This is an episode of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about key lessons they learned immediately after their company's first year of operation.
Clove, a new sneaker brand specially designed for nurses and doctors, hit the market at an incredibly interesting time: right before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Inspired by the founder's wife, a nurse who struggled to find the right work shoes, the brand's first sneaker design was created in accordance with the stringent hospital shoe requirements that have made it difficult for health care workers to find shoes that both look good and feel good. So Clove spent more than 2,000 hours of research to develop a sneaker that was specifically tailored to the needs of healthcare workers: a sneaker that was liquid-repellent, easy to put on, and incredibly comfortable.
That approach seems to be working: Clove's first sneaker sold out within two days of its first release in July and has been in high demand ever since.
Fortune recently spoke to Founder Joe Ammon to learn more about Clove's business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome and the brand's plans for the next year.
For the sake of clarity, the following interview has been condensed and edited slightly.
Joe Ammon, founder of Clove. Photo courtesy Clove
Fortune: What did you do for a living before you started Clove?
Ammon: Clove was born from the time I spent on Wharton's MBA program in Philadelphia. Previously, I worked at Deloitte's M&A Transaction Services Group in New York. I had always dreamed of running my own business – since my first venture, buying and renovating instruments with my brother in Ohio and selling them to coastal families as a teenager. The goal has always been to build something effective and durable out of nothing.
What inspired Clove's launch? How can this better serve the frontline workers, especially healthcare workers?
The inspiration for Clove came straight from my wife Tamara's experience as a nurse. She did constant research and went through countless shoes to find a pair on the hospital floor that suited her needs without sacrificing her personal style. It just became an ongoing conversation in our house where we talked about the problems she had with each of them.
It was really frustrating for them and I understood that this was an incredibly common pain point for so many healthcare workers. I couldn't believe that there wasn't a brand that would listen to their needs and come up with a solution that would support them throughout their shift.
When we decided to investigate the Clove idea, it all started with asking a seemingly simple question: what if we designed a shoe where every single decision point – from the materials to the lace design to the stitches – was made – was hit with a view to health workers? Could we make something that is extremely functional and that you can be proud of when you buy groceries on your way home? It took over 2,000 hours of hospital wear testing and months of iteration, but we came up with a design that can do it all.
In the beginning it was just as important to clarify how we show ourselves in the world and what we stand for and live accordingly – not only for our customers, but also for our team. Our leadership team delved into the question of why Clove's mission was important to us as individuals – outside of the business model – and that it was about creating a culture of caring. This is a practice we continue to do today to renew our commitment and redefine our accountability. I think that's why we've built such a fantastic team at Clove. We are dedicated to the cause and not just the product we offer.
When Clove kicked off just before the pandemic became a reality, it was important to us to be honest about what it means to be in healthcare. Yes, we sell sneakers, but to fulfill our mission and continue to create the right product, we need to be open and honest about who we serve, what they are going through, and what is keeping them going. That's why we developed the Clove brand to be fully aware of the ups and downs of life in this profession, from feeling like losing your first patient – which my wife will never forget – to having a family looking after you thanks for saving the life of a loved one. Healthcare work brings the full range of human emotions with it, and we wanted to be honest about this in the stories we told and the people we worked with.
Right now, the world sees health care workers as heroes (and they are!), But they are also real people who go through real trials and difficulties and barriers, and lead personal lives full of different passions outside of the hospital. We are excited to create a storytelling platform that amplifies voices that often go unheard and are based on truth, empathy and connection.
The Clove sneaker in pink. Courtesy Clove
What went into the research and development process into the design of shoes, especially for nurses and doctors who are on their feet all day? Have you interviewed or shadowed health care workers? What were you looking for most in a sturdy pair of sneakers?
We spent over 2,000 hours conducting extensive research at one of the world's leading academic medical centers to create a sneaker specifically designed for healthcare workers. I had learned firsthand from my wife which traits were important to her and others in her field, but it was an incredible experience to get a deeper understanding of her needs, why certain traits were important, and how even the smallest change made one World of difference.
During these hours of research, we interacted with hundreds of healthcare workers – from nurses to technicians to doctors – through interviews, surveys and observations in the hospital. Many of them had very little, if any, opportunity to speak to other brands about their needs and so were very excited to be part of this journey with us. And likewise – we continue to be so grateful to all of the healthcare workers who participated in tests in our early days and continue to be part of our ongoing product development.
We found that healthcare workers were most concerned about cleanability as they are constantly exposed to blood, toxic chemicals and bacteria while working. In response, we carefully designed the Clove sneaker with liquid-repellent laces and tops made of liquid-repellent and dirt-repellent Clarino Fabric that can be easily cleaned with the same antibacterial wipes used in the hospital. We keep hearing that this is one of the most popular features of the shoe.
