasons already shared. Kuru was built from grassroots. It was a passion of mine given my fascination with sneakers when I was in elementary school. I started doodling and drawing my own brand of shoes that I believed would compete with the most popular brands. I had big dreams about bringing those drawings to life one day, and based upon where Kuru is today, that dream is now reality. Kuru’s direct-to-consumer model has worked for us. We plan to scale over time by delivering choices our customers demand, keeping overall health, from the ground up, in mind. We think that has been a recipe for success and don’t feel, at this point, that changing it to compete in retail makes sense. The relationships we’ve formed over the years could be lost if we moved to a store or retail strategy, and that is too great a risk. For us, its all about customer trust and loyalty.”
What are your goals for 2019 and beyond? How much financial growth do you hope/expect to experience this year?
BR: “This year is an exciting year for Kuru. We recently debuted the Atom — a product we spent a couple years developing and optimizing. The Atom is the culmination of our insights around KuruSole innovation and how we can make it work even better, design-wise, for our customer. We believe the Atom will position us for incredible growth over the next few years as Kuru invests in the development of a new footwear category altogether. We’re not streetwear, high fashion, sports casual or performance, exclusively. Kuru’s Atom is a cross-over between everyday wear and performance shoe. As a private company, we don’t release financials or percentages, however I can share that we’ve experienced record sales of the Atom, triple the figures already of any other Kuru shoe design to date, which signals to us that we’re meeting customer expectations and demands.”
What advice would you give an entrepreneur looking to start a sneaker brand?
BR: “The most valuable piece of advice I can offer would be to focus on the problem you intend to solve and solve it. If you aren’t solving a problem, market demand for your product may not exist. When Kuru first began, our innovative designs alleviated the discomfort associated with several common foot ailments including plantar fasciitis. In fact, many that at one point suffered from plantar fasciitis and tried Kuru and stayed loyal to our brand because of it. We didn’t set out to ‘fix’ plantar fasciitis. KuruSole just happened to make activity tolerable for those suffering with it.”
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