No stranger to big, category-creating footwear innovations, Mark Thatcher, founder of Sazzi, believes his unique four toe post design platform will set the shoe world on fire just like his Teva sport sandal launch did 30 years ago.
By Greg Dutter
Most folks in the shoe business know the entrepreneurial success story of Mark Thatcher: He’s the Grand Canyon river guide who, back in the mid ’80s, invented the first-ever sport sandal — an innovative Universal Strap-based design that enabled the shoe to stay on people’s feet while in water and traversing rugged terrain, all the while providing support, traction, drainage, comfort and protection. That Teva sandal was ground zero for what quickly became a sports sandal category that, today, totals in the hundreds of millions, annually. While there have been many tweaks and upgrades to the original concept, its basic user-friendly performance premise remains the same. Thatcher’s creation is an iconic footwear design, having delivered bona fide benefits to millions of wearers all over the world. The big question is: Can he do it again?
Well, if you ask Thatcher, who cashed out about 10 years ago selling his “baby” to Deckers Outdoor for around $65 million, he wouldn’t bother to even give it a shot if he didn’t believe Sazzi has the potential to be something big—really big. “I wouldn’t have launched it if I didn’t have the dream and expectation that it could become a $1 billion brand and segment of the footwear industry,” he says, noting that commitment and timing play a huge role in its potential success. “Is the timing exactly right? I think it’s pretty close and we’ll know soon enough. My commitment is definitely there,” he affirms.
What are the benefits of a multiple toe post sandal construction? Four toe posts, according to Thatcher, keep the wearer naturally and securely connected to the footbed, and there’s no need to cinch toes to keep the sandal on, which avoids muscle tension and cramping. In addition, the heel is more secure and won’t slip from side to side. Basically, it’s like a flip-flop on steroids. “Posting between the toes gives you an internal anchor. Even one toe post has superior fit attributes to a shoe or slide that just surrounds your foot,” Thatcher says. “Our multiple toe post is that times four. If you move hard laterally you won’t slip out of the upper and you are less likely to twist your ankle.”
Thatcher says shoes up to this point have largely been exoskeleton constructions and, particularly for performance purposes, often feature pumps, straps or lacing systems to improve their secureness. However, that constricts blood flow and the natural athleticism of the foot. “When you tighten things in an exoskeleton construction you are basically putting a cast on,” he explains. “But when you put something between the toes, you relieve the need for that exoskeletal tightening.” Although Sazzi’s main attribute is lateral control, Thatcher says wear-testing quickly proved the design to have additional health and athletic benefits. For example, he notes the sandals have proven to be ideal for older people who have difficulty wearing loose-fitting slides, and the sandals stay on effortlessly even while swimming.
One also cannot overlook Thatcher’s sandal bias. “Sazzi allows your feet to move naturally and be free—like your hands,” he says. “Why would you want to cover them up, unless it’s cold outside? Why not get the most athleticism with the least coverage you can.” That less-is-more approach to footwear is what originially made Thatcher a success. However, he plans to extend the multiple toe post concept beyond sandals. “I believe there are ways to dramatically innovate many kinds of footwear and make them more athletic with multiple toe posts,” he says. “I see a future where sport shoes will become dramatically different as a result of the inevitable success of this design premise.”
Sazzi is what Thatcher originally envisioned what Teva could have become—a performance company that continually pushed the envelope on design. The decision to focus more on lifestyle fashion is eventually what pushed him to sell the brand. “Teva became a mainstream brand and the uniqueness of my story got awash in the fashion marketing,” he says. And while there was little Thatcher could do about it, he bears no ill will, noting that Deckers’ pursuit of fashion is what led to its acquisition of Ugg, and we all know how well that turned out.
Thatcher has always wanted to innovate, and he claims to have had the multiple toe post concept percolating in the back of his mind for years. Now he gets his chance with Sazzi, and one cannot underestimate his track record when it comes to foreseeing the future of footwear. And while it’s not like he possesses a crystal ball (although rumors he does will surely swirl if Sazzi takes off), Thatcher credits any footwear clairvoyance to keeping it simple. “Footwear innovation should be minimalist, simple and improvements to what is lacking,” he says. Granted, that might sound exasperating to designers, many of whom toil for decades and never hit a home run, let alone coin an entire category of footwear. But try this on for size: “I look at the shape of the foot and how it moves, but I’m no podiatrist—I don’t even know many of the names of foot parts,” Thatcher laughs. “But if it sounds easy maybe it’s because I’m not looking for complicated solutions.” To that end, Thatcher believes a fundamental flaw in a lot of footwear design lies in symmetrical constructions that restrain the foot, which, he adds, often leads to poor foot health and posture. “My propensity is to look for simple solutions that are ergonomic and address how the foot works, which tend to be healthier solutions,” he offers. “That’s a big part of what Sazzi is about: a healthier version of a sandal in a more athletic construction.”
Thatcher, who is a geophysicist by trade, believes his science training works well with his ability to see what the next big thing in footwear might be. Way back when he was searching for wildcat wells in Africa he used every bit of science available, be it seismic data, rock samples or surface expressions. But after digesting it all, it still came down to his gut—what people described as the ability to “smell oil,” he says. “Intuition is worth every bit as much as the science,” Thatcher says. “The combination of both is also what you do when you gamble on a new footwear company.”
