285 Lena Phoenix & Steven Sashen: Opposites Attract in Love and Business
Lena Phoenix and Steven Sashen are sprinting with their fast-scaling business Xero Shoes, and today on Valentine’s Day we get a peek inside the lives of a “Couplepreneur”, how they manage their love of business and the business of love, and why they rejected Kevin O’Leary’s offer of $400,000 on Shark Tank. This episode is the first in a series of weekly Wings Of Inspired Business interviews with married entrepreneurs. What is it like to juggle it all? What makes it work?
Melinda Wittstock: Steven and Lena, welcome to wings.
Steven Sashen: Thank you, thank you.
Lena Phoenix: Thank you so much for having us.
Melinda Wittstock: I am so excited to talk to my first husband and wife, entrepreneurial team, this is awesome. We’ve been women only on this show up until today.
Steven Sashen: Well, if it makes people more comfortable, I have long curly hair and when I’m standing in lines and supermarkets, people often call me ma’am.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, that’s so funny. That’s awesome. Okay, so look, we’re going to get into the origin story here to begin with about what made you want to work together to begin with. Then we’ll go through how you built your shoe company and this phenomenon, but what was the spark that brought you together in business as well as in life?
Steven Sashen: Well, when a mommy loves a daddy very much. We didn’t really plan it, we were a happily retired couple when we got together and that was a really fun way to live, if you haven’t been retired, I highly recommend it. This happened totally accidentally, we had this opportunity that sort of showed up.
Lena Phoenix: Actually, we were happily retired until the recession hit.
Steven Sashen: Oh, there’s that, yeah.
Lena Phoenix: Suddenly the income that we were living off of was rapidly declining and we realized we needed to do something. At that point in time, I think we’ve been together for nine years or so and we had discovered that we actually have complimentary skill sets. And so it was just … both complimentary skill sets and we’re both serial entrepreneurs so it was just sort of a natural thing for us. Neither one of us ever had the thought we should go out and get a job, it’s like, how do we-
Steven Sashen: I’ve never had that thought in my life.
Lena Phoenix: Yeah, it became how can we create our own gig, and we were actually working on a search engine optimization business when Steven took up sprinting after-
Steven Sashen: A 30-year break.
Lena Phoenix: 30 year break. He loved it, but he was frequently getting injured, which was not fun for him or me because he’s really cranky when he’s injured. A friend of his said, “Hey, you should check out this book Born to Run,” where, well, you can talk a little bit more about that.
Steven Sashen: The gist is that he said, just so that I tried running barefoot like people have been doing for millennia, and in the book Born to Run it talks about the Tarahumara Indians in Mexico who run wearing these thin sandals made of scraps of tire that they lace at their feet. I tried something like that. And, um, what I figured out was why I was getting injured and how to stop getting injured so I started making sandals like the Tarahumara. I made them for a Medicare for Lena, she sort of patted me on the head and said-
Lena Phoenix: Thanks honey.
Steven Sashen: Excuse me, I started making them for other local runners and they talked to friends and they talked to friends and so on until one day, a guy who was a local barefoot running coach said, “Hey, I’ve got a book coming out. If you had a website and treated this business or this hobby of yours, like a business, I’d put you in the book.” So I rushed home and shared my brilliant idea with Lena.
Lena Phoenix: And I said, this is a terrible idea, don’t you dare. I know my husband well enough to know that he is frequently, let’s just say distracted by the next-
Steven Sashen: Shiny object.
Lena Phoenix: Shiny object and we were already focused on starting this other business. I said, look, we got to stay focused on one thing.
Steven Sashen: I agree. I thought she was totally right. And so after she went to bed, I built the website.
Melinda Wittstock: So you build this website, and then what happens. Did it sort of suddenly take off or like in the morning, what was the conversation like in the morning, the morning after conversation?
Steven Sashen: Definitely morning after conversation, Lena kind of grumbled and I said, look, it’ll be a case study for our search engine business and the people that are ranking for the keywords I care about, they’re there by accident. We’ll own this and a few months and you know, maybe it’ll be a car payment and it turned out not to be true. It only took about two months instead of three and it is-
Lena Phoenix: One of the first signs was when someone in Minnesota bought-
Steven Sashen: I like you said, Minnesota.
