It would make some golf snobs whiff (that is, miss the ball entirely).
Rick Buchanan was playing a round at the Wooden Sticks course near Toronto one summer day, but he had forgotten his golf shoes. So he was walking the fairways in slip-on shoes made of ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA), the same material used for Crocs. They weren't Crocs, but a brand styled more like Converse sneakers.
"And they were just unbelievably comfortable," he said.
An idea struck. Why not make an EVA golf shoe? A company was formed. And less than two years after his product made its debut, Mr. Buchanan is selling globally.
When The Globe and Mail profiled Mr. Buchanan's startup, Biion Footwear Inc., in a Small Business Challenge story in June, the company, based in Collingwood, Ont., was experiencing the successes and pitfalls of growing rapidly. Since then, it has pared back to certain core strategies.
Mr. Buchanan, who is the chief executive officer, had originally introduced his EVA golf shoes, which come in a kaleidoscopic array of colours and patterns, at the 2014 PGA Merchandise Show in Orlando, Fla. The company immediately received orders.
"Probably within 30 days after the show, we went right into about a dozen countries," he said. "As an entrepreneur, you go, 'This is fantastic!' But I feel we jumped the gun on all that stuff."
With demand rushing in, the company had to backtrack.
"We scaled back on our distribution just to make sure we had our own backyard taken care of [in Canada and the United States]. And then we wanted to mirror that country by country. As opposed to going into 18 countries and doing a subpar job, let's pick six key countries," he said.
Much of the interest in the shoe comes from its ability to cross into other markets. Instead of a sneaker or clog-like Crocs design, Mr. Buchanan, a veteran of the fashion industry who has helped to introduce and distribute many other brands, made his shoe more form-fitting, like a rubber Oxford brogue.
- To see pictures of Biion’s footwear, click here.
Mr. Buchanan said he has never seen a brand catch on so quickly. "It's surprising. We've got a lot of colours, as you can see on our website. And our weakest category is the classics, the all-blacks and the whites and the white-and-blacks. The strongest categories for both men and women are the brights and the patterns."
People are naturally also wearing the rubber shoes for other activities, such as boating, and as general lifestyle shoes, opening up new niches. "I always knew we would transition off the golf course into more lifestyle. But it's been a lot quicker than I anticipated, and you've got to be careful. As a startup company, you can get pulled in hundreds of different directions," he said.
Initially concentrating on the golf market made sense, he said, because there are only half a dozen major golf footwear companies, as opposed to the thousands of general shoe brands.
Yet the early rush of distributors latching onto the product has been a problem. "I'm not going to say everything's been roses here. We've fallen in certain places where we shouldn't have gone, because we went off our critical path," Mr. Buchanan said.
That path has now been more clearly defined as three clear market segments: golf, boating and fashion. And soon: kids.
A children's line will be coming next year, which will include potentially lucrative licensing deals. Biion Footwear has already secured a deal with Nickelodeon to make SpongeBob SquarePants-patterned shoes. Biion is also in licensing talks with Disney, with mock-ups being made for Star Wars and Marvel superhero shoes.
The difficulty is that these segments require distributors who specialize in each segment. Getting that wrong can cost the company and hurt the brand. "Like in Japan, we have a golf distributor and also have a fashion distributor. So you have to be careful in your contracts that the golf distributor isn't going to sell into the fashion [side]," Mr. Buchanan said.
The company has also organized contracts so that the distributors are paying upfront for shoes. "To take an order for 5,000 pairs of shoes from Greece and not get a deposit on it can kill a brand," he said. "That's one piece of advice I got after the Globe article [in June]: Don't ship one thing out of your factory without getting paid 100 per cent on it."
Yet for North America, Biion has assumed all distribution functions itself. The advantage is that the company can manage the brand much more closely. The downside is that it assumes all the risks a distributor does.
"We have to finance it. When we take orders in from retailers, if we've got an order for 50,000 pairs of shoes, as a company, we have to pay for that. We don't get paid back on it for close to nine to 12 months," Mr. Buchanan said.
Still, the demand is pushing the company to grow. He said he is not so naive to think knock-off imitations won't appear on shelves in the next year. "But we're ahead of the game," he said.
The more pressing challenge at the moment has been to weed out the good expansion ideas from the bad.
"I think early on, you're not prepared, because you never know. You're going into uncharted territory. You just go. You try something and roll," he said, adding that the company might not have survived its fast expansion without key staff and advisers who were brought on board and who say, "Rick, focus!"
"Because I've got more of a designer background, I'm not overly organized," he said. "I just want to go."