Delaware’s Version of TOMS for Kids
Introducing Chooze, a socially conscious children’s shoe company.
DT: Would you mind sharing a little background?
MB: I was born in Wilmington. My father worked for DuPont and my mom was an accountant. They still live in Wilmington. My dad is retired and my mom still works for an accounting firm part time. I graduated from Concord High School in 1991. I went to the University of Pennsylvania. I was an undergraduate at Wharton and graduated in 1995. I worked for a management-consulting firm in Boston called Gemini and spent a couple years there.
DT: How did you wind up in Dallas?
MB: A roommate and I started a business in college called Campus Text. We sold textbooks out of the back of a truck right across the street from the university bookstore in Philadelphia. It caused a big stir. They basically had a monopoly, and here we were trying to fight against it. They tried to shut us down. I ran that business for two years with my friend. He continued that business, and I went into the real world into management consulting. Then that same gentleman moved home to Dallas and got into digital marketing. I joined him a year later.
DT: Seems you got into the dot-com explosion at the perfect time.
MB: All of these people needed digital marketing, and we were in the center of it. We grew that company from six people to over 500. This was 1997 to 2000. We grew more than 100 percent every year for quite a few years. We were consulting with Fortune 500 companies and building their websites and developing their social media right as social media came out. While the dot-com was happening, we were growing as fast as humanly possible. The company was originally called imc2. We changed the name to MEplusYOU a couple of years ago.
DT: How did you get into children’s shoes?
MB: After I moved to Dallas, I met a beautiful woman, we got married, and we had kids. Life was great until my youngest, my daughter, decided to wear two different shoes every day. Her tenacity kind of threw our lives into turmoil. (He laughs.) My wife was a designer by trade. She had studied interior design. She was an artist and designer. Prior to us having kids, she had her own business, painting children’s nurseries and designing children’s furniture. In fact, we got some of her products into the Neiman Marcus kids’ catalog. And then we had three kids and stopped doing all of that and started focusing on the kids—until our third, and youngest, started to wear two different shoes. I can tell you that whole story, if you’d like.
DT: Please do.
MB: We have two boys. Sam is 12. Ari is 10. My daughter, Ayla, is now 7. When Ayla was 3 and started dressing herself, she would reach into her cubby in our mudroom and pull out a different left and right shoe and insist on wearing them. We thought it was cute. It was cute. Well, months passed by and this was what she was doing every day. We noticed that that was part of her personality. The most interesting thing was other parents and how they reacted. It was polarizing. You have one set of parents who would say, “That’s great that you let her do that.” It was in a kind of condescending way like, “Why do you let her do that?” And the other half would be like, “Oh my god, my daughter does that, too. We love that.” And what we noticed is that it gave her the confidence to be herself and express her individuality. Eventually, we got the feedback that the left and right shoe isn’t really good for her development and may be unsafe. So, my wife went to Walmart and bought a dozen pairs of white Keds and came home and painted them with fabric markers. With her design background and with what was hot in terms of design at the time, she painted a full set of shoes where the lefts and the rights didn’t match. Then Ayla’s friends’ parents asked if they could have a set. We made a set for friends and they loved it. And a year later we had a full brand focused on where the left and right shoe were different. They go together, but they’re different.
DT: So you already had full-time job and your wife was taking care of three youngsters. How did you find time to put this all together?
MB: We just really believed in it and my wife was really dedicated to figuring it out. We knew nothing about being designers of products and getting them made. We knew nothing about the footwear industry. What we did know about was kids and design. We knew about being consumers in the marketplace. And I brought to the table a lot of experience with regard to brand building and digital marketing.
DT: Where did you start?
MB: The first thing we did was define the brand. And we came up with a crisp definition of what this brand Chooze is. So much of a brand’s success has to do with the branding and marketing of it. So we came up with the name Chooze and the concept behind it. The brand is all about inspiring creativity and confidence. We saw it in kids that wore the shoes—my daughter as well as her friends as well as consumers. When they wear the shoes, they are nurturing their creativity and they are nurturing confidence. And they express it. You can see it when they wear the shoes. The question is, why are those two things important? There’s a lot of research that’s been done on this.
We were very inspired by TED Talks. It’s a conference called TED: Technology, Entertainment, Design. It’s been run in California for a couple decades. About 10 years ago, they started publishing all of the talks online. You can go to ted.com and there are thousands of 18-minute talks from these conferences. The talk that’s been viewed the most times is a talk by Ken Robinson on creativity. He’s a professor who studied creativity in the world and how the schools are killing creativity. His basic premise is that we all have a responsibility to fix this problem in the world—to inspire creativity from kids at a very young age. And his research shows that kids are incredibly creative in preschool and in first grade and in second grade, and then it starts to decline from there. And the hypothesis is that the engineering of our school system, it kills creativity. He believes creativity is the No. 1 thing needed in the world. If you go and look at all the surveys about what business is looking for in candidates, creativity is at the top of the list. Creative thinking and thinking outside the box and being creative is part of any job today. The second thing is confidence. The whole trend about fighting bullying is all about confidence. There’s a crisis of confidence—in raising our kids to be confident individuals. Our hypothesis is if you put together creativity and confidence, those are the two core things that you need to be successful in this world. And we’re going to do our little part, through the Chooze brand, to make sure everything we’re doing is inspiring creativity and confidence.
DT: And this never would have happened if your daughter didn’t put on two different shoes?