Lena Phoenix: Minnesota, bought sandal chips from us in December and I thought, okay, there might be a more of a market here than I anticipated and it became within six months. It was really clear that there was high demand for this particular concept; a lot of people were reading the same book. They were looking for this sort of natural movement footwear and Steven knew how to get in front of that train.
Steven Sashen: Yeah, we owned it.
Lena Phoenix: So within six months we were like, okay, this is it. We’re all in.
Steven Sashen: I think it was within about six weeks that it was like, oh my gosh, this is our full time job. The six month mark, we actually had a meeting with some guys who had all met like 40 years earlier at Reebok and they were giving us some business advice and helping us and at the end of that meeting, lane walked into the kitchen and made the appropriate hand gesture to say, “I’m all in.” That’s how it all started.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s fantastic. I think a lot of people are just curious about this, how do you combine business and all things business with your personal, like with romance, with all of that, how do you create the boundaries around that or are there any boundaries? Is it all basically the same thing?
Steven Sashen: Lena refuses to have sex with me at the office, so if that’s what-
Melinda Wittstock: You guys are hilarious.
Lena Phoenix: There was a book that we read a few years back called how to get rich by Felix Dennis. It’s a collection of his entrepreneurial stories and one of the things he said is just be prepared that if you are really going to be an entrepreneur and have a successful business, you’re going to lose all your friends, you’re going to get divorced, you’re just going to become so beholden to your business that you’re going to have to give up everything else outside your life. One of the things about being married and working together on this project is that we’re both committed to the same thing and moving in the same direction and I think if one of us was doing this without the other-
Steven Sashen: It wouldn’t work.
Lena Phoenix: It absolutely would not work because we understand intimately when one of us has hit the wall, which happens on a regular basis because we’re working such long hours and such long weeks. It’s like Steven wants to go see a movie and I’m like, I cannot get off the floor, he understands. He’s not like he’s not there for me, he knows, he knows why I just need to stare at a wall right now and vice versa. That I think has been really, really critical is doing it together, we both just … we’re very supportive of each other because we know how hard this is and we’re headed in the same direction. I think that’s really key.
Steven Sashen: Another thing is, I don’t want to put this, I can’t pat myself on the back when I say this so I have to just talk about you, Lena is just super, super competent. My favorite story, even before we started this business, when we were dealing with lawyers and accountants and various people, they would often say to her, “Hey, if you’re not doing what you’re currently doing or if it ever stops, I’m happy to hire you at like 500 bucks an hour.” And I used to say to her, they’re not blowing smoke up your butt, you’re hyper competent and that’s a really rare thing and so it’s just such a treat to work with her, that’s a huge part of it. I feel ridiculously lucky.
Lena Phoenix: That is so sweet.
Steven Sashen: It’s true.
Lena Phoenix: I think it’s also true in the reverse because I think when you-
Steven Sashen: Thank God, I’m so glad it wasn’t just me.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh, I love it.
Lena Phoenix: When you’re in a business and you’re constantly forward facing and having the opportunities to see your spouse through the eyes of others is a really powerful thing because I think marriage can be challenging in whatever form and I think the key … my understanding of one of the key success is to having a happy marriage is that you really have to learn how to be partners and a big part of that is respecting your partner and the gifts that they have. I am just blown away by Steven’s capacity to communicate our vision, to get people on board with the idea. The magnitude of what he sees and how he’s able to share that with the world is skill that I’m not as good at.
I just feel, again, very fortunate to be able to work with him that we really have cracked the code on how to be partners headed in the same direction, focused on the same thing so that if we approach … if we’re facing a problem, it’s not about turning on each other and-
Steven Sashen: Winning.
Lena Phoenix: What did you do wrong, it’s not a power struggle. It’s like, okay, how do we work together to find the solution that that’s the right one, and if it’s not right for one of us, it’s probably not the right one.
Steven Sashen: Yeah, and to that point, two things. The short version of the answer to this question is that we have no personal life and the second one is that Lena is always right.
Lena Phoenix: Yeah, and that’s really key.
Melinda Wittstock: This sounds like advice for men in business.
