Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Interview with Newton Running

Newton Running has been on a tear since selling their first pair at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside a mere six years ago. Since that day triathlon has continued to play an important role in Newton's success, and the company recently announced an official partnership with Ironman. I had the opportunity to interview Ryan Bassham, a Sales Manager within the company, to learn more about the Newton phenomenon.

Can you tell me a bit about Newton's history?

Newton Running is cofounded by Danny Abshire and Jerry Lee. Danny wanted to provide a superior product to what he was seeing his athletes use. In the early 80's with another gentleman they started investigating other technologies that hadn't been introduced to the running world. Danny has been a podiatrist for almost 30 years and to this day still builds custom orthotics for elite athletes all over the world. Jerry Lee stepped in to the picture as an investor. Danny was leasing one of Jerry's properties to run his orthotic business out of. Jerry was looking to either retire from his real-estate career or invest his savings into a foundation for his kids supporting various causes that mean a lot to the Lee family. He chose to set up the foundation and utilize Newton Running as a way to support that effort. So technically we are a profit/non-profit organization. Before they came to the point of manufacturing their own shoes they considered selling the patents and intellectual rights to another brand and collecting royalties. Thankfully this did not work out. At that point they decided to manufacture their own shoe with a superior technology with a more focused effort in mid-foot running. They came up with a shoe with whole foot technology instead of just heel technology. Many people ask why we have such bright colors. They did so because their marketing budget was $0 when they first launched. In 2007 most of the shoes in the industry were primarily grey. So a bright colored shoe on the wall stuck out like a sore thumb and begged the question "what is that?"

April 2007 at the Oceanside 70.3 the first Newton Running shoes were sold. We chose the triathlon market to start in for a few reasons. At that time some of the biggest names in triathlon were being coached by Danny, run form specifically. Danny had a lot of contacts in the Ironman family. Next reason is simple, really. Triathletes are always looking for an edge and are more likely to try new things in comparison to your purist runners. Plus, triathletes have more disposable income as well. It was a great match! Every year we celebrate Newton Running's birthday at the Oceanside 70.3. It was even sweeter this year since we are the official sponsor of an organization in which we really first started in. Originally Jerry and Danny thought they would primarily sell shoes online. The demand was overwhelming. In six years we are now in more than 600 specialty running/triathlon stores in North America and sold in over 40 countries.

How long have you been with the company and what do you do?

I personally have been with Newton Running a little over 3 years. I started as an intern while attending Texas A&M University. At that time I was really in to ultramarathon and hung out a lot with the Texas A&M Triathlon team. I wasn't quite sure how I felt about the shoes when I first tried them in 2008 but soon realized I couldn't run in anything else again. I begged for an internship of any kind and was fortunate to work on the Corporate Expo team. When I graduated I was hired to be a Regional Educator and shortly after into my current position as a Regional Sales Manager for Newton Running.

In the very crowded running shoe space, what makes Newton unique?

Sir Isaac would look great in a pair
This is the most common question we hear. In today's industry we are fortunate that almost every other brand has finally come out with their own versions of minimal, low drop, level platform, etc type running shoes. Also at this time every brand is doing fun bright colors. It's kind of hard to ignore that we were the first company to do these things back in 2007. And actually we have prototypes of such all the way back to the early 2000s.
Even though all the other brands are doing more level platform running shoes with bright colors. We are still the only ones who have an actual functioning technology in the mid-foot as well as the heel. Most shoes function on foam. Ours function on an elastic membrane. The best way to think of this is comparing a bed mattress to a trampoline. If you want to jump higher, or get more energy return, do you jump on the mattress or the trampoline? Which takes more effort to jump on? Which is easier to jump on? Our patented technology is what truly sets us apart in the industry. This is why our shoes typically last longer too. Foam is designed to absorb foam and eventually breaks down after a short time depending on the density of the foam. Elastic is a material that returns to its original state. When utilized in a shoe this extends the life and durability of the shoe. Newton Running is named such because of this technology. Remember Sir Isaac Newton's third law? The lugs on our shoes move in and out of the shoe creating action/reaction affect. Those lugs move almost completely flush with the sole of the shoe when ran in.

I've heard some people speculate that "minimalist" footwear is a fad that will come and go. How would Newton respond to that opinion?

Well, the good thing is that we are hearing less and less of this type of discussion. Another thing to discuss is in terms of industry semantics how are we defining "minimalist'? Is it the minimal drop in a shoe or is it the minimal stack height in a shoe (amount of material between the actual foot and the ground)? Hard to say really. Both exist.

If we look at the history of running shoes we'll find some interesting information. Believe it or not, running specific shoes date back to the early 1800s. Obviously they were not being produced in mass quantities but they did exist. Essentially they were built on a 0mm rubber platform with a leather upper. Some variations included spikes in the sole of the shoes for better traction. This didn't change really until the late 1960s. In the 1970's we saw the "jogging" boom and all of a sudden running became a new branch in the athletic product industry. With this competition came new ideas and designs. Running shoes have only been built with a heel lift over the last 40 years. During this time studies have shown that while there are more people actively participating in the sport of running the rate of injury is up as well. Several studies are coming out that much of this is due to the poor design of shoes and the effects those designs have to the human body while in motion. Specifically too much heel height. Technically "minimalist" shoes have been used over a much greater time in history. I believe the more accurate way to think of this is that we are going back to something that worked for a long time until it became a big business and the world of marketing competition took over.

