You’ve been on your feet all day. Maybe you just finished a long run or a long workout. You come home and you kick off your shoes. You look at your toes. Do you feel better? Probably not, if you’ve chosen to wear the wrong shoes. For the last 50 years, performance footwear has thrived with a design philosophy that guarantees discomfort. To address this problem, Xero Shoes makes addictively comfortable footwear designed based on your foot, a quarter of the bones and joints of your entire body or in your feet and ankles. Steven Sashen, CEO of Xero Shoes, explains that a person has more nerve endings in the soles of their feet than anywhere else in the body, except their fingertips and their lips. And so you’re supposed to use these things. They’re supposed to bend, flex to move to feel the world.
If you don’t let them do their job, that function tries to move up into your ankles, your knees, your hips and your back and can cause pain – so Xero designs shoes based solely on your feet for guaranteed comfort. Pretty much all of Steven’s time is spent building the barefoot sandal business that he and his wife Lena started. It all began, almost as a joke, in a corner of a spare bedroom. But now it’s a thriving business with an office, employees, and a LOT of late nights. Xero Shoes (originally Invisible Shoes) are a modern take on the tire sandals made by the Tarahumara in Mexico. They give you all the fun and benefits of being barefoot, but with a layer of protection, style… and FUN.
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Redefining Comfort Through Xero Shoes With Steven Sashen
I’m with Steve Sashen. He is the CEO of Xero Shoes. Welcome to the show, Steven. I appreciate you taking the time.
Thank you. My pleasure.
Tell us a little bit about your business and who you serve.
Xero Shoes is a footwear brand based on a simple idea. Think of it this way. You’ve been on your feet all day, maybe you just finished a long run or a long workout. You come home and you kick off your shoes and you wiggle your toes. Do you feel better? If so, you’ve been wearing the wrong shoes. If you haven’t accidentally gotten into bed still wearing your shoes because you forgot you were wearing them, you’ve been wearing the wrong shoes. It’s not your fault because footwear, for the last 45, 50 years, especially performance footwear has been made with a designed philosophy that guarantees discomfort and there’s literally nothing you can do to fix it.
We make addictively comfortable footwear designed based on your foot. A quarter of the bones and joints of your entire body are in your feet and ankles. You have more nerve endings in the soles of your feet than anywhere but your fingertips and your lips. You’re supposed to use these things. They’re supposed to bend, flex, to move to feel the world. If you don’t let them do their job, that function tries to move up into your ankles, your knees, your hips, and your back and can cause pain. We make shoes designed for feet. They’ve got a nice wide toe box so your toes can spread and relax. We don’t elevate your heel because that messes with your posture. They’re super flexible, so that your feet can bend and move. They’re low to the ground for balance and agility and the soles are thin. They give you the right combination of protection, but they also let you get that feedback that your brain needs to know how to use your feet and everything in between.
There’s now research coming out from Harvard and from BYU and from researchers in Brazil showing how true minimalist footwear, like ours, and I say it that way because there are some products sold as minimalist but they aren’t. True minimalist footwear can improve foot muscle strength, can be helpful with plantar fasciitis or knee osteoarthritis imbalance. People use this for everything, from taking a walk and running ultra-marathons to sandals and shoes, casual and performance. The gist is we let your feet be feet.
What people may not know about you and likely don’t know is that you’re a sprinter.
I’m a competitive sprinter. I’m a 56-year old guy. There’s all masters track and field circuit. My original goal when I got back into sprinting is to win when a bunch of races. Once I got the lay of the land about how the sprinting world was going, my goal became I just want to show up and when I line up at the starting line to have people in the audience going, “What the hell is he doing here?” Then when I beat most, if not all of the people there, they are going, “What the fuck just happened?” That’s what I do.
The reason I bring that up because, historically, you are not a sprinter in school.
Until I was sixteen, seventeen I was the fastest kid anybody knew. Then in junior, senior in high school, when everybody else got taller and I didn’t then my best friend was faster than me. I was already a gymnast. I became an All-American gymnast but on the track world, I was a long jumper and a pole vaulter and I stopped sprinting then. My coach, who was the science teacher, didn’t know how to work with sprinters and so there was no reason to be working with me when there was one guy faster than me on the team already. I didn’t start sprinting again until I was 45, so almost 30 years later.
I think about the folks going out there going, “That’s strange to start your sprinting career again.” That was the genesis, as I understand it. For the folks, tell me the story.
When I got back into sprinting, I was getting injured pretty much constantly. Every other week, I’d pull a rip tear or break something. At one point, I’m hobbling across the kitchen floor and my wife, Lena, says, “Are you having a good time?” I said, “You have no idea how much.” Not from the injuries, but if you’re going to have an identity, a sprinter is a good one. It’s a lot of fun. All this injury, one of the other after the other and a friend of mine was a world champion cross country runner. After a few years of constant injuries, he said to me, “Try running barefoot. See if you learn anything.” The short version of this is what I learned is A) why I was getting injured and B) how to stop getting injured. The answer for that one is because when you’re running barefoot, doing it wrong hurts and doing it right does not. I kept trying to do it right and my injuries and went away. I got faster. I became a Masters All-American sprinter. Technically, for men over the age of 55, you are arguably looking at the fastest Jew in the world.
