Founder of Willi Footwear, Brad Munro, first came up with the idea to develop a flip flop with an unbreakable plug after a thong mishap left him shoeless and denied entry to a German beer hall 6 years ago.
After a long and expensive process securing patents and intellectual property protection Munro is somewhat incredulous the footwear is on the verge of international success with interest also coming from Japan, Greece, Spain, Portugal, New Zealand, and South Africa.
Munro attributes the interest in Willi not just to the innovative ‘no blowout’ plugs, but also the customisable option in a disposable marketplace.
“It’s affordable fashion that can be updated with minimal cost each season, and offers the wearer the ability to have a large colour range with only a few bases and straps.”
After making a splash in the Aussie market last year Gold Coast-based Willi Footwear has partnered with an American distributor to take their revolutionary anti-blowout thongs to the US market.
We spoke with Brad to find out more about Willi and how he innovated an Aussie classic.
#1. Where did the idea come from/ what’s the inspiration behind Willi?
Way back before we even started the business, I was travelling around Europe while the Soccer World Cup was on. My friends and I had been dying to go to one of the beer halls in Germany only to suffer from “the dreaded thong blow-out” (when the plug snaps off the strap) within metres from the front entrance where I wasn’t allowed in because wearing only one thong (or flip flop, as they are also known) wasn’t considered appropriate footwear!
My friend and I sat out the front for a while trying some MacGyver like solutions to my problem including trying to put the strap back together with a paperclip, we borrowed a cigarette lighter and tried melting the rubber together… all to no avail… My friend ended up going in and borrowed one of our other friend’s thongs to smuggle out so I could wear them in!
A few months later, I met my soon to be business partner who was telling me of a similar experience he had where in the space of two steps, BOTH of his thongs had blown out, making him trip over and leaving him stranded barefoot and needing to buy a new pair. I wish I was there to see that!
We got together, discovered that a lot of the thongs on the market were all the same and decided they could use some improvement so we started the business and set about solving this common problem.
#2. How much market research and development did you do before launching the product? How did you get Willi thongs into independent retailers and the US?
We spent countless hours on research, testing, marketing, trips abroad to factories and all sorts of time and money investments. We needed a product that was different, with unique selling points and did something that other thongs couldn’t do. There was a niche here, a little gap in the market that we wanted to fill.
We decided to launch the new range through the crowd funding platform website Indiegogo.com. We raised $10,000 in sales in the first hour, $25,000 a week later, reached our goal of $30,000 and finished with close to $50,000 worth of sales. We had confirmed that the product was something that people wanted and the best way of testing this is to find out if customers are willing to part with their hard-earned cash to get their feet in a pair of our thongs.
Getting the product in to retailers was a huge challenge. We contacted as many retailers as we could and told them about our new and exciting product. Our enthusiasm was met with a “no thanks” 99% of the time. But we kept innovating, building the brand, selling online direct to consumers and slowly but surely some independent retailers could see the additional benefits our product was offering the customer. Further to this we had some interest from people overseas so we set about exploring international markets (which isn’t as easy as it sounds).
We managed to join forces and set up a company in the United Stated to trial the product in their market. The ‘thong’ or ‘Flip Flop’ as they call it, is synonymous with the Australian Summer beach lifestyle that we are known for around the world. They also loved the ‘interchangeable’ and ‘no blow out’ design which uses the ‘boomerang’ shape as the thongs plug – also an Aussie icon. Add to this that we went through the processes of obtaining patents on the design, all added up to an exciting opportunity.
#3. How did you design the product?
We had previously developed a range of thongs that didn’t use the normal ‘plug’ system that most other thongs use. Our designs used different materials, they were a little nicer and the straps were glued in to the base (not unlike some thongs available on the market today). But over time we found that the same problem occurred and when the straps came apart from the base, and you embarrassingly bent over to pick up your thongs to continue walking, there was no putting the strap back in, they were finished.
