Originally published at: https://discgolf.ultiworld.com/2023/11/02/a-qa-with-the-founder-of-idio-sports-the-disc-golf-shoe-company/
Idio Sports founder Craig Kitchens.
The disc golf market has exploded in recent years, with a host of new disc manufacturers, backpack and cart companies, clothing brands, and more. One of the newer entrants to the disc golf industry is Idio Sports, a shoe company that launched via a Kickstarter, funded by nearly 2,000 people to the tune of $266,000. Idio launched the first purpose-made disc golf shoe, the Syncrasy, entering the market after some bigger brands like Keen had attempted to market existing shoes to disc golfers in the past.
We caught up with Craig Kitchens, the founder of Idio Sports, to check in with how things are going for the company after its first year.
Ultiworld Disc Golf: You have designed, manufactured, and brought to market the first and only purposely made disc golf shoe. Congratulations! What makes the Syncrasy a disc golf shoe? What are the special features?
Idio’s Craig Kitchens: There are a few. Our shoes have a multi-directional tread design to better handle sideways run-ups and multiple throwing stances. There is a a pivot area in the heel designed to allow the foot to release from its plant position protecting the knee from torque. There are “zonal” flex zones so the toe box can flex during high fidelity situations like putting, jump putting, straddle outs, and X stepping, yet remain rigid during high force situations like driving. There is a toe guard to prolong the lifespan of the toe box from dragging on the tee pad. It also has a waterproof liner.
You launched your Kickstarter in July of 2021 and raised $266,938 and it was about a year ago that you shipped out your first batch of shoes. What have you learned in the past year? What changes were made from the Kickstarter run to the current production run?
We’ve been studying the product a lot and taking a lot of feedback through the year to see what people have been enjoying and what maybe hasn’t worked. The shoe performs really well, so we haven’t had to make any big updates to the overall design. Although, as a footwear company, we hope to have other models in the lineup, but as the original disc golf platform, it’s working very well.
The biggest challenge in the current model is finding that balance between grip and longevity. Being the first disc golf shoe company, we have studied the player’s movements and their needs, as well as the surfaces. We didn’t have a great baseline to start with to tell us what is the proper hardness for the rubber compounds we would need to use. We could look at hiking shoes, but that’s all off-road. And we could look at running shoes, and that’s all on-road. And as disc golfers, we’ve got to do a little of both. We’ve got a lot of zonal torque to account for. And the surfaces we play on can vary greatly depending on the course, the weather, and what time of year you are playing. When we selected our hardness we wanted to make sure it was first and foremost sticky. The Idio brand has always been performance-based. Footwear is the first link in performance, from the ground to the user. As disc golfers, we need to be able to plant that shoe into whatever surface we are playing on and have full trust. So we went a little softer with the rubber we were using. It’s been gripping hard. It’s been sticking and for most, its lifespan has been very good as well. The challenge that we are facing is disc golfers are all built differently.
As a startup, we really only have funding for one model as of now. So it’s got to fit a wide range of players. So we’ve been seeing a lot of variance in our “wear-time” from four months on the low end for someone who’s really hard on their feet, then all the way up through a year of use with others. So it’s a huge range depending on the player and how they are on their feet, and conditions such as weather, playing surface, as well as storage and overall equipment care. So to try and align our wear times a little more across the board, we’ve bumped up the hardness a bit. We have to do that incrementally. For those who don’t know, it’s like a car tire. A touring tire is very firm and you get max miles and racing tires are very soft, but they wear out really quickly. So durability and grip are on opposite sides of the scale. We don’t want to over-harden, because then people start slipping. It would be irresponsible and it doesn’t fit our brand. So we have hardened it this year and now we are studying to see how that is affecting the user. So far it has been very well received throughout our entire customer base.
We’ve also improved our bonding and gluing process, mainly in the heel area where the pivot point is located. You’ve got a shoe that is like no one’s ever had to design before where you are torquing over and over into that heel zone. Then when players get off the course they might grab the shoe by the heel, sometimes still tied, and pull off the shoe improperly. The majority of our warranty claims were heel delaminations, where the heel would separate. We still maintained a very good industry standard in warranty claims of just around 2%. I believe Nike is like 3% and Adidas is 2%. So our quality of product from the very beginning has always been very, very good.
