Softstar on KLCC/NPR Radio
In February 2011, local public radio station OPB-KLCC came to visit our shop. The audio broadcast is no longer available, but you can read the transcript below. At the bottom of this page, you can see an extra multimedia video they posted on their website.
Five years ago, Softstar Shoes had a mere informational page for a website. Then two savvy Hewlett Packard engineers purchased the 25-year-old company. They moved from a shabby shed to a trendier loft in downtown Corvallis. And they ramped up the website with a shopping cart, so their glove-like moccasins could be sold online.
Tricia Salcido: "That was actually a really fun day when we went live. We all kind of sat there with our fingers together, saying, 'Are we going to get an order?' and when one came through, it was really exciting."
Salcido: "We were like, 'Look at that: an order, without a phone-call, without a fax.' "
That's co-owner Tricia Salcido. When she and her best friend Larkin Holavarri bought Softstar in 2005, the shoes were mostly sold wholesale. Now, they retail—or rather, e-tail—90 percent of their volume directly to customers. Their web store feels like a social network. For a premium, people can design-their-own shoes. Trish describes the rainbow of leathers, including fuchsia, kiwi, and shiny metallic sapphire.
Salcido: "There's even coloring pages that the kids can click out. They can color-in what they think they want their shoe to look like. You can even have the Crayola crayon color name link back to the closest color swatch of leather."
Fleeing the corporate grind, Larkin and Trish sought a toddler-friendly workplace. Their kids frolic around the 5,000-square-foot factory, as shoes are cut, sewn and packed for delivery. Larkin is 40. And Trish, just back from maternity leave, is 41. Trish, the entrepreneur, handles marketing. Larkin manages the nuts-and-bolts of production.
Sales doubled in 2010, after Softstar unveiled a new adult shoe -- called the "Run-Amoc." They designed it with input from a growing online community of "barefoot" runners.
Larkin Holavarri: "We had a few customers who were calling us and saying, 'Hey, I was running in your moccasins and this happened.' And we said, "Woah, woah, woah, hold on. You were doing what? And that's when we found out about this whole minimal shoe, barefoot running."
Son: "Mommy, I have a problem."
Holavarri: "You have a problem?"
That's Larkin's two-year-old, still potty-training. Softstar tripled its workforce this past year. The company now has 18 "elves." That includes Softstar s former owner, Tim Oliver, who still happily works here. Other than him, 22-year-old Keita B. has been here the longest--four years.
Keita: "There was an ad in the paper for a job, and I applied, and kind of fell in love with the company. It's very family-friendly, and they want you to be happy to come to work."
Now, Keita's mom, dad and her twin sister Tesla work at Softstar. Keita and Tesla have sheepskin slippers named for them. Larkin takes me to Keita's dad, cutting soles with a hydraulic press.
Holavarri: "Then we use the clicker to cut out the leather. And it's basically just a big cookie cutter."
Robert B., an unemployed punch press operator, started about six months ago.
Robert: "Well, I was doing metal fabrication, and was laid off for a year-and-a-half... Yes, it's a lot cleaner. Less noise. Uh, happier environment."
Each elf makes one-to-five pairs of shoes an hour. Their leather has green-cred. Scraps are recycled, for art projects. Trish says they avoid polluted, overseas tanneries.
Salcido: "We only buy our leather from the United States, or sometimes we will buy it from Western Europe."
They ship shoes around the world, to France, New Zealand, and Kurdistan. The baby Mocs start at $29. Adult boots cost more than $200.
Lynn Kahle: "Customers are willing to pay more money if they think they're getting something that's special; something that does a better job of conforming to their unique values."
Lynn Kahle is a sports marketing expert at the University of Oregon. He cautions:
Kahle: "If a competitor comes in and tries to copy their manufacturing and design, but does it with a much less expensive manufacturing process, using Asian sourcing, that might be a threat to them."
Softstar stresses their shoes will always be made in the USA. They hope to grow enough to become a $2- to $5-million company. Then, they could offer employees health benefits. And avoid furloughs during slow seasons. Breast-feeding her newborn in the office, Trish reveals:
Salcido: "This past year was the first year that Larkin and I actually came out positive, in terms of paying ourselves something. The first three years we didn't pay ourselves anything, and then the fourth year, we were paying out more in childcare than we were making."
The fifth year ended in the black. But the artisan shoemaker needs a lot more volume to ensure a financially healthy future.
For KLCC News, I'm Laura McCandlish, reporting from Corvallis.