2022 marks the 25th anniversary of the year that everything happened — 1997. It was an ear-biting, Pierce Brosnan-loving, comet-obsessed world, and we’re here to relive every minute of it. Twice a week over the next 12 months, we will take you back to the winter of sheep cloning and the summer of Con Air. Come for the Chumbawamba, and stay for the return of the Mack. See all of the stories here.
In 1997, when I was in second grade, there was a fifth-grader who wore JNCO jeans and a puka shell necklace with a shark tooth hanging from the middle. His hair was resplendent with tiny spikes and a single, silver stud pierced his ear. He was the coolest kid in school, but that’s only because of his shoes.
On the surface, his sneakers looked like standard skate clunkers a la Osiris and DVS. They were navy blue with a white wave of leather stitched on the side. They were called Soap shoes, and they were sort of ugly. But they allowed him to slide across handrails and lunch tables like his shoes were made of magic. The first time I saw him do it, I was in such a trance-like state that I couldn’t move. He pulled up his sagging JNCOs, took three quick steps and rode his momentum into the air, hooking the bottom of his shoes from one edge of the lunch table to the other. I remember immediately thinking: I need to get myself a pair of those things.
And if you were a boy of a certain age in the 1990s and saw someone Soap, you probably thought the same.
Seemingly overnight, Soap shoes — the first-ever sneaker designed with a removable plastic plate for grinding on curbs, tables and handrails — were in every skate shop and shoe store. Then, just as quickly, the company disappeared.
So what happened? That story starts just a few years earlier in a beachside enclave of Southern California known as Hermosa Beach.
A Shoe Is Born
In 1995, inline rollerblading was at the peak of its popularity. Chris Morris, the man behind Soap shoes, was an inline skater turned sales rep for Rollerblade when he met Ben Kelly, an amateur designer.
Ben Kelly, Designer and Soap Employee Number One: I was doing an internship in Southern California in 1995 while attending the University of Cincinnati for product design. I was skating for Team Xtreme when I met Chris Morris at a rollerblading event. He asked me what I did. I told him, “I’m a product designer. I’m out here doing an internship, and I’m skating for Team Xtreme for fun.” He’s like, “Oh my gosh! I just had this idea come across my plate, and would you work on this?” I was like, “Sure.” I think I charged him $15 per hour, which was a lot back then.
Jerry Gross, Chief Organizational Officer: I had a fledgling relationship with a guy named Tom Peterson, who was the owner of Hyper Wheels. I met Tom when I was working at Vans. A lot of the Vans guys ran in the same circles as a lot of Tom’s guys. When they weren’t wearing skates, they were wearing Vans, so we had a tangential overlap in our communities.
I was introduced to Tom, we developed a relationship, and in October of 1996, Tom called me and said he was considering making an investment in a startup, and he wanted someone else to have a look at it and potentially write a business plan for him.
Kelly: It was perfect for me because I was a professional skater, and I was also a product design major. I had a cubicle at Gravity Research, which was Chris Morris’ company. They put all these signs around me — no one was allowed to come back into my area because I had all these ideas and all this stuff that I was doing out in the shop and testing these products.
As for the Soap shoes, this is the way I understand it: Chris was having a conversation with a guy named David Inman. Inman said to him, “It’d be so cool if there were grind plates on shoes.” And Chris was like, “That’s it.”
Gross: I was originally hired just as kind of a contractor to help Tom take a look. That’s when I first met Chris Morris. He helped me through the history of how the product evolved. Tom and Chris were both part of the inline skating world. I believe that at one time Tom held the world record for inline speed skating.
Kelly: Later that day, Chris and I went to a shoe store. Then we bought a band saw and a drill press. I put $4,000 of machinery on Chris Morris’ credit card. Next, we went back to a back room at Gravity Research, cut out the bottom of a sole, took a piece of plastic, grinded an arch in it and put it in the arch of the shoe. It held long enough for Chris to go out and grind down a handrail. It held for a couple of days, actually. Then it popped out, and we started doing work on it. But by that point, Chris had enough of a prototype to create a deal with Tom.
Gross: Chris had basically pitched Tom to be the financial partner of this business. And he was cooperative with me in helping to put a plan together. But I was trying to do that as objectively as possible because it was Tom who had hired me. Chris is a consummate sales guy. Chris was always selling. So he was pitching, pitching, pitching, and I’m trying to create something that’s a little more objective for Tom. Whatever I created, I showed it to Tom in the fall of 1996. Tom said, “I really like it. I really like you. I will commit to this investment for 50 percent interest in the company if y’all commit to running it.”
