Posted March 30, 2016 by Ashley Hoffmann, Ecwid Team

Making the World a Better Place — One Shoe at a Time

Today we are sharing the story of a small Idaho organization with BIG heart, Because International — creator of “The Shoe that Grows.” Founder and Executive Director, Kenton Lee, took a break from his insanely busy schedule to share his amazing journey with us. I hope you’ll be as inspired as we are. As Kenton likes to say… here we go!

Make Things Better by Making Better Things

The idea for Because International was born in 2007 while Lee was in Nairobi, Africa, living and working with orphaned children. The organization’s first product was conceived when Kenton noticed that many of the children wore shoes that were much too small for them, often with the front of the shoes cut open so the kids growing toes could pop through.

“I asked the director of the orphanage why so many of the kids had shoes that didn’t fit,” Kenton said. The director explained that they relied on donations to keep the kids clothed, and a year had passed since they had received a shipment of goods. “They simply didn’t have enough money or resources to keep the kids growing feet in properly fitted shoes, and had to make due as best they could,” Lee shared.

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One of Kenton’s core philosophies is “make things better by making better things.” Basically, don’t reinvent the wheel — improve it! Since growing feet is a fact of life for kids, Kenton thought “what if we could create a shoe that adjusts and expands as kids grow? Seems like that would make a lot more sense for these kids…”

It was such a simple, yet radical, idea and Kenton just couldn’t stop thinking about it.

Creating a Prototype to take Action with “Practical Compassion”

Upon return to the states, Lee often thought of the kids in Nairobi and remained committed to the idea of a creating an expandable shoe. Kenton believed he was onto something and set about creating the first prototype that would become The Shoe that Grows.

Very first prototype of the shoes

Very first prototype of the shoes

In 2009 Lee founded Because International to act as the parent organization for the footwear project. The Organization’s mission is to help those living in extreme poverty around the world with simple, everyday impact solutions. They are a nonprofit, 501c3 organization headquartered in Kenton’s hometown of Namha, Idaho.

Because International’s guiding principal is “practical compassion.” Kenton explains the concept as “a commitment to doing the small things that make a BIG difference in the everyday lives of those who need it most.” Listening is the core tenet that inspires their actions. “We listen to those living in extreme poverty to hear their thoughts and ideas for ways that their everyday lives can be improved. Then, we work together to innovate products and resources that can take these ideas and turn them into reality,” Lee explains.

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The organization’s first product came to market in late 2014. The expandable shoe that Kenton envisioned came to life as “The Shoe That Grows.” At publication of this blog, the shoe is only available for purchase through the Ecwid store on their website.

While The Shoe that Grows is currently their sole product (pun intended!), the organization’s mission is intentionally broad. They aspire to develop as many practical compassion projects as possible. While The Shoe that Grows continues to gain speed, new projects are already in the works.

Like so many Ecwid customers, Kenton launched the organization while also working a full time day job. In the early days he was a one man show — with lots of help and moral support from like minded friends, family, and the tight-knit community of Namha. “It took a few years to finalize the prototype and lay the groundwork to distribute the shoes. During that time I donated whatever spare time I could find to the effort.” Lee shared. Andrew Kroes became Kenton’s right hand man and helped create the foundation for business operations.

When I asked how he found Ecwid — and what features make his life a little easier — Kenton gave credit to the developer who created the organization’s website. “[The developer] had worked with Ecwid before and recommended it. He incorporated the Free plan into our site from the start, and then we upgraded to Venture when our inventory arrived. We can type in codes to make our samples free (for internal use) and this helps us track everything. We love that it is so organized!”

Now they are using the Business plan for bulk order editing and expanded product options — but we’ll get to that part of the story in just a minute!

Sidenote — Ecwid recently launched a partner program to give the global Developer community even more options for helping their clients sell online — stay tuned for an upcoming partner profile story!

Market readiness and logistics

As the final prototype was approved, and The Shoe that Grows moved from the concept phase to a real live product, Kenton had to figure out a pricing and distribution structure. He needed his sales mechanism to accommodate single pair, small and large bulk orders as well as flexible discount codes and special pricing for customer groups. The shoe is now offered in 3 sizes and multiple colors making flexible combination options really important, too.

After almost 5 years of preparation, Because International’s first online sale posted in October, 2014. By January 1st Kenton had shipped over 2500 pairs of shoes… and actually ran out of his first 3000 pairs in inventory as a result!

Shipping logistics can be one of the most difficult aspects for new online business owners to manage. Kenton’s first 10 orders shipped to 7 states within the U.S. and included more than 175 pairs of the shoes. Depending upon the number of shoes in an order, packaging materials varied. The good news was that the heavily discounted bulk rates were working to increase individuals order totals — the “bad” news was that this meant keeping an awful lot of packaging materials on hand and the spare room in Kenton’s home was often packed wall to wall!