So what have you been up to the past 10 years or so?
I purchased three precious properties in the Southwest—a remote ranch, a beachfront home and a creek property—and I’ve been exercising my creativity basically by spending money making improvements on them (laughs).
Did you think you’d ever get back into the business?
I didn’t really think about it, to be quite honest. Since I first started in the business, I’ve always felt I had the notion, propensity and intuition about footwear, but I also had enough money where I could retire completely. That’s the kind of mode I first entered when I began working on my properties.
What made you change your mind?
Two reasons: one that’s very personal and the second that our premise is a truly original concept. With respect to the first, I have a son who is 10 years old now and I wanted him to experience growing a business and gaining a more entrepreneurial perspective. But I couldn’t and I wouldn’t have started Sazzi if I hadn’t known of something that I felt was yet undone. By that I mean, basically, posts between each toe. Having not seen that happen yet, I figured there’s an opportunity and, if my intuition is correct as it was many years ago about the future of footwear with Teva sport sandals, then I wanted to be the first person to show how.
So footwear has always been on your mind, in a way?
In a way, yes. And while I find 99 percent of footwear to be not so interesting, it’s that one percent that’s functionally innovative or restorative that is of high interest to me. As Teva came to prominence I realized the market was much bigger than I originally thought. In fact, I came to believe that there were people that used sandals athletically before Teva, but they hadn’t been around for a very long time. The Romans, for example, used sandals athletically, and the Greeks preceding them did as well. So did Native American tribes, among them being the Anasazi of the Southwest (and where the name Sazzi is derived) who made sandals woven from Yucca fibers that featured two toe posts to stabilize their feet while walking in rugged terrain. I believe what helped make sandals persona non grata in Western culture for approximately 1,500 years prior—in the case of men, in particular—was a lack of personal hygiene. It had gotten so remiss after the Roman era where few took baths and they didn’t want to expose their feet, nor did anybody else want them to. Once personal hygiene improved the opportunity for people to rethink sandals came around again. Fortunately for me the option remained largely an unknown until Teva came out and hit upon a great confluence of both lifestyle and activity. I believe it was something that was inevitable, but I was fortunate to come out with it before anybody else did. Maybe that same opportunity exists again with Sazzi’s superior footwear design featuring multiple toe posts.
How long was Sazzi in development?
About three years ago I started working on the idea and checking in with some of my old cohorts in the business about the openness the market might have to a new brand and a new idea. I reconnected with some associates who are no longer associated with Deckers. [Notably Brett Ritter, now CEO of Sazzi, who was formerly vice president of product at Deckers and later held an executive gig at Reef.] I actually got the first prototypes about two years ago. That’s when Brian Walton, who was a rep for Patagonia then and is now our sales manager, found the fit, comfort and uniqueness of the athleticism striking. It was an easy persuasion to get these folks on board and they are now partners.
How has the initial response been from the trade?
Well, our Spring ’14 collection is quite different and expanded from this year’s offerings. Our debut collection featured toe cuts on the outsole, which had a functional application with regard to traction on uneven terrain. But the aesthetic association to Vibram FiveFingers wasn’t well received. We did not incorporate that into the design for Spring ’14. We’ve also added different uppers—a leather version at $120 and hemp canvas at $50—in slide and sport sandal styles. So I’d say we stumbled a bit in our first year but we’ve remedied that and have come back with a whole new focus of where we need to go. There’s nothing wrong with the premise. In fact, there’s so much satisfaction and excitement by many kinds of footwear consumers regarding the novelty, athleticism and health benefits of the four toe post design that we are confident Sazzi will be a success.
Why might now be a better time for this introduction rather than, perhaps, a few years earlier?
I think everything regarding the timing and whether the marketplace being more or less receptive is like a pendulum, and when you think it couldn’t get any worse, it swings the other way. Things, in general, seem to be swinging in a more positive direction of late. Now which way is the pendulum swinging specifically to an idea like Sazzi? Well, all I know is there’s nothing out there like it. I’ve heard about some custom-made sandals by individual cobblers that incorporated this concept, but there’s never been any shoe company to approach it with the expertise, scale and quality that we are. And I’m just glad to be first. I suppose we’ll look back in five years and know where the pendulum was.
What’s your primary role with Sazzi?
Well, I’m not as active as I was in Teva. That was my life back then—I lived on the road and everyday I was involved in some problem or challenge in trying to popularize the brand all the while trying to not have it be stolen by my original licensee. I was wrapped up in Teva 24 hours a day. Now it’s more checking in with partners and key retailers. I have a life. But I am very much enjoying my re-entrance into the footwear world. I’m just doing it on terms that are different because my life doesn’t depend on it like it did when I was creating Teva.
What was the best lesson learned from that Teva experience and how might you be applying it to the Sazzi launch?