MB: Ideas come from the strangest places, right? We get feedback all the time like, “This won’t work.” To me, what’s amazing about this brand is some people think it’s crazy and other people are like, “That’s awesome.” There’s plenty of ways to make money in this world doing things that have been done before. So we’re trying to do something that’s never gone to this level of success in the marketplace. I will say that you and I happen to be talking in a very interesting week. This week one of the biggest press stories about the World Cup was Puma. Puma’s shoes that are being worn in the World Cup are mismatched. So we use the word “mismatched” on purpose. They have pink and an electric blue left and right shoe for their soccer cleats. And if you go into a mall, you’ll notice any store that carries Puma also has Puma sneakers in the same colors. A lot of people do it to try to make money. We’re doing it to try to change the world in a little way.
DT: Do you think Puma stole the idea from you guys?
MB: Sure. Of course they did. (He laughs.) If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the fashion industry, it’s there is no such thing as a new idea. There’s lots of adaptation and recycling of old ideas and it’s about execution and doing it in a memorable way. We believe that when other people do this, it just helps our cause. I don’t see it as anyone taking away anything from us. We believe the more people that sell products that inspire creativity and confidence, the more successful we will be. Just to give you an example, there’s been a company for way longer than us called LittleMissMatched that sells mismatched socks. That’s how they started. It’s a totally different design from us and it’s a totally different purpose for why they’re doing it, but mismatched products for kids is not new. That being said, there is no company that we know of that has every shoe in the entire line where the left and the right are different and they’re doing it because they believe that it inspires creativity and confidence.
DT: How are things going?
MB: We launched the brand three years ago. About a year ago, I left my job as president of the agency to run Chooze. My wife and I work well together. We have different skill sets. She’s the designer and the spirit of the brand. My skills are in operations and execution. From the very beginning, I was helping set up the finance, set up the legal stuff, more on operations. But it was small. I could do it on nights and weekends. But when it got to being overwhelming in terms of having two jobs, it just didn’t make sense anymore.
DT: Are you millionaires yet?
MB: Not yet. (He laughs.) One of the things we decided is that capital is not the outcome. We hope to make money, but the goal is not necessarily to just make as much money as possible. One of the things we’re doing is using all the capital we do make toward good, as well. There’s a program that we are engaged in called Good Returns. A lot of companies will take a portion of their profit and just donate it to a cause they believe in. And there are plenty of causes we believe in. We could donate a portion of our profit to that. But I don’t believe that that is sustainable. Donations are needed and they are a necessary part of the world to make certain things happen, but it’s not a sustainable way to change people’s lives. So what Good Returns does is allow companies such as ourselves to invest money for a year in programs that are proven to permanently lift families out of poverty. We take 100 percent of our profit and we invest it for one year every year. So, we invest it and we get the money back. Think of it as a 0 percent loan. It has some risks associated with it. We take our profit, we invest it … right now our money is split between the Dominican Republic and the U.S. The money goes into a fund for microfinance loans and training for women. We’ve learned that if they loan money to women and give them training, that the repayment rate is very high and that the success rate of permanently lifting them and their families out of poverty is very high.
DT: You went to college in Philly and now you live in Dallas. Eagles or Cowboys?
MB: (He laughs.) I am torn. I actually stopped watching football a few years ago. It’s really hard. I went to a game here at the new stadium, and the problem is it’s better to watch these games at home these days. It’s hard to spend all that money and then you go in and you’re trying to decide if you should look at the Jumbotron or look at the field.
DT: Do you make it back to Delaware often?
MB: We’re back pretty often. One of the exciting things to do when we’re back is go into stores. Olly on Concord Pike carries our shoes. So it’s fun to go in and visit stores that carry our shoes locally.
DT: Do you think many people here know what you’re doing and that you’re from here originally?
MB: Oh, nobody knows. I mean, this is the problem in this world—with what’s really happening with mass marketing and Target and Walmart. Brands have a very hard time becoming well known. We’ve only been doing this three years and we’ve got a long way to go. I think we’re only carried in one or two stores in the Wilmington-Kennett Square area. Until we get into broader distribution, no one’s going to know who we are. It’s going to be a well-kept secret. Hopefully, people will share the news.
DT: I was under the impression you are doing well with online sales.
MB: We’ve done very well overall, for only being in business a few years. Online is a key part of our business, but we also do retail distribution into stores and department stores. We’re in about 500 stores in the U.S. It’s not an online-only play. In fact, the website is really there to help people from all over the country who can’t find a local retailer but still buy from us. A year ago we got picked up by Zappos, so anyone anywhere basically can buy our product. It’s now just about telling the story.
DT: Where is this all headed?
MB: We want to be part of the selection set for parents and kids when they’re buying shoes. It’s hard to say what the goal is. We just want to get more shoes on more kids to inspire more kids. We want to have more capital to help women through Good Returns and just be a sustainable brand. We’re in the very early stage from the standpoint of how long it takes to build a brand in this marketplace. We know it’s going to take 10 years to build any level of brand recognition. We’ve been very, very lucky to get in some major locations and online with Zappos and Nordstrom.com. But there’s still a long way to go. And one of the best things about selling shoes to kids is that every year they need new shoes. So our portion of repeat customers is very high. What we’re doing is just really unique and fun.
DT: Is there anything you’d like to add?
MB: I think what we are doing is part of a bigger trend about building businesses that are socially conscious. And that we have “purpose”—a reason for being that’s not financial. What I have seen in the marketplace is that companies that have a very strong reason for being and are socially conscious are just beating their competitors. Just go down the list of companies like that, including Whole Foods, Entertainer Store, Panera, Lululemon and just keep going down the list. We just see ourselves as part of that trend. We didn’t invent it. We’re just following the best practices of other firms that have really made their mark. And we’re trying to do the best we can and really focus on inspiring kids. And it seems to be working, but we still have a lot of work to do.