On today’s episode, Kunle is joined by Billy Price, Co-Founder of BILLY Footwear, a shoe company that creates inclusive, functional, and fashion-trendy shoes.
Living an adventure-filled life as a child and getting into a university to get a degree in mechanical engineering, Billy Price’s whole life was already planned ahead of him until his light was dimmed after a tragic fall from a three-story high window when he was 18. When he thought that this life-changing event had already confined him in his wheelchair forever, Darin, his childhood friend, gifted him a pair of shoes that was made especially for him, and little did he know that these shoes would make his light radiate even stronger.
BILLY Footwear began as a simple gift from a friend to another friend in need. Now, they have sold over a million pairs of shoes and are continuously growing, adding value to people’s lives. Billy shares their unique marketing strategy, getting into wholesaling and retail channels, and the inspiration behind their shoe styles.
This episode is especially inspiring as you’d hear Kunle and Billy talk about the successes and struggles in building a company and staying true to its values no matter how much time passes and how big their company grows.
Here is a summary of some of the most important points made:
On today’s interview, Kunle and Billy discuss:
Q: Are you a morning person?
A: Yes. When I get up, I drag out of bed.
Q: Do you have a daily morning routine?
A: I get up in the morning and have a cup of tea. I catch up on the emails that came through the day and through the evening and then I head to work.
Q: What are two things can’t you live without?
A: My wife and my kids.
Q: What book are you reading or listening to?
A: The book I’m reading is Shoe Dog. It’s the Nike story. My wife has already read it and she forced me to read it because there are so many pages within that book that our brand story can resonate with.
Q: What are your three indispensable tools for managing your business, BILLY Footwear?
A: I would say a strong culture and a fun culture for the employees. Two is empathy, knowing that everyone’s in the grind and realizing that we’re all in this together. Three would be motivation to promote and show that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and what that’s going to look like when we get there.
Q: What’s been your best mistake to date? By that, I mean a setback that’s given you the biggest feedback.
A: This is going to take more than a quick sentence. When we first started way back when and had that crazy epic fail where 80% of our product was bad, that moment in time was a defining moment. We could have quit but instead, we moved forward. It was a matter of finding better relationships and better factories and that set us up for success to get us to where we are today.
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After I recorded this episode, I cried. It’s a setback story that led to this founder creating a DTC brand of meaning. It’s an omnichannel brand of meaning. It’s a great episode you do not want to miss.
Welcome to the 2X eCommerce Podcast show. The 2X eCommerce podcast is dedicated to digital commerce insights for retail and eCommerce teams. Each week, on this podcast, we interview either commerce experts, a founder of a digital-native consumer brand, or a representative from a best-in-class commerce Software as a Service company.
We give them a tight remit to give you ideas that you can test right away on your brand so you can improve commerce growth metrics such as your conversions, average order value, repeat customers, your audience size, and ultimately your gross merchandise value or sales. We are here to help you sell more sustainably.
In this episode, I interviewed Billy Price. He’s the Co-founder of BILLY Footwear, a shoe-wear company that started after Billy suffered a spinal cord injury as a teenager. This one made me cry. When I heard his story, his resilience, and what he’s been able to achieve, I cried after this episode. It was a deeply emotional one, for sure.
They are employing over twenty full-time employees. He started with a prototype to fulfill his personal needs. Given the fact that he had mobility issues, putting on a pair of shoes was very tough for him. He scaled that out. He has been featured in stores. You can get BILLY shoes from Nordstrom, Zappos, and other retail outlets. they’re an omnichannel brand in that sense. They’re also going to be featured in the Ghostbusters movie. It’s become a brand in the chronic illness space.
Billy also has a Bachelor of Science in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Washington. Having had that accident in which he lost mobility in college in the United States, he still went back to study. That in itself was powerful. Within five years of starting BILLY Footwear, he’s been on Nordstrom, Zappos, and Amazon.
You’re going to learn from this episode how Billy built his DTC business, how he prototyped the power of partnerships because he has a co-founder, and you’re going to learn how he’s been able to get to stores, to Nordstrom and how he’s been able to get to Zappos. Given the fact that Zappos is an Amazon company, he’s on Amazon as a result of Zappos and he tells us exactly how he’s been able to do it. We talked about the future plans for BILLY Footwear.
