Sandal Start-up Soars

Bokos Sandals are simple, and simply taking off.
Bokos Sandals co-founder Matt McManus.

When you’re a marketing and entrepreneurship double-major, a common goal is to start a company. What’s uncommon is that the business plan you write for class actually becomes your company.

But that’s what happened for University of Wisconsin grad and St. Louis Park resident Matt McManus when he and his older brother, James, founded Bokos Footwear Co.

James McManus had spent several years in Asia, and noticed that many people were wearing simple cross-strap sandals that were comfortable and convenient. “I brought [a few pairs] back to America because I couldn’t find anything quite like them here,” James says.

“We didn’t act on it in any immediate fashion,” Matt McManus says. But friends and family kept asking where they could get a pair. “They’re super-easy to just slide on, there’s a bunch of fun colors. … This could be something.”

So they spent 18 months in 2011 and 2012 finding a manufacturer that would help them with the design and be able to produce the colors they wanted while keeping the product affordable. “One of the things we were noticing in the American market was there’s a lot of these rubber slide sandals but they’re just horribly overpriced,” Matt says.

It wasn’t an easy feat to keep the price low. “We sort of did a ‘shoot first, aim second,’ ” Matt says. “You can’t start approaching these different people saying, ‘Look at this great brand we have,’ until you have the product.” But if you get the product first and don’t have buyers, you end up sitting on the product.

They found a manufacturer, and crossed their fingers. “It’s always a huge gamble when launching a new brand,” James says, “but we had confidence in the product. The light bulb went off when all our friends kept stealing our samples to wear for themselves.”

Their first order was 2,000 pairs, Matt says. That shipment came in April 2013 and they were sold out by July.

Since they officially launched in 2013, a month before Matt graduated, the brand has taken off. Matt works for the company full time as its main liaison, while James has a separate full-time job in logistics, remaining Bokos’ director of operations.

Today, the rubber Bokos sandals are in about 150 retailers. “One of the coolest things about this type of product is it’s so simple and it applies to so many different types of people,” Matt says. One popular retailer is the University of Minnesota’s bookstore, where students like the shoes for wearing in the dorm or after working out. Another is in country clubs, where tennis players like having them to slip on after a match, or members want them for around the pool or locker room. But the list is never ending. “Hospital gift shops, water parks, cycling stores, triathlon runners, gardeners—it really kind of runs the gamut,” Matt says.

For the future, Matt says, the main goal is not to outgrow themselves. They’re doing well, but they’re self-funded. “Whatever we make gets put back in” to the business, so they are just taking their time to let growth happen organically.

“At some point, we would like to expand into other styles, but for the moment we feel there is a huge amount of growth potential for Bokos,” James says. “We receive such positive feedback from our customers that it keeps us confident we’re moving in the right direction.”