Is that a category?
I haven’t seen the natural category. I just looked at the list one day and I think I’m the only one. I don’t have much of a Jewish identity except for that joke, but it’s true.
For what folks don’t know, you also were for ten years a comedian.
That was my full-time gig. After this barefoot experience, I knew that having getting as much feedback as possible was a good thing, but it was also helpful to be able to get into restaurants and places like Whole Foods where amazingly, they don’t let you in barefoot, but they’re totally fine if you’re breastfeeding your dog. I made these sandals that were based on a 10,000-year old idea. I’ve just got some rubber from a footwear repair place, got some string from home depot, whipped up this 10,000-year old design idea and that’s what I was living in. People kept saying, “I want some of those.”
They told two friends and they told two friends and they told two friends. Then one day, a guy who had a contract to write a book on The Barefoot Running said, “If you had a website and treated this hobby like a business, I would put you in my book.” I had been an internet marketer since 1992. I’d probably built over a thousand websites, so I rushed home, pitched this idea to my wife said, “Here it is. What do you think?” She goes, “It is a horrible idea. Won’t make any money, do not do this. It’s a distraction from other things we’re doing.” I said, “You’re probably right.”
Lena goes to bed around 9:00 and by 10:00 I had a website up. She growled at me the next day. I said, “It’s a search engine marketing experiment. The people that are ranking for barefoot running and all the key words I care about now, they’re there by accident. I can probably own this and about three months.” It’s not the way it happened. It only took me two, but what we thought was going to be like a car payment, little lifestyle business took off within a month and a half. It was our full-time gig. Eight months into it, we have guys from who’d started a Reebok 40 years ago when it’s a tenth of the size that we are now. We’re sitting around our kitchen table telling us how to run our business and getting us hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of help and advice and design ideas and actual design work. It took off and we have been mind-blowingly lucky all along the way, meeting incredible people who are working for us or have been helpful for us. That’s the gist of how we got here.
I think about the genesis of many business ideas. You started out making the shoe that you were wearing.
What the business was for the first three and a half years was selling this do-it-yourself sandal kit and based on this 5,000-year old idea that. We custom made things for people too. They’d send us a tracing of their foot, we would make it and we’d send it to them. We thought that was going to be our business and the way it evolved since then, if you had asked me even then to predict where we are now, there is no way I could’ve done it.The bigger you get, the harder that gets. That is a challenge. Click To Tweet
Did you do the cutout of all the soles?
The original product was a big sheet of rubber that we cut into smaller sheets of rubber that we sold with placing and instructions. The next product, the one that those former Reebok guys helped us with, they designed a pre-made outsole for us that we had manufactured. You’ve got something that looked more like a foot to begin with that had the holes that you needed for the ankle lacing already built into it that had a better tread. We basically improved on that original sheet of rubber product into something that looked like a shoe. That was already made, so simpler version of the same idea.
I think about the transition from the kitchen table.
It started literally on the floor of a corner of a spare bedroom. Lena and I had debates about whether we should buy a table because it was $35. It’s a lot of money to spend on something like this and then we had a bigger debate when we needed two more tables. Soon the business was that spare bedroom, the other bedroom that was Lena’s office. I had my office and everything taking over the entire basement. We had someone sitting at our conference room table in our dining room who was doing customer service. We had our fulfillment guy in the entire living room area where there was no furniture any longer and then all the inventory was in the garage. After a while of this, my wife thought it would be nice to have a house to ourselves every now that and not just from 10:00 PM until 7:00 AM.
You transitioned at some point to shoes.
The transition went from a cut out do-it-yourself kit, pre-made do-it-yourself kit, ready-to-wear version of the do-it-yourself kit, which was a thong style sandal. When people would say, “I love the kit, I’m not going to make it.” Then we did the ready-to-wear version. Love the ready-to-wear thing, but I don’t like stuff between my toes. Even though this lacing system, which I invented and it’s patented, does not do that same thing like flip-flops where you have to grip with your toes and mess up your posture and your gait, this holds on your foot. We’ve had people run ultra-marathons in a pair of simple sandals like this.
We came up with a sport sandal version. The lacing webbing goes across your toes, “I love that but I needed something a little more trail friendly,” so we did the trail version of that. “I love that but I need shoes from my office,” so we did a casual shoe. “I love that but I need performance shoes,” so we made performance shoe. It’s expanded in concert with our customers telling us what they need next and us having ideas about what would help grow the business and things they haven’t necessarily said they need next, but we know they would need next that would expand our market.
I was thinking about going from where you have fairly good control to having manufacturing and the whole process of going from that.
