We reached out to Nolan Walsh, one half of the duo that founded Thursday Boots five years ago. We wanted to ask him about his process, what makes his boots so special, and how the heck you start from scratch in a crazy-competitive industry. He answered all our questions and then some.
Read on to learn more about one of the most motivated and enthusiastic players in our niche and learn a little about starting your own brand from the ground up.
AM: We’ve got to ask some of the basics first. When did you found Thursday Boots and with whom?
NW: My best friend from Columbia Business School, Connor Wilson and I launched Thursday Boot Company in October of 2014. Shortly after launching we hired more of our friends (Alicia Martinez, Rich Carelli, Darnell) as well as Connor’s sister. The only original team member not still with us today is my mom, who up until last year was the best shoelaces and accessories packager in the business!
AM: You did some of your first R & D among old-fashioned bookmakers in Guatemala. How, if at all, did that experience shape the brand to be? What did you learn about footwear?
NW: Such a great question! Connor and I were on a surf trip in Nicaragua when we heard about a town in Guatemala, called Pastores. It’s steeped in the shoemaking craft. After going through a particularly snowy winter without finding a pair of boots I was happy with, I thought it would be fun to just go there to learn about making boots and to potentially make some designs. I stayed down there for almost two weeks, just learning everything I could and I fell in love with it. With that being said, the first boot samples we made weren’t very good. Although there were (and still are) some brands selling similar boots for $200, we wanted to make the best boots. This is when the idea for Thursday Boot Company and our low-markup philosophy started to take shape. When we started we figured all of our customers would be our friends and family. If we sold some boots to cover the travel and got to make some great boots ourselves, it was a win! So we started reaching out to all the best suppliers and factories we could find online. Most people didn’t respond and we didn’t have much money, but some of the best people appreciated our passion for the product and desire to learn EVERYTHING!
AM: Thursday Boots found support from the likes of Horween and Vibram when you first launched. How did the niche world of high-end footwear embrace you guys and help shape your brand?
NW: They saw the passion we had. I think they just liked how interested we were in them, their product, and they liked our vision. We received important connections and advice from our friends at Horween and Vibram. They’ve introduced us to top-tier people that are now members of our team, and we love working with them on product!
AM: From a technical viewpoint, what sets Thursday apart?
NW: No one works harder on perfecting the product than we do. When we started in 2014, my co-founder and I knew nothing about making footwear, had no industry contacts, and had virtually no capital. A lot has changed since then. We are nerds at heart and like to dig into all the details, this has led us to working with partners who have the same philosophy and hiring some of the best people in the business. Unlike many brands, we do not outsource product development or quality control. At this point, almost every material in our boots and shoes is custom-made. From the eyelets to laces, outsole compound, welts, midsoles, preformed insoles with embedded shanks, and most of our leathers! I also still personally read all negative customer comments at the end of each month. While sometimes it’s a painful process to self-evaluate objectively, we are building our business for the long-term. Thursday’s explicit business model is to make the best product possible and to price the product at the lowest sustainable markup possible. While customers might not know all the technical details, on average I think they are smart. People know good product and value when they try it on.
AM: You and I both know that making a boot from scratch is an insane amount of work, but what’s something you think the average consumer doesn’t quite take into account about the process?
NW: Every detail matters. There are aspects of boots where almost everyone uses off-the-shelf components. Good examples are heel counters, outsole rubber compounds, and midsoles. I think it would be hard for the average customer to believe how much time and effort we’ve spent digging into “the little things” and trying to perfect them. Similarly, our products are made by hand with skilled specialized labor and expensive natural material inputs. Everything has to be done perfectly in production and it takes an incredible amount of time and effort to make each pair. With that being said, I love this stuff and frankly, consumers shouldn’t need to take account for these things and are right to hold a high bar for the products they buy with their hard-earned money.
AM: It seems like part of your goal at Thursday has been to walk the line between the designer stuff and the overly-engineered super-Americana stuff. What inspiration are you drawing from that helps you navigate that?
NW: I’m a pretty simple guy, and I really just design stuff that I want to wear. I like clean and thoughtful designs, nothing unnecessary, but nothing unconsidered. Some designers work in fast cycles from inspiration, some prefer a more iterative and methodical approach. For better or worse, I’m in the latter group!
For me, it’s less about inspiration and more about continual testing.
AM: There could very well be other entrepreneurs out there in our audience. What advice do you have for them?
NW: I know a lot of successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs. I think three things separate the best entrepreneurs from the rest: Listen well, treat people right, and be prepared for hardship.
Listen to your customers, team, and partners. It’s impossible to be an expert at everything and encourage people to be straightforward with you. The most valuable feedback you will receive is the negative feedback, be grateful for it. Allow yourself to fail smart and use those opportunities to learn.
Similarly, don’t underestimate the value of the people around you. If you genuinely care about your team and customers’ well-being, they will notice! The easiest way to get your team and customers to care about you is to show you care about them, so treat people right!
Lastly, one of my favorite pieces of advice another entrepreneur gave me after our first 6 months in business: don’t expect things to get easier because it will only get harder. With growth comes more people depending on you and higher expectations. Mentally prepare for it and start planning for the future now. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice to build something worthwhile, so make sure it’s something you are passionate about.
AM: I’m sure you have no shortage of footwear options in your closet, but what’s your go-to pair of boots?
NW: I’m still the resident men’s fit tester, so I am always testing product 6-12 months ahead of launch. I just wish I could keep all my footwear in my closet! Most of the time I will wear a pair for 3-10 days, then tape it up (write notes, adjust patterns on the boot) before sending it back to the factory for corrections.
AM: You guys seem to be diversifying the portfolio lately. I mean, you dropped a whole collection of jackets! So what’s in store for Thursday Boot Co. in the future? Can we expect more apparel?
NW: We’re just getting started! Although we intend to keep expanding into other categories and I have been taking time to meet with apparel manufacturing and materials experts, our Goodyear welted footwear is still the focus. I’m planning to work out of the factories for the majority of the spring again this year. While I can’t make any promises on launch timelines, we are definitely going get a lot of testing done!