How many production runs have you had, and roughly how many shoes were in each of those production runs? Where are they manufactured?
We’ve had four including the Kickstarter. Our fifth one has now just finished fulfillment. Each run is normally between 1,200 to 1,500 pairs. They’re manufactured in China.
How did the process work from creating the initial design to getting the shoe manufactured in China?
I have a technical design background. I was working on my transfer degree to get into Oregon for industrial design in their shoe program. I designed all the initial concepts and did all of the market research for the shoe. But I didn’t have a shoe manufacturing background. Through some trial and error, luckily, I was able to find a design house based out of Scotland called Laceless Designs. They were also a new business trying to grow their brand so it made for a perfect partnership. At the time Laceless was comprised of two friends who came from footwear manufacturing and design, so they had all the wherewithal and connections within the footwear industry. They took my rudimentary design concepts and turned it into manufacturing documents that included specs, lug depth, and durometer readings (the hardness of the rubber).
Laceless helped us find a smaller factory willing to work with startups like us that can’t meet huge minimum order quantities. In manufacturing, you’ve got to pay a premium if you’re ordering a small amount, which is really challenging. I can have video meetings with their whole manufacturing team and they are very open to feedback. We run lots of tests together. It’s been a great relationship.
What has been your biggest challenge with the manufacturing process?
Because we are doing business overseas, testing and getting products is really difficult. That’s the biggest challenge, especially for us as a startup where we’re trying to plan out the manufacturing schedule in advance. If we order 1500 shoes, it’s only going to last us three months, and then it takes six months to get new product. So we sit here for two months, burning our cash. If we could get product here quicker or we could get more of it, we would be much better off, but that’s not a manufacturing problem. That’s a capital problem. Still, if we could get it here quicker and more efficiently, then we could better estimate that manufacturing schedule and keep a regular flow of product.
I’m testing a new model right now. We have to go back and forth with prototypes many times. The factory sends them over, I test and inspect them, provide my feedback, send them back, and wait for an updated prototype. The shipping is very costly plus the whole process is time-consuming. But these are problems that I think any footwear company has, as far as their manufacturing, it’s just we can’t deal with it as easily because we don’t have the resources the big companies do.
Does Laceless have any ownership stake in Idio?
No, they don’t have an ownership stake. At the time I linked up with them, they were also in their startup phase, so it was a mutually beneficial collaboration. The Syncrasy was the first product of its kind, and they were able to help bring it to market, so they were very excited to be involved in this project. We’ve created a very good relationship out of it since then.
Idio is owned 100% by me as a single owner LLC and I would like to keep it that way — although we could do a lot with an investor to increase our inventory and help launch our next model. For now, we will grow it slowly and organically unless something promising comes along.
I spoke with about 30 players at Worlds about their shoes as part of another article I am working on. I also took pictures of 70-something shoes of the the top players. The only players wearing Idios were sponsored players Nate Sexton and Corey Ellis, as well as Paige Shue and Aaron Gossage. Why aren’t more pros wearing your shoes at this point, considering it is the only shoe designed for disc golf?
Disc golf has a history of having gimmicky things come into our industry, and it takes a long time to prove our worth and that we are in this for the long run. It’s made it hard to get more people into them. And I think there’s still a certain amount of skepticism around a shoe made by a start-up. We’ve got some great players already, which you mentioned, as well as Paige Pierce who is out with an injury.
There’s a switch that happens when a company becomes legitimate and that’s something that I’ve been working on, by becoming a sponsor of the pro tour and individual players. We had a lot of players approaching us, in the beginning, pre-kickstarter, wanting to represent our product. One such player told me something like “I love helping small business. Send me some product and I’ll wear it and help get your name out there.” After fulfilling our Kickstarter orders, I told him that I could send him some free shoes. He told me I should contact his agent, implying that I would need to pay him to wear our shoes. After Kickstarter, we had a paid athlete in Nate Sexton and that legitimized our position of sponsorship, so why wear and support our product for free when others are getting paid to do it?
