Founder Stories: Olguy Songolo On building the DIFFERENCE

In today’s Founder Story, we feature Olguy Songolo, CEO of DIFFERENCE!

Read on for lessons he has learned from launching and marketing the world’s first heelless technology shoe brand.

1. Please introduce your business and share your role.

Hello everyone! My name is Olguy Songolo.  CEO of the DIFFERENCE, and developer of the world’s first heelless technology shoe brand. Why heelless? Extensive research by the original designer, Dr. Etienne Penka 9 my father), has determined that heel strikes are one of the leading causes of injury for runners, causing a host of negative health consequences in the heels, back, knees, and other impact absorption points. We discovered a simple and elegant solution: remove the heel.

At this time we have one product line, the Heelless Technology Runners. These unisex shoes are designed with the modern runner in mind, with 5 different color schemes and all adult sizes for men and women. You won’t be surprised to hear that our target audience consists primarily of runners, especially runners with an interest in avoiding heel strikes through barefoot running techniques.

When I was a young boy, my father was in the throes of his research at Boston University. One day, to test out a concept he was developing, he cut off the heels of my school shoes, and sent me to class in heelless shoes! Despite looking a bit silly, I was amazed to find that I was comfortable throughout the day, and had no problem running, walking, or standing in this strange prototype. My dad had discovered something amazing.

His research had been focused on the functional anatomy of the foot, and in particular how different kinds of landings (front foot, flat foot, and heel landing) affected the body. How did foot and leg muscles compensate for these different impacts? In the end, the research was clear: heel landings were by far the most damaging to the joints. Simply put, this is because the heel has no shock-absorbing mechanism.

When you land flat or on the balls of your feet, the transverse arches of the feet and the associated muscles easily handle the impact, just as they would if you were running barefoot, in which case you always naturally choose a forefoot landing. However with a heel strike in running shoes, the force of 3-5 times the runner’s body weight is distributed into areas of the legs, knees, and back which are not designed to take these shocks, and over time all kinds of injuries can occur. Such damage includes back pain, plantar fasciitis, knee damage, flat feet, and more.

The problem is that nearly all modern running shoes encourage the user to land on their heels. Today, some companies are even designing “maxi-heels” that blow the heel out to incredible proportions. My father’s research demonstrated clearly that such thinking is exactly backward. He believed that many painful physical ailments associated with running could be solved simply by wearing a shoe that prevented a person from heel striking entirely.

This new concept could change the game for millions of runners and anyone else prone to heel strikes. At the time of this discovery, however, he was still raising me and my siblings. There simply wasn’t time to develop this new shoe. So the idea was shelved, for decades.

In 2016 I told my father that the moment had arrived. His children were grown, and the time had come to finally design and build the heelless shoe. As you might imagine, we were both thrilled to begin and also rather intimidated by the formidable journey on which we were about to embark. At the time, I was working as a health and safety instructor for the American Red Cross, and we had just formed our non-profit Runners, Walkers, and Standers Foundation.

2. How did you prepare for, and go about your launch? 

The launch was incredibly challenging, there’s no getting around it! We did not officially launch until 2017 upon my return, though pre-orders were coming in well before then. In hindsight, it’s clear that I made a mistake common to many passionate entrepreneurs: I assumed that since we had created an incredible product, customers would beat down our doors without any need for extensive marketing. As a result, we used all our capital to produce the shoes, leaving nothing for marketing or PR.

At launch time and immediately following, we went through no less than 4 website redesigns and had no social media presence. It soon became clear that this strategy wasn’t going to work and we needed to start looking for ways to put our product directly in front of customers. This began with trade shows, speaking engagements, and anything else to gain exposure, but online sales remained weak in the early days. 

Our family did this with no loans. We took out equity on our house and my parents along with myself and my sister burned through all of our savings. We attempted a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds, but this was an unfortunate failure because, as mentioned before, we did not plan for marketing budgets. The biggest lesson learned was don’t be afraid to fail as much as you can but never give up!

3. Since launching, what types of marketing campaigns and designs have worked best to attract and retain customers?

We have learned so much that it’s almost hard to know where to begin! One huge lesson has been the impact of disruption and getting attention to generating sales. Once, on a trip to California, I tried to sell the shoes I had with me on the boardwalk but met with no success, so I got creative. Walking into town, I rented a brand-new Corvette, parked it right on the boardwalk, and started talking to every person who walked by.

Within a few hours, I had sold out the dozens of pairs I had with me. I bootstrapped throughout the city of Boston regularly, talking to runners by the Charles River and inviting them to try heelless technology. Another successful driver of sales has been trading shows, where potential customers are everywhere and looking to buy the next big thing.

With the pandemic, however, these in-person sales channels were no longer an option. So early in 2020, we made some big changes. First, we contracted with a programmer overseas to revamp our website. He updated the look and flow of the website, dramatically improving its appearance and useability. 