I see Newton Running shoes that allow a runner to practice the same running biomechanics as a barefoot runner. The shoe lets you run naturally in a world of unnatural surfaces. Our shoe line offers everything between 0-6mm drop heel. This encourages a mid-foot gait but does not force the athlete to do anything. Where we differ from other "minimalist" shoes is that we have a decent amount of flexible material between the foot and the unnatural ground that most of us train and race on. And we are the only shoe that has a functioning technology in the heel as well as the mid-foot.

Ryan (left) along with co-founder Jerry Lee and other employees at the 2011 NYC marathon

Do you know if Newton's technology is patent protected? Have you seen other companies attempt to copy in function or design?

Currently we have 9 US patent and I believe 13 world patents. More than likely we will see more as we continue to develop the shoe line. Most notably we have seen ALL other brands adopt the bright colors we utilize as well as the lower heel to toe drop that we have always utilized. In terms of technology, we haven't seen anything that is anything like what we are doing. Most all other companies are still utilizing technologies that have always been used within the industry.

I've always run in a more "traditional" running shoe.  Since old habits die hard, how does Newton get people to make the switch? What benefits would I see by switching, and would it take some time to get used to?

I too was a "traditional" running shoe wearer. I don't think Newton's are for everyone. But I do think that everyone should at least try them. Don't know until you try. More specifically, give the shoes a full month of consistent running. If you run in them once or twice and quit than you really aren't giving any brand or model a fair chance.

The main thing Newton running has done is just present fact. When the body is in a more efficient position that allows for impact forces to be absorbed more easily by the body then you can reduce the rate of injury. If you are more efficient then theoretically you can go faster. Do Newton Running shoes make you run faster? Well, nobody has ever told me it made them slower! The key is healthy running and that is what our shoes promote. If you are constantly plagued by running related injuries than why continue the sport? It doesn't have to be that way. We just need to get athletes in the right vehicle to get them to where they want to go.

When I have customers, athletes, friends, family, etc ask me about transitioning or adapting to ANY lower heel dropped shoe I tell them all the same thing. We are all different. We all lead different lifestyles and come from different running backgrounds. There are so many variables to the equation of how long does it take to get used to any shoe brand. Any shoe should be approached pretty much the same. If you have always run in the same shoe than more than likely your lower body has adapted to that shoe. When you change different muscles, tendons, and ligaments well be stretched and utilized differently than the previous shoes you were running in. The body adapts slowly to anything, therefore we have to allow it to do so. I encourage most people to go out 10-15 minutes and no more than that the first run. Slowly increase each day after that by a 5 minute increment. If you are sore than don't increase the time, stay at the time you ran the day before. Our bodies will tell us when we can hit the gas and when we need to apply the brake and be a bit more cautious. On average it takes a couple of weeks. When you add in longer distance, depending on how weak your feet and lower legs are, it might take longer until you can strengthen those weak muscles around tendons and ligaments that have been "babied" by soft foam shoes with radical heel heights.

In terms of distribution, are you in large retailers or more specialty running stores?  Have you seen a shift in how retailers respond to Newton since you've been at the company?

Our focus is on specialty running stores. Support local! We have no plan to go in to big box stores in the short term. I'm not high enough on the totem pole to say what the company might or might not do 5 or 10 years from now. Many retailers appreciate the fact that we are not in big box accounts. It allows them to have a bit of an edge with their business and not lose out to a large company that can cut prices. Outside of the product we pride ourselves out in the field to provide a lot of educational support to our retail accounts. We are constantly doing educational events somewhere at some time. There aren't many of us out in the field at this time, but we participate with our accounts more often than most.

I read that the first pair of Newtons was sold at Ironman 70.3 Oceanside in 2007 (as you mentioned previously as well). Do you have any sense of how important triathlon has been to Newton's growth?

It has been very significant. In my personal opinion I don't think we would have gotten to the point we are at today without the support of the triathlon community. I am more of a runner than a triathlete. I understand both personalities. Purist runners can be a tough crowd. Triathletes have been good to us. That is why we have signed on as the official shoe sponsor of Ironman. Having said that, I think that now there are more runners versus triathletes in the Newton brand. But I am pretty sure that is the case with all running products that cross over in to the tri world. We love our triathletes.

My first exposure to the Newton brand was watching Craig Alexander win multiple Ironman World Championships in them. I know he signed a "lifetime" contract with you guys, so he must be pretty happy with the product! What impact has he had as a sponsored athlete?

Crowie has been fantastic. We couldn't have asked for a better person to be a part of our family. I'll be the first to tell you that many famous athletes have come through the doors at Newton Running and have gone on elsewhere. We focus our marketing efforts into education and support of our retail accounts which doesn't allow a lot in comparison for what other companies offer athletes. Crowie wants to be in Newton Running shoes because they help him accomplish what he wants to accomplish as an athlete. Winning. In order to do that you have to be fast and efficient. Crowie is the best in the world at running fast and efficient. He found a product that compliments the way he runs.

Crowie has brought a lot of notoriety to the Newton Running brand. We are definitely grateful for it. The way he conducts his life outside of the lime light of the triathlon world also reflects well on our company culture. He is a great man. His family comes first and I personally appreciate that a great deal.

What's the sentiment within the company on the recently announced partnership with Ironman? Do you have any insight into what it will entail?

We are all very excited. It just makes sense. Newton Running knows where it came from and to be able to be partnered with Ironman, where we started, is a great thing. I honestly don't have all the details of what the partnership will entail. I don't want to speak out of turn. But I encourage everyone to get out to a race soon! Whether you are racing yourself, supporting someone else, or just out as a volunteer.

Learn more about Newton at newtonrunning.com!  

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