PROVO — It should have been a total disaster.
Two fashion novices from Provo thinking they could help themselves to a slice of the $80 billion global footwear market by simply deciding to launch their own line of mens shoes appeared to be the epitome of self-deception and naiveté.
Until it wasn't.
BYU grads Kory and Mallory Stevens are not only killing it with their 20-month-old foray into online mens shoes sales, this is the second product line the couple has found success with under their Taft brand, which launched in 2014.
Stanford MBA student Ryan Scott Beck interned with the company this past summer, consulting on finances and forecasting models. Before entering graduate school, he worked with some of the country's biggest companies on how to cultivate, ironically, exactly the kind of highly personal brand interest and loyalty that the Stevenses have created in a remarkably short time with Taft, first as a purveyor of designer socks and now, with high-end shoes and boots.
"I spent the last three years trying to teach Fortune 500 companies to think like Cory and Mallory naturally think," Beck said. "These two had zero experience working in shoes, a market that's completely saturated and dominated by well-established companies with huge financial resources.
"This is a business that shouldn't have succeeded … but Kory and Mallory have used their sense of style, social media savviness and a committment to their customers that sets them totally apart."
Beck added that the couple also built their business in a manner that's rare among tech startups, essentially self-financing from square one and avoiding common pitfalls for rookie ventures, like failing to manage costs and overhead.
"These guys have operated for three years with no funding and, until pretty recently, no employees," Beck said. "Venture capitalists have been chasing them for the past year but they've stayed with the things that have gotten them this far — discipline and patience."
While a studied and conservative business approach has led to success, the Taft brand was birthed from the couple's trust in their intuition and a preternatural gift as taste makers. Also, they couldn't envision themselves following the conventional post-college career paths.
"We had just graduated from BYU and, honestly, just didn't like our job prospects," Kory Stevens said. "Mallory was pregnant and I was looking at management consulting positions. I just couldn't see myself taking on a job in that field and being gone all the time."
On a trip to Europe, the couple encountered a fashion flair that tripped the switch to the proverbial idea lightbulb.
"We saw a lot of cool guys in France and Italy wearing these awesome shoes without socks," Kory Stevens said. "And we thought, 'No one is doing no-show socks for men.' When we got back, we started designing and sampling."
That process took a year, with the couple learning as they went. Their academic backgrounds weren't a huge aid: Stevens was a linguistics major at BYU and his wife studied English. What did help was a Kickstarter campaign that raised $50,000 and got the whole thing off the ground. It also showed the first glimmer of the couple's inherent expertise in leveraging social media tools to connect with an audience, a tool they would soon grow and meld with a very old-fashioned, and effective approach to business — customers first.
"Social media has always been really good to us because we’ve always run it personally and we really care about all those people," Mallory Stevens said. "You can’t fake caring about people and we took the harder route a lot of the time. When we started our Instagram, it was when a lot of people were buying customers, but we just felt like if we do the harder, longer route it will pay off.
"We’ve done it organically and that led to much better customers. It pays off in the long run in choosing the road less traveled."
That less traveled path brought success in peddling socks online, but the Provo couple saw the first endeavor as a means to a bigger end, or rather a means to another beginning. The couple populated that Instagram account with images of their socks, which they realized presented better in photos that featured shoes and socks together. They skimmed their local Nordstrom Rack for unique mens' shoes that best showed off their sock designs and it was an approach that resonated, attracting thousands, then tens of thousands of followers.
It turned out to be an unconscious foreshadowing of what would come next.
"A lot of people already thought we were a shoe company because we used shoes in our social media postings showing off our socks," Kory Stevens said. "Shoe manufacturers started contacting us."
The couple had identified their product pivot and, after a couple of false starts connecting with potential manufacturers, including assessing samples from Asian factories that the couple found "truly horrible," an inquiry from a company in Spain proved to be fortuitous.
"We'd heard from a lot of companies that already thought we were in the shoe business in a big way, because we had something like 100,000 social media followers," Kory Stevens said. "But, the factory in Spain was different and very serious about it. They said, 'If you're serious, you need to come here.'"
Things moved quickly after that.
Kory Stevens traveled to Spain just after the couple had their second child and they screened their initial dozen shoe designs with a group of friends. Then, in another very timely turn of events, a closeout sale they had initiated on their sock inventory ended up on social news aggregator Reddit's homepage — a placement any online retailer would kill for and a moment that the couple used to full advantage.
"Really, at that point we were thinking that launching shoes was at least six months out," he said. "We had this huge volume of people coming to the site because of the Reddit posting. We were at Sunday dinner with our family and just made the decision.
"It probably happened in 15 minutes from deciding to launch and putting them up on the website. Then we were just standing there, watching the orders pour in."
And the pouring hasn't stopped. Taft's initial offering of three designs in late 2015 has grown to almost 50 currently and the company is set to earn $5 million this year. If current growth trends continue, next year will top $15 million. The two are still somewhat in awe of the incredible arc their company has taken, particularly in light of a launch decision that seemed, at best, a cavalier moment.
"I still can’t believe our level of success," Kory Stevens said. "How we began this had the makings of being a complete train wreck."
The experience of one Taft mega-fan may reflect precisely why the Taft train is not only still on the tracks, but barreling along at an incredible clip and stealing market share from shoe manufacturing behemoths with 10-figure earnings and decades of experience.
Alan Martinez is a 19-year-old criminal justice student at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas. A self-described fashion fan and follower of sites and bloggers that feature cutting-edge mens' fashion products, Martinez first encountered the Provo couple's shoes on social media.
"I discovered Taft on Instagram," Martinez said. "I saw a photo of a model wearing their shoes and thought, 'Oh, wow. Those are very, very cool.'"
Martinez said he visited the company's website and was struck by how personal and genuine Taft was about its products.
"What caught my eye, is they actually say where they make the shoes, and what they’re made out of, lots of details," Martinez said. "I really liked that their shoes had a classic look but they're different from everybody else and you can pick out a shoe made by Taft."
While a pair of Tafts was outside of Martinez' budget — they run $200 to $300 a pair — he became a regular follower and commenter on Taft postings and knew, that after his days of college-student scrimping, he'd eventually own his own.
Unbeknownst to Martinez, Kory and Mallory Stevens noted him as a regular and supportive follower in the digital realm and decided to reward his support with a surprise free pair. They tracked down Martinez's twin brother, Alex, who supplied the couple with Alan's size and favorite style. And they sent a pair along with a personal note about how much they appreciated his backing.
"I never expected anything like this to happen," Martinez said. "I was so surprised they even noticed me. This would never happen with anybody else."
Martinez not only loves his shoes, he's looking forward to the day, after he completes school, when they fit into his budget.
"I can't wait until I can buy two or three or four pairs for myself," Martinez said. "I'll be a fan of this company forever."
As for the Stevenses, they'll continue to stick with doing business with their heads and their hearts, and perhaps most importantly, a profound sense of humility and appreciation.
"Our shoes are expensive," Kory Stevens said. "They’re a great value but they are still hundreds of dollars. When I imagine people spending their hard-earned money on our shoes, I’m filled with gratitude.
"It’s amazing and we’re so grateful."