Manufacturing, I think the technical term is it’s a bitch. I don’t care where you’re manufacturing or who’s doing it. No one can give it the attention that you want and demand on every product. The bigger you get, the harder that gets. That is a challenge. I’ve gotten to the point where when we get a sample of a product, I know I’ll run from the room screaming. I just shake my head and then we solve the problem.
Shifting toward the folks that are passionate about your shoes. Is there a particular demographic?
We cater mostly to people who have feet. We had someone emailed us one day and say, “My father has an accident and four of his toes removed. Which sandal would be best for him?” None. Our audiences are primarily health and fitness-minded men and women. People who shop at Whole Foods. People who sometimes runners of where it started obviously, but it’s expanded way past there. When we first started the company, we knew that this was more than just barefoot runners who were interested in this. Lena and I are walking on Pearl Street downtown Boulder and this gaggle of girl’s runs up to us, “Those things are so cool. Where’d you get those?” We knew that we were onto something. We were on Shark Tank in 2013 and after the show, we got phone calls from people, “I’m not a runner, I’m not a barefoot person but I love these.” We knew there was a much bigger market than what we had originally started with.
It’s health, fitness-minded, wellness people for now. The value of what we’re doing extends, I know this sounds hyperbolic and I know that as a marketer, the last thing that you want to say is this is for everybody, but this is for everybody. Not necessarily our company or our brand. There’ll be versions of this that expand, but the idea of natural movement is for everyone because that’s the way your body was designed. You’re supposed to use these things, not put them in a cast and immobilize them. A friend of mine, he’s a physician. He said, “What I was taught in med school was the foot is this horribly designed structure that needs support and careful attention. What I’ve learned from getting people into minimalist footwear is the foot is an amazing structure that can do everything you want it to, if you let it.”
We know that through science that’s coming out, that starting to show that this can be beneficial for elderly people who had been losing their balance because they haven’t been able to use their feet for years. To kids who are making the transition out of shoes and suddenly having gait problems, to people who’ve had plantar fasciitis or knee osteoarthritis or hip pain or back pain or ankle pain. All the things that are currently being treated with immobility, thick, stiff shoes and orthotics. There’s a high probability that the vast majority of those things are treated better by natural movement.
I have a high arch. I have left feet. In the typical discussions is all I need arch support.
From the guys who made up arch support who sold you on that idea. Arch height is predominantly genetic and partially controlled by the strength of your arch. I had flat feet, like comical flat feet for my whole life until I started going barefoot and using my feet and I developed an arch, not a high arch, but when I step out of a pool, my footprint doesn’t look like a paddle. It looks like a footprint. I was at a chiropractic conference and the guy who was running it said to the other chiropractors, “If you have to pay Steven to let him let you feel his feet, pay them $5, but check these things out.” I let them touch my feet with their clean hands. The point is that I’ve got these strong arches now and I’ve had them for quite a while. That’s what happens. High arches, sometimes you need to do some massage to loosen things up a little bit.
There’s a sprinting coach that I know of who had a great line. He goes, “Strength solves most problems.” That’s true across the board, especially as you start getting older and you don’t get strong by mobilizing something. You put your arm in a cast, it comes out weaker. Same thing with your foot. You put your foot in a cast, which is most shoes that don’t let your feet move naturally and what a shock, they get weaker over time. An arch, architecturally, is a strong structure. The keystone keeps it all in place. You can push down on it hard. The harder you push, the stronger it gets. If you want an arch to collapse, you support it from the bottom. You push up from the bottom and the whole thing falls apart. Same thing with your foot. You support it, it gets weaker.
There is a company who ran an ad for a while about their orthotic insoles and it’s a drawing of a barefoot in profile and next to it was a drawing of a barefoot with their arch support. It said, “34% less stress instantly,” and I said, “Are you measuring “stress” by measuring muscle activation with electromyograph?” They said, “Yes.” I said, “You’re telling me the moment I step on this thing, I get a 34% weaker because I have 34% less muscle activation. Would it be better to put my foot in a cast and have 100% less stress then?” They’re like, “How much less stress? How much weaker is better for you? When does weaker ever makes sense?”
If you went to a doctor and said, “My neck is bothering me.” He said, “We’re going to have to put your wrist in a cast for the rest of your life.” You go, “What? Are you insane?” When you go to a doctor and say, “My back is bothering me,” he says, “We’re going to immobilize your foot for the rest of your life.” That makes sense and it only makes sense because people have been doing this for a little over 40 years, for a couple of generations. After a few generations it becomes “common wisdom” or just the way it is. That doesn’t mean it was right. It’s like Betamax and VHS. VHS won even though it was not the better idea. The footwear ideas that are currently popular, one that they are by far not the better ideas.
I think about all of the things we grew up thinking about and all the things that our parents shared with us because that’s what they thought.
We thought atoms were little balls rotating around other little balls. That’s not the way it is.
What’s the biggest crowd that pushes back against this technology?