Steven Sashen: I’m actually being half glib when I say that, because one of the things, as Lena was saying, my gig, I like to build the car and Lena has to make sure there’s gas in it and I know that the gas is really the most important part is to a certain extent. So, when there is disagreement about ways of moving forward or things that we should do, the odds are pretty high that her answer is correct because it’s based on …. the logistics are based on reality or something that’s going to get-
Melinda Wittstock: The troops on the ground.
Steven Sashen: Yeah. I’m not being acquiescent when I say things like that, it really is when a disagreement part of my job is to as quickly as possible discover if in fact what she’s saying is legit and more often than not it is, and if not, I’ll come back with a case. It’s not an argument; it’s just my position on it. Related to that, something that’s true about our relationship prior to businesses is neither of us have the mistaken idea that if we’re upset, it’s because of the other person. And happily we both have the same basic pattern of dealing with the times where we don’t realize that, which is we kind of step back and shut up until we get it and then we come back together. And so that strategy, if you will, it’s just the way we’re kind of built and realize things is huge.
Lena Phoenix: Yeah. And I think one of actually the early challenges in our business is that we’ve worked that out in our marriage. It’s like, okay … and I talk about it in terms of you get into trouble when you’re both being stupid at the same time and so having the presence of mine or one of you having the presence of mind to walk away and let the tension diffuse and then come back and try to solve a problem with your grown up self.
Steven Sashen: Similarly, you only need one smart person to help you solve it. So once one person gets un-stupid, that’s the key to unlocking the thing.
Lena Phoenix: Part of the challenge we faced in the early days of our business is that like in many startups, we were underfunded, under resourced, bootstraps, constantly stressed out, so it took an enormous psychic toll on both of us. It was much harder to maintain that clarity of mind and there were times where we were dealing with issues where it simply wasn’t possible to walk away. Those were some of the hardest times early in the business because we had to figure out how to navigate things in a more condensed timeframe than we did in our personal life where it’s like, okay, I’m just going to go for a walk and talk about this one and come back.
Steven Sashen: And lucky for me, I have no memory of any of this.
Melinda Wittstock: It’s so interesting just listening to the banter between you, how easy it is in flow. I know there’s so many different challenges in business, but if you can’t get the personal part of it figured out, like your own mindset … I’m a serial entrepreneur so I know that if you want to grow as a person, in personal growth terms, just become an entrepreneur because all your crap is going to come out and it’s got to get resolved and especially if you’re going to keep a marriage healthy as well. So have you found that it really is a journey and it’s a journey not just in growing a business, but in growing as, but growing a really strong relationship that they’re all integrated in fact?
Lena Phoenix: Yeah, I actually do think that’s the case. One of the books that we read early on in our marriage was called Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work by John Gottman. I don’t know if you’re familiar with him, but he has what’s called the love lab in Seattle where he created an apartment where he could observe couples interacting and he was able to identify behaviors that-
Steven Sashen: Reliably predicted whether they stay together within five years.
Lena Phoenix: Exactly, whether or not a couple would be successful in their marriage, and I heard not long ago that Stanford Business School, there was a class being taught using this book because the principles within it, we’re just as important for company founders as they were for couples in a marriage. Because what they were finding is that a lot of these kids coming out of business schools had these incredible ideas, but they had no experience in working in close relationship and partnership with other people. So these principles that Gottman had outlined in this book for couples were equally important for four founders and a lot of it comes down to communication styles and respect and learning how to recognize when you’re deep in conflict, where there’s an opportunity to break out of a pattern and things like that. I found that very, very interesting when I learned that that business schools were using this book that had been very valuable for us in our marriage.
Steven Sashen: To be clear, it’s not suggesting there’s a way of doing it. There are some common factors, you may be a co-founder and have another co-founder, where you yell and scream and bitch and moan but that’s actually just a way that you communicate. You’re a New Yorker and if you’re a New Yorker that was no digging as New Yorkers, I lived in New York for 10 years; most of my family came from New York. The point is that there’s got to be some simpatico about how you perceive information, the ways that you communicate, the way you come back together. Again, the respect/the other side of that is contempt cycle or spectrum, you’ve got to identify if you’re on the contempt side. That’s basically the number one factor that leads to predicting a dissolution of any sort of relationship and if you’ve got that, you either better find a way to get rid of that by communicating or it may be that you’re in the wrong partnership.