The most important thing here is his story. We delve into a lot of marketing and operational tactics they’ve used to grow BILLY over the years. That story hopefully gives you some inspiration to get out there and kill it no matter what your circumstances are. After this, you’re going to learn about our sponsors. Right after that, expect to enjoy this story. Have a good one.
Billy, welcome to the 2X eCommerce podcast.
Thank you so much. It’s a pleasure to be here.
I’m excited and looking forward to this conversation because you have quite an impactful backstory. Before we jump into your backstory, Billy, I’d like you to give a brief overview of BILLY Footwear, what you do, and what you bring to market, and then we’ll jump right into your backstory.
I’m Billy Price, the Co-founder of BILLY Footwear. We are a shoe company based out of Seattle, Washington in the United States. The premise of our shoes, we have zippers in shoes. Having zippers in shoes isn’t necessarily original but the way we do it is pretty original where it goes on the outside of the shoe and around the toe. The whole upper of the shoe is able to fold over and you’re able to drop your foot unobstructed.
The big question is, why would one come up with a design like that? As a wheelchair user, I don’t have good hand dexterity. I struggle with shoving my foot into a shoe. Having a shoe that opens up, I can drop my foot unobstructed. With the limited hand dexterity that I have, I can pull that zipper and close it up. It is truly an easy solution for me and a whole lot of other people.
That’s a lot to take in. It’s clever. I would imagine that the zipper is easy to pull through. Is it a normal zipper or is it an easy-pull zipper?
It’s a normal zipper. The only difference is it’s a locking zipper. When the zipper is all the way up, you fold it back and it’s locked into position so it doesn’t roll down.
The second point is, have you always been in a wheelchair?
No. I had pretty much a whole life prior to being in a wheelchair. I broke my neck when I was 18 years old. I was a freshman at college and I fell out of a three-story window. When that happened, I broke my neck and I broke my back. It was a spinal cord injury in both locations. My life changed immediately.
That’s a lot to take in. How long ago was this?
It’s coming up in 26 years. This October 9th, 2022, it’ll be 26 years. It’s been over half of my lifetime being in a wheelchair.
Sorry to hear about that. Let’s go back to your childhood. Where did you grow up in Seattle? What kind of childhood did you have? Were you entrepreneurial? Did you try to solve problems?
I grew up outside of Seattle, about 30 minutes west of here. I was an inquisitive and fiercely independent kid. I played lots of sports, went on lots of hikes, and mountain biked, you name it in the sports category. In terms of inquisitive though, my dad had a big woodshop adjacent to the garage with all the tools. I spent so much time in that shop building things but also taking a lot of stuff apart to understand how things worked. That type of mentality stuck with me forever.
When I went to university, I went pursuing a mechanical engineering degree. I want to understand how things worked. That was my mindset growing up. It was not an entrepreneurial type mindset. My family was like, “Go to school. Get good grades. Go to college. Get a good degree. Get out of college, get a good job, save, and retire.” That was the upbringing that I came up with. Entrepreneurship was new to me. Once it was in my blood, I am thoroughly addicted and I will not give it up.
Growing up, you had a friend, his name was Darin. Do you want to shed some more light on your relationship with him in childhood and who turns out to be your co-founder?
Darin and I are longtime friends. We rode the bus together to go to school. We went to elementary school, junior high, and high school. We went to the same college but we were studying different things. As it goes with longtime friends, you stay in contact but you don’t necessarily see each other all the time. Our paths separated for a bit. He invited me over to his house in 2011 for a Christmas party. We hadn’t seen each other for a while so we were spitballing ideas and catching up.
At that moment, he was telling me about what he was working on, which, coincidentally, was a shoe project. He had challenged himself. He’d always enjoyed shoes but didn’t know how to put them together. He challenged himself to go out and take a class, learn how shoes get put together, and how to get them made. As he was telling me this, it got me excited.
