Matt Wilkinson: Shoefitr
Have you ever visited Zappos.com? Or any clothing buying site? I love to shop online, but I shop for books, or electronics, or household items. Why? Because a book is a book is a book is a book. If I order Penguin’s “Jane Eyre,” I know exactly what I will get. But clothes or shoes? There are two barriers for me to shopping for clothes online. One is the fit. Years of experience in department stores has taught me that what looks great on the mannequin or on the hanger might look hideous on me. With shoes, it’s all about the fit. I have a pretty average foot size, 6 to 6 ½ but my arch is really high and my foot is a bit wide at the ball of the foot. I can’t buy loafers because a shoe that fits over my arch slips when I walk. When I find dress shoes that fit, I sometimes buy the same pair in several colors: beige, black, brown, navy blue. When I buy running shoes I have to be very careful because I can’t have anything that laces up too high over my arch. If I batten down the arch too tight it hurts, if I let it loose the heel of the shoe often slips. So I NEVER visit Zappos or any other shoe store online. But what if I KNEW that my foot would fit into a particular shoe? The right shoe; the right size; first time? Would I then buy online? You bet.
Along comes Shoefitr. Shoefitr is the brainchild of Matt Wilkinson. 26 years old, and looking somewhat preppy with his yellow polo shirt, neatly styled dark hair, and mod glasses. Matt sat across the table from me, politely explaining the origins of his newco, “Customer fitting is a major problem for every online shoe retailer.” Matt continued, “The pain comes in the form of high return costs because shoppers don’t know what size to get. And who can blame them? Even ordering within the same brand (New Balance), a shopper has to know that the 883 runs a full size larger than the 769.” The answer? Shoefitr, which solves the problem using a database of internal footwear measurements generated by 3D scanners. “We ask the customer what shoe they are currently wearing and then we recommend the best-fitting size in the shoe he or she wants to buy,” Matt proudly announced.
Matt talked about himself as a late bloomer, “I really didn’t know in college what I wanted to do.” He chose engineering (at Carnegie Mellon) because “it would give me a broad scope of knowledge.” Engineering was a logical choice for someone who “always wanted to solve problems.” He did not study business or entrepreneurship in college (and Matt looked kind of sheepish admitting this, knowing that not only do I teach entrepreneurship at CMU, but one of my classes is specifically for the undergraduate engineering students).
Upon graduation in 2006, Matt worked for a small startup in three-dimensional scanning industry. That startup ended up spinning out a company that used their core 3D technology applied to a shoe fitting platform – a way to fit shoes so that people could get the right shoe. Sounds familiar now, right? Matt tried to get the new startup off the ground for about a year, but it never flew. Matt then took a job with a large firm as a new product development engineer. “That was really different, but really great,” he exclaimed. “I worked with great people, had a lot of fun, and was able to bring new things to market,” he continued. Matt elaborated, “The cool thing with this bigger company, well, the cool thing about all of my experiences, is that they led to a company!” Matt authored two patents while at the big company, and he is proud of having experienced the whole cycle of product development to market success.
But Matt still thought about the shoe fitting problem. He calls himself obsessive, “I’d be lying if I said otherwise. I can’t let things go. I persist with them.” He was in touch with his college engineering buddy, Nick End, who ironically enough was also at the same large company, although in a completely different department and in another city. For years, the two had brainstormed ideas together, and Nick had tried a previous entrepreneurial activity. Nick was intrigued by the problem which preoccupied Matt. The two knew that to come up with a solution, they needed a developer.
Nick’s friend Breck Fresen was from computer science (also Carnegie Mellon). Breck graduated in 2009 and had taken a job with a financial trading company in Chicago. Finding the third leg of the stool was key. Matt knew that they found the right guy in Breck because “he texted me every three to four hours; I mean he couldn’t stop thinking about this either!”
Shoefitr was founded with a triumvirate team. Using totally different technology than Matt’s first attempt, but solving the same problem, Shoefitr now covers 90-95% of all running shoes. They focus on running shoes because they run and they know the problems of fit first hand. The business model is that of commission on sales; they also have opportunities for advertising because they have a strong niche appeal to runners. Companies that want to target runners get serious runners from the Shoefitr users. End consumers who are using the Shoefitr system to find the right shoes are loving it. Running Warehouse was their first customer. “So far it’s going awesome. Feedback is great. People’s jaws are dropping when they see our 3-d heat-mapped shoe,” Matt exclaims!
In January, 2010, Shoefitr was accepted into AlphaLab, the Pittsburgh incubator for young companies. They all quit their jobs. I remember being wowed by the 3-dimensional image of the heat-mapped foot when I heard Matt pitch at AlphaLab’s Demo Day.” Wow,” I thought, “that is really cool!”
Matt believes that being young is a distinct advantage for him as an entrepreneur, “In life you have about a five-year window to make something happen before you get married and have a family.” But Matt also believes that he was destined to become an entrepreneur, “I always had an entrepreneurial personality. I was always trying to solve problems. I am the sort of guy who tries to get 100 free shots [in basketball] in a row and I won’t leave until I do.” Entrepreneurship became a kind of hobby for Matt after college. He read all about startups.
Matt believes that entrepreneurship is “the new creative landscape for those who can’t hit a note or hold a paint brush.” When I talked with him, he was jazzed about having landed initial customers and hearing from the first users. “Helping that first customer, that was great. If it works for one person, then… next is large scale adoption.” Obsessive Matt lost sleep worrying about “How people would react to it, could we do it? In theory I knew that it made sense but I wasn’t sure that it would really work.” His biggest fear is of “being a pioneer with this brand new technology in a new marketplace and not getting it right.” Matt believes that he has the potential to “fundamentally change the buying process.”
And Matt believes that entrepreneurship is “like a game, a life game. It makes life exciting. It’s scary, but it’s never boring.” That’s for sure. Good luck, Matt and Shoefitr!