Melinda Wittstock: Take us back to Shark Tank; let’s get into your business for a little bit. You walk in there and you get an offer, but you’re like, no.
Steven Sashen: That’s just about it, that’s the whole show.
Melinda Wittstock: So that’s basically what happened.
Steven Sashen: Yeah, that’s it.
Melinda Wittstock: Which was awesome. Tell us what was going on in both of you, did you go in there, both of you having a very clear idea of what that no point was because I could imagine the founding team, let alone a husband and wife getting in there and then having an argument about it?
Lena Phoenix: That never even crossed our minds. Preparation for that show was actually a really powerful experience for us because we’ve-
Steven Sashen: Personally and professionally.
Lena Phoenix: Personally and professionally, because we started the business and like many entrepreneurs we were flying by the seat of our pants, kind of reactive mode. We knew there was a there, there, but we were growing quickly and we didn’t … well, Steven had a very large vision, we hadn’t really mapped it out and once we realized that we were going to be on the show, it was definitely an oh shit, we really need to get clear about where we’re going, where we’re headed, where we want to go, how we think we can get there.
Steven Sashen: What the end goal looks like.
Lena Phoenix: It was phenomenal exercise just preparing to be on the show, so we were completely unified when we walked in about what our position was, how low we were willing to go, who we wanted to work with, what we wanted to happen. Our fantasy was that we were going to get, I think-
Steven Sashen: Everybody. We thought there was a realistic possibility we could get for the sharks. Mark Cuban, he had been doing some pitching for another footwear brand that had just come out with a shoe that was philosophically sort of all what we were doing, Damon had experience in fashion and footwear a little bit, Barbara is such a great marketer so we thought we’d just be able to allow her, Robert is a former serious runner, we didn’t know if he was still running at the time or not. So those four we thought were kind of a given and it went the other way, that’s not at all what happened. I’m going to backup on where to start, the thing that was so interesting from my perspective is that in again where we got together, we were essentially retired for the first nine years of our relationship and we never really talked about going into business together we just found ourselves doing it.
This was the first time, both professionally and personally, where we really had to get on the same page, face the same direction, really plot something together, and just doing that was really wonderful, that was a big thing for me at least. Back to the show, we thought that we were going to get like four out of five and those four were the ones who said no.
Melinda Wittstock: This is the classic part of entrepreneurship, isn’t it? What you expect is, it’s never like what you plan, I don’t think. I just think it’s like constant change, constant surprise. I happen to like that, I sort of thrive on that, but not everybody does.
Steven Sashen: I could use a nap.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, we all could, that’s for sure. I actually have to nap.
Steven Sashen: I don’t have a choice. I have a weekend or at least one day on a weekend I will fall down and just be out for two to four hours so it’s out of my control.
Melinda Wittstock: Oh my God, yeah. No, it’s really true. We do have to take quiet time for ourselves, but how do you guys cope with change? So now, right now you’re in a different sort of change, you’re in that rapid growth phase where there are lot of different challenges when you’re growing quickly, that could be kind of harrowing, right? Cause you’re succeeding but that’s when like … I dunno, I’ve seen businesses that are succeeding completely fall off the rail. How have the challenges and the changes changed? I guess I’m on the journey so far?
Steven Sashen: Well, what were you going to say?
Lena Phoenix: I’m just thinking about the question because I refer to the phase we’re in now as the gangly awkward teenage phase where we’re no longer a startup. We’ve been in business for nine years but our growth has been really extreme over the last few years and we now have 32 employees, we’ve got offices here up outside of Denver and a warehouse down in Denver, and quick growth creates so many different challenges.
Steven Sashen: The thing that I keep thinking is that we’re getting very quickly to the point where we’re growing past the time that we have the luxury of learning how to do what we need to know. That’s a really awkward phrase but the gist is that we’re both smart people and we can figure things out and learn things. In fact, the early part of our business was realizing that our job is just to come in every day, figuring out why things were working yesterday aren’t working today and find a solution. Now the kind of solutions we’re looking for are multinational solutions, solutions involving millions and millions of dollars and there are people who just know how to do it better than we do.
And while we could take the time to learn it, it seems like we’re growing faster than we have the time to do that. That’s one thing, it’s a really big thing we’re trying to do so put those two together.
