By Eric Smith
In 2012, Tony Post retired as president of Vibram USA, a role he held for more than a decade, and the following year he launched his own footwear company, Topo Athletic.
As Topo celebrates its fifth anniversary, it is just one of the milestones happening at the Newton, MA-based footwear brand. Not only has the company recently entered the recovery footwear space with the launch of Rekovr, but Topo is also partnering with Post’s old company for the outsoles of a Spring ’19 trail shoe.
This is the first time Post has collaborated with Vibram since leaving, and as he told SGB in a recent email interview, this is another achievement worth observing, another waypoint on a journey that has been bumpy at times but always rewarding.
“Starting a business can be challenging with lots of ups and downs, but we always make it a point to celebrate the small victories,” Post said. “Winning awards the last couple of years from respected publications like Runner’s World and National Geographic was pivotal—they helped to validate Topo in an industry dominated by large legacy brands. Forging strategic partnerships and seeing strong sell-thru with key retailers like REI has been important since we’re more focused on tracking sell-thru than sell-in.”
Finding success is difficult for any startup, but Post and the Topo Athletic team are commemorating five years with a strengthened resolve to keep pressing on in search of the next triumph.
“We made our share of mistakes in the beginning, but we are on a good path now,” Post said. “The product is better, our service is better, we’re more customer-focused as a team—these are also important milestones to be celebrated. But, each small victory only makes us hungry for more. The more we improve, the more inspired we are to keep getting better.”
Here is the rest of what Post shared with SGB about what’s happening at Topo and where the company goes in the next five years and beyond:
What has been the biggest challenge for the company since launching five years ago? For me, the toughest challenge is capturing consumer mindshare in a crowded market. It’s taken us a while to figure that out, but eventually we discovered that the best way to capture mindshare is to focus on a narrow target, a specific niche, where we can drive home the message for how our products can improve their experience. We don’t cast a wide net because we don’t make shoes for everyone; in fact, I try not to think about the mass market. It’s more important that we make something that genuinely solves a problem or makes someone’s life better. When you do that, you are speaking directly to your target customer, which has a better chance of capturing their attention. There are no shortcuts, you have to make something better, then do it again, and again.
How have you been able to balance the company’s “young talent” with its “seasoned veterans”; has that presented any problems or is that diversity pushing the company in the right direction? I love the interplay on our team across generations and experiences; I think it increases our perspective and opens our minds. I hope we can increase the level of diversity on our team in every way possible. I feel like that will make us a better company.
What roles has your extensive experience in the footwear world (best practices to pursue, pitfalls to avoid, etc.) played in making Topo Athletic a success? I’m lucky to have had some great teachers and mentors throughout my career, and I feel an obligation to pass that on, while acknowledging I’m still trying to learn new things myself. As I mentioned earlier, we made some mistakes when we started—with design, with sourcing, even in marketing—but the best thing my experience taught me is that it’s never too late to fix it. When you see a problem, acknowledge it early and bring others in to help implement a solution. Recognize you can’t fix it yourself; you’re part of a team and we all need each other to succeed. I’ve learned that to build a strong company, whatever size, you need smart energized people, clear objectives with a strategy everyone can believe in, strong communication, a nimble tactical approach, and trust.
What categories are driving growth for the company right now? Topo makes running footwear for use on road and trail with some product crossing over to gym and the emerging recovery category. Although it didn’t sell-in much at retail, our new recovery shoe, the Rekovr, has been a top-3 seller on our website the last 2 months.
But probably like many of our competitors, we’ve seen good growth in the trail market, where consumers seem more willing to consider something new. Our communication around natural running and natural movement also resonates well with a trail consumer. Additionally, because of our fit—roomy in the toe, snug in the waist and heel—many walkers and hikers also like Topo. Read the reviews online and you’ll see that you don’t have to be a ‘natural running’ enthusiast to love Topo; in fact, many people like our shoes just because of their unique lightweight fit and feel.
How are companies able to differentiate in today’s marketplace? Is it through technology innovation, operational excellence, marketing/brand positioning—or maybe it’s a combination of these things? Frankly, I try not to get too hung up on the overall market and just focus more on the end user, how can we make a product that delivers a better experience to that specific user? If you make a functional product that “speaks” to a user, that serves a need better than others, that delivers a better experience, you will likely succeed regardless of the market or macro-economic picture. So many brands talk about technology that I feel like the craftsmanship and fit get overlooked—yet that’s where I think Topo excels and why we are positioned for continued success.
How does entering the recovery space fit into long-term growth for Topo Athletic? First off, kudos to the guys at Oofos, for being the first to recognize the consumer need in recovery with sandals and slow rebound foam. They are old friends and they know I was a fan of the idea when they showed me early prototypes of their idea nearly seven years ago! They created the space and inspired us all.
At Topo, we wanted to do something a little different. Our idea was to build a slip-on recovery shoe you could wear in rugged conditions, without socks, after a long trail run, ski, mountain bike ride, etc. We used a blended wool upper because wool is a natural antimicrobial and could help wick away moisture and sweat. We made a special Ortholite foam footbed (also antimicrobial) with a softly ridged top that provides light neural stimulation along the bottom of the foot—we put all that on top of a lightweight trail platform, so you could wear it in rugged outdoor conditions with traction and security. It’s not a trail shoe—maybe more of a trail slipper, that’s super comfortable for swollen tired feet.
While I think the concept is great, I’m not sure how big or wide the category might be. It’s nice to have this shoe in our lineup and we’ll continue to improve on the idea as long as we see opportunity and feel like we can make a difference.
You’re partnering with Vibram for the first time since retiring as president there. What was the collaboration process like for you? Vibram has a really special place in my heart. I probably don’t have all the words to express it, so I’ll keep it brief: great company, great people, and very good at what they do. I’m so happy to be working with Vibram and I think we have a big opportunity together.
What’s on the immediate and long-term horizon for Topo Athletic? I’ll comment on the long-term horizon if that’s all right. I’ve been a runner for over 40 years and I’ve been in the footwear industry for almost that long. I want people to know that our company, our products, our customer-focused culture, was born out of real lifelong experiences and the belief we can all be better.
I hope we can build Topo Athletic into a company with long lasting purpose and meaning. I want Topo to be a thoughtful brand that our users enjoy and are proud to own. I admire companies like Patagonia for their commitment to sustainability, quality, and protecting our environment, Apple for their creativity and industry shaping design, REI for creating a strong culture that extends beyond their employees to their co-op members. I want Topo to be known for quality, creativity, and how we take care of our customers and employees. That seems like a good reason to be in business.
Photo courtesy Topo Athletic