There are very few players who have agreed to wear our shoes for free, yet most players pay for their shoes from the big brands. Some will even make social media posts about how great their Nike shoes are that they are wearing for free hoping to get a sponsorship from that brand. But if I asked them to put something out, they won’t do it. It’s a little frustrating because we’ve made a shoe specifically for disc golfers by disc golfers. We’re trying to support disc golf. Let’s help each other out.
It’s also not unheard of for a player to choose not to wear the Idios solely based on looks or because it won’t color coordinate with their outfits. A major player who I sent shoes to told me he really liked them. They gripped well, were very comfortable, and he couldn’t find anything wrong with them, but ultimately didn’t want to wear them because he didn’t like the way they looked. That’s ok. Shoes are still a very individualized product. Not one shoe is going to satisfy every need for every player. We do our best to take care of the most important needs. Trusting your footwear and ultimately lowering your score. I think the shoes look quite appropriate for that.
It’s also extremely difficult to convince a player at the pro level to change something that they have come to rely on as part of their form. The body learns how a shoe performs and adapts to that set of data that the shoe is built around. Again, back to tires: If a race car driver changes their tire brand, the handling characteristics of the car completely change and they have to relearn how to drive that car at its most extreme limits. These players are race cars, and any little change can ultimately mess with their livelihood. When I asked Anthony Barela to try the Syncrasys on at OTB Open this year and throw into our test net, he declined. He said that he has to have Boost, a technology that Adidas created for runners. But it’s the feeling of that dataset that he built his form around since he was a kid. That’s why it’s much easier to get amateurs to try the shoes on, because their form is still taking shape and more easily adaptable. Players now have the opportunity to build their form around technologies that are made for them.
So all in all, it’s very hard to get players at a pro level to try and switch to our shoes. That’s why I am so grateful that we have the ones we have who understand the value at a much deeper level and have connected with the product. Paige Pierce was such a huge win for us because here is a player who is an absolute Formula One car, where her game is so tuned that it’s hard to squeeze out any more performance simply by changing a piece of equipment. Then you’ve got Ellis and Gossage who are killing it right now and proving the technologies work even at the highest level of competition. And then Paige Shue who isn’t sponsored but sees the value we are bringing and is willing to help put us out there. We also had Andrew Marwede put the shoes on for the first time at Maple Hill and got an ace. It’s not the first time that happened or a customer went out their first time and shot their personal best. We get people writing to us all the time about this Syncrasy effect.
What have you found the most to be the most successful path for doing your marketing doing your advertising?
Definitely in-person. Going to events and doing on-site vending, getting the shoes on customers, giving people a chance to see and feel our shoe person. I think that’s had the biggest impact for us. Not just on-site conversion, but awareness, validity, getting to meet a lot of people who are also out there, networking with players and other businesses as well. I would definitely put more money into that if I could.
Why weren’t you at Worlds with a booth in the flymart?
It’s so hard for us as a team of two to travel to events like that. We would need to shut down our office, drive across the country with a bunch of product, and then afterward drive back. It just isn’t possible. I’m looking into hiring a team of people for next year, maybe a couple of players who are out there on tour grinding who would be willing to work hard and get some more income for the road.
Roughly, how many shoes have you sold so far? And has that met your expectations?
Somewhere around 7,000 to 8,000. It has exceeded our expectations. I knew it was something that was going to be successful. It was just a matter of proper planning, proper care, and proper nurturing. But the idea and the concept I knew would be a successful one. I set these goals in our manufacturing schedule with how much we order in each run and we’re constantly selling out, which shows we are exceeding our expectations.
Barefoot shoes have become very popular in the sport. Your shoe seems to be influenced by barefoot shoes, but doesn’t quite fit the classification.
Yeah, to be barefoot, first and foremost, you need to be zero drop. Having a zero-drop shoe is one of my goals. We didn’t do that with the Syncrasy because it is our first shoe and we wanted to make it for a wide audience. The transition to zero-drop shoes can be hard on some people and induce injury.
Also, having a big, wide natural toe box is another aspect of barefoot shoes. We tested some wider toe boxes and they induced too much lateral slip. So when you plant and pivot, there’s no sidewall in the shoe because it’s so wide that there’s nothing to keep your foot from shifting. We went with something more tapered, with more support.