Besides learning not to live in the back of my truck, I learned to retain control of the fun part of the business, which is the creative aspect. At Teva, I had all the authority when the brand was starting out but, as a licensor, I gradually lost it as the brand grew. Not anymore. I don’t have to fight battles internally about wanting to try different ideas or introduce new innovations that are natural evolutions of the primary idea. This time I get to exercise my creativity and participate in the process fully.
Do you envision Sazzi’s distribution range to be wider than Teva’s?
Originally I thought it would be similar to Teva. But we’re not wed to where we think we know it’s going to go as much as we are watching where it does go. For example, senior citizens who may have foot problems are customers that definitely shop beyond the outdoor specialty space.
How might the recent slowdown in minimalist footwear sales impact Sazzi?
First, I don’t think the slowdown is like the demise of the shaping and toning category, which proved pretty much to be a false premise. There are still advocates out there that believe and enjoy the benefits of minimalist footwear. But with respect to Vibram FiveFingers, in particular, I see it as a kind of a sweaty glove, and why would you do that to your feet? I appreciate the toe separation and some aspects of the minimal outsole but, unless it’s cold, why would you want to wear that? I mean, you don’t wear gloves in the summer. It’s hot, sweaty and stinky. And I don’t believe in a totally neutral footbed. I think you should have slightly positive heel for cushioning and support. Our models, generally speaking, feature a quarter-inch heel. I think that’s a good way to go.
A lot of people said those shoes were also ugly but, then again, a lot of big shoes over the past 20 years have been kind of ugly.
Yes, but ugly for a reason. Personally, if something looks weird but has a functional reason for being, then that’s the best-case scenario. Sazzi is more subtle than Teva in that regard. But with respect to potential closed-toe styles, there are ways stylistically where it could be visible—like adjusting the toe posts, perhaps. That would be a good kind of “ugly” in my book.
The push of late is a more cushioned approach to minimalist shoes, which is arguably an oxymoronic definition.
But what is really behind the minimalist idea? The goal of healthier feet, and it’s good that brands are exploring this direction. Healthier feet mean a healthier stride and posture, and that can translate to a healthier life, basically. You connect to the earth through your feet. I’ve come to believe that there’s spirituality in that connection and the shoes you wear play a role in terms of style and feel. It may be hard to explain, but you know when it’s a good connection.
In what ways has the industry changed—good or bad—since your return?
It’s more consolidated. People who owned a big brand 10, 20 or 30 years ago now probably own five or 10 brands, like Deckers or Wolverine Worldwide. Is that good or bad? I believe that there’s both good and bad. For example, it’s harder for people to innovate as small brands. But it’s certainly easier for the big guys to explore and source all different kinds of footwear as they have the wherewithal to make molds and quickly manifest any ideas they might have.
Along those lines, might you decide to sell Sazzi to a conglomerate down the road?
Well, that depends on how far along it gets and how fun it still is. I believe if a company gets so big that it could go public then maybe it should. Now let’s say we are doubling sales every year, would I hold onto the company or sell? Maybe a $20 million to $60 million company would be fun to run. But maybe a $100 million company would be more work and a job for someone who is already in that world. We’ll see.
Speaking of changes, back in your Teva days there was no online retail to speak of. What’s your take on that tier and how Sazzi might approach it?
I believe with the increasing popularity of online retailing and the big players connected to it means big changes lie ahead. Along those lines, we are exploring with some of our retailers the idea of a partnership where rather than they risk carrying inventory, they would just showcase the entire line. The retailer would have all the styles and sizes for trying on and then would refer the customer for fulfillment through our web site. The store would then get a sizeable commission for fitting that person and getting knowledge of that request. It’s an idea we are discussing.
Five to 10 years down the road do you envision a radically changed retail landscape?
The lesser competitors, not surprisingly, are likely to suffer the most and the stores that are the most popular will be more successful and less likely to be put out of business by online dealers. Maybe it’ll be a culling of brick-and-mortar stores, which may be evolutionary and natural.
Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur or a footwear designer first?
I’m one-half entrepreneur and one-half future footwear seer. I don’t consider myself a footwear designer because my partner, Brett Ritter, has all that under control when it comes to color and the styling details. Now of those which am I first? I’d say I wouldn’t have the opportunity to participate in being a footwear seer if I weren’t a successful entrepreneur. But the two go hand in hand.
What do you love most about your job?
A lot of what we’ve been talking about: undressing the foot so we can re-dress it and have the footwear be a sort of metaphor for improving life in general with simple solutions. I believe the simpler and more minimalist the solution, the more real the solution is. It reminds me of a funny story back when I was first selling Teva to retailers. I went into an outdoor shop in Arizona that wasn’t connected to a river location. I told the owner this was a new form of desert hiking footwear without the excess weight. He looked at me perplexed and asked, “What’s to protect your feet from bumping into rocks or a cactus?” I responded, “Your eyes.” Hiking boots back then were like indestructible armor on your feet. Yet here I was advocating that your feet should be exposed and allowed to enjoy the summer. That with your eyes leading the way, your feet can move around all these obstacles. Long story short, that’s what sport sandals introduced and that’s part of what Sazzi is continuing to improve on in a more functional and minimal design. It’s always been my idea with footwear to have the absolute least doing the absolute most it can do.