If the shoe fits, thank this start-up

Matt Wilkinson arranges shoes in the offices of Shoefitr Inc., a Pittsburgh start-up that has developed a system to help cybershoppers find shoes that fit. Behind him are Bryan Leach and Nick End (right). Wilkinson and End were classmates at Carnegie Mellon University.
Matt Wilkinson arranges shoes in the offices of Shoefitr Inc., a Pittsburgh start-up that has developed a system to help cybershoppers find shoes that fit. Behind him are Bryan Leach and Nick End (right). Wilkinson and End were classmates at Carnegie Mellon University. (DARRELL SAPP / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)
Posted: November 22, 2011

Last year, the guys at Shoefitr noted a surge in use of their online shoe-fitting application on the Monday after Thanksgiving, otherwise known as Cyber Monday for its burst of Internet shopping.

They are not retailers, but the Pittsburgh start-up's team wants to ease the pain of shoe shopping with an application designed to help compare the fit of styles across various brands. And apparently, shoppers who discovered the Shoefitr tool on retailers' websites were quick to see the possibilities.

As were lots of other people. In February, Shoefitr was named the company "most likely to be acquired in the next 100 days" at an industry conference.

While the business has not yet been scooped up by Amazon, as one trade publication urged, new investors did put $1.2 million into Shoefitr last month. And the young managers visited Australia this summer to meet with a company there.

This ride all started about five years ago when Matt Wilkinson and Nick End were classmates at Carnegie Mellon University. Besides their studies, End was a cross-country runner, while Wilkinson played soccer, which meant they were familiar with the problem of getting the right athletic shoes.

After graduation, they went different directions and gained experience in the business world. In particular, Wilkinson's work with 3-D-customization software made him think there should be a way to analyze shoes for customers.

The partners, including another Carnegie Mellon graduate, Breck Fresen, all quit their other jobs when their proposal was accepted into AlphaLab, a start-up support program of the Pittsburgh seed-funding organization Innovation Works. That program helped nurture the business in 2010.

To build a database of information, the partners originally had their friends try on hundreds of shoes. Measurements were taken. Lots of records were made.

"We had to beg for the first companies to send shoes," End recalled.

Now, manufacturers ship cases and cases weekly - the holiday season typically brings a new round of styles - and the Shoefitr team has been hiring students from nearby Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh to help with the never-ending chore of scanning shoes for their 3-D software. Once scanned, the shoes are sent back to the manufacturer.

They estimate Shoefitr has scanned more than 1,500 models and more than 10,000 individual shoes. While athletic shoes dominate, they also have done ski boots and are looking at expanding into casual shoes. Eventually, the plan calls for tackling the challenge of high heels.

The tool can be found on sites such as RunningWarehouse.com and Runner's World, where online customers type in the shoe that they love - even if it has been discontinued - and get a recommendation on other styles with similar fits.

Eventually, the partners could see this being used in brick-and-mortar stores such as Dick's Sporting Goods. Customers, who do most of their own shoe selection these days, would be able to pull up recommendations.

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