Sports & Recreation  April 1, 2022

Lena Phoenix of Xero Shoes gives company ‘soul’

BROOMFIELD — Lena Phoenix of Broomfield really wanted her barefoot-running husband to put on some shoes.

Her wish for Steve Sashen, a Masters All-American sprinter and former All-American gymnast, resulted in one of Northern Colorado’s fastest growing companies, Xero Shoes, the trade name for Feel the World Inc., minimalist shoe manufacturer.

“Less is more in the context of footwear, (but) there was not a whole lot available,” said Phoenix, cofounder, president and board chairwoman of Xero Shoes in Broomfield.

Sashen had dispatched with his traditional running shoes, inspired by reading Christopher McDougall’s best-seller Born To Run, to try to address his constant running-induced injuries and improve his running form. He crafted his own huaraches running sandals from hi-tech rubber sole material and some cords, then he made a few more pairs for the Boulder Barefoot Running Club, where he’s a member. 

To make more of the shoes, Sashen needed a wholesale account with a distributor to get the needed materials. He and Phoenix also saw that others were interested in what they were doing and realized they had a business, so they cofounded Invisible Shoes in December 2009, later changing the name to Xero Shoes.

“Because the book was popular, other people were looking for footwear of the minimalist variety,” Phoenix said. “At first it was a very niche thing. It was a lot of ultra-runners and early adopters.” 

Phoenix and Sashen brought their two skill sets together to operate their company. Sashen, chief executive officer and a board director, has a background in marketing and design and Phoenix in finance and operations, plus she’d founded two other companies, a private management corporation called Garuda Management Services Inc., in Boulder, and Preferred Capital LLC, a mortgage company in Eugene, Oregon. Phoenix held a number of roles at Xero Shoes, including four different positions at once, that of chief financial officer, chief operating officer, president and board chairwoman. She and Sashen were the only employees for the first couple of years of the business, growing it to a staff of 65 and two offices with the second opening in Prague in 2021.

Michele Demark, president of Decision Smart, served as the CFO adviser for Xero Shoes from 2017 to 2021.

“I work with lots of different companies that are like Xero Shoes. Lena always struck me that she gets stuff. If she doesn’t, she studies and studies stuff until she figures it out,” Demark said. “If you look at the industry Xero Shoes is in, it has to put money in for shoes to sell a year later. She figured out how to be on top of that so the company always had the cash it needed to do the work.”

Phoenix also helps make decisions for the company with equality and fairness in mind, thinking about how employees and customers both may be affected, Demark said.

“She really has built a family-type environment there,” Demark said. “She works hard and the team works hard with her.”

Dennis Driscoll, chief product officer and the longest tenure employee at Xero Shoes, finds that Phoenix is “a really strong and clear leader for the company.”

“She’s always the one that asks the smart questions,” Driscoll said, adding that while he and Sashen are the creative, idea guys, she serves as the “glue that held everything together. “She has a lot of roles in the company, a lot of contributions and skill sets.”

Phoenix is smart, organized and practical, while also being kind with a great deal of integrity, Driscoll said. 

“She’s very much the soul of the company on one hand, and she’s very astute. There’s the very practical side of growing the company, which is paying the bills, finding the money to grow and making smart decisions that are practical,” Driscoll said. “Then there is the soul of the business that’s doing something special for the consumers of the brand and the people who work for the brand.”

Under Phoenix’s leadership, Xero Shoes grew from do-it-yourself sandal kits to closed-toe running and casual shoes in 2016 or 2017, followed by fitness cross training shoes a few months later. The company continued to add other product lines, including ready-to-wear sandals, casual and sports sandals, hiking and snow boots, and slip-resistant work shoes at the request of customers who wanted to see the same benefits and sensations they got from the sandals. 

Whatever the style, Xero Shoes are built with a foot-first design that promotes natural movement and is an alternative to thick, padded, motion-controlled shoes.

“Your body functions the best when your foot is allowed to function the way it was designed to,” Phoenix said. “The idea of natural footwear that allows your foot to function organically, it’s common sense for a lot of people.”

