Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Tim Talley and I am the founder and CEO of U-Lace No-Tie Sneaker Laces. U-Lace is the originator of the modular No-Tie Sneaker Lace. Our product is a stretchy woven lace segment that is designed to span just a single set of sneaker eyelets at a time. A couple of packs of U-Laces transforms most pairs of lace-up sneakers into slip-on that never need to be tied or untied.
Our consumers are kids and adults; convenience seekers; parents looking for a way to get kids out of the door and on the way to school without lace-tying hassle; frequent fliers and people who lack the ability or dexterity to tie and untie standard shoelaces; and those seeking to add a bit of fashion pop to their sneakers.
Our customers are retailers such as Learning Express, Pigtails, and Crewcuts, Once Upon a Child and Global distributors covering the UK & EU, Israel, Asia, Canada and a few other regions of the world. We sell about $1.5MM worth of U-Lace’s every year. While lots of copy-cats have come into the market we boast the largest color range of about 60 colors which shows our total commitment to this business and product category
Sparkly Gold Ltd. Edition Pumas with U-Lace’s Sparkly Gold Classic Laces
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve been an entrepreneur since long before I knew what an entrepreneur was. I started my first money-making business - Tim-ting Buttons - as a sophomore in high school.
There are no guarantees of success, but the harder you work and deeper you dig and the smarter you get along the way improves those chances.
Between that venture and U-Lace, I ran successful businesses in College, Grad School, and Post Grad School. I have also been an ‘intrapreneur’; a guy working in an entrepreneurial fashion within a corporate environment, having as an MBA intern created a new candy line for Nestle Chocolate and creating massive growth and new business lines during my time at New Era Cap.
It was at New Era where I realized that I possessed the vision to truly ‘see’ what products and designs our consumers would really love and adopt. This led to me not only running the Urban Fashion 59FIFTY business but also becoming the companies Global Trend Spotter and Global Trend Liason. I was paid to leave the country and travel the globe absorbing the sites and filtering out the oncoming trends. As a result of that experience and all of my previous experiences, I came up with the concept for U-Lace while on a trip specifically taken to ‘spot’ something that could be my own.
On my first day in Tokyo, I spotted a sneaker in a shop window that was laced up in 6 colors at the same time. I thought it was so cool that I ran into the store for a closer look. Disappointment followed as the remaining length of standard 45” laces poured out of the sneakers. It was just a merchandising ploy, eye candy to draw you into the store. It was not something I could just buy and wear. Or could I? Deciding to find that answer to the “or could I?” question was the beginning of the development of U-Lace No-Tie Sneaker Laces.
Being a trained engineer and having run several other production companies in the past I did all of the initial drawings and development work for U-Lace on my own. I have never been one for design by committee or one for focus groups. I have worked and been very successful in my career by operating on gut feel, so the development of U-Lace progressed with just myself doing all of the work. Having been the guy who poured $60million of single-year growth into New Era’s Fashion 59FIFTY business - a business that had been growing by $4 million per year prior - I was also fairly well compensated and possessed the resources to self-fund the development and launch of U-Lace.
The ‘harajuku shoe’ as photographed from the outside the store in Tokyo. The original inspiration for U-Lace
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
It may seem odd but the first thing I did upon deciding I was going to pursue developing U-Lace was to come up with a name and logo for the company/product. This to me made the concept real. People who plan to put babies up for immediate adoption rarely name their babies. By naming U-Lace, and creating a logo (a face/personality) for the product/company it was officially my baby and I was going to raise it right.
The initial concept for U-Lace was much more about the fashion of multi-color than the function of no-tie. It was about empowering consumers to quickly and easily lacing multiple colors and patterns into their sneakers making them more YOU. This is why the name U-Lace was chosen because our product and all follow-up products would be about YOU the consumer.
Original Logo and Packaging Concept for U-Lace
Having been an entrepreneur and intrapreneur throughout my career, the experience in working with design & designers, and manufacturing & manufacturers both in the USA and abroad was key in getting the specifications of the product finalized and in finding the right manufacturer. In the end, I did work with a product development company to miniaturize and bring the final vision-spec of U-Lace to life.
The Product Development company also worked with several manufacturers overseas and introduced me to the manufacturer that we have worked with for the past 11 years. I now find and vet my own manufacturers for new lines of products and even help other entrepreneurs find trustworthy and credible global and domestic manufacturing.