Big footwear companies. They’re terrified. In 2009, 2010 with the idea of barefoot running started to take off, they were writing editorials like, “If you run barefoot, you’re going to step on hypodermic needles and get Ebola and your kids won’t get into college and your mortgage is going to go up.” They were freaking out with the idea that people would just stop wearing their shoes. Everything they were saying was patently false or completely no evidence behind it. People treat us like we’re the intervention. It’s the other way around. All footwear up until the mid ’60s looked like ours. Then big thick padded motion control shoes started getting developed. They are the intervention and there’s no evidence that those things improved performance or reduce injury. They’ve had lots of time to do it, a lot of money to do it, and have not done it.
I thought about the distance runner. There’s a distance runner tribe out of Mexico.
Yes, the Tarahumara. There’s a bunch of Kenyan runners. All around the world, there are people who run in things that are extensively like ours or that started out like ours and evolved slightly. The Tarahumara, they make sandals out of scraps of used car tires and leather to hold it on their foot. They’re like bricks. They’re pretty heavy but that’s what they run in. It’s similar to barefoot and they run barefoot too.
As a kid, I grew up in the south, so no wonder I was barefooted. I didn’t have shoes for school but I thought it was faster than barefooted than I ever thought I was at shoes.
It’s probably true. One of my friends is a woman. She was an Olympian from New Zealand. She trained barefoot most of the time when she was in New Zealand. Then she moved to the States and got a shoe contract and that’s when she started getting injured.Human beings spend pretty much every thought trying to predict the future and guess what will make us happy. Click To Tweet
Do you think we’ll ever see an Olympic athlete running barefoot?
It’s already happened multiple times. Zola Budd ran the 10K. She ran that barefoot. Ron Hill ran in Mexico City barefoot. Abebe Bikila won the marathon barefoot. It happens. There has been a race where someone’s shoe came off in the middle of the race and still placed. There’s no evidence that footwear is helpful, except for the fact that most tracks surfaces now are abrasive because they’re built for traction, so that’s problematic, but you could make a better track surface and people would be running barefoot, except for the fact that most of those athletes are making a living by getting money from the shoe companies who give them the shoes they wear. That’s my favorite thing people say is, “If you know barefoot is so much better, how come Olympians aren’t going barefoot?” I said, “Because no one gives them a million dollars to run with no shoes.”
How do folks find you on social media?
In your current career, what’s an influential book that’s changed how you think?
There are a couple. One is Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert from Harvard. The premise of which is simple. Human beings spend pretty much every thought, some either overtly or subtly trying to predict the future and guess what will make us happy. We are incredibly bad at it. The only thing that we’re worse at is remembering how bad we are at it. Even if we did get that thing that we think would make us happy, we would find that it’s not true. His prescription for solving that is find as many people as possible who have the thing that you think will make you happy and check with them and see if they’ve gotten any happier. Maybe you will discover from attrition that they’re not any happier or any different and then you’ll get over believing this thought that some imagined future will make you happy. That’s one. He also did a TED Talk.
Fooled by Randomness by Nassim Taleb. One of the premises being that most success is due to luck, fate, chance, and things that are massively out of your control. The surest way to failure is by believing that you were the causal factor in all those and trying it again because you think you’re so smart. If you look at the companies that have been featured as being successful companies in the past, you’ll discover that many of them are long gone. Apple is a great example of what a successful company looks like for getting what Apple looked like in the ’90s when they were using it for the exact opposite example. The subtitle for Fooled by Randomness is something along the lines of The Hidden Role of Chance in Life. We just undervalue that.
When I got a master’s in film, one of my teachers was the director, Miloš Forman, who sadly died. Someone said to me, “What’s the secret of making a good movie?” He said, “90% of making good movie is casting and the other 10% is casting.” I feel like that about business. 90% is luck and the other 10% is luck. Then there’s a whole other 100% called work your ass off and that’s what we do. Those are the two biggies that I can think of.
You have come off the trail of multitudes of trade shows and the glamorous side of running your own business is.
This is my fourteenth hour day in a row. Lena and I haven’t had a vacation in five years. We’ve had one or two days off. A day off means only three hours of email.
For folks that think about, “I want to own my own business, so I’m in control.”
That’s my favorite thing when people we haven’t seen in a while, they see us and they go, “You got your own business. That must be fun.” I go, “You’ve never done this, have you?” I’m not saying that you can’t do it in a way that’s different than this. Part of the reason that it’s like this is because we’re growing so fast. A couple years in, I said to Lena, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a little internet-based business? Took a few hours a day? You made a couple $100,000 a year?” That’s what we have. Too bad I can’t stay that way. Our commitment to what we’re doing to natural movement and to this business, because we bootstrapped it, we don’t have some large amount of cash where we can have a party with hot and cold running and people who get them seen salaries for sitting around twiddling their thumbs.
