Many new ideas and innovations start with a problem that has no easy or obvious solution. Many founders we talk to tell a similar story of how they were minding their own business traveling amiably through life until they hit an unexpected and annoyingly persistent roadblock. And Yehuda Azoulay, founder and CEO of Link shoes, is no exception. He had a problem, a very specific problem.
His Crocs had failed him and his feet were boiling in them on a hot August day about a decade ago.
“I look at the orange Crocs I bought a few weeks ago and ask myself: did they not promise that it would be ventilated and sweat-less on the inside?” Azoulay recalled in a blog post. “I decided that it was a good idea to try to solve the problem of sweating in my shoes. I remember that the first thing I thought of was how to make a horseshoe for a human foot.”
The obvious first problem, however, is that horses don't have feet — they have hooves. As such, affixing a horseshoe-type design, where the shoe is only on the bottom, is pretty easy insofar as you can nail the shoe directly to a horse’s hoof. A similar plan will obviously not work for a human foot.
It's understandable to wonder why one would need a human horseshoe at all — since both sandals and flip-flops already exist in a wide variety of forms and provide the foot ventilation Azoulay seemed to be seeking. The problem with what already exists, according to Link Shoes, is that to get that ventilation requires a trade-off. While flip-flops will keep feet from sweating, they offer just about zero ankle, arch or knee support. In fact, he noted, the average cheap, generic flip-flop won’t save someone’s foot from a particularly sharp rock if they step on it.
And while there are more supportive sandals out there, the problem there is usually the number and proliferation of straps and over-coverings needed to keep it stable. Essentially, Azoulay said, the more supportive it is, the less of an actual sandal it is — becoming instead a shoe with some ventilation slots. As he learned the hard way a decade ago, a few ventilation slots don’t cut it in the dog days of summer.
What he wanted was the open airiness of the flip-flop and the general support of a sneaker — something that was all real-deal shoe business on the bottom, all open-air on the top.
“My basic guideline was that everything is possible as long as the top part remains completely open,” Azoulay said.
That is not an easy design to build — but one they came up with, after a lot of design spitballing and leveraging a 3D printer to create something that could, in the future, be manufactured at scale. The Link “flip-shoe” sole looks quite a bit like the sole of any sneaker. But instead of a thong or straps going over the top, the shoe instead has prongs linings it that grip the side of its wearer's foot and hold the shoe in place.
“Link hugs your foot like a shoe, for more relaxed and protected walking with fewer injuries and much more breathing room for your feet,” he said, also noting semi-ironically that this very well could be the greatest invention since sliced bread.
It was not, however, an instant hit within the shoe world, as taking the patented design to major bands didn’t get a lot of positive feedback.
“I couldn’t understand how none of them wanted to sign a partnership agreement on the spot and help promote the next big thing in the world of footwear. I innocently thought that all I needed was this amazing idea of the flip-flop-shoe we created in order to establish a large and lucrative business.”
As it turned out, things were not quite that easy, so when the mass market took a pass, Link flip-shoes headed to Indiegogo and brought its product directly to the people. Thus far, they’ve sold a little under $100,000 worth of shoes. It’s unlikely that the people are Nike are losing any sleep over them. But then again, Link has only been around for a few months, and its buzz is growing.
Which is not to say that we are all going to be turning in our flip-flops for flip-shoes anytime soon. A pair of flip-flops can be had for less than $5, while flip-shoes cost over $100, though if purchased via the Indiegogo campaign, they are going for the discounted price of $79.
Even big ideas have to start small someplace — and it will be interesting to see what LINK looks like as it grows up.