Product development and product improvement is also a never-ending process for me. We continually work to make our product obsolete with improvements in design, materials, and functionality. In the time we have been selling U-Laces we have made no less than 5 of these changes which have improved the product and made previous versions less desirable if not obsolete. If you don’t keep trying to obsolete your own product with a better one, your competition or a new entrant product will.
We have also changed our packaging about 5 times over the course of the life of U-Lace. One was driven by a rookie mistake of printing a different package for every color of laces we made. Other changes were made in an effort to drive down packaging costs. And others were made to right-size the product offering to make the pricing match the consumer behavior we were seeking.
After appearing on Shark Tank, our website generated more sales than it had over the past 10 months combined.
I call the first package a rookie mistake but it also got us quickly into the market and selling. In entrepreneurship, “products and processes don’t have to be 100% RIGHT. They just need to be RIGHT NOW!” There is always time down the road to improve things. I really see my 5 package design changes as much less about making a mistake or doing it wrong as I see it as doing it right enough to keep the project moving and get sales going.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The way I launched my business is likely much different from the way many entrepreneurs will launch theirs. How you launch is truly a matter of what resources you have available to you; what you have done in the past and the reputation you have built for yourself.
I mentioned earlier that I worked for New Era Cap Company. My experience of driving hyper-growth and sales globally for that brand solidified a reputation of being a guy who knew the product, who knew consumers and who knew how to develop products consumers would not only want but want a lot of.
Naturally, my first U-Lace sales calls were to New Era’s biggest distributors across the globe. Overwhelmingly the response was: “Tim if you created this, I want it!” So U-Lace started as a global brand being sold in Europe and Japan and Brazil. We were shipping products globally before we even had a domestic website.
My reputation as a successful innovator and product guy was key in launching U-Lace. I tell people all the time, “MENTORSHIP is good. Having a mentor when starting a business can be very helpful indeed. But what you really want in your career is SPONSORSHIP. A sponsor, in contrast, is willing to put their reputation, their commitment and even their MONEY behind you.”
Those global distributors who signed on to distribute U-Lace over a phone call were true sponsors of me and my product and were invaluable in the successful launch of U-Lace. Sponsorship, however, comes only when you demonstrate that you can also provide true value in return; which is generally only evident as a result of the value you have demonstrated/provided in the past.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In the early stages of launching U-Lace, we focused most of our efforts on seeking distribution with big retailers and on selling directly to the consumer through our website.
Having lots of connections with retailers and salespeople from my previous corporate and entrepreneurial work experiences we were actually able to get U-Lace into Journeys almost immediately. The results at Journeys were lackluster however because we did not possess the leverage needed to ship in merchandising along with the product.
The retailers were calling the shots and those shots were not in the best interest of selling the product. Without the merchandising, there was no centralized place for consumers to find the product in-store and no means to educate consumers about the product and its benefits. This experience has caused us - to this day - to only sell the product to retailers who agree to merchandise the product on our merchandisers; as we know what it takes to grab consumers’ attention and sell the product.
It sounds overly simple but every journey begins with the first step and then ongoing steps.
The biggest sales splash in the early days of U-Lace came from a PR effort we did, posting our own self written press releases on PR Web. One of our releases was picked up by stylist Bobbi Thomas who did a piece on NBC’s Today Show about U-Lace in her Back To School Must-Haves segment. Traffic and sales on the U-Lace website immediately went bonkers. You can get out there on your own without an expensive agency. You just have to have a great product and something compelling to get editors and stylists interested.
Of course, the biggest and most successful thing we did to gain exposure, connect with consumers, and drive traffic and sales was going on Shark Tank and getting a deal with Mark Cuban. My efforts in getting on the show began with a trip to Philadelphia and sleeping outside in the rain the night before an open casting call that 6,000 other people also showed up to. Just over 40,000 people tried out for my season of the show. We were one of the 40 companies to actually get a deal that season. The night we aired and over the next few days, the U-Lace website generated more sales than it had over the past 10 months combined.
On the set of Shark Tank Pitching U-Lace
We continually work on finding the right mix of paid and non-paid social advertising and posting, Google AdWords, SEO, and work to make our website more friction-free. We have at times found ourselves overspending on all of this and having to pull back. In the end, some mix of all of these are needed but with a lower selling-cost item we must be careful not to overpay for clicks and sales.
One of the more expensive things we pay for but something we feel invaluable is our Reviews app Yotpo. We have collected nearly 4,000 reviews and have an average 4.5 Star rating that also gets connected to our Google ads and searches. Cleary this helps when were competing against copy cat and competitors who are selling knock-offs and not really providing customer service and a true brand to consumers.