Everybody here is working their butt off and we would love to have enough cash to bring in more talent, but I do not, in any way, harbor the illusion that that would reduce the amount of time that we’re working on this for a while. It changes the balance of what the work is from activity to managerial perhaps. There’s still a lot to do and I am ever forever grateful that I’m doing this with my unbelievably brilliant wife because there’s no way this would happen without someone who is equally committed to the business as your partner. If I had to hire someone to do what she does, it’s not possible. I’m the luckiest man on the planet. I feel unbelievably grateful.
For you looking back over your current career, what failure, or at the time, apparent failures serve you or the company best and set you up for future achievement?
I don’t have a frame of reference for failure. I don’t put things on the scale of success and failure. It doesn’t make sense to me. What I can tell you is that the market’s change. We started this business in the recession. The barefoot running idea took off in 2009, 2010. We thought we were going to ride that wave until our retirement. Then the big shoe companies came in and fought like hell and came up with what they call minimalist footwear, which they claimed gave the same benefits but didn’t.
Then they went after Vibram, the company that made those five finger shoes saying that they had made unsubstantiated medical claims, which they did. They claimed that those shoes would strengthen your feet and they did not have proof for that. There was no study showing those shoes did. The case settled for $3.75 million, which is chunk change in something like this because there were enough dots they can connect between that shoe and actual studies that did show that minimalist footwear improved foot strength. The way it was spun in the media was “Barefoot is bullshit.”
We’ve been fighting a multi-billion-dollar behemoth that as the market changed, as the word barefoot became tainted in retail because the of five fingers lawsuit and the fact that that shoe is finicky, it’s hard to get on your feet, it doesn’t fit, it wasn’t marketed accurately, that was marketed as a panacea, “Just put these on in your life will change.” It’s not the truth. We’ve had to change the direction we’re paddling multiple times because of various things, production problems, cost issues that we have to deal with. Early on, Lena was upset one night and she said something like, “I feel like I don’t know what I’m doing.” I said, “No one knows what they’re doing. This is uncharted territory. Our job is to figure out every day what we need to learn next, so we can deal with what happened.” The next day, she’s like, “Got it.” Everything is a constant readjusting while still maintaining true to our course and we’re so lucky that we’ve been able to bootstrap this because we know companies that believe in what we do but have not been able to do it because they have corporate overlords who tell them to do different things.
If you could put it out on the local paper sharing your message, what would it say and why?
“Your shoes suck. Find out why.” If I could start it all over again, I would call our company Truth Footwear and our motto, our tagline will be, “Bullshit, not included.” I don’t like it when people make money by lying to other people and that’s my take on what the footwear world has been in the last 45 years. Every six months, it’s some magic new technology that’s going to change your life. Adidas is doing a thing and they made a lot of money with a foam that they call Boost foam.
They show how it’s so much better than the other company’s foam. They’re using a foam that no other company has ever used, but they showed that a one-pound steel ball bounces off their boost foam well. If you want the ball to bounce better, you just bounce it off of a steel plate because physics, but they’re not making steel-plated shoes. They made all this money off this. When you hit the ground, if you’re a 150-pound person, you hit the ground between 300 and 600 pounds of force. One-pound steel balls meaningless. They have shown this little bouncy ball thing all over the place and people go, “That must be good.” Where’s the proof?
What’s the best allocation of time or initiative that has helped this company most?
The fact that I don’t sleep. One of our employees came in one Monday morning and said, “How are you doing?” I said, “What do you mean?” He goes, “How are you doing? You’re taking care of yourself?” I said, “I’m not sure what you’re getting at.” He said, “You’re resting and feeling good.” “Dude, I’m just doing what needs to get done.” I do that until like on a Saturday or Sunday, I fall down and take a nap for three hours. My to-do list is infinitely long and I’m just trying to check things off of it, so I don’t think about time allocation. I just try and do what’s next.
I was thinking about time allocation and you’re still competitively sprinting. In your schedules and stuff, what is your training regimen look like?
Since I’m an old guy, I can’t do as much as I would like to. I’m on the track twice a week. Then I try to hit the weight room twice a week.
What’s your best exercise for improving your speed?
There’s no evidence that there’s any exercise that demonstrably improve speed. We do a bunch of things that we think do, so things like plyometric, things like box jumps, explosive stuff, things that are similarly fast to sprinting. There are some things you can do for strength like weighted hip thrusts. Some people argue about squats. I have a fondness for the one arm dumbbell snatch, which sounds like something our president would do. There’s certain explosive exercise that are very satisfying because you’re moving large amounts of weight very quickly.
What would people say is your most unusual habit that helps you succeed?