The shoes are designed with five key elements. They’re lightweight. They have a thin, flexible sole to let the foot bend and flex naturally, a wider-than-average toe box to allow for toe spread, and zero-drop without heel padding, resulting in zero elevation between the front and the back of the shoe for better balance and agility. The shoes also have durability with a 5,000-mile sole warranty, compared with the typical running shoe that lasts for 300 to 500 miles before they need to be replaced. 

“A big heel lift can make it difficult to have a biomechanically optimal form,” Phoenix said, adding that thin soles help the feet, which have multiple nerve endings, to feel the ground or earth. “It’s like getting a foot massage every time you go out for a walk.”

Phoenix tried on her first pair of Xero Shoes and immediately realized how heavy, thick and uncomfortable her other shoes were. 

“When you are in shoes with thick, padded, elevated heels, it almost forces you to land with a hard strike on your heel when your joints are locked and you’re in your weakest position,” Phoenix said.

The benefits of the shoes soon got nationwide notice. Phoenix and Sashen appeared on ABC’s entrepreneur reality show, “Shark Tank,” in 2013, gaining “real proof of the concept,” Phoenix said. The company, though it turned down $400,000, saw a significant bump in sales that dropped the next year before returning to continued growth. The pandemic also hurt sales in the short term, but then as lockdowns occurred across the nation, customers went online to buy their shoes, having more time to do their research, resulting in one of the company’s best years. Another growth point for the company was REI’s carrying the product in store, then online with the rollout in spring 2020. 

“That was a big step for us to partner with such an iconic brand,” Phoenix said. 

Another reason for Xero Shoe’s success is its approach to customer service, though the bar already is set low, Phoenix said.

“Because we started as a digitally native brand, we’ve been in conversation with our customers since day one,” Phoenix said.

In 2017, Phoenix and Sashen involved their customers through equity crowdfunding, selling shares to customers, fans and followers, plus offered a company-wide bonus plan to give employees an opportunity to experience the benefits of the company’s growth.

“Steven and I, because we’ve been so hands-on, understand how critical every person is,” Phoenix said.

Phoenix’s role involves strategic growth of the company and maintaining the company’s culture as it expands to 100 employees, she said.

“I work very hard to communicate to the entire staff (about) the success of what they’re doing and the meaning and value they provide to the organization as a whole,” Phoenix said. 

“I am really loving the opportunity to cultivate new talent. … Watching new hires develop into management roles has been super exciting.”

Phoenix aims for diversity in her and Sashen’s staff, hiring women in senior roles, not often seen in the footwear industry, she said. To achieve this, she provides training, opportunities and mentorship, she said. 

“We have been on a rocket ship for a while. It seems like the direction we’re continuing to head,” Phoenix said. 

Xero Shoes will continue to expand its product lines and add new styles — the company is working on styles for fall 2023, since footwear requires a long lead time. The company also will expand its European subsidiary in a country receptive to minimalist footwear and work with a new Israeli distributor added this year, Phoenix said.

“It’s the comfort people are responding to and the idea of natural movement,” Phoenix said. “This started really for crazy ultra-runners. If you enjoy being barefoot and you love that comfort and freedom and that feeling of running around barefoot, our shoes aren’t the same but they’re a close approximation.”

Xero Shoes has been on the Inc. 5000 list of fastest growing companies twice, as well as Colorado Companies to Watch, Top 100 Colorado Women Owned Companies twice, and the BizWest Mercury 100 Fastest Growing Boulder Valley Companies five times.

BROOMFIELD — Lena Phoenix of Broomfield really wanted her barefoot-running husband to put on some shoes.

Her wish for Steve Sashen, a Masters All-American sprinter and former All-American gymnast, resulted in one of Northern Colorado’s fastest growing companies, Xero Shoes, the trade name for Feel the World Inc., minimalist shoe manufacturer.

“Less is more in the context of footwear, (but) there was not a whole lot available,” said Phoenix, cofounder, president and board chairwoman of Xero Shoes in Broomfield.

Sashen had dispatched with his traditional running shoes, inspired by reading Christopher McDougall’s best-seller Born To Run, to try to address his constant…

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