Canoos: What Would You Actually Use? Build That.
Canoos, a golf shoe and apparel company based in Philadelphia, has found success through an unlikely story of innovation and an obsession with giving.
When I talked to Matt Freedman, founder of Canoos, he was in Orlando gearing up for what might be his small team’s best chance to grow.
“They call this event the ‘Major of Golf Business,’” he begins, “so much about the future of our company will be based on the connections we form here, on what we’re able to learn from the whole experience.”
Freedman was referring to the 2016 PGA Merchandise Show, an annual event where pretty much everybody who sells golf merchandise must have a presence to be taken seriously in the industry. His team has recently grown from three full-time employees to ten, and received great attention when they came in at #2 on Inc.’s 14 Coolest Gifts for Golf Lovers list, but he sees this event as a pivotal moment for how, or if, his team will continue to grow.
Last year Freedman came to the event just to take notes on it, to survey who was successful and how they did it, and to ultimately gauge whether his team was ready to have a 10×20 booth among the industry’s biggest companies. “We’re fired up,” he told me. “This could lead to our product being sold in three additional shops or 50. Or, let’s be honest, maybe this leads to nothing at all.”
— PGA Golf Shows (@PGAShow) January 6, 2016
Nothing at all. Freedman said those words not with a sense of desperation but with a sense of groundedness. And it wasn’t an attempt to be humble, either. After all, Canoos didn’t grow from some grand vision to be a company or even to meet a consumer need. It started from nothing at all, just one guy’s small attempt to solve a problem for himself. Though Canoos is one small booth among the masses at this event, they might just have the most interesting story of them all.
“I’m so comfortable right now, but I can’t swing.”
“My friend asked if I wanted to go golfing, and of course I did. I had my clubs in the trunk, but I didn’t have my golf shoes. I only had the traditional pair of boat shoes I was wearing.”
The country club wasn’t thrilled at the prospect of Freedman golfing without proper shoes, but they let him through. And he had the most comfortable and uncomfortable golfing experience of his life. He realized he had never felt more comfortable on the golf course, and it was all because of the shoes. But when it came time to perform, he was sliding all over the place.
“There had been some rain earlier in the week, so the ground was soggy. At first I thought I was blaming the shoes for how bad I was playing, but really it was because I couldn’t dig in. When I got home that day every pair of boat shoes in my closet was at risk. I just started tearing them apart, and then went to Home Depot to grab various drill bit sizes to try to find the anchor and the pilot screws that would fit a traditional, replaceable golf spike. After a couple weeks of playing around, I found the right fit. I made a few pairs where I could use the boat shoe structure but screw the spikes in and out.”
This wasn’t Freedman’s way in the world. He wasn’t the kind of kid who tore things apart to see if he could put them back together again. He wasn’t some serial entrepreneur prying around for the next idea. He actually just wanted to build some shoes that he would use.
“A few weeks later some friends had asked me if I could make them a pair, and then a few more friends asked, and it reached a point where I thought, Maybe I could do something with this.”
Without an educational background in business (he had some experience in college working for and eventually leading a marketing team), he didn’t know where to turn. “And they certainly don’t teach business innovation in high school, certainly not to a level where it can attract younger kids by letting them know they can start their own company, that they can make stuff and build things, and that they don’t have to know calculus to do it,” he said.
So he called the only connection he’d really made: the spike company he’d been ordering from. He told them he’d like to order a large quantity because he was going to start handmaking shoes. “They basically said ‘Great, so who is your manufacturer?’” Freedman said. He responded with “Well, I don’t have one. Might you have any recommendations?”
That simple question opened the door and led him to finding a manufacturer familiar with golf shoes. This stroke of luck would pave the way for Canoos, and less than three years of hard work and on-the-fly learning later, he’d have his first go-to-market prototype: a comfortable boat shoe with performance spikes. The fusion of leisure and sports performance.
The 4 Ingredients of Highly Successful People
Adam Grant, Wharton professor and author of Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, highlights how conventional business wisdom puts forth the message that highly successful people have three things in common: motivation, ability, and opportunity. In other words, that the foundation for success is a mix of work ethic, talent and luck.
Talent: Freedman had an innate ability not only to recognize a problem, but to actually try to solve it. Couple this with how he had that stroke of innovation so few seem to have: Maybe I could do something with this.