I don’t know what helps me succeed. I don’t use that context. I don’t settle for the status quo. I’m very curious and I want to know what the essential cause of something is. This is a weird thing, I can spot urban myth from a mile away. That sounds weird. Years ago, I had heard for the umpteenth time about some study that followed the graduating class from Princeton from 1952 or something. Twenty years later, the 3% are more successful than the other 97%. The only thing different between the two groups was the top 3% had written down their goals. I got the hint that was probably nonsense. That’s not true. I got the hint that was bullshit. Then I said nonsense to tone that down.Business is 90% luck and the other 10% is luck. Then there's a whole other 100% called work your ass off. Click To Tweet
I put out the word on the inner tubes saying, “I would pay someone $1,000 if they could show me the original study and I’d give someone $1,000 if they could prove that it didn’t happen even though you can’t prove the nonexistence of something.” Twenty minutes later, I got an email back from the guy who started Snopes.com saying, “Here’s some research people did.” It was in Fast Company Magazine where they found it was a little circular loop of everyone quoting everyone else. The first person probably made it up, so it never happened. I said, “That was so easy. I feel reluctant to give you $1,000 to be honest.” He goes, “I didn’t think you were going to give me anything.” I said, “Here’s $500.”
I seem to have a sense of when something has been repeated over and over to the point where people think is true, but it’s not. There’s a flavor, there’s a sound that there’s something where you can hear the lack of thinking involved. One of my best friends, he’s the guy who suggested that I run barefoot. We became friends because we had the same running coach. One day, I noticed he wasn’t doing certain drills that the coach was recommending we do. I noticed that because I wasn’t doing them either. I walked up and said, “Why aren’t you doing this?” He goes, “Because that was bullshit.” I said, “I know.” There’s so much mythology that’s passed down generation to generation. I’m good at hearing that and finding what’s true underneath it.
The other thing that people don’t necessarily notice is I have this wacky a skill or habit. I’m good at understanding movement. As an undergrad, I did research on cognitive aspects of motor skill acquisition and I’ve taught everything between Zen archery and yoga and Tai Chi or running gymnastics and long jumping and pole vaulting. I’m good at figuring out what the essential factor is in certain kinds of movements and helping people focus on those rather than the mythological one. One of my sprinting coaches, I remember him saying to me one day we’re doing a drill and he said, “You have to get your hips over your feet.” I said, “I’m in the middle of the air. I can’t move the position of my joints in that way. That doesn’t work.” What you’re saying, and you don’t know it is that I’m pushing off in the wrong way, so that my hips aren’t over my feet when they should be. You’re saying something that’s the effect and we’ve got to go back and find the cause. I’m good at doing that English to English translation.
You wrote a screenplay?
I wrote a number of screenplays.
On the evolution of that, then you created a software company.
I have a master’s in film and I focused on screenwriting. The software that existed at the time for putting scripts in a very arcane and ridiculous format that they have to be in for submission was all very hyper-complicated and not good. I figured out the essential way of designing software to allow that formatting that’s required for screenplays to happen totally automatically on the fly, on the screen with no extra keystrokes and in fact, you get rid of keystrokes to do it. That came out in 1992, and to this day, no one has to be able to replicate what I intended.
What’s it called?
Over the past few years, what belief or protocol have you put in place in the company that’s most impacted what you do?
My half comical answer to that is you’d have to ask Lena. She’s the one who cares about the company. What I mean by that is that she’s focused on people in corporate culture and I tend to be a bit myopic about getting things done in marketing and product stuff. Given my druthers, this is going to sound paradoxical, I’m extroverted person. I like individuals. I don’t like people. Given my druthers, just put me in a room and then when I’m done doing my work, let’s go have some fun with a bunch of people. I participate in the meetings that my wife makes me come to. We have codified many things in the development cycle of footwear so that we aren’t under the gun. We’re not always racing to get something done. We have a little more time and space to deal with the challenges of making footwear, like the kind that we make. That’s been a huge help and calmed people down quite a bit.
This company is pretty casual. I don’t think of it as hierarchical, which is a bit of a problem. There’s someone here who always calls me boss and I don’t correct him because he likes doing that, but I don’t see it that way. These are all like friends. We’re all peers trying to make something happen. We’ve implemented a profit sharing program. We’re finally able to do this and the shares get divided equally among everyone who’s here, part-time’s slightly different full-time, but we don’t think there’s anyone more or less important than anybody else in this company and we do things to demonstrate the truth of that.
If you’re going to offer advice to a new CEO that was taken the role for the first time.
Quit. Get a government job with a pension. Get out before it’s too late. I’m totally serious when I say that. If I have friends now who are retiring from government jobs with pensions. That is nice. It’s a sweet gig. There are government jobs that had you told me they existed when I was in my 20s. I would have been interested in that, but it never occurred to me. My dad once said to me, “Why don’t you just go get a job?” I said, “It wouldn’t end well for anybody.” There are jobs, a gig where you could go home at 5:00 PM and have a weekend and paid vacation.
The other thing about the government job with a pension is if that’s tempting to you, then you shouldn’t be an entrepreneur. If that makes no sense to you, even if your entrepreneurial idea is incredibly stupid, you’re going to do it anyway. I can’t dissuade you. If you are an entrepreneur and if I could dissuade you, I should. This is not for the faint of heart. It’s not that it turns into work so much is that it’s just hard. The responsibility is huge. Those of us who do this don’t think of it as risky. If I go bankrupt, I go bankrupt. I don’t give a crap, but that’s a real possibility at all times.
