Marcus Wilson and Michael Schaeffer had big careers in the athletic shoe business: Schaeffer was Reebok’s global creative director, and Wilson was its head of brand strategy. But two years ago, they jumped to the opposite end of the market: They became the little guys, launching a shoe startup called NoBull that caters to CrossFitters. They now sponsor four CrossFit celebrities and have 11 shoe styles for sale, and have learned a lot about the benefits of being small.
“At big companies, there are a lot of layers and lots of input, and you end up with very complex products,” says Schaeffer. NoBull has no time for that. Layers of input? There aren’t even layers of people. Schaeffer says that allows his company to make something Reebok can’t: Its signature style is cut from one piece of material, without extra features competing for attention. “There’s a desire to create something simple, understandable, functionally sound, that came out of a stripped-down process.”
Here’s something else NoBull does differently: It can turn a new shoe around in four months, nearly five times faster than big brands do. “We make our decisions based on our gut and knowledge of the market, versus market research,” he says—and they’ll review an entire product line in a day or two, as opposed to several weeks. This helps NoBull react to (and influence) trends, and sell new products without a money-losing lag time.
Make your weaknesses strengths:
Compared with NoBull, the founders’ old gigs were cushy: “We took for granted the resources at our disposal, when it comes to materials sourcing to logistics to supply chain,” Wilson says. Now they’re getting to know this stuff—and find that they’re more creative as a result. When they visit manufacturers in China, say, they leave with a holistic understanding of how a design decision in their office impacts costs half a world away.
Now they have a philosophy: “We constantly ask ourselves, ‘Is this moving us forward?’” says Wilson. “You can easily drown in getting something perfect, as opposed to understanding where you are, having a clear destination or goal and making sure you’re continually moving toward that goal on the product side and the marketing side.”
Build your own culture:
“CrossFit consumers really pull for everyone else,” Wilson says. “If you watch CrossFit games, the people who finish first turn around and cheer for people who are finishing next.” NoBull’s cofounders want to make sure their culture has the same good nature -- and that’s much easier to do on a small scale. (“All you need is one rogue element on a big team to destroy culture very quickly,” Wilson says.) NoBull has only 10 employees, and it’s growing slowly for a reason: “When we hire, we don’t hire people to be like us, but people who live up to the same values. We’ve not hired a lot of people because of that. They could be superstars in their own way, but it’s integral to us to have every person, from a personality perspective, be a right fit.”