No pain, no gain at Vivobarefoot

Den Howlett Profile picture for user gonzodaddy October 21, 2018
Vivobarefoot has transitioned from being a multi-store and wholesale business to one that operates largely online. How did they get there and what systems are they using to support that way of working?

Damian Peat - operations director Vivobarefoot

Vivobarefoot may not be a shoe brand that immediately springs to mind and at around £10 million in revenue, it is small compared to the industry giants but it is profitable and offering an alternative to fashion-led brands.

Founded by Galahad Clark, a member of the family of the same name that is synonymous with British shoes, Vivobarefoot is endeavoring to get the world to think about shoes as redundant. Listening to Damian Peat, operations director at Vivobarefoot, I learned that in his company's view, we were born to walk and run in bare feet. If that sounds odd then consider the following:

The last 40 or so years, shoe brands have invented all sorts of ways to help us run more safely, whether that's with air soles, gels or forms of shock absorber but that still doesn't prevent people sustaining foot injuries. It turns out that our feet are perfectly capable of running and walking free from injury when they are bare. We have invented a way to achieve almost the same result by using thin, flexible leather and made to a wide pattern.

That was music to my ears because, over the years, I've struggled to get well fitting and comfortable shoes. Check out the science behind the brand here.

But while the company is successful today, it's been a sometimes rocky road with pivots and changes necessary along the way. Founded in 2004, Vivobarefoot had a tough time in the beginning:

Back in 2004-5 Vivo was a radical idea we couldn't get into stores but we loved it and wore nothing else. When you wear them you get it and feels amazing but putting on other shoes then feels uncomfortable because your foot changes shape to what it should be or at least as nature intended.

The company rolled along and grew but it was still quite small. That changed when some science from Harvard in 2010 brought attention to how modern footwear was causing injuries. That brought attention to the issue which in turn had a halo effect on the company. At the time, Vivobarefoot had a clutch of stores, a substantial wholesale business but little by way of online which, at the time, was not well understood.

We were thinking who will buy shoes online? No-one. But then Zappos is the biggest shoe retailer on the planet and it's only online.

Following this growth spurt, the company decided to shut down most of its stores and focus on Vivobarefoot alone:

We didn't feel we could be true to ourselves if we were also selling high heels. It was a big ethical thing. Another paper came out in 2012, we thought it would be a cigarette moment but it turned out people don't care and we ended up with too much stock. It was a painful period as we closed down most of our shops and liquidated a lot of our stock.

At the time, the company had a person in-house who analyzed everything the company was doing and got it to focus on 'the one thing that matters' in everything the company does. That led to Vivobarefoot becoming driven by data, holding weekly 'can't-miss' executive meetings:

We have enterprise level tools forced into a very small family run business. We retain the family culture but with management information that is no more than a week old. That ensures we can react very quickly to changing circumstances.

Over time, the company has used a variety of systems an in July 2017, went live with NetSuite wholesale order management, warehouse management, and distribution. Vivobarefoot continued to run Sage 50 but switched to NetSuite this year.

We have a roadmap for the next two to three years. We might use NetSuite eCommerce, we might use Magento which integrates into NetSuite but we've not made that final decision. We're bringing in people who know ecommerce a lot better than I do. We're not doing what marketing or sales need so bringing in systems expertise to help tie it all together is our next step. We want this to run off a single data set.

I wondered why it took so long to come to a decision.

We spent a long time selecting. We looked at Sage 200, SAP Business One and Nav. We were worried that embarking on a big ERP project would mean we would lose our numbers and without those we'd have nothing. Eventually, we had the resource to take the plunge but in a phased approach.

I then asked what advice Peat has for others in a similar situation and how the project worked out.

Doing this type of project isn't easy so you really have to think it through carefully, resource adequately and don't cut corners along the way. The stock part was very easy - implemented in about 90 days. The finance side has been more tricky because we're not just building out for today but considering a U.S. entity which adds a layer of complexity. It's been harder but not impossible. We're throwing off healthy profits but we're investing back into the business.

My take

Small companies don't often get the credit they deserve for adapting to change and taking meaningful decisions in ways that you'd normally expect to see inside larger organizations. Vivobarefoot is the exception that proves you don't have to be a large business to operate like a large business. You just need the right tools and the right mindset.

And with that, I hopped over to the site and am awaiting my delivery of my first order. I"ll let you all know how it goes.




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