Inside the New Footwear Venture of Two Former Zappos Execs

What are the odds that two former Zappos executives would walk into a Las Vegas restaurant for dinner and come out with the blueprint for a new shoe business?

Pretty good if you’re Fred Mossler and Steve Hill.

Mossler, the visionary who helped turn Zappos into a retail powerhouse, and Hill, a 12-year insider who left the e-tailer this year, are readying to launch their next venture: an upscale, après ski-inspired shoe brand called Ross & Snow.

“The entire industry has changed so much from when I started at Zappos in 1999 to where we are today — it’s a fast-moving stream, and that makes it really exciting for us,” Mossler said. “Steve and I decided we wanted to develop a company that was nimble and adaptive, and able to take advantage of cutting-edge technologies and digital platforms.”

Fred Mossler
CREDIT: FN Archives

From the outset, the fingerprints of the two footwear veterans — with extensive histories in unconventional and tech-driven concepts — are apparent in the brand’s business strategy.

Case in point: Mossler and Hill forwent the typical product development cycle, instead opting to involve consumers early in the design process by employing crowdfunded clothing platform Betabrand.

“What hit Fred and I as we started researching this was: The traditional development cycle for a product would have the designer design it, go to factories to get samples made, have a retailer select from those samples, and 12 months later it ends up [in front of] the customer,” Hill explained. “We thought with the way technology and communication are today and — as we found at Zappos — there’s also a need for companies to be transparent. Why can’t we bring the customer in at the very early stage of the design cycle?”

Through Betabrand, the duo unveiled eight CAG drawings of footwear styles to potential customers in early September. Site users voted on those options for two weeks — narrowing the selection to a motoboot and an ankle boot. Ultimately, by voting and providing feedback on the platform, customers will help Ross & Snow choose one of those items, as well as its accompanying features. Those ideas will inform the creation of a sample, which will be available for sale via crowdfunding on Oct. 9. (Orders will be delivered in December.)

Ross & Snow
Sketch of Ross & Snow’s crowdsourced motoboot style in black.
CREDIT: Courtesy of brand

“When you think about typical footwear production — we’re turning the whole thing on its head,” Hill said.

Rich Belsky, a tech and gaming industry entrepreneur whom Mossler and Hill hired to oversee the brand’s strategy, said the pair is making the kind of unconventional business moves necessary to launch a thriving brand in the current retail climate. “Fred and Steve are [skilled] at eyeing good platforms to integrate into their various businesses — both of them have an array of things they’re involved in, and their vision of technology and the industry is wide and sharp,” Belsky said. “When they approached me to figure out how to take a brand into the industry and inject some of these technologies, I jumped at the chance.”

With two well-known leaders at the helm, it wasn’t difficult for Ross & Snow to lure in another footwear industry veteran to serve as its VP of product and creative director: Leah Larson, former creative chief for Ugg.

Larson, whose addition to the project was also the product of a conversation over dinner, said she’s aiming for functional fashion when it comes to design. “I want our product to be wearable and desirable,” Larson said of the footwear, which will be made in Italy. “We’re going to make shoes with comfort added in all the right places so that they feel so good you don’t think about your feet. We’re focusing on simple, timeless silhouettes that let the gorgeous materials speak for themselves.”

While the pair is still finalizing pricing for the full line — which will include slippers, oxfords and moccasins — boots will range from $350 to $400.

“It’s something you can wear when you’re on vacation in Aspen or Vail, [Colo.] — but it’s also something you could wear if you’re in Manhattan or Los Angeles or San Francisco,” Hill said. “It has both the mountain aesthetic but also an urban, city feel.”

Steve Hill
Steve Hill
CREDIT: Patrick Gray

Although the team will launch just the Betabrand-vetted boot this month, they plan to have a full range of five to seven women’s styles and three to five men’s styles, available on their e-commerce site, starting in December.

The brand will sell to wholesale vendors for fall and winter 2018. On the brick-and-mortar side, Ross & Snow will target regional specialty boutiques in Aspen, Vail and other resort destinations

“The brand’s DNA is very participatory,” Mossler said of the company’s distribution strategy. “One thing we’ll be looking for from retailers is a relationship and partnership [where they] are actually involved in the development of the brand.”

Given the founders’ history, the digital component for Ross & Snow is likely the most significant piece of the puzzle. Ahead of its launch, Hill and Mossler project the brand will surpass 300,000 Instagram followers.

And those big numbers would be anything but coincidental. In addition to Mossler, Hill, Larson and Belsky, the team includes Jason Miller, focused on international sales, and Kelsie Hadden, heading up social media. To further advise the brand, Mossler and Hill are relying on several contract-based “thought leaders” and tech experts.

“What we’re trying to do is take things that worked in other industries — such as startup tech [firms], large social media platforms — and use deep big-data analytics to make certain decisions,” Belsky said.

Mossler and Hill also expect to use those insights to take Ross & Snow global. “We’ll be set up to ship international when we launch our e-commerce site in December — but when we go to wholesale, we’ll be looking at distributors in other countries,” Hill said, noting the brand hasn’t yet identified specific international markets.

Similarly, Mossler and Hill haven’t solidified a target demographic for their line. But the co-founders are quick to assert that poor planning is hardly the culprit. Instead, they’ve been intentional about creating an organization focused on fluidity — sans hard-and-fast definitions, restrictions or even formal titles (sound familiar?).

For what it’s worth, the facets of Ross & Snow that are fully hashed out seem primed to reap dividends, suggested Beth Goldstein, executive director and industry analyst at The NPD Group Inc. “If a brand has a proposition that keys into consumers’ priorities, it can work, especially now,” Goldstein said. “[Ross & Snow] is also tapping into the upscale travel market, which is an area where we know consumers are spending right now. The initial boot styles also incorporate comfort and are water-resistant, which adds value and functionality.”

Nevertheless, as has been the case with retail lately, Goldstein said executing Mossler and Hill’s plan for the label won’t be without challenges. “The crowdsourced product development process is great, but given the very specific consumer target to start, did the team get feedback from the right consumers?” Goldstein asked, listing a few potential risks.

“The high-end resort market is limited — how will they expand while staying true to the brand? And ski resort traffic is somewhat tied to weather, which [could be volatile] — how will they plan for this uncertainty?”

From where they sit, Mossler and Hill view such uncertainty as an ever-present element in the future of retail. But they’re banking on making Ross & Snow agile enough to navigate the terrain.

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