Comfort was also incredibly important to our shoe design (the average nurse, for example, runs a marathon every week – only at work). In our research, we found that many health care workers have worn clogs or athletic shoes that do not provide them the support and protection they need at work simply because they are not designed to withstand the rigors of a hospital setting. This gave us the opportunity to completely reinvent their sneaker. So we first created a rigid set of specifications and then designed them. It was amazing to see how many clients wrote that it fixed their lower back pain, eliminated foot pain, and helped them feel just as comfortable in the 12th hour of a shift as they were in the first hour. We've continued to innovate this since it was launched, bringing out a brand new midsole foam formulation that has even higher rebound while maintaining the same durability for the shoe carer who will wear more than anyone in their life.
While talking to nurses, we noticed that many take off their shoes when sitting at a nurses' station, but have to put their shoes on very quickly when there is a code blue alert. That's why we designed a cordless sneaker that you can put on easily within seconds. These were little things that seemed relatively easy to resolve, but few brands seem to address nurse needs at this level of detail.
We also found that every hospital has its own guidelines and guidelines for shoes, making it difficult to find a sneaker that fits your personal style. Some hospitals limit themselves to big logos or too many colors, while others ask nurses in training to wear white shoes that match their uniform. With all of these different constraints in mind, we've carefully designed our sneaker to be approved in any hospital while maintaining a chic aesthetic that allows healthcare workers to look and feel good.
Clove spent over 2,000 hours researching to create a sneaker that is specifically tailored to the needs of healthcare workers: a sneaker that is fluid-repellent, easy to put on, and incredibly comfortable. Courtesy Clove
Retailers have seen some success during the pandemic, but then this is more of a niche product for a profession in the middle of the biggest medical crisis of the past century. What was it like to start a business in 2020? What was it like working with supply chain partners and developing the first collection?
At the beginning of the pandemic, doctors and nurses bought several pairs of clove shoes to prepare for the long days and quadrupled our sales. As we've all seen, PPE was an absolute need, and at Clove we felt we had a greater responsibility to do whatever we can to serve a community that could really benefit from feeling comfortable and protected, when they took on some of them the greatest challenges in their careers.
When orders came in in March and April, we faced unprecedented transportation challenges as the pandemic frozen many of the traditional supply chain routes. While we lost two weeks of production time, our team moved heaven and earth to get sneakers out of the door, but above all to be very communicative and transparent with customers about what we had experienced and to deal with it sensitively , what they have experienced. It was inspiring to see how our customers reacted when we encountered stumbling blocks such as: B. a shipping delay. We expected disgruntled customers as they had been waiting weeks for their order, but instead thanked us for doing what we did and for working hard to navigate the unknowns. Part of me thinks that at heart these are some of the nicest and best giving people you can serve, but another thought is that we – just like them – have jumped into the unknown and they appreciated that we are honest and open to them when we run into a roadblock.
In light of these challenges, we felt it was even more important to return to our mission of supporting health workers and our corporate responsibilities, not just now, but beyond. At the start of the pandemic, we received hundreds of emails a day from healthcare workers asking if we could donate sneakers in the areas hardest hit by COVID. In the emails, they expressed what they were going through and stated that they had been wearing the same PPE for weeks and that their employees had coronavirus. There have been so many stories of loss and grief. It was heartbreaking.
Clove added a new all-black shoe on Black Friday this year. Courtesy Clove
For Clove, healthcare workers were the unsung heroes of our world, placing the mind-body needs of their patients above their own. But since COVID-19 has placed these workers in stressful and unsafe environments, it begs a question we should all ponder long before the outbreak begins: Who is taking care of our healthcare workers?
In our first year of business, we launched our Clove Cares program, where we donate products to health care workers who have overwhelming needs. To date, we've donated over $ 150,000 worth of products to COVID-19 teams across the country. Our team is really proud of it and we strive to do more.
We also launched the Clove Collective, our ambassador program made up of 14 different health care workers who use their voices to create positive social change for themselves and their health care colleagues. Every time a member's community code is used to receive product benefits, the collective member pays a commission. Clove then compares each commission and donates to an organization that every member believes wholeheartedly in each fiscal quarter. We were honored to start this program in partnership with the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA). This way we were able to fully sponsor students to attend the 2020 NBNA Annual Conference. We look forward to sharing more partners and concerns soon who support our mission here.
Clove founder Joe Ammon with wife Tamara. Courtesy Clove
But what was it like securing funding for Clove? Is it primarily self-funded, VC-backed, or a mix of both?
I was fortunate enough to find a group of investors early on who believed in Clove's mission as deeply as we did. From the start, investors like Brian Spaly, founder of Bonobos and Trunk Club, Andrew Mitchell of Brand Foundry Ventures, and Deepa Gandhi and Melissa Mash, two all-star founders of Dagne Dover, have rolled up their sleeves to help us get to market help a new business. We've been traveling together since then.
After the pandemic and five years later, where do you see Clove in the market?
Our mission is to "take care of those who take care of you". So we will continue to hold on to it and commit to creating the highest quality products while offering a platform that shares the diversity of their stories, both the ups and the downs.
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