Where can you find a size 24 men’s shoe? At 2BigFeet.com. Brandon Eley co-launched the business in 2000, before Google AdWords and long before Facebook and Shopify.
“We’ve seen a lot of changes in 21 years,” he told me. “Keyword stuffing was legitimate search engine optimization back then. We’ve witnessed the rise of online advertising and social media. Competitors such as Zappos.com are now multi-billion dollar companies.”
Eley’s success follows from perseverance and a willingness to adapt to the times. He’s an inspiration for any would-be (or existing) entrepreneur.
He and I recently discussed the company’s launch, struggles, evolution, and more.
Our entire audio conversation is embedded below. The transcript that follows is edited for clarity and length.
Eric Bandholz: Give us a rundown of 2BigFeet.
Brandon Eley: 2BigFeet is a company I founded with a partner back in 2000. We sell large men’s shoes, size 14 and up — as large as size 20, 21, and even 24. As a point of reference, Shaquille O’Neal, the basketball player, wears a 21 or 22. So a 24 is big. We’ve sold quite a few size 24s.
Bandholz: Twenty-one years in ecommerce is crazy. How many merchants stock a size 24 shoe?
Eley: Very few. We don’t have them in inventory now because we can’t find anybody to make them. And that was the problem back in 1999 when we started talking about the idea.
I was working at a company in my first real job out of high school. A fellow in the office next to us approached me one day. He said something like, “I’ve got this crazy idea to start a website. Can you build it?”
I had never built a website, and I had no idea what his crazy idea was.
He told me about growing up in rural South Georgia. He wore a size 16 shoe. His family would drive to the nearest metropolitan area to find his size. In high school, he would spend an entire day looking for shoes in these big cities, going store to store. He would go directly to a store employee and ask, “Do you have anything in size 16?” The employee would rummage around in the back for a few minutes and come back with a dated basketball high top. That’s what he was wearing when I met him. It was the only thing available.
So that was his idea: build an online business for folks with big feet. That was long before most people were comfortable purchasing products online. But our business started from there and grew to where we are now.
Bandholz: It’s such an interesting story. How did you end up running the company?
Eley: We launched the business in 2000. It was very bootstrapped. We got a $50,000 loan from the U.S. Small Business Administration. We pooled our money, maxed out our credit cards, borrowed from a family friend. All told, we had around $90,000. Three months later — by the time we leased a warehouse, bought some inventory, and purchased shelving, computers, tables — it’s gone.
Bandholz: There was no Shopify back in 2000.
Eley: No Shopify. We were paying thousands of dollars for a crappy CGI shopping cart. We ran banner ads across various websites. Pay-per-click search ads didn’t exist. We struggled for three, four, five years. It was never enough profit to support two people.
So my business partner came to me in late 2006 and said, “Look, there’s no money. There’s no inventory. Let’s file bankruptcy. I’m done.”
It was a good idea, but it wasn’t what I wanted.
I was deep in personal debt. I’d been living on credit cards for years. But I didn’t want to file bankruptcy. It was a point of personal pride. So my partner and I worked out a deal where I assumed most of the debt in exchange for full ownership of the business. My wife and I became business partners. We started from scratch in 2007 and clawed our way back.
We paid off a few hundred thousand dollars in vendor debt. We paid off other suppliers and creditors. Within a few years, we were able to reinvest in the business and the inventory. That’s when we started growing. For seven or eight years, we doubled in size annually.
My former business partner and I remain good friends. I frequently send him samples of shoes to try. I talked to him a week ago. I lean on him for advice since he’s got big feet, and I don’t.
I love the customer service aspect of the business. I regularly answer the phones and talk to customers. I’ve always taken the bad phone calls.
Bandholz: Let’s go back 2007. How did you right the ship?
Eley: I had a small consulting company that I started out of necessity to pay my mortgage. When my partner left, I sold that business and went to work full-time for an ad agency. That was a lot of fun. I worked 70 hours a week — 40 hours at the agency and 30 hours on 2BigFeet. My wife was working full-time in the business. Then I finally hired employees.
Plus, we had two young kids. They attended preschool, which gave my wife time for our company. My kids grew up in an ecommerce warehouse shipping shoes. It was a great way to spend time with my kids while building the business.