Lena Phoenix: I think many entrepreneurs struggle with the issue of delegation and we are at a point where it’s really critical for both of us to be able to delegate things that we are most comfortable doing ourselves to other people that we trust and it’s a very tricky thing. One of the most complex parts of business I think is the people that you work with and who work for you and learning how to find people who are a good fit for you personally and your organization and the vision of your organization. That is one of the more challenging things that we’ve had to do and we’ve hired people who were not a good fit for our business and our culture.
Steven Sashen: Something that we thought we were or we thought they were and found out that we were wrong.
Lena Phoenix: Steven and I are very straightforward people. We’re very self-motivated, hardworking, it’s like, okay, we figure out what needs to be done and we go do that. We’ve come to realize that not everybody is like that and when you have an entrepreneurial mindset, it’s challenging to recognize that, oh, wait a second, okay, people who are applying for these jobs may not necessarily have that same skill set and are going to need direction. We both had to evolve more managerial style than anticipated, I think.
Melinda Wittstock: Lena, I love what you said and Steven too and one of the things that was really funny it’s just to let everyone in transparently on our process. When people come on my podcast, I ask him a whole bunch of questions before you come on and I asked you what you want to talk about and one of yours really leapt out at me, which it went something like this, why every business book is the wrong, like, like don’t, all this advice is kind of wrong. What specifically is wrong about it? Where did you find that conventional wisdom or things that you’d been taught about business or entrepreneurship was wildly the wrong advice?
Steven Sashen: Oh God. Well, does that slide tell you an answer?
Melinda Wittstock: There’s a lot of it that’s wrong.
Steven Sashen: Well, you know, human beings, we all have this one tendency. We want to try and be able to predict what will reliably get us to a happy imagined future. The problem is that we’re really, really bad at it and the bigger problem is that we forget how bad we are at it and even bigger problem is that we think we’re special. So if we meet a million people who’ve gotten what we want and find out they’re no happier than we are, we would still think, but if I got it. Think back to the most recent lottery, whenever there was a big lottery, there’s all these stories that come out about how lottery winners are happy and sometimes they get unhappy, everybody thinks, yeah, that wouldn’t happen today. This issue of trying to figure out what conditions will lead to some certain outcome, lead to a thing called hindsight bias and/or survivorship bias.
So what we do in these business books, they look at the companies that happen to be succeeding at the moment they’re writing the book, and then they come to this conclusion that there are these factors that you could identify that led to their success. Then of course they’re going to find things that fit that story, but they’re not going to look for the counterfactuals. They’re not going to look for the other companies that had those same principles who didn’t succeed, or they’re not going to look at how it could be the exact opposite of everything they just came up with that led to their success. Right now there’s, well, I’m not going to mention names, someone who uses Apple as a great example of here’s how you make sure your success, forgetting that in the ’90s apple was on the verge of bankruptcy and going out of business, and everyone thought it was a horrible company, where there was times where the companies that people were using as examples of brilliant businesses were things like Enron.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, that was a good one.
Steven Sashen: Catering to this propensity that we have to use selective information to come up with a story that we think we can then reproduce to turn into some specific imagined outcome, there’s just zero evidence whatsoever.
Lena Phoenix: People massively underestimate the importance of luck in any entrepreneurial venture. There’s no question Steven and I are really smart people, we are incredibly hardworking but the number of lucky accidents that have happened to us over the course of the nine years that we’ve been in business is-
Steven Sashen: The impact of that is way bigger than-
Melinda Wittstock: So lucky accidents, I want to pick up on those. Are those lucky accidents or are they synchronicities because you’re in real alignment?
Steven Sashen: Lucky, lucky, lucky. Well look, my favorite story about this, I have a degree in film and one of my teachers was the now late director and Milos Foreman. Someone said to Milos, “How do you make a good movie?” And he said, “Making good movie is 90% casting and the other 10% is casting.” I think it’s the same thing about business, it’s 90% luck, the other 10% is luck and then there’s a whole other 100% that’s working really hard. If you want to get into the sort of metaphysical thing about co-creating your own luck, that’s fine but the gist of it is that at best what we’re doing is making sure that everybody knows what we’re doing and so we’re certainly casting a wider net of possibilities.