You have employees that depend on you.
We have 24 people who depend on us. When we think of our retail partners and distributors, there are hundreds of people for whom we’re responsible. That is not lost on me ever.
For you, what do you think the biggest misconception about your role as CEO?
I called a friend of mine who’s a serial CEO one day and I said, “I don’t think I’m CEO material.” He goes, “You’ve misunderstood how the CEO thing works.” I said, “How’s that?” He goes, “There are different kinds of CEOs. There are financial CEOs,” which is what I am. “There are organizational CEOs. There are leadership CEOs who have the cheerleader role and there are product CEOs or product marketing CEOs. That’s what you.” That’s a better time because that’s rarer. I look at it and I wish I were the organizational leadership guy. I wish I was a rah-rah-sis-boom-bah guy. Apparently, I’m good at enlisting people into my vision for things, but that’s only because it’s true. It doesn’t take any effort to enlist someone if what you’re saying is obviously true. Luckily and happily, I only do things that are obviously true because why would I otherwise?
Lena and I are Siamese twins when it comes to running this thing. She is technically the CFO and because we are a married couple with a shared vision, we are combined a better CEO than almost any CEO I’ve met. The misconceptions are things like I’m the one who’s supposed to know everything about the numbers. She knows everything about the numbers. I know the high-level stuff, but if you want to ask her down to the penny on everything is, you talk to Lena. My job is to be some inspirational cheerleader. Maybe I even succumb to this. I meet CEOs who are serious and they have a sense about business as a concept, like they could run any business because they understand business. What I understand is marketing and product and Lena understands finance and understands the business level, but I’m not that guy who can walk into any business and restructure things based on some seeming understanding of what a business is. I build brands. That’s what I do.
That’s your historical work in the internet space. We were talking about you doing copywriting as well, which will be a follow on from what you did at the film school.
When I’ve invented Scriptware, I came up with the product. I built that brand. If people look at it now, you’re going to see it’s been neglected for the last dozen years. I start from the product side and the marketing side and create something from there. I’m not the guy who’s doing it by going out and raising millions of dollars because I’m tapped into the VC community. I make stuff.
If you’re looking back over the past few years, what would or should you have said no to and why?
I literally can’t answer that question about anything in my life because at the time that I did it, it was the best decision I could make given all the circumstances and my beliefs.
In your day-to-day operation as CEO, what’s the personal habit or self-talk that keeps you going?
I didn’t have one. Same thing.
Just show up and work?
I’ve got to just do what’s next.
Is there a quote that you find useful or meaningful that you can repeat?
The reason that I’ve got noes for all these is that to a certain extent, these questions have evolved out of what I refer to as the business psychology world. There are certain things you need to believe, certain activities you need to take. All of this is determined in hindsight. We look at companies and we say, “What made them successful?” This is what human beings do. Our job as human beings is to try to figure out what things led to the cause that we ultimately want, so that we can recreate them to get what we want. I have no interest in it.
People say, “Who do you admire?” I say, “Nobody.” Not because I’m self-aggrandizement or narcissistic but because I don’t know their life. I can’t be the next Richard Branson. What’s the proof? There hasn’t been another Richard Branson yet. There’s no other Steve Jobs. There’s no other Bill Gates. There’s no other pick someone who’s the fry cook at Wendy’s. There’s no other one of him either. I don’t concern myself with how other people did things in circumstances that are unreproducible.We love the idea that we can figure out what thing will reliably give us what we want. It's just not true. Life is more complicated. Click To Tweet
Did you start out that way? As a kid, as you went through the educational hierarchy that you did, how did you start getting to this point?
A little bit of both. My mother likes to say, “To quote my son, this is true.” I had some of that to begin with, but there were places where I was completely blind as well. I was heavily involved in all forms of new age nonsense. I was new age-y. I spent a lot of time meditating from the time I was eight up until the time I was about 38. Then I discovered that I also happen to hang out with people who run things. I’m hanging out with people who are other people’s guru and they’re saying to me things like, “I have a friend who’s a big deal Zen teacher.”
He says, “If my students knew what was happening in my mind when I sat to meditate, they would fire me and then kill me.” By knowing all these teachers personally, I came to the inescapable conclusion that there was no there-there. More accurately, the promise of most spiritual practice, I’ve never met anyone who’s gotten the end result. If they did, it’s just as likely they got it from maturing and aging and just getting over themselves, not from sitting on their bottom watching their breathing for some amount of time.
Zen archery is an interesting thing. The structure of the Zen archery practice is you end up limiting yourself to a certain number of thoughts like trying to look good or being afraid or wanting to prove something. After some number of years of those four thoughts over and over, you bore the shit out of yourself. When those thoughts come up, you don’t pay attention. They call that growth or awakening. It’s boring yourself. It’s understanding the process of thinking well enough that you’re no longer swayed by certain kinds of thoughts, like believing that we know what will make us happy in the future. I no longer believe that because I examined it so thoroughly and found no evidence for the efficacy of it that I don’t care when that comes up.
