Putting a sneaker on your foot can be the hardest part of wearing shoes. And for some people it’s an impossible task. Whether someone was born with a disability that prevents them from completing everyday tasks or experienced an injury that limits their mobility, there are plenty of people who need footwear that’s easier to put on. There are also kids who can’t tie their shoes yet or parents on the go who prefer a lace-free sneaker. The technology solving those needs gained attention in the public eye in 2015 when Nike launched its first FlyEase sneaker, a LeBron Soldier 8 that was inspired by Matthew Walzer, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy.
The FlyEase story goes even further back to when Nike’s first employee, Jeff Johnson, had a stroke and then-CEO Mark Parker and designer Tobie Hatfield wanted to create footwear that Johnson could put on himself.
In recent times, we’ve seen a rise in the popularity of the Nike Go FlyEase, a slip-on shoe that gained notoriety not just for its looks, but also because it was snatched up by resellers and many thought it was unfair to profit off a shoe intended for people with disabilities.
But what if I told you that Nike doesn’t make the FlyEase shoes all by itself? That’s where Kizik comes into play. Kizik specializes in hands-free footwear and owns many of the patents tied to the technology. When Nike went to launch FlyEase, it came across Kizik and realized the brand already owned most of the technology that Nike had tried to invent. Instead of risking it or gobbling up Kizik, Nike decided to invest in Kizik and license the hands-free tech from the brand.
One of the people behind Kizik is a longtime Nike employee. Skip Lei, a true shoe dog, currently serves as Kizik’s chief product officer. We got the chance to talk to Lei about his history working with Nike, Nike’s FlyEase technology, and how it all works with Kizik. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
How did you get your start in the footwear industry?
Yeah, well, I was hired by Nike in 1981 to work in Los Angeles as an original EKIN. I feel really honored and privileged to have had that role and done that. That was my foray into Nike and athletic footwear at that point, and then I stayed with Nike for 31 years.
I know at Nike you had worked on tennis products. What kind of stuff did you do within the tennis category?
I was the global director for tennis two different times in my career. I think running a category at Nike is one of the absolute, most incredible jobs that you can have. Because you manage everything between designers, developers, product line managers, sports, marketing, brand. Everything kind of comes together and culminates within an individual category. Nike is really good about keeping categories separate from each other. There isn’t just like a standard formula. So if you’re in basketball, you’re running your department in your division completely different than that of running, or that of women’s aerobics, or of tennis.
My first foray into tennis was when [Andre] Agassi was like 17, and Nike had virtually no position in tennis at all. We were doing a collaborative agreement with Wimbledon, the All England club, so we could use their colors and their logo. We had absolutely no confidence and we just decided to really step boldly and really give it a go. We were seeing what was happening in other categories like basketball, and where we were making the athletes the hero.
And we had this kid Agassi, long hair, and we ended up kind of costuming him with denim, which was McEnroe’s idea actually. He did all the heavy lifting. He had to play great, and he won the hearts of so many. It was really that Agassi era. And that was at the very end of people like McEnroe, it was a real changing of the guard to younger, more dynamic players coming in. Whether that be Pete Sampras or Jim Courier, there was a real kind of change to American men in tennis, which was really fantastic.
How did you get started with Kizik after working for Nike?
I think how Kizik found me was, Nike is a small owner, investor into Kizik. And with that investment, I think the Kizik people asked the Nike people, “Hey, would you be willing to help us with our products?”
I think Nike said, “No thanks. We’re really interested in your intellectual property; we’re not really that keen on helping you out.” Then I think a conversation must have pursued, I wasn’t part of it, that just kind of said, “Well, do you know anybody that might be willing to help us in footwear a little bit?”
And somehow my name surfaced and the CEO from Kizik, a fantastic guy named Monte Deere contacted me and said, “Hey, have you ever heard of our brand?” To which I said, ”No.” And then he explained to me the hands-free concept and how they got started, and how Nike was affiliated with them as a minority investor. And I was like, “Well, I love footwear. Of course, I’ll help you.” So I started to consult with them and that converted very rapidly into me becoming their chief product officer. That’s kind of where we are today.