Lee was thrilled to know that kids around the world were wearing his comfortable, protective, well-fitted, shoes that are built to last up to 5 years with daily wear. But, the logistics of managing the business from his home, packing the orders and driving them to the UPS store — while still working full time — suddenly brought a new level of reality to the project. Little did he know what was about to happen next…

“By accident, our story went viral!”

Early on, Kenton did not invest in marketing or PR. Being a nonprofit, keeping costs low was a necessity, and as a one-man show he was just getting a feel for the operations of the business. And then… the media discovered them.

Kenton calls it “an accident” — but a piece of advice he shared with us about how he scored his early wins suggests otherwise. “I don’t know if we did anything on purpose as a part of a big strategy. We had a simple mindset: We will talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime about The Shoe That Grows. No one was too small to talk to and no group was too unimportant. We had this as our big mindset — it also helps that we LOVE talking about The Shoe That Grows.” By spreading the news far and wide, the young organization made tons of new acquaintances who also told their friends about the shoe and then…

All of this talking led to the Huffington Post UK picking up their story in January, 2015. Soon after, 4 more stories were published in April followed by another 4 in May. By the end of summer 2015, Because International received press coverage from more than a dozen major media outlets around the world; including Forbes, cNet, Smithsonian Magazine, Huffington Post US, and a host of local NBC, CBS and Public Radio stations. News of the shoe was published in Asia, South America, and Europe. In November, 2015 they were profiled on The Today Show. Their dream of becoming an international aid organization was coming true.

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I asked Kenton how he remembers the time, he said “We just took off. And it was so exciting! But it was a ton more work, as well.” At this point, Kenton was able to leave his job to follow his passion full-time. He became the organization’s first part time employee in early 2015. Once the media frenzy took off he had to hire a couple more people onboard. The early hires included Andrew Kroes, now full time co-director and handler of all things technical and operational. Today, both of them are working for the organization full-time — and then some!

Keeping Up with Orders that Exceeded Their Wildest Expectations

To date, Because International has processed over 4000 orders and shipped more than 35,000 pairs of The Shoe that Grows. The shoes have moved out of Kenton’s house, they are now stored in a big warehouse that generously donates the space. Managing shipping and fulfillment has been optimized for efficiency. They work closely with UPS for domestic (U.S.) shipping and use DHL for international shipping.

They have part-time team members and volunteers who help oversee the shipping and logistics. But, from time to time the guys still return to the front lines to help out. Kenton explained, “When we have BIG orders (btw, he’s talking over 1,000 pairs BIG!)– we get together with local volunteers and we help pack everything up.”

The business has grown so rapidly that the small team is doing all they can to keep up with the pace. Online sales and business management tools are key. They’re using two primary tools for the online business; Ecwid for shoe sales, and a cool fundraising tool, Classy, specialized for nonprofits that serves as a platform for others to raise funds or donate directly on their own website.

Speaking of fundraising, on April 1st (no, this isn’t an April Fools joke!) Because International will launch the #wearapair fundraising drive. I’m so excited about this fundraiser that I signed our San Diego office up to participate! We will share our “wear a pair” adventures on Ecwid’s Instagram and Facebook pages next month.

The Shoe that Grows has been so successful, it’s truly amazing. What’s so cool is that behind it all are good guys, doing great work, who have remained humble and eternally grateful to their early supporters. “We got our first orders from our local community here in Nampa, Idaho. We have great people who love us  and they’ve supported us from the very beginning. Even when our product was just an idea on a poster — people supported us. And, that support meant the world to us,” Kenton shared.

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Because International team will keep on innovating as long as new ideas for “practical compassion” are flowing. When I asked what’s next, Kenton shared that they have already begun R&D on a prototype for a protective mosquito netting that will accommodate various sized sleeping spaces. They are calling it “The Better Net” and will share progress about the project on their website and Facebook page.

Kenton’s parting advice for Ecwid fans is “Follow your passion. Take things one step at a time. Definitely dream about the future, but don’t get stuck living in a business plan 3-5 years away. Focus on what you need to do this month, this week, today. Ask yourself, what do you need to do to have success today? Write it down. Then, work your butt off. Hustle. Go! Work harder than anybody else.”

Those are some wise words! though “going viral” may have felt like it happened overnight, it took almost 5 years of hard work and commitment to get there. Congratulations Kenton, we’re really stoked you’ve chosen Ecwid to help make the world a little better place — one step at a time.

We’re so happy that Because International included Ecwid in their “tell everybody!” communication strategy. I am truly honored to pass the torch and share this story with you today. If you’re inspired to connect with Because International we invite you to get involved, too! Thanks for reading and I hope you’ll follow us on our #wearapair journey throughout the month.