With me being in a wheelchair and going through rehab, there are so many things that I used to be able to do that I could no longer do. I figured out how to come up with workarounds to make it work. The one thing that always escaped me was shoes. As Darin was telling me his shoe story, I threw an idea at him, “Darin, if we had a shoe with a zipper on the outside and it goes around the toe, I bet I could take back that independence.” He was intrigued by it.
He made a drawing and made a prototype. When he gifted it to me, that was the first time I put my shoes on in eighteen years. It was special, we knew we had to share it. Darin, being the serial entrepreneur that he is, saw a much bigger picture that we could turn this into a business. Like that, we had the platform to be able to share it with the world. It became a side hustle and then we ran with it.
We’re going to go back to my bit again. Going back to your childhood, you ended up in college, where? Did Darin also go to college? How did your path split in the ‘90s?
We both went to the University of Washington, which is a University here in Seattle. It wasn’t like a split. It was more we were doing different things. Darin was studying business and entrepreneurship. I was in mechanical engineering. We’re a year apart. The crowd he was running with and the crowd I was running with were a little bit different. I was living in a fraternity at the time. He was in a different house, too. We hadn’t seen each other in a while. Every time we did connect here and there, we were always right back on the same page. It was that Christmas party he invited me over and it took on a whole different form.
It changed things.
When we launched that business, the two of us became co-founders and later became BILLY Footwear.
One more question back to the incident. When you have a life-changing accident, what was the rest of college like? What did you then do between that time and the ideation of BILLY Footwear with Darin?
I broke my neck within two weeks of school. From that moment, for the next five and a half months, I was an inpatient at a hospital on campus trying to figure things out. I was figuring out what wheelchair is going to replace my legs, figuring out how to feed myself, write my name, get dressed, and all the basic stuff that I had taken for granted at that point.
After getting out of the hospital, I moved home for a little bit. I moved back into the same fraternity that I was living in, the same fraternity that I fell out of the window going into the fall quarter. I lived there for four years and that’s where I finished my mechanical engineering degree. I started in mechanical engineering and had a two-week dent in it. I decided to come back to school and get right back on the horse and give it a go.
I ended up graduating in mechanical engineering. Following college, I went and started working for the Federal Aviation Administration. Here in the States, it’s a government job, the airplane business. I didn’t have much to do with the airplanes, it was more air conditioning and project management for all the facilities on the ground to make sure that everyone inside those buildings, the equipment, or whatever can do its job and make sure that the flying public was safe. That job was a stable job.
The back end of the last three years of working there, that’s when this side hustle, BILLY Footwear, began. Darin and I work our day jobs and then we work on shoes every evening and the weekends for three years. It finally gained enough traction to be able to step away from our day jobs to do this full-time. It was a lot of regular work, day in and day out. Travel here and there, buy a place, and start driving that stuff.
The effort compounds, for sure. It gets to a certain point where you know, “We have something tangible to move with.” It’s an incredible story. You’ve sold how many units to date? How many pairs of shoes have you sold to date?
It started with one. I was the first customer. This summer, we sold our 1,000,000th shoe.
That’s a lot. When did you start BILLY Footwear?
The conversation with Darin was in 2011. We started the business in 2012. We started getting serious in 2015. We hit the shelves of major retailers in 2017.
How did you sell your first 1,000 pairs? Given the fact that shoes are somewhat troublesome in the sense that I can have 1 or 12 different variations, what was your approach to production? How did you sell your first 1,000? Did you get attention? How did you get those first customers, many of which would still be with you today? I’m curious.
The first 1,000 pairs were difficult, let’s start there. The way we first started, we did a Kickstarter campaign. We did a Kickstarter campaign where we were promoting this new brand, we want it out through our own network, and part of our network was connected to it. We started with 2 kids’ shoes, 2 men’s shoes, and 3 women’s shoes. We went directly to a factory and ordered 4,200 pairs of shoes. At that time, it was a tremendous amount.
The way shoe production works is it takes about six months to turn it around. We already had to place the order for those shoes prior to us running the Kickstarter campaign. The way the campaign was working was like, “We need to raise this money to make the shoes.” The way the timing was working out, they were running parallel. Once the Kickstarter campaign closed, we received the shoes. We realized we had a huge problem. Of those 4,200 pairs of shoes that we bought, 80% of them were bad.