I know Nike has the whole origin story behind the FlyEase technology, where it’s like Tobie Hatfield working to create the shoe for Jeff Johnson, the original employee who is going through challenges later in life. But then, I think everyone thinks the whole FlyEase thing originated from that, but it’s also interesting that there’s the brand you work for, Kizik, that Nike’s also getting the technology from. What was the arrangement for that?
Yeah, it’s very interesting because I think those are two parallel track stories that are going on. I think for a number of years, maybe as many as 10, Nike has worked on adaptable footwear for people. Nike has just the most remarkable kind of innovation department headed by people like Tom Clarke, and they just have incredible talent. You mentioned Tobie Hatfield, you can throw Tinker Hatfield and a whole bunch of other really creative wizzos who are based in Beaverton. They constantly are challenging the status quo to come up with things that are different, or find solution paths that have never been discovered before in the world of footwear and apparel.
I think as they were coming up with some original concepts, they, at times, would bump into our founder, a guy named Mike Pratt. They would bump into his patents and Mike started with just a handful of patents, and now I think there are about 90 patents that are either granted or in process, all around hands-free footwear. You can imagine, as Nike was mining for solutions, and that they were coming up with every once in a while, they’d say, “Oh, this is a really good idea, let’s go forward with this.” And they would give it to Nike legal and they’d say, “Well actually, we might be infringing on this guy.”
I think as Mike Pratt’s name came up multiple times, I think it got to the point where Nike just said, “I think we just need to have a chat with these guys.” I think Nike was in a position where they either had to say, “This guy’s got dozens and dozens of fantastic mouse traps that we would love to utilize, or I guess maybe we could just walk away from adaptability and hand-free, convenient footwear.” And somehow, internally at Nike, they must have come up with the idea that, well let’s at least have the conversation with Mike Pratt and the Kizik shoe company and the lab, which is called HandsFree Labs, that Mike Pratt owns, and have the conversation.
They had several meetings out on the campus at Nike. And as it turned out, I think Nike felt it behooved them to move forward and create a relationship with Kizik HandsFree Labs. And one of Nike’s caveats is that they would own that space for performance athletics. I think to your point about Go FlyEase, I think things were happening very much on a parallel track. I think there were things that Nike was creating and developing on their own, and certainly Mike had created and developed things for a teeny, teeny, teeny tiny brand on his own. And at some point, there was a meeting and a convergence of those things. Now Nike has the right to use everything in the HandsFree Labs portfolio as they see fit. Now I think they have all kinds of fun, little tools in their toolbox that they never had before, and they can move forward very rapidly and with confidence, knowing that they are patent protected. They’re not going to have to worry about encroachment by somebody else.
So is the collaborative process then, is it just that Kizik has created these technologies and Nike just uses them, or is there an actual collaborative process ongoing between Kizik and Nike to create more of these things? How does that work?
Yeah, so it’s very collaborative, I would say. We have our chief innovation officer, a guy named Craig Cheney, who is in constant contact with different Nike categories. And just like we talked about Nike categories during my early career at Nike, the category alignment at Nike still very much exists today. So as different categories, whether it’s basketball or running or sportswear or kids or Jordan or whatever categories, have all been made available these technologies, and then those categories make their own decisions.
And depending on the need that they have, they have phone calls with Craig. And sometimes they’re looking for a little bit of engineering guidance to get things done, or a little bit of manufacturing insight. Well, how did you do this to get this to be like that? Nike has been just a fantastic and brilliant business partner, I would say. But there is absolute contact and collaboration that goes on between Nike. Nike creates the road. Nike is Nike, just to be 100 percent clear. Nike is Nike. And again, at times, I think they look to people like Craig and our innovation team at HandsFree Labs to assist them with points of view or questions or concerns that might come up.
At first, when you saw a lot of the early FlyEase shoes that Nike had rolled out, it was the LeBron shoe where it was more so like the shoe kind of split in half and you could just put your foot in it. But now, it’s more so later morphed into what you see now where it’s the heel unit that Kizik uses on a lot of the shoes, that you can just step into that. How did that technology become innovated?
It all started with our founder, Mike Pratt. He saw people struggling to get their shoes on, whether they were able or disabled. He was seeing teenage kids fighting to get their shoes on and just trying to crush the back of it on their Vans, or he was seeing an elderly relative struggle to get their shoes on, or a kid that broke his collarbone playing lacrosse and he can’t tie his shoes.
