Want a piece of the cutthroat running-shoe market, dominated by big brands like Nike, Adidas and Reebok? Try giving your sneakers some steroids. Spira Footwear, a four-year-old company based in El Paso, Texas, makes the world's only shoes with actual springs in the soles. The springs act as shock absorbers, reducing the stress on your feet. Spiras feel so good, they're illegal--at least to some. USA Track & Field, which sanctions some 4,000 road races each year, has banned Spiras for violating Rule 143 (3)(a), which states that "no spring ... may be incorporated in the shoes."
For a new brand trying to stand out in a crowded field, such a ban is a boon for business. Who doesn't want the forbidden fruit? The buzz plus a technology that delivers on its promise--the winner of a recent 3,100-mile ultramarathon in New York City, not sanctioned by USA Track & Field, finished the race in Spiras--has helped the company's sales jump, from $650,000 in 2002 to $3.9 million last year. The company now turns a profit and is on pace to double sales, to $8 million in 2005. "Spira is already comparable to the best running shoes on the market," says Ray Fredericksen, founder of sporting-goods consultancy Sports Biomechanics Inc.
Like many other successful small companies, Spira started by accident. In 1999 David Krafsur, an aerospace engineer living in Knoxville, Tenn., was thinking of ways to cushion his treadmill when he saw compact wave springs featured in a trade magazine. He figured the tiny springs could fit in shoes instead. Krafsur ordered some wave springs, and he picked up a $10 pair of skippies at Wal-Mart. As his wife rolled her eyes, Krafsur filleted the sole of each sneaker like a fresh trout, stuck springs in the heel and the forefoot and duct-taped them back together. He ran down his driveway in the crude shoes. Says Krafsur: "My eyes bugged out."
He sent the sample to his brother Andy, an El Paso lawyer. Andy was sold. He raised $6 million from 250 investors, most of them friends in El Paso. (Andy became Spira's CEO; David stayed on as president.) Last summer Spira hired veteran shoe developer Dan Norton, fresh from a stint with Adidas in Germany. Norton has tailored sneakers for Olympic champions like Carl Lewis and Sebastian Coe. It was like A-Rod signing with the Kansas City Royals. Under Norton's guidance, Runner's World named Spira's Genesis II shoe best update for spring 2005.
Spira has also carved a niche among people with foot ailments. But in the athletic market, which gives a sneaker stature, Spira is still near the starting blocks. Runners won't sprint to pay $130, the cost of a high-tech Spira, for a brand they have never heard of. Plus, the sneakers aren't dashing. "They're ugly," says Andy Krafsur. Spiras are in 700 retail shops, but they didn't test well at Foot Locker, the 4,000-store giant. "We need to establish ourselves in the small stores where people explain the technology," says Krafsur. "That's where Nike started." The company can't compete with Nike if the USA Track & Field ban isn't lifted; many serious runners won't touch an illegal shoe. Krafsur is fighting the rule. "They're not like steroids," he says. "They're not going to cause your testicles to shrink." Track officials aren't budging. Spira bets you will run at your own risk.