It was a huge punch to the gut, both a financial blow because it costs a lot of money to make those shoes. Two, it’s a real psychological blow because it’s like, “We’ve got this great idea but if we can’t have a factory make them, how on earth are we going to move forward with this?” We couldn’t. It was a real problem because the quality was bad. It wasn’t like we give them away because there was a representation of the brand. The brand had to be quality at a nail on the first go.
Of those 4,200 pairs and 80% being bad, we probably were able to salvage maybe 300 or so. Those 300 were the first ones that we sold. It forced us to look in the mirror and say, “What are we doing? Are we going to move forward? Are we going to quit?” We opted to lean into this thing and move forward. What we did was we found better manufacturing. We found better networking. We got connected with actual retail stores that could tell the story. We could pitch it, get their feedback, and get their input that we could incorporate directly into the design.
We found a new agent that could get us a new factory over in China and we told the story. We told where we came from, we told where we are, and we told where we’re trying to go. They could have easily said, “Nope, not interested.” Instead, they said, “Yes, we are interested.” Their name was Top Line. They helped us on our next manufacturing run, which was another 10,000 pairs of shoes, which was in the kids’ line. We were strategic about that because we knew that kids were the low-hanging fruit.
Me, being a parent now, anything that we can do to get that kid out the door faster is always a win. We figured that by having a shoe that would functionally work for a toddler to put on by themselves and the parents would help them plus some of the needs of functional shoes like myself, we could blend both of those worlds. In August of 2017, we hit the shelves here in the States, Zappos, and Nordstrom. We were able to get the credibility of their brand on our brand and that’s where we picked up the additional 1,000 customers. The first 1,000 shoes were spanned over about a couple of years.
Which was a slow burn to an eventual launch. Was Nordstrom bricks and mortar? Was it their website? What was the deal like?
Zappos is 100% eCommerce and Nordstrom was a blend. Nordstrom is eCommerce and then we’re in five of their stores here in the Seattle area.
What was the feedback loop? What did the Nordstrom buying team or the Zappos buying team told you that kept you going and reassured you guys that you were going on the right path?
One big feedback that we were getting early on was the difference of the shoe, seeing that it was something new in the marketplace. Having a zipper in a shoe, people have seen that many times. Having a zipper that completely goes around the toe where you can open it up and see the inside of the shoe, nobody’s ever seen that before. All of a sudden, it became this real conversation piece.
In addition to that, on the Nordstrom side, they would have customers come in that would need more of a functional shoe that was easy for their son or daughter or even themselves to put on. All of a sudden, they had a shoe that fit that bill. They’re able to, all of a sudden, serve a customer that they hadn’t been able to serve like this before. That type of feedback would reach us. One, it was super exciting. Also, with that, it allowed us to continue to tweak our design and then to be able to expand and do colorways as well as new silhouettes.
Was that Nordstrom distribution deal expanded nationwide eventually?
Eventually, yes. We were in five Nordstrom stores surrounding the Seattle area. From there, we expand into ten Nordstrom stores, which were peppered all around the United States. That 10 turned into 20. I’m not sure how many we’re in now but I know it’s more than twenty.
When did you start to tap into the opportunity of direct-to-consumer commerce?
Direct-to-consumer is a great thing to talk about. When we first launched the brand, we just did wholesale. We knew that we wanted to build up those channels to make sure that the foundation was strong for us to survive as a business. We didn’t launch our own eCommerce site until December 2018. We got the website. The customers would come to the website, BillyFootwear.com, and they’d be redirected to both Zappos and Nordstrom to make that sale to help boost their channels.
What are the first principles or your secret sauce to wholesaling? There are some readers who are trying to figure out how to get into retail channels, into brick-and-mortar channels. There are agencies out there that charge thousands of dollars per month for that privilege and there are no guarantees. Founders out there on their bootstraps try to get distribution deals for their great products. Give us a quick tutorial on how to get to brick-and-mortar stores for distribution and wholesale.
Much of our success in that channel has been based on word of mouth and also relationships. Early on, when it came to relationships, it was looking at our network, who do we know? Everyone’s got a network and within that network, you may not have the right person to get into brick-and-mortar stores. Possibly, someone within your network may know someone who knows somebody.