Our favorite example, we have a chief product officer who has been designing footwear for 40 plus years, done some amazing work with incredible companies, he co-founded Avia Athletics footwear in the ’80s. He was most recently at Crocs before we met him and the reason that we met him was the one day he was walking his dog, which he normally … dogs, plural, he normally didn’t do that, his wife did that, and we had a friend who was out walking his dog and normally his wife did that and he didn’t do that. The dogs knew each other so the dog started hanging out so the guys started talking and our friend said, “Hey, what do you do?” And Dennis said, “Oh, I just retired from Crocs.” And our friend said, “Oh, black friends Steven and Lena have a shoe company,” and Dennis said, here’s my phone number.
I got that phone number and sat on it for months because I’m thinking, what would a guy who was just deciding for all these other companies want to do with our wacky little do it yourself sandal company. We ended up getting together for lunch and after three hours, I said, well, I’d love to find someone like you 30 years your junior who’s just getting started and work with him and Dennis said, “Why not me?” I go, I don’t think I could afford you and he goes, “I’m retired.” I go, hey, you’re hired. Were it not for the fact that these two guys happened to be walking their dogs at the same time on that day, none of that would’ve happened. It’s not because of something we did; I can’t go there personally.
Lena Phoenix: The same kind of thing, there’s luck within our marriage in the sense that-
Steven Sashen: Just the work we got together.
Lena Phoenix: We didn’t get together thinking, okay, you’re a good person to found a business with because we didn’t know that that was going to be in our future. It is very lucky that we have complimentary skill sets and that-
Steven Sashen: Just the fact that we’re a couple at all is a crazy amount of luck.
Melinda Wittstock: I love what you said about dogs. My first golden retriever was named Pundit, introduced me to people that became business partners. I met my child’s nanny because Pundit introduced us. There’s a whole bunch of things like that that actually happen.
Steven Sashen: Yes, it is. It’s all about dogs.
Melinda Wittstock: I have a theory that we should just aspire to be more like dogs, and here’s why I say that I was actually kind of serious is because they’re in the moment and they’re unassuming and when stuff happens they literally shake it off.
Steven Sashen: And they’ll see anything.
Lena Phoenix: That is an interesting thing to aspire to I think. We are a dog friendly office; we have on any given day between five and seven dogs that come to work. I have always been a cat person so when … my employees ganged up on me, basically they said, “We’ll be so much less stressed out if you let us bring our dogs to work.”
Steven Sashen: They approached you like a pack of dogs.
Lena Phoenix: Yeah, and I was like, okay, fine. But what they didn’t tell me is that my productivity was going to go through the floor because I was going to be spending all of my time patting their adorable dogs.
Steven Sashen: They have great ears; they have good dog ears.
Lena Phoenix: Yeah, they have good dog ears. It is one of those things that I think they do provide stress relief for the office, I had to acquiesce to the wisdom of my employees on that point and it helps create a more relaxed atmosphere for everybody.
Steven Sashen: To your point Lena, the whole idea of sort of creating situations where there’s the opportunity for chance meetings is I think what most people would refer to as creating your own luck. You’re just putting yourself out there, is just the law of large numbers. Some of the examples that we’re talking about go way beyond that state, we’re three generations back from that. If someone who knew us who saw and talked to someone who talked to someone who eventually met someone who introduced them to us; that part is so far out of my control that I’m not going to try and claim any psychic-
Lena Phoenix: I think it’s really important too because Steven’s greatest fear is missing an opportunity so in the early days of our business he was a networking machine and still is to some extent is although he’s had to dial that back a little bit just because of how big the demands on him are. I’ve actually had to step up on that side of things as our business has grown. And evolved but a big part of it is really putting yourself out there and making sure that people know who you are so that those connections can be made.
Steven Sashen: One point, one of my favorite memories, I was at a big event with a whole bunch of entrepreneurs and I said, so how many of you have businesses? And everyone of course raised their hand. I said, how many you have logos for your businesses? Everyone raised their hand. I said, how many of you have T-shirts with the logo of your business on it? And everyone raised their hand. I said, how come none of you are aware your damn T-shirts? It was an amazing situation where I see people who have businesses and they don’t do the simplest things that they could be doing that would help get the word out there.
Lena Phoenix: I will never be caught dead in a logo T-shirt because getting out of bed and getting dressed in whenever I want to wear is-
Steven Sashen: You’re stylish.