Kelly: Jerry hired me as Director of Research and Development in September of 1996. I worked there for maybe a year and a half, maybe two years before they fired me.
The Evolution of the Prototype
By 1996, Morris had a working concept for how the shoe would look. But it wasn’t until they brought in Brent James, who worked at architectural design firm Concept 21, that the team at Soap figured out how the infamous plastic arch that went underneath the arch of a shoe would work.
Gross: After I got involved with Chris, the first person we needed on the team was a footwear designer, someone who had the industry experience, the manufacturing contacts and the engineering expertise to make this concept into a viable product for production at scale. The sliding part was fun, but it had to work as shoes. And nobody had ever tried to put a big piece of hard plastic into a shoe before. If we couldn’t put all that together, there was no path forward.
I had actually hired Brent to do a project for Vans around 1992. We were doing a line of MTV licensed footwear, and we hired Brent to be the designer.
Brent James, Shoe Designer: The idea was that shoes would be a lot lighter than skates. It was just a napkin sketch at the time. Chris had gone to Ben, who was more like a mechanical draftsman and didn’t have any shoe experience at all. He had all these drawings of this supposed way that you’re going to be able to make this into a shoe. It was half fantasy, but Ben had some interesting thoughts.
Kelly: Brent is the guy who knows shoes. It’s his manufacturing partners that did the work in Korea. Now, when I came back after college to work there, Brent said to me, “Ben, we took all of your stuff, we threw it away and we redesigned everything,” and that’s totally true. It just happens to be that they ended up exactly where I left off.
James: The thing that was clear was that this plastic wears out after a while. First of all, you have to have the right plastic that slides. So there’s a whole factor: the coefficient of friction. And you want a low coefficient of friction. Not all plastics are slippery; in fact, most are not. You had to have a certain kind of plastic to make this work.
Kelly: I did a lot of the design. Now, Brent is going to tell you that he did all the design for everything. But Brent may have slid down one curve in his entire life. He didn’t understand the sliding technology. That was my realm.
James: Then, of course, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to walk in these things. What I realized is, the plate did need to be replaced. And so, I had to have a way to have these things be removable. And the shoe had to be a shoe you could walk around in if you removed the plate. That meant I had to have a stiff arch so that the shoe wouldn’t fold in half. Because if you took the plastic plate out, it would just collapse in your arch and it would hurt your foot.
James: I came up with the triangle shape that had two screws in the front and then a screw in the back to anchor it. Today, we would’ve probably made a carbon-fiber plate, but back in the day, carbon fiber was crazy expensive, so we didn’t even consider it.
Gross: I’d say from the day we started to the day we ended up with a shoe, it was probably eight or nine months. That was really fast back then.
James: The plastic we ended up with was one being used as part of an automated process for killing, cleaning and chopping up chickens. The blades [for the chicken-killing machine] were sliding on these plastic discs, and you need to have a very slippery thing so that everything would wash off and keep moving easily. But it had to be hard enough for the blade to behead the chicken. That ended up being where we found the right plastic — it was a plastic from DuPont.
In 1997, Morris and the team at Soap released their first shoe inside skate shops all over the U.S. The entire first shipment was sold out in a matter of weeks.
Gross: Christmas 1997: That became the target. We needed to have product on boats from Korea heading this way by September of 1997 to be in stores for October and November 1997.
Kelly: I was flying to Korea and China to check in on our production, and I was in Italy at the international sales meeting. I was doing things that were so much bigger than my maturity level.
Gross: The containers came in from Korea, and Chris and I and the warehouse guys manually unloaded every pair. The thing you’ll never forget is when you open the door for a container that’s been packed and loaded and on the water for three to four weeks — the smell of footwear adhesive will knock you down. It’s like sniffing glue on steroids. You open the door and you step back.
James: Now, this is a shoe that if you jump off a handrail and you’re not really skilled, you can break your head open, right? So the cool factor that I didn’t quite realize was the yellow sticker that went over the plate that you had to carefully remove — otherwise, it would ruin your sliding. But it basically said, “Warning: You may die if you wear these shoes.”
Gross: It basically said, “By peeling this sticker, you agree to waive your rights to sue.”
Kelly: That was the absolute cool factor for fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth-graders.
James: The skaters basically said, “No, these shoes are gay.” But little kids don’t care about that. So our biggest market was that age group by a lot. And we had no anticipation of that.