I also solicited the help of a few different digital marketing companies, since this is not my area of personal expertise. There were a couple of expensive failures, but about two months after almost giving up on social media marketing entirely, I found a new company called Trajex Digital Marketing that worked well with me and that I could afford, and the impact has been huge.

Since contracting with that company in July 2020 and another skilled partner a couple of months after that, we have tried all kinds of new online and offline channels. We put up new posts on Facebook and Instagram at least daily. These are a mix of content, mostly some variation of inspirational material, and pictures of the shoes either by themselves or worn by a model. Most often, we organize our posts into social media campaigns.

About once a month since September, we’ve offered a promotion or sale of some kind, which typically lasts for a few weeks. Three campaigns have been run so far, each with a different theme.

Some other great opportunities have presented themselves as well. A friend of mine who is an up-and-coming rapper produced a video heavily featuring our shoe in exchange for the DIFFERENCE promoting him. ​​Black Entertainment Television allowed us to appear in their holiday gift guide.

We’ve found that our biggest revenue driver is Instagram, even when the level of investment is lower on that platform. The majority of sales directly from social media always come from Instagram, with a smaller portion arriving from Facebook, although the gap is closing. 

In all, between 25-50% of our sales each month come from social media sources, and the rest originate from direct links to the website and not specifically from a social media click.

An important question is “Why do customers buy?” One big reason we are seeing is to support the Black business. 

Much of our targeting is directed towards individuals on platforms with a deep interest in supporting black-owned businesses, and those pages tend to generate sales. Others appear to buy the shoes because of the unique, flashy look.

Another segment, often those who reach out to us or are directly referred by a brand representative, purchase because of the potential health benefits for their running or exercise routines. These are the customers we have the greatest interest in, but they are also the hardest to capture, as most runners are pretty well stuck in their ways when it comes to what they choose to wear, especially something as utilitarian as running shoes. Educating the consumer is a huge part of our goals for the future.

While these strategies are working well in adding new customers until very recently we had no clear path to retargeting previous ones. To take on this challenge, we created a text message campaign reaching out to most of our previous customers, which cost about $90 and generated a return close to $2000 even with a steep discount. 

The campaign was a flash sale, lasting only 25 minutes after being sent out. It was also advertised simultaneously on Instagram using a Big 9: 1 image split into 9 sections to take up 9 squares on our Instagram page. We followed the first sale with another late at night as a “last chance”.

No matter what we’re doing for a campaign, we try to do 3 things: Keep all content focused on the theme, use snappy captioning and catchphrases that stick in the reader’s brain, and choose bold images that take advantage of our colorful, unique product’s ability to stand out.

4. What have been the most influential brands for your business? Whose branding and marketing do you aspire to and why?

I would say Apple & Nike. It’s really simple to explain. They are not trying to sell you their brand, they are connecting with you and tapping into your emotions that you can relate to. It’s genius!

5. What are your favorite marketing platforms/tools?

Social media, of course, and trade shows, pop-ups & good old fashion bootstrapping.

6. Looking ahead, what are you most excited about?

I would say landing my first NIL deal and bringing in our first investor/board member.

7. Who or what inspires and motivates you?

I’ve been fortunate to have a father who is extremely intelligent and well-educated. His doctoral dissertation had a profound effect on me, and in large part set me on the path to developing the DIFFERENCE heelless shoes. His passion for his subject and his brilliant studies inspire me to make the most of his research. 

I also find myself looking up to the great writer Dale Carnegie, whose influential books on salesmanship, self-improvement, and other critical business skills helped me to become the company leader I am today.

Other great books that helped me to grow and improve myself include The Great CEO Within, and Grit.

8. What are some lessons you’ve learned along the way that you would share with entrepreneurs hoping to launch or who have just launched? 

Entrepreneurship is no easy lifestyle, and it’s rarely glamorous. It may seem basic, but ask yourself. Can I do this? Consider the sacrifices involved, of time for yourself, time with family, potentially big money or lots of equity, and plenty more. 

Don’t be coy about the big question: what am I willing to give up for this? Because you will give something up, and you don’t want to get into the process only to discover you aren’t prepared for those sacrifices.

It’s also a great practice to consider your goals. Not just for your company’s success, but for yourself. Where do YOU want to be in 5 years? 10 years? What do you consider a reasonable level of achievement? In other words, consider whether there is a point where you’ll be able to say “enough is enough”, that you’ve achieved what you set out for and are ready to take your foot off the gas a little bit.

Asking yourself these questions will help you focus your business efforts and give you a target to shoot for, rather than an open-ended picture of wild (or moderate) success. Get specific in your personal goals whenever you can.

9. What do you believe are the qualities of a good entrepreneur? And what makes a team successful?

Transformational leadership, patience, excellent communication, great listening skills & being able to follow reasoning. These qualities also make a team successful.

10. Let us know where we can go to learn more!