Lena Phoenix: Is very important to me, thank you.
Steven Sashen: Then the good news is for us, our shoes are a part of that. The point is that there’s always opportunities that you could take advantage of to let’s do that increase your luck thing by making more people aware of what you’re doing and I’m amazed how few people take those opportunities.
Melinda Wittstock: That’s true, because part of it is spotting the opportunities, creating enough space that you even see them to begin with, but then seizing them, like just doing it. It’s amazing how we all have an immense number of opportunities, but we just don’t see them or we don’t act.
Lena Phoenix: And that is a big part of it too, especially when you’re an entrepreneur is trying to figure out how to take advantage of the opportunities that have been presented to you because most entrepreneurial companies that I’ve seen are in some way under resourced. Whether it’s just from a standpoint of time or money, sometimes opportunities present themselves that you can’t take advantage of because you don’t have the resources available to do that. One of the big challenges is figuring out how to maximize your ability to count on those things that are really going to make a difference for your business.
Melinda Wittstock: Yeah, absolutely. As we start to wind up, Lena, what would you pass on to women about best working with men and Steven, what would you pass on to men about best working with women?
Lena Phoenix: That’s an interesting question because I feel like there’s a balance between patients and assertiveness. There’s absolutely no question that women are still dealing with issues of bias where if you insist on inserting yourself into the conversation, you’re going to be perceived more negatively than a man who is just being assertive. I have found that I listen and I look for strategic opportunities to insert myself in the conversation with very concise and clear points and that’s a very effective way to get heard. So there’s a balance there, and there are times when I just have to be more aggressive than I might naturally want to be, simply because of the nature of the conversation or the number of people in the room or things like that. Sometimes there’s just recognizing, you know, there’s a saying it’s don’t argue with crazy people.
It doesn’t quite fit the story that I’m going to tell but there was a time that I was interviewed by a gentlemen who kept talking about how amazing I was and how much he really wanted to hear my perspective on things and 40 minutes later, I had not a word. It wasn’t important in that particular situation for me to really communicate anything, it was more amusing to me than anything else and I just didn’t feel the need to expend the energy to of push that one. But it’s really recognizing when you really need to make yourself heard and figuring out the best strategy to do that and I think women do have to be more careful than men because of the perceptual biases against women in the workplace.
Melinda Wittstock: Gosh, you know, it’s really true. I was part of an accelerator as a tech, running a tech startup called Springboard Enterprises, and we had to go to this boot camp so that we could get very good about speaking with confidence about ourselves. One of the women pitching had had a $500 million exit in her previous company, but like forgot to mention it. Another woman was like an astronaut and like, she talked more about her inexperience as a CEO and I was like, wait a minute, if you’ve been an astronaut, you can probably figure out this like CEO stuff. Right. It was so interesting how we sometimes just were afraid to actually speak up about our actual qualifications and what we’re able to do and not really feeling as much at ease about talking about money or doing deals or any of these things that seems to come a little bit more naturally to men.
Lena Phoenix: It’s definitely an evolution. We are primarily a debt finance to company so I’ve spent the last nine years basically asking people for money.
Melinda Wittstock: I know what that’s like.
Lena Phoenix: In the beginning it was like every person I talked to you, they’d say, “Oh, well I want you to provide me with all this documentation,” and blah, blah, blah, blah. It became clear to me after three or four rounds of this that there were certain things that the decision was being based on and it didn’t require me to spend eight hours compiling a package. The first time I was talking to some guy in New York, I’m like, okay, here’s where we are, these are my numbers, this is what I got, this is what I don’t got, I don’t want to waste either of our times. So if you can’t do it based on these criteria, let me know now so we can both get on with our lives. It was a transformative moment for me because the guy was really taken aback. He was so used to, I assume men and women,
Steven Sashen: Begging.
Lena Phoenix: Just acquiescing to, yeah, send me all these, you know, all this paperwork about your business and … he said, “Well, actually yeah. If you don’t have collateral, we’re really not going to be able to help you.” And I’m like, oh, great, awesome. Awesome conversation, thanks so much for your time, good luck, I’ll talk to you if we’re ever in that situation. It took me three or four years to get to that point but I enjoy those conversations a lot now because it’s very efficient.