Luck: Freedman admits that he put himself in good positions, but also that “I had much help and luck along the way.” That call to the spike supplier did two things: it served as a guiding light to his next step, lining up a manufacturer, and it connected him to the very manufacturers he most needed to (and didn’t know how to) connect with.
Work Ethic: “My dad and grandfather owned a day camp for kids, and I used to go with dad during the summers. My first business memory might just be watching him deal with the vendors coming in. Whether it was food for the kids or chemicals for the pool, I saw how my dad was able to go after something, and get it.” Freedman stayed the course for nearly three years, working relentlessly to perfect a niche product, golf shoes, that is already dominated by the biggest companies in all of sports.
But Grant points out a fourth ingredient of success, one he says is essential but rarely talked about, “Success depends heavily on how we approach our interactions with other people. Every time we interact with another person at work, we have a choice to make. Do we try to claim as much value as we can, or contribute value without worrying what we receive in return?”
He breaks this down into “Givers” and “Takers.” They aren’t separated based on how much they donate to charity or what their salary is. They just bring different attitudes into their workplace interactions. Takers give strategically, and when the outcome of helping exceeds the personal cost of doing so. But givers often give without expecting anything in return. Grant puts it this way:
“If you’re a giver at work, you simply strive to be generous in sharing your time, energy, knowledge, skills, ideas, and connections with other people who can benefit from them. It’s tempting to reserve the giver label for larger-than-life heroes such as Mother Teresa or Mahatma Gandhi. But being a giver doesn’t require extraordinary acts of sacrifice, it just involves a focus on acting on the interest of others, such as by giving help, providing mentoring, sharing credit, or making connections for others.”
Outside of work, Grant says being a giver is quite common. We help our friends without expecting something in return. But in the workplace, few of us are this way.
Giving and Growing
Matt Freedman seems to fit what it means to be a Giver. Sure, since launching Canoos he said he can’t shake the innovator mindset.
“It’s like a sickness. I have a journal where I basically track seemingly insignificant things that could be made so much better with just a few tweaks. A basic tenet of innovation, for me, is this: What problem are you trying to solve, and would you actually use the solution to that problem? If so, build that.”
But while this sense of innovation fuels Freedman as an individual, the team has continued to move forward by its obsession with giving to each other (as friends do) and rallying around the team’s mission.
Canoos, like all small teams undergoing a growth spurt, has tried to place a premium on maintaining the core culture that allowed them to grow. This was a culture of friends, and ultimately a culture of giving. But how have they been able to maintain that, especially when half of their team is now remote?
“We’ve definitely had our challenges,” Freedman says, “but giving is the connective tissue that keeps our remote team connected.”
In this sense, ‘giving’ refers to exposing each other to each other’s networks. It’s a mentality that embraces this idea of “a connection made by one has the potential to be a connection made by all.” In addition to maintaining clear and frequent lines of communication, and hiring based on company fit as much as track record, the Canoos team believes that this kind of giving allows them to be extensions of each other. As Freedman put it, “I’ve always enjoyed introducing my good friends to each other, so I’ve worked hard to maintain that in our workplace culture.”
While I liked the idea, and certainly felt it had capacity to help a remote team gel, I asked Freedman what he thinks has been the single most important factor in keeping the growing team aligned and connected. At this point, he went on a rant about Simon Sinek’s concept of the Golden Circle, and how this video (now at 25 million views and counting) helped him not so much find but articulate his passion and eventually the Canoos mission:
“Look, who are we if we’re just putting another shoe on the shelf? We invented the first patent-pending boat shoe for golf. Cool, but that’s not something people are going to rally around. We had to figure out who we are and why we do what we do,” Freedman began.
“We’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on why we love what we’re doing, why we’re so passionate about this, and it comes down to this: we want to be what you’re wearing when you’re doing what you love. This is why our core team left our cushy sales jobs to make this happen. This is why we’re passionate each day when we get to work. Once we really solidified that core mission by putting it into words, behaviors noticeably changed. Our marketing team started sending emails with more energy. Our team meetings felt more upbeat and productive. It’s really all about shoes and nothing at all about shoes.”
Does anything about the Canoos story resonate with your own experience? How do you keep your remote team feeling connected and engaged? What helped your team articulate its mission?