Gross: There were a handful of brands that were the core brands for skaters, and the skaters initially kind of looked down on the Soap shoe. We were targeting 15- to 18-year-old skaters, and they wanted none of it.
James: All of a sudden our size scale is off. We had to order a bunch of smaller shoes.
The Soap Team
While waiting for the second shipment, Soap hired a team of teens called “testers” and sent them across the country in vans with rails that were attached to the sides of the vehicles — essentially operating as mini-Soap amusement parks on wheels. That way, people could come and watch the athletes demonstrate how to use Soap shoes.
Ryan Jaunzemis, Soap Athlete: My buddy Danny found this ad, and he went down to Soap shoes and signed on with them. There was another guy there — Brandon. They got onto the “testing team” because Soap had this thing where they didn’t really want to call us “professionals” for walking down the street.
James: Ryan and Brandon were both pretty darn good. I think Ryan was the more extreme guy.
Jaunzemis: I found out about it, and I went out and made a little “sponsor me” video. I bought a pair of old, used Soap shoes off my friend Kenny for 10 bucks. They had a big hole inside of them, and in order to fill it, I put duct tape over the top of it. The duct tape also acted like a speed resistor. So when I’d jump up on the rail, the duct tape would stick to the rail and make me go slower.
Kelly: Ryan took it to another level. Good kid who probably went through some crazy wild times.
Gross: At that time, the big trade show was the ASR Show — Action Sports Retailer. Everybody knew everybody at that show.
James: We had three vans all painted up, made specifically with attachments so the rails were actually on the van, coming off the van. So you’d roll up in a parking lot and you’d have this whole scene. Two or three kids per van were driving all over the countryside doing demos.
Jaunzemis: The videos were on the internet, like AOL.com. Or they would be little ads inside magazines like Daily Bread. Then they’d use the videos at trade shows and have us go on a tour. Some of the guys were going back east, and some of the guys were going up north. I was going all over California. We would have a Soap booth and a little hot rail and a bunch of pairs of loaner shoes. The kids could just come and sign a waiver, and then we’d give them a pair of shoes to try out on the rail, and our video would be playing in the background.
The Battle Over Control of the Company
In 1998, a few months after their initial release, Soap shoes were still completely sold out. But success begat an internal power struggle for control of the company between co-owners Morris and Peterson. Meanwhile, other extreme sports brands were also trying to capitalize on the moment.
Gross: The total sales the first year were $2 million — 50,000 pairs at $80 retail. And the day they landed, every pair was sold out. The bad news was it was going to be several months before there was replacement inventory because we had to sell and collect and use that money to replenish the inventory. In the meantime, internally, there was a lot of infighting between Chris and Tom, who were 50/50 partners in the business.
James: The tension was there from the very early days — all the way back to the Hyper team wanting to have our offices in their facilities to save money, and to use their warehouse, which wasn’t convenient to any one of us who lived in the South Bay.
Gross: The rest of us had stock options, including myself, so we had a vested interest in the outcome. But we weren’t on the board; we weren’t making board-level decisions. It was eventually decided that a way to move forward would be to add a third objective board member to the business. And so we did that.
James: I had several clients at the time. So while I’m doing Soap, I’m also bringing [the ski company] Salomon’s first shoes into the marketplace. I was involved with all of the early Salomon shoes. Then, all of a sudden, Jerry says, “Hey, you have a problem. Your other client is ripping us off.”
Gross: One of the things that was going on at the time was that Salomon had some pending patents that we thought infringed on our intellectual property. And they’re much bigger than us. They were preparing to bring their product to market. Their product had a cross-shaped grind area, so that you could grind in both directions.
James: They were completely trying to get around the patent. They glued theirs in and everything versus making it replaceable. I had to go with Jerry to Salomon, talk to the big boss and go, “This is ridiculous.” They stepped back, but they did bring some shoes to market at that point.
Gross: We brought in a third board member to help negotiate, but Chris was running the company with me on a day-to-day basis. I think Tom felt somewhat excluded, and he wanted to be more involved. At least in the beginning, Chris really wanted to be the one to drive the operating decisions, but Tom controlled the purse strings. Once all the capital was contributed, though, it was like the balance completely shifted to Chris’ hands.
The Wall Street Journal Article
In November 1998, the Wall Street Journal published a story with the headline: “Warning: These Sneakers Could Cause Serious Injury.”