Melinda Wittstock: Right, exactly. I love it. So what’s next, where are you guys going to be in 10 years time? What’s your big plan for Xero Shoes? Are you growing it to eventually sell it, is this a family business forever, what’s the big vision of where you’re going to be because you talk about it like it’s a movement, which I love?
Steven Sashen: We’re creating a “movement-movement” and what we mean by that is that our products are designed to let your feet do what feet are made to do, bend and flex and move and feel. And it seems almost silly that you have to say that letting your body do what’s natural is better than restraining it and having it do unnatural things but that’s what we have to say now because for the last 50 years, shoe companies have been doing things where they make shoes that squeeze your toes together and elevate your heel to make bad posture and make it so you can’t flex your foot naturally and feel the ground. So, we’re actually going back in time to create that “movement-movement.”
The other thing I can say is our goal is to make natural movement the obvious healthy, better choice, the way that natural food currently is, and for the company itself beyond shoes, the idea of Xero of something that’s natural, that’s lightweight, that lets your body do what it’s supposed to do, there’s a lot of ways that we can expand that. We are definitely on a change in the world mission.
Lena Phoenix: Yeah, and I think it’s difficult for us to say where we will be in 10 years because-
Steven Sashen: Or where we’ll be in 10 days.
Lena Phoenix: Our goal is really to do the right thing for the product so there’s so many different ways that that can play out in so many unexpected things have already happened to us that we don’t try to predict that. Our goal is to really just build a solid foundation as possible. One of my personal things that I would like to see happen is for footwear for women in particular, to undergo a seismic shift so that women no longer feel that they have to put their feet in really unhealthy footwear in order to feel professional or powerful or confident.
Melinda Wittstock: Ah, bless you.
Lena Phoenix: Because we came out of the athletic realm, I spent the first six years going, “Ah, I need something I can wear when I’m people for money that’s not a running sandal or a gym shoe.” So we’re starting to move into women’s footwear and I really want, just as part of this women’s empowerment in general, for women to understand that they don’t have to put themselves in pain in order to be taken seriously or be seen, or be attractive or any of those things, that you can be comfortable and powerful at the same time.
Melinda Wittstock: I love it. Well, thank you for doing that work; I think we can. Everybody listening here to this podcast that certainly benefit so how can people buy your shoes and do you have any special offers for any of our listeners today?
Steven Sashen: Well, the where to find us and buy us, the easiest thing is go to xeroshoes.com and that’s X-E-R-O shoes.com or you can find us at xeroshoes or /xeroshoes on all those social channels. You can also … if you go to our website, the upper right hand corner, there’s a store locator link. You can find places that might be near you to buy our shoes or try them on and experience them. If you don’t see a store near you and you know one that should be carrying us, walk in and tell them that, or also drop us an email and tell us and we’ll reach out. We don’t have any special deals for anybody. We think that, well, first of all, we make products that are affordable and secondly, we think this whole race to the bottom on pricing on the Internet is basically the beginning of the end of the universe, as we know it.
It’s just a horrible, horrible thing that people do when they aren’t actually providing something of value and we’re not in that situation. The soles of our shoes have a 5,000 -mile warranty, we make products that are durable, that are affordable, and that are comfortable. We have people who’ve been wearing some of our sandals for eight years from our ‘do it yourself’ sandal kit, they bought it for 20 bucks and they’re still using it. So we’d rather offer something at an affordable price that lasts a long time and has a net effective cost that’s better than any discount we can possibly give you.
Melinda Wittstock: I love it. Okay, well thank you. You held firm on your price and on your value, so let that be a lesson, everybody listening too. That was very well said. All right. Well look, thank you both so much for putting on your wings and flying with us and inaugurating this wonderful new podcast segment that I’m doing within the wings about women and men working together in a really evolved more conscious way because it’s truly transformational and hats off to both of you and what you’re doing, you’re an inspiration.
Lena Phoenix: Thank you so much. It’s really been a pleasure to be a part of this inaugural flight and [crosstalk 00:59:08] having us.
Steven Sashen: Yeah, thanks so much. It’s been a real treat.
Melinda Wittstock: Thanks for putting on your wings and flying. Awesome, thank you very much.
Steven Sashen: Pleasure, thank you.
Lena Phoenix: It was a lot of fun.