Scott Hawthorn, Native Shoes, discusses the company’s unique take on kids’ footwear and its inclusive brand philosophy.
An entrepreneur at heart, Scott Hawthorn, Chairman and Co-Founder of Native Shoes, discusses the company’s unique take on kids’ footwear and its inclusive brand philosophy.
Canadian shoe company, a tasting restaurant, investment banking and an orchard have nothing in common unless you happen to be speaking with Scott Hawthorn. The former Tokyo-based investment banker turned chairman and co-founder of Vancouver, B.C.-based Native Shoes, never expected to be involved in any of these ventures (he designed Salt Tasting Room in Vancouver and still owns and operates an orchard four hours north in Penticton, B.C.) and yet he says he tends to let his curiosity lead him down many unconventional career paths.
“No, but it’s consistent with my life,” says the salt-and-pepper-haired 48-year-old when asked if he’d ever thought he’d be in the shoe business. “I would not expect to be where I am now. I tend to lead with intention but without expectation. It allows you to be open to things you’ve never thought about or things you’ve never thought you’d be involved in.”
And yet all of these experience inform the way Hawthorn runs Native Shoes. “One of the most important things I learned is how to work with people,” he says. “You have your values and reason that you’re there, but it’s also a business and you have to take care of budgets and timelines. Most people don’t think that’s sexy but you need to do it to fulfill the bigger mission you’re trying to accomplish. It starts with good people and leadership.”
Although he has his hand in many pots, it’s clear Native Shoes is Hawthorn’s baby. The company, launched in 2009, saw early commercial success, catching onto the Crocs hysteria, with its unisex men’s and women’s shoes and then, a few seasons later, with the introduction of a kids’ collection. But internally there were problems leading Hawthorn, the company’s original financier, to refinance and bring in outside investors. “I realized that because I had the relationships with the players—the distributors, the factories and have credibility with the investors—I was the one to fix it,” he says. “I decided it was worth saving.”
Three years later, with a new creative director, Michael Belgue, at the helm and President Darren Hawrish in charge of the day-to-day operations, Native Shoes is thriving, growing from six employees to a team of 45. Distribution has expanded to 45 countries. “We’ve continued to grow and this will be our best year yet,” Hawthorn reports.
Launching kids’ collections (exact take-downs of the adult styles) proved to be one of the most prescient company decisions early on. Young children loved the independence of the no-tie slip-ons in hues ranging from neutrals and primary colors to candy and sherbet shades as well as colorblocking, marbling, iridescent and glitter details. There’s even one style that glows in the dark.
Sales in the kids’ collections quickly matched the adult side of the business and Native now ranks as one of the three most popular kids brands on Zappos. “Last month, we had the top-selling SKU [on Zappos], which was our Jefferson in regatta blue,” Hawthorn says, noting he plans to expand mini-me styles for Spring ’17. “Kids’ is substantial for us now,” he adds.
Down the road, Hawthorn envisions plenty of more growth in kids’ footwear. The company’s core values of fun, happiness, inclusiveness and accessibility coupled with its “Beast Free” product positioning can be executed on more fully. In addition, he believes Native Shoes can increase its social contributions to the world. “If you have a brand that reflects the values you have yourself and it resonates with other people, that’s much more powerful than a product that doesn’t have any values attached to it,” he offers. “We need to be part of a social conversation as well.”
With a stamp of approval from PETA and certified vegan because of its “Beast Free” status, Hawthorn says Native Shoes can join other socially-conscious products on the market. “I think you’re going to see us move forward as a brand that has product rather than a product that has a brand,” he says.
How did you get into the shoe business? I was in investment banking in Tokyo for 10 years. Then I came back to Vancouver, and I got involved with the entrepreneurial community. I started to support grassroots artists and designers. Native [partners] approached me and said, ‘We have this idea.’ So I ended up setting up their business plan. That’s the short version.
What were some early challenges and how did you overcome them?
When you’re working on a new idea, you do it in a zone of secrecy. We were developing the product for one-and-a-half years before taking it to market. Then we took it to a trade show in August of 2009 and that was the first time we opened up to the trade or the public. We were vulnerable; what would people think? The response was very positive from the start, so it was easy to get excited. But, suddenly, the reality sets in that you have to produce. Making samples is one thing. Setting up production, financing inventory, getting salespeople in the right channels and coming up with a sales strategy is another.
What was one of the first lessons you learned in the kids’ shoe business?
That kids often make the buying decision. When you go into a store and watch the kids try on shoes, you’ll see the parents suggest something to their child and then you realize, ‘Oh, the kids run the show here.’ The child is a lot smarter and has a lot more control over their domain than some people respect or realize. They have a good idea of what they like.
How did you build a unique identity for Native?