I don’t do quotes. The whole phenomenon of using hindsight bias to figure out some common factor that reliably leads to someplace. If it existed, everybody would have done it by now. Simon Sinek, he’s got this whole thing that the big companies, what grew them is that they have a why. Complete bullshit. I can give you an infinitely long list of companies that had great why that went out of business and companies that succeeded despite the fact that they didn’t know what the hell they were doing. The woman who created the HairDini that sold one for every human being on the planet didn’t have a big why when she came up with it. One of the most successful businesses ever. Spanx, maybe she had a why, but it has not what made the business successful. It made the business successful because it made you look thinner and it wasn’t marketed well.
We love the idea that we can figure out what thing will reliably give us what we want. It’s just not true. Life is more complicated. You could have had the best why, the best business planning, the best mentors, the best whatever. If you were starting a Middle Eastern Tourist Agency on September 10th, you were screwed. If you happen to open your duct tape and plastic sheeting business, you couldn’t beat the money away. Other than the obvious lessons about make a good product, give people what they want, treat people well, provide real customer service, provide a good price, do the right thing, show up on time. There’s no secret. There’s just working your ass off and crossing your fingers. The infinite number of things that could go wrong on a daily basis that could shut down any business is unfathomable. You prepare for that. You want to be as protected as you can knowing that you can only do so much.
The thought that came to my mind is back to your running. You’re at a race and depending on age and handicap, they’ll stagger at the race.
What they do is they break it down by age. Although there is a handicap 100 meters that we do with this one race, so the older you are, the less you have to run. It’s the most exciting race in the world because the handicapping is very accurate. It’s people who are in their twenties to people who are in their 90s and it’s always a photo finish it. It is so cool.
As you’re getting ready for the start, what’s in your mind?
Not much. Someone will come and shake my hand and hit me in the back and go, “Have a good race.” I go, “There’s no money at the end of this. Just get to the end and have a good time. I want to kick your ass but just get to the end and have a good time.” One of the reasons that I love sprinting is that it is so simple in your mind. The moment between set and the gun going off is the quietest my mind ever is. I adore that moment. That’s not even accurate because there’s no feeling of pleasure. It’s just this waiting that is exquisite. It’s exquisite in the moment. It’s just waiting. It’s very simple but you only get a couple of thoughts. You drive, lift, hold on. It’s about it. I adore that. My favorite thing at the end of a race, someone says, “How did you do?” I go, “With or without the excuse because you never get it perfect.” Everyone’s always got the story before they tell you the time. “I dragged my foot a little too far on that thing. I tripped out of the blocks. Didn’t get over my feet right.” It’s just fun.
If I was to talk to your colleagues and ask them what you’re best at, what would they say?
I have no idea.
What do you think your best at?
I don’t know that either. The thing that I think they would say is coming up with ideas. I’m an ideator.
We met at that celebration for Bolder Industries. I said you have a very fast retrieval vocabulary, so I was looking forward to it.
I like words. They’re fun. Words are good. Thank you.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate you taking time out of your day. Thank you so much for your time. If everyone out there have not looked in to his shoes, go to Xero Shoes. Go to the site and check it out because I did. I am a proud owner of a couple of pair.
Thank you. This is totally a blast and you don’t need to thank me for taking out time. This is literally the only time that I get to rest. I find this more restful than answering thousand emails. If anyone got any benefit out of this, they completely misunderstood me, so I want to be clear about that.
Steve, I appreciate it. Thank you so much.
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About Steven Sashen
Steven Sashen is the developer and CEO of Xero Shoes • Your Original Barefootware – www.XeroShoes.com. Steven and his wife, Lena Phoenix, started the “Barefoot… PLUS!” sandal business in late 2009; he had returned to sprinting 2 years earlier, at age 45, and experienced almost continuous injuries. An experiment with running barefoot cured the injuries and improved his times. Knowing about the Tarahumara indians in Mexico, who run hundreds of miles in sandals made of tire scraps lashed to their feet, Steven created a high-tech upgrade of that product and launched it online.
With nothing but Search Engine Marketing and Social Media Marketing, Xero Shoes has become the best-selling running sandal in the world.
Steven’s commitment is to making footwear that lets customers connect with the ground and “Feel The World,” fits perfectly, express wearer’s personalities, outlasts any other footwear, and uses fewer resources than any other footwear. He’s also committed to discovering and teaching the best techniques for teaching natural movement — for walking, hiking, and running.
Prior to jumping into the sandal business, Steven was an internationally-known Internet marketing expert, Search Engine and Social Media marketing consultant, and software designer. He also co-hosted the Emmy award winning, internationally syndicated TV show, Disk Doctors.
Steven is also a Masters All-American sprinter, one of the fastest 50+ year olds in the United States.
Specialties: barefoot running, SEO/SEM, marketing, meditation, turning ideas into products.