Jimmy Tomczak believes in the sand beneath his toes. With tides of passion for social entrepreneurship, Jimmy is surfing his way to social impact by launching a company that specializes in creating uncommon goods for the collective good. Jimmy’s eco-functional gear made from upcycled outdoor advertisements has been sold around the world and featured in national media. Inspired by the beach, his Paper-Feet minimalist billboard sandals are TOMBOLO LLC’s first success. Managing his own ventures since 2001, Jimmy has been recognized for his achievement by StartingBloc, Sparkseed, and the University of Michigan. Jimmy is introducing youth to hands-on social business through everyday exploration and adventure that create stories we were meant to share.
Mike: Can you give a little background on Paper-Feet?
Jimmy: I’ve been working on the Paper-Feet concept since summer 2009. I first publicly announced the shoes at a pitch competition that November after I filed intellectual property and patent paperwork. The first Paper-Feet.com went live around that time as well. I began taking information for pre pre-orders on the site via Google Docs. The best part was that instead of just requesting people’s typical name, address, phone, shoe size… I added the questions “What is your favorite adventure? (Tell us about the time of your life)” and “Why Paper-Feet?” I used the larger boxes for these queries thinking the occasional fan who came across the site might want to write a sentence or two more than the standard info. Turns out almost everyone left an amazing personal anecdote: from beaches and VW beetles to, I’m not-even-kidding, that one time in Mexico – in addition to remarks like “Paper-Feet seem tailor made for me.” I officially incorporated TOMBOLO LLC in fall 2010. I plan to launch the new site with the new brand this spring.
Mike: Tell me a bit about paper-feet products. Where did the inspiration come from?
Jimmy: I’ve always loved the beach and the great outdoors: camping, boating, fishing – all the barefoot activities too. But sometimes being barefoot is not practical, especially if you’re not used to walking without shoes. I wanted to make a transitional “shoe”; footwear for toughening up the feet and getting to being barefoot more often. The first version was made with Tyvek from shipping envelopes. Because they were white and thin, it literally looked like I was wearing paper on my feet. The name “Paper-Feet” and the paper-thin concept stuck but Paper-Feet are now made with upcycled billboard material. The giant roadside outdoor advertisement displays are wrapped with a one-piece 14×48-foot PVC vinyl material that’s a lot like a thick pool tarp or poly cover but thicker and more durable. The waterproof, durable, UV-resistant properties of the fabric work well for both long-term advertisements and minimalist footwear.
Mike: How did you move from the idea to actual production?
Jimmy: Rapid prototyping and countless iterations helped with the move to a sellable product. I would cut the material into different variations, sew, assemble, and test. Most didn’t work for one reason or another. When I found something that did, I would try it out in all conditions. If it didn’t perform as expected I’d fix whatever was wrong or ask people their opinion on how to make the needed corrections. When I had a design that was ready for other people to try I began looking for places to make the shoe and understanding how to grade the sizing. Not having money to go abroad for production, and knowing the value of
local, ethical labor, I found a place in Michigan through friends and networking introductions. I’m not a shoemaker – I studied neuroscience at the University of Michigan. Seeing the random connections between such juxtaposed subjects gave me a unique perspective on the creative process.
Mike: You mention filing patent paperwork. Are your sandals patented? If so, did you find the process to be easy or difficult?
Jimmy:The sandals are patent-pending. For a first-time inventor the patent application process is challenging and always expensive. The US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has some helpful resources and there are also “patent it yourself” books and resources out there.
Mike: Can you share the volume of traffic that your site receives?
Jimmy: Because we’re not pushing the marketing until the spring retail buying season, paper-feet.com receives only a fraction of our target traffic. The new site will be much more interactive with the ability for fans to upload their stories, photos, and videos while sharing information with each other. Over the past 30 days we’ve received over 5,000 page views.
Mike: Any concerns with a hyphenated domain?
Jimmy: I understand that the hyphen is less than ideal, but it works for now. The worst part is explaining the address aloud. “Sure, check out Paperfeet dot com, that’s ‘Paper-hypen-Feet, yes, paper-dash-feet dot com.” Gets old after a while. I plan to use the new ecommerce platform we’re working on with a new domain featuring our overall brand.
Mike: Do you have any online marketing strategies?
Jimmy: To me Paper-Feet’s online marketing and sales is all about sharing our story with others. The more people becoming educated about what we’re all about and being open to barefooting, the better. Anytime someone engages in a conversation with us or about us online, I consider that a win, and a win-win for everyone really. Every time there is good press a few more people find out about us and share our message with friends. We’ve been featured on BoingBoing, GOOD, Mother Nature Network, AOL News, The Wall Street Journal and several other online destinations. Moreover, the social entrepreneurship community is incredible. Early on I was recognized as a Sparkseed social innovator for Paper-Feet. Sparkseed invests in college entrepreneurs championing their companies that both do good and do well. This kind of marketing speaks for itself.
Mike: Any advice for start ups, small business, or business of any size for that matter on choosing the right domain name?
Jimmy: Really understand what your purpose is going to be all about when it’s big. Think all the way through to the death of your brand – what’s the epitaph for your company? Is the domain name slick enough to be etched there as well? Now bounce back to today where your business idea is actually solving someone’s problem. People say the name must be compelling enough for them to remember and share with a friend. If the concept truly solves a problem, people will talk, share, and blog about it and Google’s magical SEO unicorns will make rainbows for your business.
Mike: Any other information you’d like to share?
Jimmy: Because of the simplicity of paper-feet.com, the best way to interact is via Facebook or Twitter Send a message this way anytime! I’d like to encourage you to follow our footsteps and stay tuned for the official launch of our next adventure this spring and the best way to do that is via our newsletter.
Thanks and remember