Perhaps watching television can be good for you. About six years ago, Steve Kaufman was watching the late-night CNBC show “The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch,” during which successful entrepreneurs tell how they got started in business. At the end of the show, the host would challenge viewers to come up with their own big ideas.
Kaufman did just that.
Kaufman’s son, Alex, then 13, had to wear a brace for scoliosis and couldn’t bend over to put his shoes on or take them off.
“I was thinking it would be nice if he had a pair of shoes he could just step into,” Kaufman said. “I was inspired by that [TV] host’s challenge. I started to think, wouldn’t it be great if there were a hands-free shoe that provided support, looked like a real shoe, not a flip flop—that you can just step into, no hands, without bending. Within 20 minutes I had a thought in my head of how it might be done. The next day I started making proto-types out of magnets and cardboard.”
It’s been a long six years, but Kaufman’s big idea is now unfolding as his company, Hands-Free LLC, is about to launch Quikiks Hands-Free Shoes (quikiks.com).
The rear portion of the shoes tilts back on a hinge, allowing wearers to step easily into the shoe. Downward pressure closes the heel behind the ankle and locks it in place with a magnet. Wearers simply strike the rear of the sole on any hard surface to remove. Each pair comes with easily removable gel-cushioned insoles that can be replaced or used in conjunction with many custom othoses.
Quikiks initially will offer four shoe styles: men’s and women’s sneakers, men’s and women’s Velcro-strap shoes, casual lace-ups, and a women’s Mary Jane-style athletic shoe. Men’s sizes range from 7 to 14, with three widths, and women’s sizes, from 6 to 11, with two widths.
Kaufman has been taking preorders, and the first shoes will be delivered beginning in March at a list price of $249.
“I’m shooting to sell between eight and ten thousand pairs in the first year,” he said.
A long road
“I came up with the original design, then I spent months working on prototypes and proving the concept,” Kaufman said. Working in the gourmet food business, he didn’t know much about footwear, but believed in his concept and applied problem-solving skills he learned getting his robotics engineering degree.
He also sought advice from professionals in the business at an American Orthotic and Prosthetic Association (AOPA) conference.
“I brought one of my early prototypes to an AOPA trade show and took out a tabletop booth to get reactions from people in the industry. I got great feedback from people,” said Kaufman, who noted the main message was that his product was a good idea but not yet marketable.
“That positive feedback encouraged me to keep pushing forward, I could tell I was on to something here that was never done before,” he said. “More importantly, I met people in the O&P industry that I keep in contact with today. Some are on my advisory board and have continued to give me feedback. I changed the design quite radically based on their feedback.”
Through his AOPA contacts he began working with manufacturers to come up with production prototypes. “That has been one of the biggest challenges,” he said.
He tried for a couple of years to work with various manufacturers. “They all threw up their hands and said, “We can’t do it, it’s too difficult,” he said. “They kept making samples and I kept rejecting them, saying ‘they’re not good enough.’”
Kaufman said manufacturers eventually said, “Where’s an order?” And he replied, “I’m not giving you an order because the samples aren’t good enough. I spun my wheels for three years doing that.”
He finally met the right group. “They’ve been working with me for over a year and a half developing samples,” Kaufman said. “They believe in the product and the vision, so they’ve stuck with me and I think we’re finally ready now.”
In preparation for his first production run, Kaufman had his son Alex and some others, some with a disability and some without, test the shoes.
“Scoliosis is just the tip of the iceberg,” Kaufman said. “More than 50 million people in the United States could benefit from shoes like this.” That includes people with spinal cord injury, arthritis, obesity, stroke, and cognitive disorders, he said.
The shoes are designed to look like regular shoes.
“That was one of the very early design intents after speaking with some orthotists who said they have a big problem with compliance when they recommend or prescribe certain orthopedic footwear, and their patients refuse to wear it because they’re ugly. I certainly didn’t want my shoes to fall into that category,” Kaufman said.
Larry Hand is a writer in Massachusetts.