The first (and the latest) pair of shoes I bought for my kids were Soft Stars. (Spring has clearly gotten the best of them, as you can see here.)
I love Soft Stars, and not only because they’re hand-made in Oregon--BY ELVES--but because they’re light, flat, flexible, and warm (if you need them to be). I vote with my dollars, so researching the backstory of companies is important to me. And so, this is the second post in a series of interviews that provide insight to the businesses behind the “healthy footwear” movement.
Second up in our series is Tricia Salcido of Soft Star Shoes:
(Seriously, their shop is so charming I can hardly stand it. My friend went to visit their shop and the photos she took and showed me made me want to live there.)
As a mom with two little kids, I find your story particularly inspiring. Would you share how you got into the footwear business?
I had no idea I was going to end up making shoes; it was a bit of a happy accident, really! Back in 2005, I was a new Mom with 15 years of experience working in business and engineering. For several years, I had been looking on the side for a business to buy into or start up. I had grown up in an entrepreneurial family and was itching to have something of my own. I had looked at a lot of businesses for sale (including making kitty condos) without a lot of passion, when I discovered Tim in a workshop along the river in Corvallis, Oregon, making shoes. I instantly fell in love with the product and bought some moccasins for my baby daughter. I couldn't stop ooohhing and ahhhing over her new shoes, and a week later I went back to his workshop and asked him if he would ever consider taking on a business partner or selling his company.
Happily Tim was at a point in his life where he welcomed this and that is when I suddenly found myself a part-owner in a shoe company. A friend also joined in at the same time and we got busy growing the business. I was really excited to be part of a company that made such a beautiful product - and wanted more people to have the opportunity to experience it. Truth be told, I'm not that great at actually making the shoes. I'm much better at the business side of things--processes, strategies, design, operations-- but we continue to hire a lot of talented artisans and Tim has stayed with us all these years helping oversee production. We have grown 10X in the last 9 years which of course means a lot of change. But the constant has been our love and passion for our product.
You're clearly playing a part of the "natural movement" movement, but did you go into it with this mindset? And, would you mind sharing how the book Born to Run impacted your business?
Again this is something that from a personal perspective, happened a bit by accident. It was somehow obvious and intuitive to me that for my young baby, being barefoot made a lot of sense. She could walk better, balance better without shoes, and as a new mom, putting shoes on my baby somehow just felt too clumsy. When I discovered Soft Star - my "Mom sense" immediately knew that the soft moccasin shoes and lightweight sandals were amazing for my baby. And Tim (the founder) didn't have to sell me on the health benefits for kids--it was obvious. Once I bought into the company,
I found a wealth of research to support this and began touting how great they were for kids, but it didn't really extend to my personal practice or understanding how this impacted adults until a few years later. I started fielding a lot of phone calls from customers who were using our moccasins to run marathons. I remember being surprised by this. At that time, we really only made baby and kid shoes, with a few moccasins for adults. It was also at that time that Born to Run came out which was also recommended by these same customers.
All the pieces were there for me and I started "listening" more to my own body, balance and feet when I was barefoot, or in my own moccasins, or in my traditional shoes. We got busy designing shoes for adults pretty quickly once all these puzzle pieces fell in place—and in the last 4 years have added a lot great, glove-like shoes for new adult customers.
I love to ask those who work "in footwear": What’s in your closet?
I started running in our moccasins and even barefoot from time to time, and experimenting with other natural movement shoes. Now every shoe in my closet supports natural movement, except for a lone pair of heels I can't quite throw away--but I can't wear them, either!
Ha! I had that lone pair as well, for years. They’re gone now, but I can totally relate! Do you have a picture of them we can see?
Sure. Here you go! Not too exciting (no spiky, kinky shoes, sorry!)...just "mom" heels!
One of the common complaints I see regarding minimal footwear has to do with cost. Many think they should cost less being minimal and all, but they often cost more. It seems these folks are assuming that the cost of a shoe should be equal to the cost of the materials, but it's obviously much more complex than that. Can you walk us through the cost argument?
Our company is quite different from the bigger players - so our cost story doesn't really apply to most other industry players. To start with, I believe we are one of the only minimal leather footwear companies that actually makes our shoes in the USA. We also have less than 20 employees--we are truly a small, family run business. Finally, we are hand-crafting our shoes to order, including design-your-own options using locally sourced, eco-friendly materials. All of these things means our cost structure and business model is completely different than most of the other players in this space.
If we were to try and sell our product wholesale through traditional retail outlets, our prices would have to double to stay in business - which is why we sell direct only. Our margins are very slim and some years we are barely in the black. We are trying to keep our shoes as affordable as possible. We believe passionately in what we are doing and want to make as many healthy feet out there happy as possible.
Personally, I find there’s a big difference between cost and value, and your stuff is so high-quality, I know that one pair of Soft Stars will be worn by multiple children in my community. It brings me joy to give used Soft Stars as gifts, because I know they're appreciated and will be loved. Also, I’m not sure if people know, but you have a place on your site where people can post used shoes. Genius! (Find Soft Star Shoe's Buy and Sell Loved Shoes link here!)
Now, I’m aware you’re not allowed to show us a picture of your elves working, but can we see at least see what their work space looks like?
Sure! This is the leather room.
And the workshop.
Gorgeous! Simply gorgeous.
Your shoes are handmade based on the individual's request, and I imagine you've received some interesting request. What's the most-interesting pair of Soft Star Shoes you've created?
We also do a lot of shoes for kids with special needs, such as malformed feet or DAFO/AFO orthotic boots. Last year we had a child with special needs who really wanted a pair of Air Jordan shoes. Time handmade shoes for him in black and shiny red colors to match Michael Jordan's uniform.
There's also the largest (size 17!) and smallest (size 1) pairs we've ever made. Oh, and the pair made for a boy born without feet. According to his mother, they put them on at the post office and he began running up and down the sidewalk in them. We can't share the private video, but here's a picture of them on a cast.
Wow. I'm kind of crying right now, writing this all out. It seems like you're open to creating what's needed, which is so refreshing and "out of the box."
Do you only wear your shoes or do you have a other brands in your closet?
Only Soft Star! Except for that lingering pair of non-wearable heels..
We have a footwear list for people who live in freezing and wet places, Shoes: The (Winter) List. I'm wondering what you wear when it's cold?
Phoenix, Dash, Merry Jane with Sheepskin innersoles - also the Rogue. But definitely the Phoenix is the warmest!
I have a hunch your company thinks about whole-body health, and not just from the ankle down. What are other ways you promote wellness in your business?
We have an alternate transportation benefit, encourage people to bring their lunches, have an environmentally friendly workplace by not bringing in toxic products (which is difficult in the footwear business). We’re very much a green/reuse/recycle culture, and do things like having hand towels in bathroom instead of paper. My dream someday is to have an in-house yoga space/classes.
Well, I appreciate you taking the time to answer all these questions, and I just have one more to go. Will you, in the foreseeable future, come up with a technology that keeps one shoe from going missing?
Let me know, k? Thanks.
Full disclosure: I did not get paid or compensated (read: no free or discounted shoes) for writing this blog post, I just think Soft Star Shoes are rad.