Across America, more than just skateboarders are mourning the death of James Van Doren, the founder of Vans. The retailer of California culture’s most popular shoe was also one of America’s most successful entrepreneurs.
Two brothers, Paul and James “Jim” Van Doren, founded Vans in 1965 in Anaheim, California. Unlike a lot of entrepreneurs today, the brothers had ample experience in the shoe manufacturing business before beginning their start-up at ages 35 and 26, respectively.
The impetus to start a shoe brand emerged while the two boys worked for Randy’s, the third largest manufacturer of shoes in the U.S. in the 1960s. At that time, Paul and Jim were tasked to improve the day-to-day business of a factory in Gardenvale, California—a factory that was costing Randy’s millions of dollars in losses each year.
In just eight months, the brothers transformed the Gardenvale factory, making it not only profitable, but more profitable that Randy’s flagship factory back in Boston. With Jim’s engineering background and Paul’s business savvy, the brothers and some friends realized it was time to make it on their own.
Right off the rail, Vans was a unique business venture. It operated as direct retailing from manufacture—rare at that time.
On opening day, sixteen customers came into the shop, which housed a small selection of samples still referred to by their manufacturing numbers as opposed to style names. Men, women, and children each gave opinions regarding the color schemes.
“In the women’s area, a lady came in and said ‘that’s a nice pink but I really want a brighter pink’ and then she picked up the yellow shoe and said ‘that’s a nice yellow but it really is too light,’” reminisces Steve Van Doren, son of Paul Van Doren, in an interview with Sneaker Freaker magazine.
“My dad thought to himself, for crying out loud I can’t afford to carry 5 different colours of pink. So he said lady, ‘why don’t you get a piece of fabric, whatever colour pink you want, bring it back and I’ll make a shoe for you’. So it was almost the first day that they started charging extra to do a custom pair of shoes.”
From that point forward, Vans became well known for its company’s customized shoes.
Customization. With myriad mass-manufactured goods these days, firms should remember that law services, like shoes, are not one-size-fits-all. In terms of fee arrangements, billing, and communications, firms should negotiate with clients. Ask them for suggestions, and go from there.
Whether it be market research, additional client deliverables, or 24-hour on-call counseling, firms should provide made-to-order service and clients will pay for the privilege.
But Vans placed themselves above the competition through other business strategies, as well.
Skateboarders in Santa Monica and Manhattan Beach began requesting a plethora of customized footware. Vans paid attention to these orders. And, with a keen eye for patterns, the Van Doren brothers used their customization service to identify fads in the industry.
“In the very beginning we sold tons of the #44 blue deck shoes. Then the custom orders started coming in, and it started with just red and blue. We let that run for a few months then we came up with a stock shoe – navy blue, gold, navy blue and then brown, beige, brown,” explains Steve Van Doren to Sneaker Freaker.
Eventually, the company would go on to market specialized shoes to skateboarders directly. The shoes included padded sides and extra leather to prevent over-wear that came naturally from the sport.
Vans didn’t stop there.
“In the late seventies I was now out of high school and I noticed kids were taking the side profile off the shoe, where the white rubber was, and colouring it in checkerboard. So the first thing we did was start making rubber with the checks on it and eventually we made some canvas,” continues Steve Van Doren to Sneaker Freaker.
The checkerboard slip-on is now, perhaps, the most recognizable shoe of all Vans’ styles. The success of which can be attributed to simple market demand and careful observation.
Input from customers. Not all idea development must be insular. Law firms, like a retail shoe company, can benefit from the input of their clients—especially considering the vast business expertise that CEOs and CFOs of corporate litigation clients can provide. Clients receive a customized service tailored to their needs, while firms gain insight regarding best business practices and profitable trends that are applicable to future agreements and business practice.
Endearing the public, attracting new patrons, and increasing customer loyalty was easy for Vans. The attitude of the company was as relaxed as its clientele, so a corporate culture was quickly established within the brand .
Soon, kids—the customers themselves—organized contests that helped propel Vans’ business venture.
“I remember my Dad had no budget so I was driving a van bringing guys from the Valley over to a contest in Santa Monica. Tony Alva and those guys, the board companies looked after them but we just supplied shoes. The first cheque we ever wrote was to Stacey Peralta, I think we were paying him about $300 to wear the shoe and he was travelling world wide” comments Steve Van Doren to Sneaker Freaker.
And thus, the idea of athlete sponsorship was borne.
Sure, signing a high-profile client is good for business. But street marketing and word-of-mouth recommendation is still the best kind of advertising. Happy clients will refer good service to their friends and family.
Just like Vans, success comes from solid experience, customization of services, client input, and satisfied customers. So, for once, adopt the California skateboard ethos. It makes for good air and solid business practice–even for goofy-footed lawyers like yourself.
Read the full History of Vans in Sneaker Freaker here.