Gross: I will tell you that the purpose of the label wasn’t to increase sales, but it did have that unintended benefit.
James: The second shipment came in and the product was selling. The Wall Street Journal article came out in the fall of 1998.
Gross: Slightly before the article, during the summer of 1998, our sales manager, Bruce Greenspon, got a call from a guy at Journeys in Tennessee saying, “Kids are coming into our stores looking for your shoes. What can you tell us?”
We had a lot of internal discussions. We didn’t know if moving from core skate and surf shops to a mall-based national chain, like Journeys, would kill the ethos of the brand. We also didn’t know if staying only in skate shops would kill all the upside of the brand. There’s a saying in the business, “Core is poor.” To some degree, that’s true. So we were trying to craft a strategy where we could do both.
James: At the end of the day, it’s a business, and we wanted it to grow. We grew from $1 million in sales in 1997 to something like $12 million in 1998. And we were on track to do more than double that in 1999. So the scaling was working.
Gross: We had everyone from Foot Locker on down calling us to test product. It made all of us a bit nervous about the product being a novelty, and it being a fad. And we were all anxious about what’s next: What did we need to do to make sure we kept it alive?
‘The Saddest Part of the Story’
By 1999, Soap shoes were still riding high. But the same financing issues that plagued the brand early on would be the company’s undoing.
James: One of the things that happened in early 1999 was the founders of Heelys came to us and said, “You guys have done the heavy lifting here. You’ve built a brand out of thin air that caters to a very specific demographic, young boys, which are a hard demographic to capture. We have a product that we think fits into the same ethos and category as the product you launched. Do you want to license the Heelys technology and launch it under the Soap brand?”
Gross: We offered them what we thought was a very generous licensing agreement, and they told us no, that they needed a lot more. We called their bluff, and we lost. They were like, “Okay, fine. We’ll go do it on our own.” And to their credit, they did, and they got far bigger than Soap ever did, and they lasted longer than Soap did. So, yeah, I give them credit.
And who did they hire to run their business? A guy from Rollerblade that Chris knew. But Heelys were the third owners of the Soap intellectual property, not the second. We didn’t sell to Heelys in the end.
James: Tom was fully tapped out financially. And the skate business already was going down, so his sources of revenue were going down. Though Soap was growing like crazy, it was outstripping his financial capabilities.
Gross: It’s actually the saddest part of the story. Tom Peterson and Hyper Wheels were in the process of acquiring the second-largest wheel manufacturer in the world. They were going to basically own the industry. They had all the brands. And as part of that, to finance that deal, Tom and Hyper Wheels took on a private equity investor partner. And the private equity investor, in the beginning, was only a financing partner. But my understanding is that when the projections weren’t met, the private equity firm had a lot of clawback rights, and in fairly short order, they ended up becoming the majority owner of the Hyper company.
We sold to a company in San Antonio called In-Stride. It was run by a guy named Tom Adams. They made cheerleading shoes, and they had some little niche products. They started to do a roll-up of other niche footwear brands, with the idea that they’d use all of their distribution and all of their infrastructure — backend infrastructure and warehouse and distribution infrastructure — and just put a bunch of niche brands into In-Stride.
James: But In-Stride bit off more than they could chew and went bankrupt less than a year later. Heelys bought the intellectual property from the In-Stride bankruptcy for a lot less than they would have ever gotten it any other way.
Gross: The first thing In-Stride did was come to us and say, “Look, you’re not a core part of our business. We just paid a lot of money for this thing. It’s not doing what we expected. We don’t want you.” It became a fire sale because of that.
James: The Heelys guys were making tons of money doing the heel thing, but they never really had the passion for it. They never asked the very important question about the type of plastic that was used. And we never put that information in the patent, so no one would know what the compound was. So the guys at Heelys started selling Soap shoes thinking they were going to grow this thing, but their version of Soap shoes never slid. There was too much friction; the plates would stick to surfaces. Eight or so months after they bought Soap, Heelys stopped selling Soap shoes because the shoes didn’t work anymore.
Gross: It was one of those meteoric rises and catastrophic falls. I can’t tell you what happened to Chris. He kind of disappeared out of my life. I heard at one time he founded a small children’s shoe company that had something to do with dinosaur prints. Brent went on to the rest of his career. I went on to the rest of my career. Bruce Greenspon went back to his old job as a contracts negotiator at Raytheon. As Bruce likes to say, he went from selling grinding shoes to 16-year-old girls with belly-button rings to selling radar systems for F-16s to foreign governments.