Another aspect of barefoot that doesn’t work well for a disc golf shoe is how thin and flexible the outsole needs to be. Don’t get me wrong — because I am a fan of barefoot in the right setting — but what we do as disc golfers is extremely unnatural. We are running sideways planting into one side of our body, torquing our hips open with extreme force, internally rotating our trailing leg, and whipping a piece of plastic hundreds of feet through the air. The flexible nature of the barefoot outsole buckles under this kind of load and rolls under the foot. Everyone has seen shots of Calvin Heimburg rolling his ankle. Although the Nike Frees he wears are not barefoot shoes, they do have a very flexible outsole. Asking Calvin to change his shoes would be asking him to change his whole swing. He has likely come to rely on that ankle roll.
What colorways do you have planned?
All our new colorways are bright and fun and doing very well. It’s proven that people like bright, kind of fun colors. For the Kickstarter, we had to go safe and try to meet everybody’s tastes. For this run, we’ve been able to do some fun stuff. We’ll continue to sprinkle in some more player models, like we’ve done with the Sextons in the past.
How are you able to compensate sponsored players? What is different about your player-sponsored models?
I try to keep a small team for now that way I can treat them fairly and equally. Since we are a smaller brand, you get a very personal relationship with me. I am willing to be flexible and help out in other ways where we can. For instance, I designed Corey Ellis’s new logo. My fiancee is a nutritionist and willing to add value to the player through her services if they need it. We treat our players like family, and that’s what I love about our team. It’s hard being on the road and grinding like they are. These athletes have a lot on their plates professionally not to mention things they may be dealing with in their personal lives. Rosie and I hope each one feels like they can come to us for anything and we will do our best to help. Even if that means helping them find a place to stay at their next stop.
We sell the Sextons for $20 more than the regular shoes. Nate is getting a disbursement of that. We add extra value for the customer as well by including a matching shoe bag and a limited edition keychain. There are a lot of collectors as well who I think like to grab those limited-edition shoes. So it’s cool to be contributing to that side of the market.
How many rounds do you estimate you could play in a period of Idios? What is the shoe’s intended lifespan?
It definitely varies. You get a player who’s really nimble and light on their feet, like Paige, and she might want two pairs of shoes a year, and that is because she would want a different color to change to or a dry pair just in case she gets soaked. Then you have Aaron Gossage, who drives a lot of power from his legs and throws more forehands, which typically induces more toe drag and wear.
Like any performance shoe in any other brand, the life expectancy is really determined by the the wear of the rubber outsole. Once that’s gone, it’s time to scrap shoes. Some customers will come to us with a warranty claim for a huge hole that they gouged into the “drag on” toe. It’s rubber, it’s going to wear through if you consistently drag on it. But the process is going to take much longer because we added that extra level of protection. Did it perform well for them? Yes. Did it outlast other shoes because it has that extra level of protection? Yes. Then we’ve done our job. It’s just setting proper expectations with customers.
If you want something super long lasting, get a steel-toed work boot. If you want the best performing, get an Idio. It’s still going to have a longer lifespan because of the high-rise sidewalls and drag-on toe. The Idio Syncrasy is a performance shoe first. It’s durable, sticky rubber and it lasts players plenty of time, like a running shoe. If a disc golfer cares about performance, they care about their score, and they care about comfort on multi-round days, they should be considering our products. They’re still going to last you just as long or longer than other shoes because they’re reinforced.
Do you think a major shoe brand will ever come out with a disc golf-specific model?
Yes, at some point. We all know the growth of disc golf is real and where that is going. It’s just a matter of time. Keen tried for a while. Latitude tried by using an open-source mold that looked like it came from Adidas. And then a company called Bite, which was a golf company that tried transitioning a current model into the disc golf space. I’d say we’re the first endemic disc golf footwear company.
Do I think Nike or Adidas will anytime soon? I don’t think so. It’s not there yet for them. For them to get into a sport, it’s a huge investment. And there’s got to be a huge demand for them to do it. But a smaller brand that already serves niche sports or activities could, but it would still be costly.