Before launching his own brand of specialty footwear for children, Super Heroic Founder Jason Mayden had a pretty solid gig in the shoe industry. He was a global design director at Nike and, by all accounts, was at the peak of his career when he had an epiphany.
“I realized that my industry of health and wellness is structured to fix broken adults,” Mayden said. “I really wanted to use play as prevention to build stronger children.”
But that didn’t instantly lead to a plan to leverage his talents as a shoe designer. Mayden considered starting a nonprofit, going back to law school or even becoming an elementary school teacher.
But he ended up with Super Heroic, a shoe company with an utterly unique mission: to make every kid who slips on a pair feel like a superhero.
Admittedly, it is a tall order for a pair of shoes.
But Super Heroic thinks a bit differently about kids’ shoes than other brands.
According to Mayden, a main problem with kids’ shoes is that they aren’t really designed for kids – they are just sized-down versions of adult shoes. Through observation of his own children and other kids playing at the playground, it quickly became clear to him that kids’ shoes are too complicated and not functional enough at the same time.
So Mayden started over in the design process, building shoes for the multiple surfaces kids can be counted on to scurry across: carpet, hardwood, gravel, dirt and wood chips. That meant adding dense material around the shoe’s perimeter for stabilization, with softer material in the middle of the sole for standing and heel-to-toe movements. He also tossed the laces in favor of what the brand calls a “utility strap” that holds the foot in place. The back of the shoe also features a “heel bumper,” which makes it easier for kids to kick the shoes off at the end of playtime.
After digging into design, the brand also decided to rethink the sales model, going direct to the consumer. They even revamped the experience of opening up the shoe box itself. When one opens the cylindrical shoe package, sound effects play. Plus, ever pair of shoes comes with the unique gift that every budding superhero needs: a “utility cape,” which is emblazoned with the company’s lightning bolt logo.
“This is the transformative moment,” Mayden said. “We often see the child put the shoes on, pull the cape on and then go out and run around and play.”
And that is the goal – because, per the firm’s website, “play is good for the soul.”
And Mayden truly believes it is good for children’s development – particularly if kids learn to identify themselves as heroes. And that idea is not entirely crazy – researchers at Hamilton College and the University of Pennsylvania recently published a study that found kids in costume tend to work harder and persevere more. The called it the “Batman Effect.”
Mayden noted that the study seems to give credence to the idea that make-believe is critical to childhood development.
“I think about my daughter a lot with this product,” he said. “She’s very athletic, very sporty, and oftentimes she’s playing more aggressively than the boys. And they’ll exclude her and say, ‘you can’t play because you’re a girl.’ And I’ll tell her, ‘because you’re a girl, you’re stronger.’”
And the brand itself is quickly growing stronger. As 2019 was just revving up, Foot Locker announced that it has taken a minority stake in the company, with a $3 million investment in a Series Seed II funding round. That brings Super Heroic’s total capital raised to $10 million since its founding in 2016. Foot Locker Inc. will also serve as a board advisor, “partnering with the company on various growth initiatives, from product to content.”
“With its robust talent and cutting-edge innovation, we look forward to working with Jason and the entire Super Heroic team to offer an exciting, fresh product to our customers, while realizing additional growth opportunities for the future,” Richard Johnson, Foot Locker’s chairman and CEO, said in a statement. “Giving kids the tools to be active is in our DNA. Having our two companies come together to empower kids to play has the potential to be game-changing.”
And, according to Mayden, the hope is to make the product more game-changing in the future. He noted that Super Heroic is considering a future where they can build sensors into the shoes, and to give parents feedback on how the shoes are being used.
It might take time for parents to be comfortable with the idea of their kids’ shoes gathering data on them, though Mayden remains optimistic that parents will want to know more about their kids’ play, as long as the data can be collected in a secure, private way.
“We’ll have the ability with how we’re building the product to know how the child has moved, for what length of time and what they did, what they completed,” he said.