Updated: Jun 24
| This is the 498th story of Our Life Logs |
I was the fastest boy at Whittier Woods Elementary School. When it was time for the races for the Presidential Physical Fitness awards, I was competitive and I was flying.
Unfortunately (for me), my elementary school competitors grew into teenagers with long legs while I…didn’t. Sprinting got less interesting for me when the others caught up, but that was okay. I had moved on to my next obsession: gymnastics. And hypnosis. And magic. And anatomy. And psychology. And… Turns out, curiosity doesn’t kill the cat. Instead, it makes the cat want all his nine lives so that he can explore and pursue everything that perks his ear.
That’s been my whole life, and truly that mindset has been key to my journey—the journey I’m going to share with you.
1 | A Jack-of-All-Trades
I was born in Washington DC in 1962. I was an active child with a curious mind; I loved flinging my body into flips and jumps on my parents’ king-sized bed that would make any mother apprehensive and I loved scouring the encyclopedia for a new hobby. That was my normal. So, it didn’t really surprise anyone when, in college, I finished my Pre-Med degree at Duke University in North Carolina while working part-time as a magician, only to switch paths after college to go into stand-up comedy (based in NYC but touring around the US). That led to acting in NYC, which made me want to control the camera and write the scripts. So, while still doing stand-up at night, I was in the Columbia University MFA program for film. That got into software development—because once you imagine a software program that makes it easier to write those scrips, well, why not?
It’s tricky to follow, I know.
So, by the time I was 31 in 1993, I had a…diverse resume. As much as I loved my New York City life, I realized I was moving away from performing and more into software. This inspired me to change up my scenery. So, I chose a place to live that sounded like a good fit, which was Boulder, Colorado. There, I built a software company. When I had extra time, I ran a lot of what many would call “side hustles”— internet-based businesses and real estate investing. I had my hands full, the way I seem to like it.
2 | Lena
Now, let’s back up and meet Lena. She’s an important character in my story (which is the understatement of the century). It’s a long story, but I’ll tell you this: after years of asking, “Will you marry me?” (with the answer being “No,” unfortunately for me), she finally said yes. We got married in 2003.
With Lena in my life, I was able to expand my businesses (amongst other things, of course) as she helped me manage everything on my plate. By 2000, thanks to money coming in from investments and businesses, we could, essentially, retire. It was a modest retirement, but when there’s a chance to live frugally and NOT work, it’s a no-brainer.
While I loved that I was able to retire at 38 with Lena, I wanted to do something else. I just wasn’t sure what yet.
3 | Try Running Barefoot
Colorado is a beautiful state full of mountains, long-haired hippies, and a lot of fitness-focused people. Many of my friends were runners, and while I had loved sprinting back in the day, I had given it up because I didn’t see much of a point if I wasn’t training for anything. I was explaining this to one of my runner friends when he shook his head and said, “Didn’t you know there’s a whole Master’s Track & Field circuit, and it includes sprinters?” And just like that, after a 30-year break, I got back into sprinting, feeling like I’d found my next “something.”
Getting back into sprinting was not as easy as I had expected. While my brain thought I was 18 still, my 45-year-old body had a different opinion. I was injuring myself constantly and limping my way through life the first couple of years. Seeing how miserable I was, a friend suggested that I try running barefoot. What?
I did some research and found the Boulder Barefoot Running Club which just so happened to be holding a class that weekend! On my first barefoot run, I was so transfixed by the feelings of having my bare feet on the ground, of experimenting with my gait, that I didn’t even notice that we’d run over 5 kilometers (which, for a sprinter like me, is practically a marathon)! Running barefoot helped me discover why I was getting injured and, more importantly, learn how to alter my gait to prevent more injuries and make me a better, faster runner.
I think you know where this is going. Yes. This was my next obsession.
I wanted to continue this natural form of running while still protecting my feet. Plus, I wanted to be able to go into a coffee shop without getting thrown out or given strange looks for being barefoot. So, I came up with an alternative. Inspired by the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico, who run in sandals they make from used tires, I got some rubber from a shoe repair shop, some cord from Home Depot and made my first pair of barefoot sandals—and, yes, I know that sounds like an oxymoron.
4 | That’s a Terrible Idea
Running with them was just like running barefoot, and my new DIY sandals were catching the eyes of other barefoot runners. When I told them I’d made them myself, they wanted me to make some for them. Soon in the community, I was known for making these sandals. When a local barefoot running coach caught wind of what I had stirred up, he approached me and said, “You should turn this sandal-making hobby into a business. If you had a website, I’d put you in the book I’m writing about barefoot running.”
BRILLIANT. There were thousands of barefoot runners in the world, not to mention the average person who could be turned on to the power of minimalist footwear. I rushed home to pitch the idea to Lena thinking she’d deem it genius.
Except she didn’t. In fact, she said it was a “terrible idea” that “wouldn’t make money anyway” and was “a distraction” from finding a way to replace our retirement income, which had dried up thanks to the housing crash in 2008. Still, my wife had said no, so I said, “Yeah, you’re right.”
Then, when she went to bed, I built a website.
But this risk (and blatant disobedience) wound up paying off. Once we had a website, the business could expand beyond the local runners. Thanks to word of mouth and how easy it is to spread the word online, Xero Shoes took off in 2009. Lena and I rushed to fill the orders that kept pouring in. Within six weeks this was our full-time job. At the seven-month mark, we had guys who had worked at Nike and Reebok helping us design new products and advise us in our new shoe business. Their biggest advice? Don’t go into the shoe business because of how challenging it is! We acknowledged that we were hyper-optimistic and naïve, but we decided to press on and, soon, my simple idea became our new entrepreneurial retirement plan.