We had a lot of conversations early on. We asked the question, “How do we get into Nordstrom? How do we get into Zappos?” Who knows who? We would meet somebody and they would introduce us to somebody else. It had to be 2, 3, and maybe even 4 down the line until you finally got in front of the right person and tell the story.
It wasn’t a guarantee that you’d get in but at least you’re given the opportunity to tell your story and tell the bigger picture. It comes down to them saying yes or no. Word of mouth is also a powerful thing. It’s more of a grassroots-type movement. It’s a slow burn. What it does is creates a loyal and strong foundation for the brand.
I’m not talking about the big box stores, I’m talking about the independent stores. A lot of those stores are carrying our brand because their customer found out about our shoes. They go into those stores wearing the shoes and they ask the question, “Why don’t you carry this brand?” Oftentimes, the store is like, “I’ve never heard of the brand. I’ve never seen that before.” In this case, we’ve empowered their customer to be able to tell their own personal story, which then helps you get your brand into their store, and then you’re helping their customer too.
It loops back to a terrific product. If there’s utility in your product and it’s delivering true value, you have a foot soldier of customers doing the work for you, right?
With regards to wholesale, going back to the wholesale distribution story, how has that panned over time? Do you have a dedicated manager or executive? With you, who manages those relationships? Do you have multiple people, more personnel managing the independence versus the Targets or the Zappos?
We do have a number of people on our team that focus on different things. We have an overall ops team that focused on the whole wholesale channel, all the orders coming in, and being able to facilitate those orders to get those out. That’s logistics maybe through our own web or through our own warehouse or our contract warehouse. We also have managers of accounts depending on the size of the account. Key accounts like Target, Zappos, Nordstrom, Kohl’s, and DSW, all those stores would be managed by one person. Whereas the independent stores are managed by a different team. Everyone’s got their roles.
Online channels like Amazon, what’s the role of Amazon in BILLY Footwear? Are you fulfilled by Amazon or are you wholesaling to Amazon?
Our relationship with Amazon is unique. We are on Amazon but we don’t work directly with Amazon. Amazon owns Zappos. We sell our shoes directly to Zappos and then Zappos facilitates getting them on Amazon.
That’s incredible. It’s the first time I’ve heard about that relationship. It’s a good question. From a channel breakdown, what is the split? DTC, Amazon, and then bricks and mortar?
The percentage between direct-to-consumer and wholesale varied through the years. When we first started, it was 100% wholesale because all it was was Nordstrom and Zappos. We then launched our own eCommerce site and then it probably swung to about 50/50. Both of those channels are growing at the same pace.
Now I would say our eCommerce is probably closer to 40% at this point. It’s not to say that eCommerce is not growing. eCommerce is growing tremendously. The wholesale side of the business is vast and it’s growing significantly faster, both domestic and international. I’d say the split is 40% direct-to-consumer and 60% wholesale. I would imagine in 2023, it would be probably closer to 30% direct-to-consumer and 70% wholesale.
With regards to Amazon, because it’s through Zappos, I would think that is under the wholesale umbrella.
Makes a lot of sense. What processes or systems do you have in place to listening to your customers to getting feedback? Have you set anything in place where you have conversations on a regular basis with customers to understand their feelings and their preferences?
Listening to the customer is critical and crucial. Many of our design modifications and evolution of the silhouettes we offer have been a result directly of customer feedback. We get a lot of feedback through general customer service, inquiries, and people that reach out to us through email, post on social, or offer up suggestions through Facebook, Instagram, or something like that.
Every time an order is made on BillyFootwear.com, the customer has the opportunity to leave a review. Within those reviews, they have the opportunity to tell about their experience but also to offer up suggestions. It’s been indescribable, some of these reviews that come in. You can have a customer that says, “Love the shoe. It’s great. It fits nice,” something short and sweet like that.
You also have all these other customers that are writing pages. What they’re doing is they’re telling their own personal story and how this shoe somehow opened up this opportunity to their family, their child, or themselves that they had never had before. I love reading those. They warm my heart through and through because I can relate to them. I had the same experience when I put these shoes on for the first time.
