Like many entrepreneurs, James “Jimmy” Tomczak found the inspiration to start his own business by trying to solve a personal problem. In this case, the 22-year-old Tomczak, who loved to walk barefooted around his home in Grass Lake, Michigan, wanted to find a way to make a shoe so thin that it felt barefoot but still protected his feet. But Tomczak, a University of Michigan undergraduate at the time, didn’t have the capital to buy the necessary materials. That’s when he looked down at a pile of envelopes he had accumulated by selling various items on eBay. “I thought, ‘Hey, these are made of Tyvek, the puncture-proof material used as house wrap during construction,’” says Tomczak, who also completed the entrepreneurship program at Michigan. “I made a prototype pair that was like a flip-flop and started wearing them around. The material was so white and thin it looked like I was wearing paper on my feet.”
While Tomczak quickly realized that Tyvek wasn’t the right material for his new shoes, he had the name for his product: Paperfeet. (He named his company TOMBOLO, a nautical term for a kind of sandbar that connects an island to the mainland.) It wasn’t until the summer of 2009, when the house he was working on sprang a leak in its roof, that Tomczak found the right material that could commercialize his shoes. “The contractor I brought in told me that rather than buy a tarp, I could use billboard vinyl to cover up the hole,” says Tomczak. “Most people think that the billboards they see when they’re driving on the highway are paper or painted, but they’re really wrapped in this thick and heavy-duty vinyl. Every year in the U.S. alone, so much billboard vinyl is thrown away that, if laid out, it would more than cover the state of Massachusetts. I figured I could really help people think outside the box by innovatively upcycling some of that material.”
After acquiring a supply of used vinyl from local advertising companies, Tomczak says he played with some 20 design iterations—changing straps, adding Velcro, making different cuts—before settling on a final beta version of his shoes, for which he filed a patent. He also raised some startup capital after winning a slot as a Sparkseed Social Innovator, a social entrepreneurship incubator program that provided him with coaching, mentoring, legal services and the chance to attend a four-day networking summit in Silicon Valley.
Want to read more from Darren Dahl? Check these out:
It was in June 2010 that Tomczak debuted his new shoes on his website—paperfeet.com—and live at the Ann Arbor Art Fair, which draws thousands of visitors and takes over the city. But, after renting out a booth on a side street, Tomczak quickly learned that he still had some work to do in marketing his newfangled shoes. “I had all these people coming up and looking at the shoe and asking, ‘Where’s the arch support?’” he recalls. “I realized that the demographic that was buying high-priced art was not the same one that would be buying low-cost, recycled sandals.”
Tomczak found similar resistance when he talked to brick-and-mortar retailers about carrying his shoes in their stores. As a result, he found greater success selling his shoes—which he and his friends assembled by hand—on his website. It didn’t take long for the first orders to come in (though not in the way he expected as orders were being placed from all over the world). “We encouraged people to log their adventures on our website and tell us where they were bringing their sandals,” he says, adding that some 400 people now wear his sandals globally.
Tomczak has also seen an increase in interest as more people gravitate toward a less-is-more movement when it comes to shoes—thanks to the rise in popularity of “minimalist” shoes such as the Vibram FiveFingers. This trend got its start, at least in part, from Christopher McDougal's best-selling book, Born to Run, which digs into the notion that many running injuries are, in fact, caused by wearing shoes with too much padding and arch support. “More and more people are catching onto this trend, especially as the major shoe companies have started coming out with shoes that are as thin as possible,” says Tomczak.
To tap into this emerging market, Tomczak recently decided that he needed to find a U.S.-based manufacturing partner that would help him scale up production ability. To fund the collaboration, he has turned to the community-based all-or-nothing fundraising site Kickstarter, where he hopes to raise $14,590 to cover the costs of finalizing the retail-ready design and tooling dies for production. “My goals in starting Paperfeet are to champion creative reuse, conscious consumption and the idea that you don’t need expensive adventure gear to get outside and live,” he says. “Combine the fad success of Crocs with the humanitarian initiatives of TOMS shoes and you're following our footsteps.”