We didn’t take a dime out of the company for roughly five years. We reinvested 100% of the profit. I called every one of our vendors that we had massive debts with. I said, “Look, we’re going out of business and filing bankruptcy, or you can work with us. We’ll pay you back every dime. But we’ve got to have inventory to sell.”
We negotiated with every one of them. Each had different needs. One of them required us to repay $200 in debt for every $1,000 of new inventory purchases.
We were so far in arrears, much longer than 90 days. We were six months behind for some of them. Almost everyone worked with us. We had a couple close our account. Those were the last we paid back. We learned which ones cared about our company.
We still sell some of those brands today. They’ve been great partners. We paid back every dime that we owed anybody. It was a long struggle.
Bandholz: You’re 21 years in the game. I would imagine you’ve hit some plateaus along the way.
Eley: We’ve seen a lot of changes in 21 years. Keyword stuffing was legitimate search engine optimization back then. We’ve witnessed the rise of online advertising and then social media. Email marketing has had multiple waves of effectiveness over the years. Consumer trends are entirely different now. Competitors such as Zappos.com are now multi-billion dollar companies. Zappos is the largest shoe store in the world. Margins are tighter.
We have struggled recently when our customers ask us for products that we can’t provide, with the global supply chain problems. A lot of our brands are either cutting our account entirely or cutting styles in big sizes.
So our strategy now is to build our own brand for guys with big and wide feet. We want to make shoes that are not readily available. We’ve been surveying our customers, asking them what that they want and need. We’ve studied our competitors.
We received the first container of our own branded sandals and slippers a couple of months ago. It’s roughly 3,000 pairs in the 40-foot container. Our brand is called Michael Ellis.
Those sandals and slippers are now on 2BigFeet.com, as well as MichaelEllis.com. We own both sites. We had hoped for a few more styles than sandals and slippers. Unfortunately, around 2,000 of the 3,000 pairs were not up to par. We’re dealing with overseas manufacturing, supply chain issues, Covid woes.
Bandholz: You’re not an Amazon fan, I gather.
Eley: No, I’m not. But we’re going to sell on Amazon because it’s an opportunity to find guys with large feet. We’re hoping to sell on Amazon successfully and build the Michael Ellis brand.
Bandholz: Going back to plateaus. How do you differentiate temporary stagnant growth from permanent roadblocks?
Eley: Again, we doubled in size annually for a few years. Then our revenue growth dropped to 50% and then 30%. Then it was less than 10%, when total revenue was in the low seven figures. We were still spending tons of money. I had hired a marketing director and purchased ads on Facebook and Google. Our marketing budget was up as a percentage of revenue. Plus, we were beefing up inventory and bringing in new brands.
We were doing all the right things to prepare for growth, but it never came. It didn’t matter what ads we ran on Facebook or Google. We realized not a lot of people are searching for big shoe sizes.
So we hit a limit — our market is finite. There’s a small number of guys out there with big feet. But it also opened up a new opportunity. If we made our own, we’ve got more channels to sell on — third-party marketplaces, for example. We can create products that our customers need. Dress shoes, for example.
We’re working with a couple of factories in León, Mexico, to design a pair of dress shoes. For years, we sold Allen Edmonds dress shoes. But Allen Edmonds is not focusing on big sizes anymore. Those sizes were never a priority for that company. Plus, a lot of customers thought they were too expensive.
We want to make a quality dress shoe that’s affordable, up to 6E width, size 20. We’ll keep it in stock when customers need it.
Bandholz: You mentioned Facebook and Google ads. What about other marketing channels?
Eley: We’re talking to an influencer. He’s about your height, a young Atlanta guy. We hope to partner with him. I’m sending him samples of our Michael Ellis shoes. He would be a good spokesperson for us. He’s huge on YouTube and TikTok. We think there’s an opportunity to create some fun promotions with seven-foot guys walking around.
Bandholz: Imagine a seven-foot guy interacting with a couple of sub-five-foot people.
Eley: One of our customers was once the Guinness World Record holder for the tallest man in the world. He was a cab driver in Miami. He met us at a shoe show in Miami. And I’m six-foot-two. My former business partner is six-foot-four. This guy made us look like kindergartners. He just towered over us. It was so funny.
Bandholz: Where can people learn more about your business and reach out?