All of a sudden, you’re regaining this independence, and you are uncorking this world that you thought was unattainable. Those types of posts and stuff are great because they reach a long way. A lot of people hear about the brand because of those posts. Through those posts, it generates that conversation to think about new types of stuff.
It is a story of independence, the product in itself whether it’s a toddler trying to get out of the house or someone who’s wheelchair-bound or has mobility issues or dexterity issues with their hands. How do you tell the stories? Do you amplify some of these stories on social media? What’s been your audience and community-building strategy thus far?
That’s always evolving. As it is right now, when those stories come in, the review sits on our website underneath the product. We’ve also had the opportunity to take those stories and repost them to our social channels to illustrate so and so. Leslie over here had an amazing experience. Of course, we don’t go rogue on that. We ask first to get their permission.
Through that same vein, we’ve also been able to take the reviews that come into our own website and syndicate those with our retail partners. Even our retail partners are receiving those reviews too. For example, Kohl’s. We’re brand new in Kohl’s. Kohl’s customers may not necessarily know about the brand. When you put the shoes up there on their site, there are no reviews on them. A customer may be somewhat reluctant to go out on a limb and buy a brand that’s not been reviewed.
Through syndication, it allows us to take that customer story that landed on BillyFootwear.com and posted on Kohl’s so that Kohl’s customer then has this experience in their back pocket and knows that there’s already been someone vouching for the brand. Also, a story about the shoe that is more than a shoe at that point and it helps connect with that customer directly.
How do you know what styles to put out there? Shoes, in itself, is arbitrary, a concept. Where do you start from sneakers, boots, work shoes, and dress shoes? you probably can’t do heels. How do you know? Do you have a feedback loop from prior sales data? Even at that, there might be some untapped outlier opportunities out there. What’s been your journey with regard to the selection of your customers?
There are a lot of factors that come into that one. First, for definition purposes, we break it into two categories. We have core and lifestyle. Core is more of an evergreen-type silhouette that we bring in all the time and we wouldn’t be going out of. Lifestyle has a seasonal type deal where we bring something in for spring and fall. It only hits a certain time of year. Also, you have a big old flash and that vibrant color and then it burns out and then you move on to something else.
How do we make those decisions? First off, it’s a matter of looking at what’s trending like fashion and different colorways like prints. For example, leopard print was popular. Boat shoes come and go. Sharks and dinosaurs are always popular with kids. You see what’s happening in the marketplace in terms of prints and colorways that are hitting. That’s a starting point. Secondly, it’s a matter of working directly with the buyers of these wholesale channels. We’re not interested in making something the buyers are not going to buy. That’s critically important.
The third is listening to the customer. The customer doesn’t necessarily touch on specific colorways and stuff. They have a tendency to think about more the design side of it. For example, when we first launched, we had one fit and we were getting a tremendous amount of feedback saying, “We need wider shoes.” For the customers that wear AFO braces, the plastic braces on their feet, the comment was, “It’d be a lot easier if your inserts were removable.”
Being a small and nimble brand, all we had to do is call the factory and say, “The insoles right now are glued down. Is it possible to make it so they’re not glued down so they can be easily removable?” It was an easy change. The other question is the laces. The laces are not just for show, they are functional laces that came in from a customer going, “It’d be great to have a lace to get the fit right. You double knot it and then use the zipper.” These are all considerations that come in directly from feedback from the field.
What about your direct-to-consumer story? How did you make get your first thousand direct-to-consumer orders on your website? You’ve been running Shopify from the get-go, right?
We have. We’ve been running Shopify. The attention of the brand came through social media, getting out in front of audiences through both Facebook and Instagram. It took a tremendous amount of work to go from 0 followers to 500 followers. We’re talking about 1,000 sales. It took a long time. If you had one follower, all of a sudden, you’re like, “What an amazing day.” You’d be so heartbroken if a few people dropped you and you’re like, “What happened?” Come to find out, it comes and goes.
One of the main ways that we built up that audience early on leaning on word of mouth and relationships was we had a ton of giveaways. We didn’t have the money to do advertising but we had a product. What we would do is we would do weekly giveaways. We did a giveaway every single week for two years. The criteria was, one, you had to like the post. Two, you had to follow us. Three, you had to tag two of your friends. At the end of the week, we would have a draw-in. It was compounding week after week.