The original idea was that plastic shoes were really ugly but they’re comfortable. So the next question became, ‘What’s the style of shoes that we’re going to do and what’s relevant and what’s fashionable?’ So we started to come up with a vocabulary which we feel sits on top of all shoes that we call “Future Classics.” It means we take a traditional silhouette from the past and we apply future technology to it and we create a shoe for now. The original silhouette was foam-injected molds with holes for breathability. It has functionality and breathability, but it also carries over the visual aesthetic that links all of our designs together.
Why work strictly with this plastic-like material as opposed to more traditional fabrics or leathers?
I think it goes back to our design philosophy of “Future Classics.” We come up with new products that bring something to the market. We’re not really here to compete on price with something that already exists. We’re here to add a new flavor to the landscape and put a smile on people’s faces, and do something socially responsible as well. We use the “Beast Free” vocabulary, which is that no animals were used to make these shoes.
What role does technology play in the design process?
Technology plays a significant role. We don’t have a research and development budget like Adidas or Nike. We’re not a performance company. We’re an inclusive lifestyle company. We try to access technologies that are available and we’ll do some experimentation with materials. The injected material is very light, and that set us on a path of wanting to continue on with super-comfortable, lightweight [shoes] and bring a different take to the market. Our tagline, “Keep it Lite,” has two components to it. One, is the physical lightness of the shoe. But it’s also a spiritual lightness, which focuses on fun and happiness and that which is accessible and inclusive.
Speaking of spiritual lightness, the brand’s “Beast Free” positioning seems to be an important component.
It’s a fun one. No unicorns were used to make the shoes or any other animals. I think it’s a conversation that speaks to more than just vegans. That’s for us to define and show people what “Beast Free” activities can mean. “Beast Free” activities are not using animals inappropriately. Walking your dog is a healthy “Beast Free” activity. Growing your own vegetables is a “Beast Free” activity. When you grow your own garden, you appreciate it more. I know kids do that for sure. This is the kind of stuff we’d like to explore a little bit more.
What styles are performing well at retail of late?
Well, the Jefferson is our bestseller for sure. And [solid] colors we’ve expanded now with the marble treatment, glitter and iridescent. So those are helping us build out that product category. But we just launched our kids Apollo Moc (the moccasin) which is a direct take-down of the adult styles. It’s arriving on Zappos now and it will be in Nordstrom in July. That will be kids size C6 to juniors 3. We have our sales meeting coming up in a couple of weeks for Spring ’17 and we’ll be expanding the line then with more derivatives of what we have and also some more styles as well.
What do you think draws kids to your shoes?
Some of our kids get really attached—we get pictures sent by parents of their kids sleeping in their shoes. Or they are cuddled up with them in their hands or on their chest. One of my theories as to why that is has to do with personal freedom. During my childhood, I remember having the most freedom riding my bike. I could explore and be away from my parents a little bit. Well, one thing that kids (and parents) really love about our shoes is that they don’t have to be tied. With lace-up shoes, until you learn how to tie your shoes yourself, you actually have to ask your parents to put them on for you. With our shoes, you can put them on without having to ask anyone to help you. That’s liberating and one of the reasons why I think kids are drawn to our shoes.
What is the best feedback you are getting from customers?
We get emails from people that when springtime comes, families go out together to get a new supply of Native Shoes for their summer activities. It’s become a real identifier for us. There are not many brands or products that every member of the family can use together.
Are there any licensing deals or collaborations in the works?
We just partnered with this funky Israeli kids brand called Nununu. They approached us and we liked their imagery so we created two boots (Native x Nununu Jimmy 2.0 and AP Luna boots in all black). The product comes out in the fall.
How do you navigate the recent retail challenges in the marketplace?
The retail landscape is challenging. We’re seeing some big sportswear companies file Chapter 11. It’s something that we have to be a little bit more aware of—that there are factors in the market more powerful than we are. We need to be humble, aware and cautious. The consumer is being a little bit more careful with their dollars and also where he or she is spending them. [The dollars] are shifting to other channels. In the end, the customer decides where they are going to shop. Whether it’s Zappos, Nordstrom, Amazon or an independent boutique, we help them out by having a conversation with the end purchaser, inspiring them and making them aware of what we’re doing so that they will then support the retailer of their choice. You have to look at these challenges as an opportunity to get better, to learn from it and not to freak out.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change about
I’m a big believer in accepting the reality of what’s out there. People are smart enough to make their own decisions. You have to let them decide and you must give them the information to make the best decision they can for themselves.
What do you love most about your job?
It’s pretty awesome building a team of people—a young group of people—and watching them grow. When you walk through the office now, there are a lot of people in their 20s here. There’s this amazing, fun, positive energy in the office, which I think reflects our values as well—fun, happy and accessible. I’m 48 now so I’ve had other winds in my career and as you get older you take on an advisory and spiritual role. I see the landscape as hierarchically flat. We all have good ideas, and they can come from anywhere.
Where do you see Native Shoes in five years?
The retail climate, both online and brick-and-mortar, can change so quickly. I lead with intention and hope we’ll be in a better place than we are in today. And I hope to bring smiles to people’s faces. How many shoes will we be moving? It’s hard to say. •