A broken shoelace took co-founder Kyle Groth on a circuitous route to create a product that is finding its way on a growing number of shoes — especially golf
For Kyle Groth, ingenuity and a passion for start-up businesses are never in short supply, but shoelaces?
When Groth co-founded the Whiskers shoelace brand, which was born from a broken shoelace, he had no idea how quickly an innovative brand would grow, but leaned on his past experiences to carve out a successful niche within the golf industry.
Groth’s path to the present has been as unlikely as, well, a pair of shoelaces.
“For me, it's more of a scattered plot chart,” Groth laughed.
While attending Cornell University, Groth began his studies with a focus on a degree in finance, but found himself being gradually pulled toward business and brand development.
Groth’s official introduction to brand development began in spirits through what he remembers as just an idea.
“It's a brand called Angel's Envy bourbon,” Groth said. “I jumped on board kind of like a young gun of that team, and helped bring that brand to market. From bottle design to the liquid to market strategy and everything in between. We launched that brand in late 2010, and ended up selling it to Bacardi in 2015.”
Groth’s involvement didn’t stop there. Behind the launch of Angel’s Envy, Groth and his team started formalizing The Spirits Group. This, in turn, led to another brand, Papa's Pilar Rum, started from scratch and later partnered with the Ernest Hemingway family.
“I have always just loved that, like early stage, finding a white space in categories, and figuring out where we can create a lasting and fun brand,” Groth said.
Groth went on to help form a tech accelerator in Boulder, Colo., called BoomTown. Groth utilized his growing business network to connect with the co-founder of Stance socks, which originally launched in 2009.
“I was always fascinated by the sock revolution,” Groth said. “I love and was fascinated by brands like Stance, Bombas and Happy Socks, and their ability to really take that black and white sock category and transform it into really a statement of self-expression and what that whole category is today.”
Groth’s natural curiosity led him to drill down into the approach of the successful footwear lines and how they were going about promoting the products, but it wasn’t until a personal experience that caused Groth to consider an endeavor that he hadn’t considered before.
“In 2016, I had a pair of brown dress shoes that I was lacing up and my shoelaces ripped, so I went looking for a better pair of shoe laces and couldn't find them anywhere,” Groth said. “I was really looking for a pair of light blue laces. When I finally found them, they were the cheapest version of a shoelace you can imagine.”
The research led Groth to discover how seemingly overlooked the shoelace business appeared to be. He made it a personal challenge to find out more and went down a six-month rabbit-hole to research and find answers to the questions …
Who's out there?
Are there premium options?
Are there any brands going about it differently?
The deeper Groth went, the more excited he became about shoelaces.
The research had Groth’s wheels turning once again, but he knew that with the majority of his experience being based in business strategy, he would need someone with product chops to help pull the concept together.
“I knew I couldn't launch a brand in a meaningful way without somebody who knew product and knew footwear and the category supply chain,” Groth said.
Groth had met Mike Gossett through a friend while Gossett was working at Crocs. Prior to that, Gossett had earned his bachelor’s degree in business administration from Hastings College and a master’s degree in marketing and finance from the University of Arizona before spending nearly 20 years at Nike, and was now five years in with the development team at Crocs.
Once Groth laid the concept on the table, Gossett was sold.
“I pitched him the idea at first to come on board as an advisor, and as soon as I pitched it, he was like, ‘Man, and why hasn't somebody thought of this? Like, let's do it,’” Groth said. “The deeper we got and the closer to launch we got, (Gossett) said, ‘I'm coming on board.’ And, he left Crocs, and came on board as a co-founder.”
And in December 2017, the Whiskers shoelace brand was born.
Whiskers launched with limited inventories on a website Groth put together himself. The launch began with a very intentional focus on dress shoelaces and January 2018 marked the first full month of operations. The result? One hundred pairs sold. Gossett and Groth were thrilled.
“We thought, ‘We're doing this. We're selling laces,’” Groth said. “And then, 2018 was crazy. We had days where we were selling a thousand pairs a day, and trying to hire friends and family to get the laces out in time in our tiny office in Delray Beach. From there, we just kind of went with what the consumer was asking for.”
Though in the dress shoelace category, Groth and Gossett started to notice a trend: customers reaching out to inquire about golf laces. Whiskers decided to quietly launch a line more specific to the golf industry and tested it with a very small assortment in late 2019.
In 2021, the decision was made to make a meaningful push ahead into the golf market.
In addition to working with premium materials, Whiskers has successfully moved to product being constructed entirely in the United States.
“We were able to move our supply chains, and with that move, we were able to use recycled plastic polyester,” Groth said. “We moved our spool supply chain over to a sustainable birch farm in Maine, and then updated our boxes to recycled cardboard. We really wanted to create these new premium, sustainable materials as well that you don't typically find in a shoelace.”
With the growth, the golf industry has taken notice, spurring Groth and Gossett to stay one step ahead of the demands.
“Traditionally, golfers have embraced color on the course, even if they don't as much off the course,” Groth said. “So, having a dedicated golf collection to try and line up with today's trending top male and female golf colors has helped a lot. And then, I think being made in the United States, and out of sustainable materials has also helped. But I think the leading factor has really been able to provide that pop of color, subtle self-expression, on the course.”
The coming year is expected to bring more announcements in the golf realm, and Groth and Gossett are prepared to make a greater push into the direct-to-consumer market.
And yes, an argyle lace design is currently in the testing phases.
“It's our mindset of how consumers are looking at it,” Groth said. “How we're going about each category and making sure that every lace we come out with has a purpose in the closet and a story behind it, and an occasion to wear it.”