As the prosperous owner of a local home computer store chain, Joe Chew is ultra-savvy about bits and bytes but readily admits, "What do I know about shoes?"
But what he doesn't know, he plans to learn quickly after recently launching a line of children's footwear he calls "Stikii Shoes."
"I wasn't looking for shoes at all. It was the idea that just came to me," said Mr. Chew, who founded the six-store Computer Discount chain in metro Toledo in 1996.
"My heart is still in Computer Discount. But Stikii is something I know that, if I didn't try it, I'd be regretting it some day," he said. "As a businessman, an entrepreneur, I know that if you have a good idea, you need to execute it well. If you can do that, you can succeed."
So far, Stikii Shoes -- the name refers to colorful patches and emblems that children can stick on the shoes -- is in its infancy.
Mr. Chew leased a generic vending cart at Westfield Franklin Park during December to unveil his product and test its potential. But in an effort to prevent people from thinking Stikii was a gimmick or a cheap product, he is having a custom cart designed that will present the product in a more professional setting.
"We didn't come across as a corporatelike image," he said. "Right now, people look at the brand and say, 'I never heard of these.' They don't want to be the first to try it, but even under those conditions, we still sold quite a number of pairs of shoes.
"I wouldn't call it a huge success, but I would call it encouraging. And we gathered a lot of information," he said.
Mr. Chew has spent the last 2 1/2 years and a six-figure sum (he won't say how much) developing Stikii Shoes from a raw idea to prototype to finished patented product with manufacturing operations in China. Lightweight and available in eight bright colors, the tennis-shoelike shoes are for children ages 3 to 9 and cost $30 a pair.
But the key to the shoes -- Stikii's slogan is "Why can't shoes be fun? -- are the 56 "Stik-em" patches that cost about $1 and are sold separately to allow children to accent the shoes any way they want. The patches and shoes use a Velcrolike loop-and-hook system.
The idea for Mr. Chew's venture came after taking his children, Renee and Ranen, then 8 and 5 years old, shoe shopping at Target three years ago.
"While we were there, we went to the toy aisle because they wanted to look at the toys. They were just so excited about toys all the time," he said. "Then we walked to the shoe aisle and I saw them totally lose all their excitement. I saw other kids in the same aisles and they were really not excited about shoes at all.
"I thought, 'How I can bring the same toy excitement to shoes?' " he said.
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Mr. Chew said was ignorant of the shoe business but began studying all he could, spending a year on research and development.
Marketing and product expert Mike Bills, executive director of the Innovation Initiative at Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business, said Stikii Shoes faces a tough road.
"With any new product, the primary challenge is understanding who the consumer is," Mr. Bills said. "Do you have a large enough market opportunity, and will it resonate with the consumer?"
Too often, Mr. Bills said, a new product launches that everyone agrees is cool or interesting, "but that doesn't necessarily translate to a concept that will resonate with consumers." For the best chance of success, entrepreneurs need feedback from friends and family and should reshape their product to fit consumer's wants, rather than make an item the inventor hopes to find a market for.
"Is there a compelling … speech that comes from the perspective of the consumer, rather than one that talks about just what the product is," Mr. Bills said. "If not, a consumer is likely to say, 'So what? Do I really need that?' "
Mr. Chew said he gained a lot of feedback during holiday sales at the mall that will help shape the Stikii Shoes marketing approach.
"Just like any new brand, it takes time to build one and you have to create a buzz. We created tremendous interest and curiosity," Mr. Chew said. "But curiosity doesn't always generate sales."
Customers praised his product, but most shied away because it was new and untried. "Those who bought them said they really love the shoes. They didn't care who made them," Mr. Chew said. "I wouldn't call it a huge success, but I would call it encouraging. We gathered a lot of information."
He said his next step is to expand beyond Toledo. The company has a Web site for sales (stikii.com), will reopen at the mall soon, and will take part in children's clothing trade fairs starting in February. "Ultimately, having the shoes sold in the big-box stores and chain stores would be a nice goal," he said.
But for now, the budding shoe salesman said he's happy putting fun back into kid's footwear -- even if his own children, now age 11 and 8, are close to outgrowing Stikii Shoes.
"Most of the kids that like them are the younger ones. Past 8 or 9 years old, they're not as excited," Mr. Chew said. "When they get older, they want to be cool, not cute."
Contact Jon Chavez at: email@example.com or 419-724-6128.