The hope was the two friends would find out about it and then they would follow and then they would tag two new friends and then they would follow and then it doubled. That’s how we got to 500, to 1,000, and then it starts picking up a little bit. I remember hitting 500, hitting 1,000, and 10,000. The amount of time that it took to get there compared to going from 10,000 to 20,000, it seemed like as soon as we hit 10,000, it started going way faster.
I can imagine. Were you running any performance marketing ads on Facebook at the time?
Not at that time but we started doing Facebook performance ads in 2021. It was leaning heavily on the data that we’d already accumulated from the organic search, your organic search, and the traffic from already frequent visitors to the website. We were able to duplicate our audiences to reach out to new audiences.
You had that organic proof of concept on there. You knew your customers and you used that data to find new customers, similar customers, or look-alike customers. Is it still working?
it is still working. In terms of finding new audiences and getting the most return on your ad spend, we find that Google Ads outperforms Facebook by four times. We find that when it comes to social, it’s a great way to get brand exposure. A lot of people are learning about the brand but it’s not necessarily the best means to have someone convert to sales.
when we have a sale and we advertise on social, that blows up. That performs tremendously well. In terms of day-to-day conversions through social, it’s not the best channel. We’ve had much more success with Google ads, Bing ads, or something like that. Someone is going into a search engine specifically, they have a challenge, they’re looking for an answer, and then you’re there to provide the solution. Whereas the other ones are more like window shopping.
I’m going to probe you further on this one. Google makes money from search, makes money from YouTube, and makes money also from its network. These are its top revenue channels Search, YouTube, and its advertising network. Which of Google’s services are you speaking to? Is it Google Shopping, which is part of search? Are you using keyword search, which is text search? Are you advertising on YouTube to find new customers and create awareness and conversions? Could you break down your AdWords strategy?
We’re just using Google search, keywords typed into the actual search bar and they pop that up. We’re looking for our position within the actual Google search itself. We Billy and BILLY Footwear as negative search terms. If one goes in there and types in BILLY Footwear, what pops to the top is not going to be BILLY Footwear as an ad, it would be BILLY Footwear as organic.
Because we have all of our retail partners, they’re the ones that are using Billy and BILLY Footwear as a search. They’re the ones that are using Billy and BILLY Footwear in the carousel, the shopping. We don’t want to be in direct competition with our retail partners. We want them to succeed. We want to own the normal number one spot in organic and we want to go after prospecting those audiences that are unfamiliar with the brand. That’s our strategy.
That’s clever. What keywords? Adaptive shoes? Adaptive footwear? What keywords do you target?
Those are powerful words, for sure. Inclusive footwear, easy on, and easy off, and even if you use the word adaptive, AFO, SMO, and ALS. Going off the words that our customers are using in their reviews. In addition to that, when those reviews are on our website, that helps our own searchability on our website because SEO picks up on that language. We use what the customer is using and then feed it back to Google. It measures performance and measure quality score and then we keep refining that list so it’s nice, tight, and clean.
I interviewed the founder of a minimalist footwear brand called Xero Shoes. My conversation with him as well as you enable me to draw this parallel that building a footwear brand is a long game. It takes a lot of persistence and it takes a lot of patience that eventually, pays off in the long run. He has similar timelines with you with regard to the time you sold your 1,000,000th shoe, and when you started the company.
You’re getting in and using clever guerilla marketing strategy tips such as what you said with Google to find those gaps and penetrate the market. It’s interesting. We’ve talked about social advertising. We’ve talked about search. What other marketing channels or activities do you think give BILLY Footwear an edge in the market you operate in?
One thing we do a lot is that we do a lot of collaborations. There are a lot of nonprofit organizations that have reached out. One is doing fundraisers all the time and they’re interested in some donations. A donation like that is like a one-and-done. We’re looking at more of a longer-term relationship. What we’ve done is we’ve been able to create these programs where we offer their organizations their ability to buy the shoes at discount. Each time one goes through that affiliate link that we provide them, there’s a commission. That’s the donation that goes back to the nonprofit.