We also put a small segment of our product on Amazon - not the entire line - as we feel it’s good to at least have a presence on Amazon if only for the reviews. Clearly lots of consumers search Amazon first when looking for almost anything they want to buy, so we want to have a presence there. But it’s also much like a parking lot swap-meet so we don’t want to put our entire line or stake our entire business on Amazon. With lower cost items the fees are high and there is also a disconnect from consumers that we’d prefer to avoid. We generally have the ability to make our direct consumers happy with our customer service - when working with Amazon we feel that we lose much of that ability.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
U-Lace has been profitable every year we have been in business. This is attributable to being very lean and fighting any urges to be extravagant. As far a leanness is concerned, we always have a bit more work to do than staff to do it, which keeps us on our toes and also ensures that we are not overspending on salaries.
As far as not being extravagant: it’s a daily effort to spend wisely. 3 years ago, when we moved into our current 6,000 SqFt office and warehouse space I personally went to an office furniture salvage warehouse and searched for hours to find matching desks, chairs, cabinets, warehouse racks and other office essentials that would have cost nearly $30,000 new, for about $2,500. All we had to do was break out the steam cleaner and add some elbow grease to bring the items back to nearly new. No one who visits our office knows the wiser.
Our profitability has actually enabled us to buy back our equity from our Shark Mark Cuban. Mark made a handsome profit but was also gracious enough to allow us to pull back his equity into the business for our team of partners and investors. This does not happen often but if you ever get the chance to own more of your own business by buying back equity do it.
We have several new products launching right now and by the end of the year. We are very excited about SiliPrint U-Laces - our line of decorated U-Laces - which will finally take us into licensed products. We also are branching out with another customer customizable/personalizable product - Lace Buddies - that we expect to be huge for us as we expand our brand and presence on-line and at retail globally.
New SiliPrint Decorated U-Laces
New Lace Buddies Line (Sneaker Customizing Letters & Icons and Customizable Accessories)
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the key instructions evert referee gives to fighters in a boxing match is “protect yourself at all times.” This is one of the things I have learned that most entrepreneurs don’t do religiously, yet it is something that we should all practice with near-religious fervor. Over the course of nearly 40 years of being an entrepreneur, I have been knocked to the mat several times, and totally knocked out once as a result of simply not protecting myself and the business at all times.
I’ve learned through the bruises, however, to never be so eager for a sale, that you make a bad sale. Don’t just ship your valuable product to someone you don’t know without a credit application and bank and business references. But don’t just trust what’s on paper; make the calls - talk to their references - and get a sense of whom you are dealing with.
And always remember that if something is worth agreeing to, it’s worth putting into writing.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Website: Shopify
- Reviews: Yotpo.com
- Shipping Software: ShipStation
- Website Sales and Consumer Data Consolidation: Putler
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I love to read and generally take a book or two on my multiple trips back and forth to Asia each year.
2 books that have been instrumental in shaping how I run my business are:
Predictable Success - Predictable Success is a book that guides an entrepreneur to get to a point in their business where ongoing-success is actually predictable. For many businesses success happens sporadically and very little is predictable, this book gives great insight on how to create that predictability.
Blue Ocean Strategy - This book in great in the early stages of developing a product or business as it teaches an entrepreneur to engineer value propositions into their product offering that will significantly set it apart from the competition, thus allowing the product to launch in a Blue Ocean away from the bloody part of the ocean where would-be competition are fighting it out over very similar offerings.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Entrepreneurship is like anything else that comes with a huge potential reward at the end - if you work hard you just might win; if you don’t work hard you’ll never win. There are no guarantees of success, but the harder you work and deeper you dig and the smarter you get along the way improves those chances.
I tell all entrepreneurs who ask - stop talking about it and start being about it. It sounds overly simple but every journey begins with the first step and then ongoing steps. The quicker each next step the faster you go. Just get moving.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are definitely going to be looking to add full-time staff soon, and we are always on the lookout for smart - paid - interns looking to add experience to their resume while bringing real value to the business.
On our list are Creative/Art Directors, Brand Marketers, and Social Media Marketers.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Want to start your own business?
Hey! 👋I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
We interview successful business owners and share the stories behind their business. By sharing these stories, we want to help others get started.
If you liked this story, join our mailing list for new interviews every Tuesday.
Interested in sharing your own story? Find out how!