Startup wants to take guesswork out of buying cowboy boots

Harvard grad partners with Mexican manufacturer

By Parija Kavilanz, CNN Business
Pixabay

(CNN) - Born and raised in Texas, 31-year-old Paul Hedrick has faithfully worn cowboy boots since his college years.

"They may not have been deemed appropriate for the workplace -— and incorrectly so in my opinion — but I've been wearing them for much of my career," said Hedrick, who has become particularly fond of a pair of dark brown, ostrich skin boots he bought in 2012.

He was wearing those same boots in 2014 when he met with his mentor, a former boss at the Connecticut private equity firm where he worked as an associate, to discuss the next step for his career.

Professionally, things were going well for the Harvard graduate, but Hedrick felt unsettled. "I had a yearning to do something entrepreneurial," he said. "All I needed was a spark."

They were brainstorming different ideas, and Hedrick couldn't get his mind off his boots. "I was thinking about how I loved wearing them even more after I had left Texas," he said. "I honestly felt that everyone should own a great pair of cowboy boots."

A year later, in 2015, Hedrick launched Tecovas, an online retailer that aims to make it easier for shoppers across the US to find the right pair of handmade Western boots at an affordable price.

"Even as a Texan, buying boots is pretty intimidating," said Hedrick.

The conventional way people shop for Western boots is still antiquated and overwhelming, he explained. The process typically involves walking into a store that's the size of a small warehouse and is stocked with hundred of boots arranged in rows by size, shape, style, material and heel.

Then there's the price. "A really good pair of boots can cost between $500 to $600, or more," he said.

Hedrick saw an opportunity: The market was fragmented. Western boots are still largely sold in brick-and-mortar stores, and there wasn't a particular brand that dominated. While companies like Boot Barn sell boots online, Hedrick argues that there weren't any sites offering authentic, handcrafted cowboy boots at lower prices.

It took a year for Hedrick to find the right manufacturer.

He had set his sights on Leon, Mexico, a city known for shoe manufacturing, and emailed owners of a few factories there.

"In my pitch, I said I wanted to make the best quality boots and sell them online at half the price of what those boots would cost in stores," said Hedrick. Two of the three factories turned him down. The third signed on. "I was lucky because the factory owner was already thinking about e-commerce and was very interested in my plan."

Hedrick used $100,000 from his own savings and credit cards to get the company off the ground.

"It was very grassroots. I had an email list of about 2,000 people I knew and I spread the word that way," said Hedrick. He also hit local farmers markets, tailgating events and other venues where he could encounter potential customers.

Tecovas unveiled its first boots, starting with one classic style for men and one for women made from high-quality American cowhide, in late 2015. "We thought a classic style has longevity just like my own boots. It was perfect for novice and experienced wearers."

He priced the initial line of boots between $195 and $235 a pair. "This is half the price you'd find these boots at traditional retail channels but we're able to keep the price low because we don't pay middlemen. We source directly and sell directly," said Hedrick.

Orders started coming in the first month and the sales momentum hasn't slowed since. In 2017, Tecovas logged more than $10 million in revenue and turned its first profit. By the end of 2018, sales had tripled from the previous year.

The business has received $28 million in outside funding to date, including a $24 million round that was closed in November led by Boston-based venture capital firm Elephant.

The capital infusion has enabled Hedrick to hire more staff — the company now has 40 employees — and to expand the product line to include 10 different boot styles for men and five for women, and to add belts, leather duffel bags and jeans.

"We added jeans because so many customers were telling us they loved our boots but didn't know what jeans to wear with them," he said.

Hedrick is excited that Tecovas has now sold its boots in every state, except Hawaii and Alaska. This spring, the company is set to open its first retail store in Austin.

"It shows that a lot of people do want boots. At the same time, they want a good looking boot at an affordable price they can easily buy. This wasn't being delivered in the market," he said. "We're about keeping things simple."

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