Tony Post is an absolute legend in the footwear industry. After starting his career at Reebok and Rockport, he went on to turn Vibram into a major player in the minimalist running market with the introduction of the insanely popular FiveFingers line of shoes. Now, he’s launched his own company called Topo Athletic, which continues to extol the virtues of the minimalist approach, while pushing the boundaries of active footwear in new directions.
Recently, Gear Institute caught up with Tony, who was kind enough to answer a few questions for us.
Gear Institute: You’re an avid outdoor athlete. What sort of running or other activities are you doing these days?
Tony Post: This winter’s theme was definitely snow sports given the non-stop snow we experienced here in Boston, but in general I love running, cycling (mountain and road), snow shoeing and skiing (Nordic and downhill). The last few years, I’ve also been doing more in the realm of functional fitness training: pairing interval strength training with a cardio activity. As I get older, core strength training has helped me retain my balance, speed, and agility; it has also made it easier to recover from hard days outdoors doing the activities I enjoy.
GI: Tell us about the decision to leave Vibram and chart your own course. Did you sense that the minimalist wave was cresting?
TP: I’m very grateful for my 11 years at Vibram: I learned so much, worked with many talented people, and am proud of what we accomplished together (launching Vibram USA and the Vibram FiveFingers brand).
Minimalism was actually still popular when I made the decision to resign from Vibram, some months before my actual departure. My decision to leave was driven primarily by my entrepreneurial curiosity. I was inspired to create a new concept and launch a company that synthesized my recent experience along with my years as an athlete.
GI: Why do you think the market shifted away from minimalism so radically?
TP: here is no doubt that the book Born to Run helped spark a movement that influenced many people’s decisions to begin running and training in more minimal footwear. FiveFingers were already on the market, but Born to Run accelerated a cultural movement. For many, wearing, running, or training in more minimal footwear worked great. I read so many emails and had many conversations with people who described how minimal shoes, or being barefoot, helped cure their ailments, strengthened muscles in their feet and lower legs, or just made them feel better. But some folks had a bad experience trying to transition too quickly, or using the same poor form they had used in thicker, more insulating footwear. As a result, some got injured, some found the experience uncomfortable, and some sought other solutions.
GI: Where do you stand on the relative importance of footwear versus form in regards to injury prevention and running efficiency?
TP: Footwear and form are codependent: footwear won’t fix your running form, but what you wear on your feet can affect your running form.
GI: What principles of minimalist shoe construction are the most important for you to preserve in Topo shoes?
TP: We designed our shoes around three core principles that have their roots in minimalism. Those principles include proper anatomical shape, lightweight materials and construction, and a neutral platform for natural load support and normal foot motion.
GI: Tell us about the creative process behind designing a new model.
TP: We have a small team that extends to a network of runners, fitness athletes, and others who help inform our process and direction. Our size allows us the speed and nimbleness that is often lost in a bigger company. There is no bureaucracy bottleneck at Topo: when we get an idea, we move fast to test it in concept. We do a fair amount of primitive cobbling to test ideas, materials, and constructions before we invest in molds or equipment.
We also have our own team in China; we don’t use an independent sourcing agent, which is unusual for a company of our size. It gives us advantages in development, prototyping, sourcing, quality control, and commercialization. We are constantly testing, fine-tuning and re-testing. We do some lab work, but do much more hands-on field-testing – to be really good at product creation, you have to have a curiosity and passion for the sport or activity, and that means lots of field-testing.
GI: Recent Topo models have trended heavier and sturdier than the debut models. Was this part of the vision all along, or is it in response to the industry’s current maximalist trend?
TP: That’s a great observation. Our vision has always been to provide a range of platforms that meet the individual demands of an athlete’s workout on any given day. That’s why we offer multiple styles and different stack heights. While some of our newer models offer more underfoot protection, we do not see ourselves chasing a maximal trend. In fact, we are excited to introduce a new style that will feature a 16mm/0-drop platform. We want to offer a range of products for athletes who seek a natural solution for running and training.
GI: Does Topo have for further expansion targeting other groups of athletes?
TP: We’re firm believers in functional fitness training and cross-training, especially for runners. Regular fitness training is a key step to help correct muscular imbalances and mobility challenges many runners face, which may also be a root cause of poor form. On a personal level, I also feel like regular fitness training, 2-3 times a week, helps me to recover faster from hard workouts while reducing the risk of injury.
As Topo Athletic grows, we may target new product categories, but there are prerequisites: there has to be a passion for the sport or activity. I find it hard to add value if we’re not passionate about the activity. We need this passion and understanding in order to introduce a solution that adds value, makes a sport more fun, or delivers a better experience.
GI: How are you trying to distinguish Topo today? Will minimalism still be a core concept of design and construction
TP: I think our customers say it best: it’s our unique fit and feel that sets us apart. Our design elements evolved from minimalism (anatomic shape, neutral platforms, and lightweight materials) and that really drives our fit and feel. I believe those ingredients will remain central to our product creation philosophy long into the future.
GI: How does a small brand get noticed in a marketplace awash with great shoes?
TP: First and foremost, we have to make a great product – product that gives folks something they don’t experience with another brand. We think our shoes fit most people better than other shoes in the market. We think there is a special feeling you get in a pair of Topos. Some of those features may show up when you try the shoes on in the store and some show up 20 miles into your long run when you realize your feet and toes feel great.
There are no shortcuts, there is no easy way to do this, and great brands get built one good experience at a time, one fan at a time. The product, the people in our company, our partners, our fans, all work together to deliver something better, then help spread the word. That’s the most rewarding part of this job, getting into market and hearing what people have to say, then using that feedback to help shape the future.