We had to go through the long and arduous process of designing brand new (and expensive) production moulds so we could get the finished design we needed. Firstly, though we had to test that the mould was correct…which it wasn’t… so we had to repeat the process and test again… Test the material, test the fitment, test the boomerang shape (among others) and test that it actually worked.
#4. What type of response have you’ve received from customers?
We have been completely transparent with our customers from very early on. I think it’s the best way to do business. After the crowd funding campaign, we had a production run of thongs delivered that was made from the incorrect materials. It wasn’t like the samples we agreed on and the product was sub-par quality. So instead of hiding it from our customers and hope they didn’t notice, we just came out and told them, apologised, sent them replacement pairs and moved on. We received a lot of positive feedback for the way we handled it.
The general response now from customers is still positive and we get a lot of comments on our Facebook page under the video from people tagging in their friends who have had a blow-out in their thongs. It’s so important to listen to your customers concerns and suggestions. We are always asking them for feedback on material quality, extra blow-out protection, what colours they would like to see etc. This led to the latest range including diamante’ styles for women and some hot pink straps! We also now have a ‘no blow-out’ guarantee where if the plug does happen to snap off somehow, we’ll replace the straps for the customer free of charge.
#4. Benefits and challenges of the business?
The retail landscape has changed so much over the years and most retailers are very apprehensive to try new brands. Not only that but they all stock the same product. I have heard retailers complain about customers shopping online and from overseas sites thinking they are trying to save money by not paying GST. When I did some research in to this, I found that consumers would happily shop with Aussie retailers but they can’t find what they want. They don’t stock anything new or different than the store down the street. Consumers want to see new, innovative products and customise their own style.
In our summer footwear category for example; go to any major shopping centre in Australia and the same range of thongs is stocked in all the surf and street-wear retailers. There is no product differentiation on offer for the consumer and then you might see this same brand is also selling for half the price in the major supermarkets and online deal sites. The benefit for us though is that our USP (unique selling point) differentiates us from the other thong brands on the market and with patents approved the design can’t be copied.
One of the major business challenges we face is that our products are seasonal. Summers are full on and busy but in winter (although some people wear thongs all year round) the sales drop off dramatically. Hence the need for us to explore other markets in the Northern Hemisphere which will make it a full year-round business.
Also, another benefit of the business, I get to wear thongs and shorts at work!
#5. Plans for the next 6 to 12 mths?
Once we get through this long hot Summer, the next 6-12 months will see us trial the product in other countries and see if we can gain some traction putting the Aussie boomerang thong on the world stage. We need to continue to innovate and build the business as well as our brand awareness and market share. This will ideally include extending our product range and offerings to our customers and continually follow that theme of the fun Australian summer. “Why Ignore Life? Live It!” (This is our business mantra and reminder to not take life too seriously – acronym – WILLI).
#6. What are your top 3 crowdfunding tips for other business builders?
1) Have an existing database! If you don’t have one, make one! This can include family, friends, co-workers, neighbours, that dude at the gym, business people, retailers, media, news, magazines, radio and absolutely anyone in your field that might find it interesting and want to support you. Think you’re ready to launch your campaign? Put it off for a few weeks and work solely on building your database!
2) Don’t assume people will see your crowd-funding campaign. If you put up your video and come back to check on it in a few days or weeks, you’ll be sadly disappointed. You need to be the one that pushes people to your campaign page. Yes, you might annoy a few people but who cares?! You need to dedicate a decent amount of time before, during and after the campaign. There is a lot of work involved and you need to be prepared to deliver on your promise to customers.
3) Keep your video short, sharp and entertaining. There are thousands of crowdfunding campaigns all happening at the same time competing for your customer’s attention. Don’t be boring! Don’t just copy what everyone else is doing or you will get lost in the sea of sameness. And don’t forget to use a clever image or gif as your thumbnail image so it stands out from the crowd and demands attention.