Summary List PlacementThursday Boot Company co-founder and executive chairman Connor Wilson remembers calling up the owner of a boot factory when he was setting up his direct-to-consumer boot brand. After Wilson peppered him with questions and explaining how he planned to do things differently, the owner said “We’ve been doing this for nearly a century, doesn’t seem to need much fixing.”
“That’s the problem in a nutshell,” Wilson told Business Insider. “You should always be improving.”
That’s how Thursday Boots has built an internet-friendly brand since 2014 around quality boots and shoes, an industry with players so entrenched that many of the company’s competitors are more than 100 hundred years old.
The company has more than 579,000 followers for its men’s boots account on Instagram, while its women’s boots page has garnered more than 93,000 followers. Red Wing, which also makes premium Americana-inflected boots, doesn’t run any page as popular as the Thursday men’s boots account.
“Thursday Boots has taught the world of heritage boots how much money they could be making if they had been trying at all in digital marketing,” Nick English, a journalist who covers fashion at Stridewise.com, told Business Insider.
The secret sauce isn’t some advanced marketing technique, according to Wade and Wilson. It comes down to word-of-mouth generated by building a quality product.
CEO Nolan Walsh and Wilson first met and became friends while studying business at Columbia University. During a long winter, the pair became frustrated with being unable to find “the perfect boot.”
“Everything was either too bulky or too trendy and delicate, Walsh told Business Insider, “and everything in my price range was liable to start falling apart after a couple of wears.”
During a surfing trip in Central America, Walsh took a detour to the town of Pastores, Guatemala, which has a reputation for producing customized boots, and spent a few weeks learning how to make them by hand. After selling 10 of the pairs he made there on Etsy, he began to realize that bootmaking could be an actual business.
But starting up a boot company would mean entering into competition with well-established brands. Thursday’s boots use a durable construction technique called a Goodyear welt, which allows them to be resoled and potentially last for decades. And their flagship boot, the Captain, is built in a classic “service boot” style. Other companies like Red Wing and Chippewa offer Goodyear welted boots at a higher price point, and have been doing so for more than a century.
Carving out a niche in this market required often brutally long hours and innovation. Wilson and Walsh spoke to Business Insider how they built a reputation for quality.
Got tips about entrepreneurship? Email Max Jungreis at email@example.com, DM him on Twitter @MaxJungreis, or contact him on encrypted messaging app Signal at (907) 947-0299.Become an expert
Pulling off Thursday’s balancing act of combining affordability with quality required Walsh and Wilson to build a granular understanding of the materials they use to make their boots — the type of cork used in the footbed, the rubber in the soles, and the metal eyelets that the laces pass through.
“When we started we had no relevant experience, or contacts, or much money, frankly,” Walsh said.
To fill in the gaps in their knowledge they spent months hanging out on the floor of their manufacturing floor, learning how boots are made and seeing if they could make tiny improvements to the process.
“You learn a lot just by spending time, asking dumb questions and thinking deeply about the problem you’re trying to solve,” Wilson told Business Insider. “We never found a better shortcut.
Listen to customer feedback and experiment relentlessly
Many other boots on the market have remained relatively unchanged for decades. Red Wing sells a shoe that was first introduced in 1919.
Walsh and Wilson started the company by bootstrapping, contributing $10,000 each from their personal savings. Most of that money went into building boot samples until they had created a product that met their own critical standards.
“We knew exactly the kind of boots we wanted to build,” Walsh said, “Versatile, comfortable, and durable— but didn’t exactly know how to get there.”
The pair experimented for months until they were satisfied, playing around with details as small as changing the thickness of the leather in part of their boots by a millimeter to see if it would make for a better fit.
Walsh and Wilson have continued to experiment with the structure of their boots since then. Even though the boots they make still look the same, “there is not a single material that hasn’t been changed and optimized,” according to Walsh.
Many of those changes have come at the behest of customers. Thursday ran a Kickstarter campaign in 2014 raised $276,00. Funding was only part of why Walsh and Wilson started the campaign— it was also a chance to get customer feedback.
“All that early feedback went right back into product development,” Wilson said.
Doing so allows them to continuously customize their products to what they think their customers want.
“We still read every piece of customer feedback,” Wilson said.
Invest in quality
Although Thurday’s boots are more affordable than comparable offerings from other brands, “Pricing is literally the last step we take on any new product,” Wilson said. While he admits that means taking a hit to Thursday’s revenue margins, selling at large scale makes up for that.
The focus on quality is the core of the company’s followings on social media.
“Even with all the tools available today, there’s nothing better than having a customer come back or recommend Thursday to their friends because they had a great experience,” Wilson said.
Thursday does employ a marketing team, but it’s mostly focused on putting out ads.
“Until recently I was still making most of our Instagram ads and managing a lot of the relationships with content producers,” Walsh said. “There’s no real strategic secret to share.”