4 | Swimming with the Sharks
“You guys should go on Shark Tank!”
If you don’t know, Shark Tank is a TV show that gives business owners a chance to obtain investments and exposure from a panel of self-made and business-savvy millionaires. Left and right, friends and family members kept telling us that we’d be perfect for the show. After a few years of filling thousands of orders by ourselves, Lena and I knew we needed investment money to support the growth of our business. If we tried and failed (as if the idea has ever stopped me before), we’d be no better or worse off.
We applied for the show and, a few weeks later, got a call from a producer. After going through the interview process and signing a crazily one-sided contract (we promised not to sue if we DIED on the set!), Shark Tank said that out of the 36,000+ entries they received, we were one of the companies they wanted on the show. From that moment, Lena and I prepared what we thought was an airtight and compelling sales pitch that would win the Sharks over.
Finally, the day came. Five Sharks. Dozens of hidden cameras. An awkwardly-large room. And mankind’s oldest, simplest, and favorite footwear.
We walked in wearing the sandals, and Lena did her best Vanna White and delivered shoes to the Sharks as we gave our pitch. To win some brownie points, we even added a custom pendant to Shark Kevin O’ Leary’s shoe with a picture of his face. I explained to the Sharks how, “Research is showing that just your feet without all the bells and whistles can do a better job, but barefoot isn’t always appropriate, so that’s why I developed Xero Shoes.”
We went in asking for $400K in exchange for 8% equity in our company—a fair opening offer given our research and knowing that the Sharks were going to demand a better deal. As we began our pitch, the pressure came to a boil, but I liked it. It kept me on my toes and confident.
All the questions were ones we’d heard before. Because, honestly, if you tell people you run barefoot for fun, then you’re bound to run into a few skeptics. Here’s the abbreviated version:
“Can you really run in these?”
“Are you sure?”
“Don’t they smell?”
“Why should we give you money for a broken sneaker?”
“Because we’ve got the numbers to back it up.”
“No, really, can you run in these?”
And so on.
If you watch the show, it looks like a conversation, but in reality, it’s a free-for-all with one Shark asking five questions then another asking ten more and if you switch between them, they both get mad. It was a lot of chaos. One after another, each Shark said they were out, until all that was left was Kevin. He offered a deal: $400,000… but 50% equity.
I’ll be honest, I wrote off the offer as soon as it was given. “Kevin,” I said, “That’s not an offer we’re willing to take.”
Kevin replied that we were delusional. I can’t argue with that since all entrepreneurs are a bit delusional. Still, Lena and I knew the value of our business and we walked out of the Tank without a deal.
5 | Xero to 100
Now here’s the part of the journey where you’d expect us to realize what a HUGE mistake we’d made. $400,000 is a lot of money to walk away from. You may think that the sprinter in me would run back to the Sharks and beg for a recount. Nope. While neither Lena or I expected we’d “fail” on Shark Tank, we took the horse by the reins and drove our business forward as we waited to see if our segment would end up on TV (they tape more segments than they air).
If I think about it, my life story is often about being oblivious to “NO.” I don’t see No as a wall, but more like a rock in a stream I have to work around. That doesn’t mean I don’t rant and rave for a day after a particularly big No. But then I get back to work. If I like doing something and find it compelling, I do it. I liked Xero Shoes. Lena liked Xero Shoes. A lot of other barefoot-runners liked Xero Shoes. A pack of teenage girls who stopped us on the street to say, “SICK shoes! Where do you get those?” loved Xero Shoes. So, we were going to keep doing it.
January 2013, our segment aired, and it turned out that, although the Sharks were coming at us hard, we looked calm and confident the whole time. The message of natural movement must have resonated with people, though, since our website crashed from the overwhelming number of visitors (over 270,000 people at the same time!). In the first week after the show aired, over 2,500 people decided to try Xero Shoes. We may have walked away from the deal, but the publicity from the show helped shoot our business through the roof.
Since being in the Tank, we turned our funky, DIY-sandal-kit company into a multi-million-dollar brand.
6 | Final Thoughts
As of 2019, we’ve expanded beyond sandals to include sneakers, boots, and even boat shoes. People all around the world wear Xero Shoes for almost everything they do. Lena and I are still very hands-on with the business but we have also been able to expand with the help of 36 employees. Of all the endeavors that I pursued out of passion, this one has been my favorite. It combines everything I’ve ever done, and we have a mission: Making natural movement footwear the obvious, better, healthy choice. And, if everything continues to go well, it looks like Xero Shoes will be Lena’s and my path re-retiring ;-))
This is the story of Steven Sashen and Xero Shoes
Steven resides in Boulder, Colorado, with his wife Lena, where together they run Xero Shoes. All his life, Steven always explored what interested him, including sprinting, anatomy, and magic (to name a few). After a 30-year break from sprinting, Steven got back into it and discovered the amazing benefits of barefoot running. This eventually led to him creating Xero Shoes, shoes meant to feel like running barefoot while also offering a layer of protection for your feet. They took their idea to Shark Tank, but wound up walking out without a deal which didn’t make a difference because the publicity from it shot their business through the roof. The company has now made almost twice what it was projected to be worth. Outside of sprinting, Steven likes to curl up on the couch and watch TV with Lena or have a meal with friends. One of his favorite shows currently is Gentrified on Netflix. He and Lena are also Dr. Who fans. Visit the Xero Shoes website and try out a pair! https://xeroshoes.com/
This story first touched our hearts on February 19, 2020.
| Writer: Kristen Petronio | Editor: Colleen Walker |