How I Did It: Two Columbia Business School Classmates Ditched Stocks and Bonds to Start a Boot Brand

(In a new series, “How I Did It,” FN profiles successful footwear and fashion players — from entrepreneurs to designers to top executives at major brands — and reveals how they carved their path into the industry.)

When Nolan Walsh and Connor Wilson met their first day of class at Columbia Business School, it was kismet. Becoming fast friends, they decided to ditch the world of stocks and bonds, and instead step into the shoe business after graduation with the launch in 2014 of Thursday Boot Co.

Despite the fact fashion is a risky business due to ever-changing trends and fickle consumers, the two shared a love of footwear. Frustrated with the limited choices of clunky workboots, delicate fashion boots or cheaply made product that lasted only a few wears, they set out to build a better mousetrap. Heading to Mexico for production, they developed a line of classic boot styles that COO Wilson, 33, describes as durable, sophisticated and comfortable.

The partners launched their direct-to-consumer men’s boot brand on Kickstarter, and it has more than doubled each year since. In 2016, they added women’s footwear, followed by this fall’s launch of traditional shoe  silhouettes and a men’s outwear collection. And just last week, they opened their first brick-and-mortar store in New York’s trendy Soho neighborhood.

Thursday Boot couple
Thursday Boot Co.’s Captain style (on her) and Duke (on him).
CREDIT: Thursday Boot Co.

“We see a lot of promise in brick-and-mortar,” said CEO Walsh, 30. “It gives us the ability to give texture and context to the brand and do a better job of connecting to people.” And, he noted, plans are already underway to roll out sister stores in cities that include San Francisco, Chicago and Boston.

Despite a crowded e-commerce space, the two have made their way through the clutter. Their edge? A series of classic silhouettes with a clean aesthetic, quality craftsmanship and pricing that’s typically under $200. “We cater to a wide demographic,” said Wilson, homing in on guys from 18 to 35.

“Our boots go from a business meeting to a barbecue,” said Wilson of the line’s versatility. Even the brand’s name was inspired by what he describes as a transitional day of the week that combines work and play.

Here, the partners share their passion for business and boots.

How did your background prepare you for this business venture?

Nolan Walsh: “Thursday Boot Co. came about as a ‘just for fun’ project. Connor and I knew we wanted to work together, thought it would be fun to make boots and really just fell in love with the product, manufacturing and building a brand with our values. I don’t think my background helped me prepare much. If anything, our lack of preparation was an asset. We weren’t intimidated by all the hard work ahead of us or to challenge industry norms because we frankly didn’t know any better.”

When were you first bitten by the entrepreneurial bug?

Connor Wilson: “I’ve always identified with the underdog, and there’s something about the uphill battle of starting a new venture that felt exciting, even heroic, to me. Both my parents started their own businesses, so I had them as a reference, but it was in college that I got to first start working in small businesses with really smart people. You learn firsthand just how much is possible if you set your sights high enough and start putting in the hours. From that point forward, the question was never if but when I would try my hand at a startup, and the sooner the better.”

Thursday Boot men Captain
Thursday Boot Co.’s Captain style for men.
CREDIT: Thursday Boot Co.

What’s been the biggest surprise along the way, and biggest disappointment?

NW: “The most interesting surprise is how most of our best hires were our most spontaneous. All three of our first hires were friends who volunteered to help because they thought it would be fun and interesting. As we’ve continued to scale our team, we look for a similar ethos in new [employees]. I value a candidate’s passion for both the brand and the role over any other data point.”

CW: “Disappointment: We’ve definitely missed a few shots where we just didn’t have the time or bandwidth to execute. I can think of a few collaborations or product ideas that would have been amazing that we couldn’t get over the finish line. But we’re getting more capable every week, and I think those misses just heighten the urgency to get better, faster.”

When did you know you had succeeded?

NW: “Although we’ve grown 50 times since our first year and have people wearing our products all over the globe, I very genuinely do not feel like we have succeeded. From my perspective, success is not measured in revenue, valuation or social media likes. Success as a company would be defined by 100 percent customer satisfaction rating, leading the industry in ethical sourcing and environmental sustainability, maintaining a happy team with a strong sense of fulfillment, and financial stability. On a personal level, I still feel like I have room for personal improvement as a designer and a manager.”

What’s the next big move on your agenda?

CW: “We have two major lifts right now. On the forward-looking side, we’re running at flank speed to craft compelling new products, learn the brick-and-mortar side of retail, and further refine our supply chain operations. High-quality product will always be core to our business, and most of these are being driven by customer demand or opportunities that we’re still not addressing. At the same time, we’re spending a lot of time and effort to reinforce our core operations with people and processes that will allow us to reach the next level of growth. The scale and complexity of our business is growing at an exponential rate. It’s going to be an exciting challenge to craft a team and culture that will help us drive that growth.”

Any business decision you wish you could do over?

CW: “We could fill a phonebook with the number of mistakes we made in building this business, but it wouldn’t be very interesting to read. I think one of the keys to our success has rested on two basic principles. The first is to take lots of little risks rather than betting everything on one or two decisions that you need to get right. Limit the impact of your bad decisions and you’ll live to fight another day. The other key is to celebrate the mistakes you make for the lessons they teach. Every time we screw up, it’s an immediate signal that this is something you need to improve. And if you don’t, the world has a way of reteaching you the same lesson until you get the message.”

Was it necessary to make sacrifices along the way?

NW: “When we first started Thursday and I was working 18 hours a day, seven days a week, I told a friend who had built a much larger company at the time, ‘I can’t wait until I hire X person and finish Y — then I’ll finally be able to relax.’ My friend looked at me and said, ‘I’m going to tell you something that I wished someone had told me: It just gets harder.’ While I brushed the comment off at the time, it’s a story I like to share will all entrepreneurs who ask me for advice. Expect to make sacrifices, especially when it comes to your personal life and sleep. It’s been four years since we started, and I still do not have much of a work/life balance. The silver lining is that having the opportunity to build products and a company I love with people whom I respect is such an honor and a privilege that it makes the sacrifices worth it.”

As partners, are there any ground rules for making decisions?

NW: “The three most important principles are communication, decision-making and shared strategic vision. We value a commitment to these principles as opposed to a commitment to specific tactics. Communication should always be direct and explicit. It’s healthy and normal to disagree with each other, and people sharing diverse opinions should be celebrated. Decision-making (i.e. who decides what) needs to be clearly delineated. For every operational category, it’s important that one person is specifically accountable for a set of decisions. Shared strategic vision is crucial. Decentralized decision-making allows teams to move faster. However, it only works when there is a shared strategic vision.”

Any advice you’d give someone entering the business?  

NW: “Treat people right, never sacrifice your ethics and believe in yourself.”

CW: “Agreed. Also, pick good partners.”

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