Women's Sneaker Startup Hilma Takes On Nike With Word-of-Mouth Campaign – PYMNTS.com

She wasn’t an athlete or even a casual runner. She didn’t burn with the ambition to form her own company. She was looking for personal growth, to push her own limits, and more comfortable shoes to do it in.
“She” is Brooke Torres, an ultramarathoner who’s gone on to found her own startup, Hilma Running Shoes, which is preparing to drop its first woman’s running shoe line at the end of October, just in time for the holiday selling season.
Working at various startups after college and soaking up all she could about how companies operate, Torres was also looking for a personal challenge. She settled on running a marathon.
After training for and completing her first few marathons, she was hooked and went seeking the perfect running shoe for her new passion. “I was doing all the things you’d typically do. I would poke around Nordstrom Rack or other places where there was a high volume of sneakers.
“All that I was looking for was comfort. I wanted something that looked good and something that I wasn’t hurrying to take off after a run. I just wanted to be comfortable even running a couple of miles, and that was so difficult to find.”
It was a lightbulb moment: the opportunity to create that which was missing from the market.
“I was looking at our feet and saying we have different shaped feet, we have different fit needs, but despite how enormous this industry is, nobody was catering to solve that problem, which is twofold. It’s really hard to figure out the right running shoe for you, and fit models don’t assume that there’s more than one element of dimension that matters to find a great shoe.”
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Holding CAC at Zero, For Now
Asked about her client acquisition strategy, Torres is leaning on her marketing background to some extent but says Hilma has been a word-of-mouth story up until its October launch.
Saying “we’ve spent zero dollars on marketing” to this point, Torres concedes that social media will inevitably figure in, but adds that, “I think it’s important for me not to try to force people too soon to buy our product.
“I think customer acquisition is something that everyone has to navigate from a number of different angles,” she said, adding, “We’ll be fairly community-driven in our earliest stages.”
With manufacturing in China, Hilma dodged a supply chain bullet because they were not shipping containers of shoes during the dreadful port delays of late 2021 into 2022.
And with its proprietary fit prediction technology using loads of data points about feet and shoe dimensions, Hilma is ready to ship its first style in three colors and designed with Torres’ original quest at the center: “I do very much feel that fit is the foundation of comfort,” she said. “Without a broader fit model, you can’t deliver something that’s great on everyone.”
The company won’t launch with a buy now, pay later (BNPL) option as Torres said she’s still learning the payments ropes of the business, but there is free shipping and the shoe itself.
“People have different reasons that drive them to run or to explore outdoors,” she said. “My hope from a brand standpoint is that we really represent that, we really speak to a wide range of customers and that we’re really innovating for the everyday athlete like myself and my friends. I was feeling that we were under-spoken-to.”
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Data Points Path to a New Concept
Starting in conversations with sales associates in running shoe stores, Torres eventually networked her way to big shoe executives in sneaker country — the Boston, Massachusetts-based Hilma has staff in Portland, Oregon — home of Nike and Adidas, as well as UnderArmour and Columbia Sportswear.
From there she began developing a new sizing formula that prices comfort over aerodynamics or more esoteric aspects favored in the fanatical marathon sneaker scene, which will remain undisclosed until launch, as will certain other aspects of the Hilma approach.
Having just raised $3 million in seed funding, she told PYMNTS, “One thing that I did when I was starting the company to the point of the investment round was I looked for expertise to surround the company that I myself didn’t have.”
“Some of those are from companies that have built their businesses in different ways. I wanted to be able to make decisions with feedback from those types of people and understand why they did what they did in terms of omnichannel versus D2C, or retail strategy, or owned stores.”
She landed on the direct-to-consumer approach, foregoing ideas of wholesale or custom items, choosing instead to build it, believing they would come. Now the Hilma waitlist has thousands of orders for a woman’s running shoe no one’s yet wearing, but they like what they hear.
Image courtesy of Hilma
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