These nonprofits are already buying the shoes anyways. Oftentimes, their customer or their organization are buying shoes because of functional needs. We’re incentivizing that customer or that organization to get down their list to get the product but also it helps us provide a revenue stream for those nonprofits too. That type of deal leverages both the word-of-mouth side and the relationship. It’s the relationship within that organization, getting the word of mouth within that relationship, and then driving traffic to the site, which always gains exposure for both parties.
Also, it’s given to a cause from the affiliate’s commissions there, which is brilliant. Great stuff. If I was to randomly pick out a loyal customer from BILLY Footwear, what three things would they say embodies their BILLY Footwear experience?
I can think of a number of families right now and they’ve been such loyal customers with us since day one. They have seen the brand grow from its infancy when we were operating out of my parent’s basement to where we are now. They would lead by saying that shoes are more than shoes as in there was some transformation that happened in their life whether it be in themselves or they were able to provide something to their kids. Whether they were empowered to be able to do something they have never been able to do before. That’s one.
I would also say that they would gravitate toward the overall mission. As a company, we are seeking to add value. We want to make a measurable difference in the world one foot at a time and that’s by trying to build these lifetime relationships. The loyal customer will not only see that because we’re already experiencing that type of relationship with them directly. Lastly, I used to gravitate toward my own story.
I say that not to say, “Look at me.” There was hardship in in my world. I was put at a crossroads early on when I broke my neck when I was asking questions, “Why me? It’s not worth living if you can’t walk.” I was in this crazy total darkness and I didn’t know what would be beyond that. That type of moving forward, that type of perseverance, tenacity, and grit, that type of turning the page and stepping into a new chapter, those are all things that we’ve incorporated into the brand and a lot of people see that. A lot of people are excited to not only be a part of it but also to share it.
It’s powerful. We’ve gone through a lot. You guys are a $10-million-plus brand. From a financial tech standpoint, is it just you and Darin who own it?
There are multiple owners. Darin and I have the lion’s share of the percentage. There are ten owners at this point.
You have a board and you have equity. Are they silent investors or are they active investors?
What do you think the next ten years will look like for BILLY Footwear?
If today is any indication, we’re doing everything we can to keep up. The business keeps continually growing. When I look down that timeline and I’m asked the question, what do we want to have to happen? It’s a matter of we want to grow and we want to become big. I say that not through the thought of wanting to be this big business owner. I say that from the perspective of you can’t give what you don’t have. As a business that wants to give lots of value and add lots of value to the world, we need to grow big so we can add lots of value to the world. I look forward to growing.
Thank you, Billy. Before I let you go, we have these evergreen questions. I call it the lightning round. I’m going to ask you 5 or maybe 6 questions. If you could use a single sentence to answer each of them. You’ve passed it already. Are you ready?
Are you a morning person?
Yes. When I get up, I drag out of bed.
Do you have a daily morning routine?
I get up in the morning and have a cup of tea. I catch up on the emails that came through the day, through the evening, and then I head to work.
What are two things can’t you live without?
My wife and my kids.
What book are you reading or listening to?
The book I’m reading is Shoe Dog. It’s the Nike story. My wife has already read it and she forced me to read it because there are so many pages within that book that our brand story can resonate with.
It’s a good book, Phil Knight’s story. What are your three indispensable tools for managing your business, BILLY Footwear?
I would say a strong culture and a fun culture for the employees. Two is empathy, knowing that everyone’s in the grind and realizing that we’re all in this together. Three would be motivation to promote and show that we can see the light at the end of the tunnel and what that’s going to look like when we get there.
Final question, what’s been your best mistake to date? By that, I mean a setback that’s given you the biggest feedback.
This is going to take more than a quick sentence. When we first started way back when and had that crazy epic fail where 80% of our product was bad, that moment in time was a defining moment. We could have quit but instead, we moved forward. It was a matter of finding better relationships and better factories and that set us up for success to get us to where we are today.
Billy, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you on the 2X eCommerce Podcast show. For those who want to find out more about BILLY Footwear, it’s BillyFootwear.com. I love his story, for sure. Thank you.