He just thought, “There’s got to be a better way.” And I think he started really thinking about that. His primary focus was around the heel part of the shoe, and having either an internal or an external part, that would deflect and would allow the heel to just naturally step and deflect the heel part of the shoe, and allow the foot to slide in. Then the heel would pop back into place, creating a secure environment for the foot.
I think he found the most simplified and the most elegant solutions were going to be the ones that were going to be the best received by consumers. If it was too crazy or too kooky, it’s not for the masses. I think he really just wanted to help as many people as he possibly could by creating an easier way to get your shoe on. That’s kind of where it all radiated from.
How popular have the shoes been? Nike got a little bit of blow back from it, because the technology was initially put out there is to help people who have disabilities, which is a great thing to work on.
But then I think around the time when the Go FlyEase shoe came out, it had been kind of positioned for people on the go, like a mom who’s too busy can put the shoes on. And it maybe obfuscated a little bit helping people with disabilities. How much is Kizik focused on trying to enable people who have injuries or developmental problems?
First of all, on the Nike piece, I think that would be a great question for Tobie. I think Tobie really started where he was really trying to create adaptive footwear for people with needs. I think that was what his real thing was. Nike has plenty of innovation and technology for able people, and I think that he felt like this was a great opportunity for them to put some of their great design and innovative skills to work for potentially, a different market segment, and as you mentioned, Jeff Johnson. I think that’s probably where the beginning of this kind of happened.
I think you’d have to check with Nike on their messaging and how that went, but I recall too, that there was a little bit of blow back that they created this, and then it became kind of a shoe to be in demand. And then the inventory was little and the prices went up, and people that needed it the most were left kind of like, “Hey, what the heck?” But that was Nike, and what Nike does is usually very well thought and very measured.
I think for us, we didn’t start off as a needs company either. I think we saw the need for people to have an easier way to get your shoes on and get your shoes off. And, quite frankly, I think it’s just kind of thinking about a key fob for your car. You don’t put a key in the door anymore. And I’m sure for people that may have some disabilities, having a key fob for them was a great thing. However, I don’t think that’s why it was designed. I think it was designed to simplify people’s lives to get into a car easier, or a touch button to start the car rather than having to have the dexterity to put a key in the ignition.
I just think this is all part of moving forward and part of simplifying people’s lives. And for us, we’re excited that our solution works so broadly.
Going forward with Kizik, you licensed the technology out to Nike. Kizik is its own brand, but do you ever see Kizik working with other footwear brands?
I think that’s all possible. And just to be clear, Nike doesn’t just license the technology, Nike is an investment partner in Kizik. Nike has a financial stake in our company and will share in the success that our company has, so it’s not like they’re just licensing it and it’s transactional. I think that’s one important distinction. And then there’s a brand called Original Footwear, which makes a lot of products for first responders, military, police. They have a licensing agreement with us where they’ll be able to have a boot that people can just step into without lacing or unlacing it. I think finding the right partners and a synergistic relationship is the key to the kingdom. I think we see we have a lot of blue sky for us ahead of us in Kizik, just to make footwear.
And quite frankly, I think when Kizik was really small, they went around to try to license it to other brands. And I think a lot of people just said, “Yeah, I’m not sure. We’ll see.” But I think that was exactly the same thing with Nike Air. Nike wasn’t the first company that Frank Rudy went to. And a lot of people said, no, I’m not sure this works. I’m not sure I like it. I don’t think it makes sense. Whatever their reason was, and somehow Nike ended up in that relationship, in an exclusive relationship with Frank Rudy. And billions of pairs later, and a lot of royalty checks to Frank Rudy later, Nike Air still exists today. I think hands-free is a concept that can rival that.
So yes, I would say there’s always opportunity for other licensing possibilities, provided it’s synergistic and positive and not encroaching. Nike is our partner, so we would never think about licensing it out to anybody that is in their space in any way, that’s no good. We value our relationship with Nike and of course, our licensing with Original Footwear. I don’t think it would be one of those things where it’s available to each and everybody in the world today, but there’s plenty of brands and plenty of segments where we clearly are not. That probably would behoove both of us to hook up together.