Entrepreneurs like to talk about “white space,” those spots in the market where there’s a need for a product and yet, somehow, incredibly, nobody has thought to make it yet. There’s no single good way to identify white space, of course, but Kyle Groth is happy to tell you how he found his. It was an event we’ve all experienced, a frustrating moment we will all experience many times in the future.
It was the day he broke a shoelace.
Naturally, Groth went looking for a replacement pair, and then the realization dawned: Replacement shoelaces weren’t just surprisingly hard to find, they were pretty boring once he did find them.
“Most [companies] didn’t sell just the laces,” he said. “And if they did, it was the cheapest cotton shoelaces.”
Which was OK if plain-old brown or black laces were all a guy wanted. But Groth—something of a trend watcher when it comes to menswear—knew that lots of guys like to dress with a bit of personal flair. And if the guy in question was a professional still confined to a relatively conservative dress code (bankers, lawyers, doctors and so on), his options were limited: ties, pocket squares, socks and that’s about it.
Fast forward 18 months or so and Groth has filled this particular white space with a brand called Whiskers, which sells one thing: “premium” shoelaces. For $13, men get their pick of a technicolor array of laces in 12 colors and multiple patterns: ticked, striped, braided and other combinations you probably didn’t think would fit on a shoelace. There are 54 styles in all, including seasonal limited editions. And to interest customers in paying a bit extra to add some style to their dullsville Oxfords, Whiskers lobs a simple sales pitch: “Fill your boring shoe holes.”
“We get a lot of guys in finance and banking,” Groth, Whiskers’ CEO, said. “It’s the easiest way for them to show some subtle expression without getting fired.”
Indeed, for the individualistic guy trapped in the standard corporate uniform, the options for showing a bit of flair have always been pretty limited. The most obvious is the necktie, but the vast majority of men no longer wear them. According to a 2007 Gallup poll, over two in three men head to work tieless. Even Great Britain’s hidebound Parliament got rid of the necktie requirement in the House of Commons two years ago.
What about socks? Hipster socks came into vogue in recent years, too, but as Groth points out, “nobody sees [them] unless you sit down.” Then there’s the pocket square, a sartorial essential that’s also returned to prominence lately. But so many guys glommed onto that trend—and took things a bit far—that the fashion blog Upsider recently pondered if the pocket square was “dead.”
And this is where Whiskers believes it has an edge. Shoelaces will never be dead because you need them to keep your shoes on. What’s more, the brand’s colorful laces are a pretty easy addition for guys who might be a bit less confident when it comes dressing up. “This is a subtle upgrade that shows personality without being over the top,” Groth said.
It’s worth pointing out that Whiskers isn’t the only brand to recognize a need in upmarket shoelaces. Shoelaces Express sells a variety of laces for men’s dress shoes. Even the stalwart Johnston & Murphy (founded in 1850) now sells dress laces in 15 colors. And some pretty over-the-top options can be found at Cute Laces (albeit mainly for Converse wearers.)
Groth doesn’t claim to be selling a product that’s wholly unique, of course. Shoelaces have been around since the late Neolithic period, and there’s not a lot to be done to improve on the basic design.
But for their $13, Whiskers’ shoppers do get luxury laces that are nicely differentiated. The laces are strong and surprisingly thick, for one. They also come wrapped around an attractive wooden spool. And while all shoelaces have aglets (that’s the tip that keeps them from fraying) made of plastic, Whiskers’ are metal. “We branded it with a stripe so they’re more recognizable,” Groth said. “It’s a premium option.”
The question remains, of course, just how big the custom shoelace market really is. Consumer product research firms don’t expend much time studying shoelaces, but if footwear itself is any indication of potential, the numbers are encouraging. Globally, the men’s dress shoe segment is expected to hit $9.5 billion by 2022, according to data from Research and Markets, representing a growth of 7% over the five-year period leading up. And according to IBISWorld, footwear retailing is a $37 billion business in America alone, with men’s dress and casual shoes holding down nearly 12% of that market.
Ted Stafford, fashion director for Men’s Health magazine, said that Whiskers’ is joining a trend visible in several shoe companies.
“A lot of brands have been offering more options,” he said. “If you buy Doc Martens, you get white and black laces. Timberland will give you orange laces and brown. People like to have those options. And the [Whiskers] ones have much more personality as far as variety of colors and texture plays.”
A set of premium dress laces, he added, “is a new way to add a little pop or character to your look.”
It’s not lost on Groth that Whiskers, a small upstart, is playing in a category dominated by any number of large and established footwear companies. Fortunately, he was able to recruit chief product officer Mike Gossett, who cut his teeth at Nike and Crocs, and CFO Mike Carroll, who chaired a software company before coming over, to “help us frame up business analytics.”
And business, thus far, is good. In the early days, “we were elated to accomplish our first major milestone, selling 10 pairs in a single day within our first month of business,” Groth recalls. “Fast forward a few months to December, we hit another milestone, selling a thousand pairs in a single day.”
That’s another way of saying that he’s filling that white space.