In this episode of The Inner Chief podcast, we speak to footwear brand trailblazer, Vince Lebon, the CEO and Founder of Rollie Nation, on streamlining systems, scaling up and business rhythm.
Vince founded Rollie Nation, a footwear brand, in 2012 and sold nearly 500 pairs in a South Melbourne market.
He formally trained as a multimedia designer who fell in love with footwear and product design, developing and refining his craft with shoemaker Andrew McDonald in Sydney, SLEM Innovation & Training Institute in the Netherlands and Pensole Footwear Academy in Oregon, USA.
Vince applied and won a Pensole Scholarship and then won the ‘Future of Footwear’ Master Class sponsored by Foot Locker and asics in 2016. In 2021, he ranked 4th in the Internet Retailing Top 50 People in E-Commerce.
In this episode we talk about:
- Designing shoes for some of the top celebrities and athletes in the world
- Using design thinking to constantly improve systems and processes
- Starting Rollie Nation by creating a business model and operating rhythm first
- His hiring process and the value of making it intentionally difficult
Connecting with Vince Lebon
Books and resources
“The businesses that generally fail are where the founder says they have a backup plan, like a job. My mentality was if it failed, I would start another business. So I may as well make this one work.”
On systems design thinking early in his career
- The MD would always make these minor changes so late in the process and he'd go back and it'd take maybe six or seven iterations to get these samples right. And that would happen over three months. Some were changes that the factory didn't implement properly, but many of them were his own changes that he wanted to implement after seeing the sample. So I said, “Why don't we just design it all in Photoshop, get it to the point where you're 95% happy with it and then send for sampling.” and that really condensed the entire development process.
- It saved time, but also saved a lot of money in samples and development cost. We were able to really fast track that entire business from development to production. And so that was always my approach – using design and design thinking to streamline processes.
- I'm always looking for ways to streamline something so that you don't have to double handle things. But also it provides visibility to other people because that's when you can really scale something; if you are doing everything and it's a system that only you can use, everything becomes dependent on you.
On combining a multitude of skills
- I'm a very technical footwear designer, but actually where my strength lies is using the other skills I've acquired, whether it's Photoshop or design thinking or critical thinking and going, “How do we implement that all together to really drive new solutions and break the norm?”
- You're either a specialist or you're someone who truly understands how the entire business works. And when you understand how the entire business works, you can try to find ways to provide value, whether it's in isolation or as a team. You then bring in the right parties to understand how things actually work together, ask where the main challenges are across the business, and then look to solutions.
On creating a business model first
- In one of my last jobs, so much of our relationship with a supplier was based on goodwill and so that made me think that I needed to have more control over my own destiny.
- When I decided to launch my own brand, I didn't have huge amounts of capital at all; I was self-funded. And so I worked on the business model for six months. And that's the thing. A lot of designers work on product first and then they create a business around the product. Instead, I actually worked on the business model, created a scalable business, and then found out what the DNA is of the brand and then the product will be an outcome of that thinking.
- I looked to the market and thought I loved what Havaianas was doing. It was business based around one product, it was super comfortable, it was very affordable and they changed the colours and you just kept coming back and buying that one shoe. At the time everyone was wearing Havaianas and no-one even thought about any other shoe. The only other example in Australia was Volleys, which is a similar concept – it’s a single product with changing colours.
- So that's where that idea for Rollie came from. It's an excellent way to start if you don't have a lot of capital; build equity in a shoe and then you're just changing the colours.
On the Rollie Nation unique value proposition
- It's called Rollie Nation, not Rollie Shoes; the shoe component is just what we do today. Rollie itself is for a group of people that are young at heart. But we make shoes for all types of ages.
- The reason why I created lightweight shoes is because I wanted, in the purchasing process, to add something new that people would think, “Oh, I never thought about why a shoe should be light.” Then they try it on, it's crazy comfortable. Now when they go to look at every other brand, if it's not light, it's no longer part of their purchasing decision.
- The great thing about our shoe is because it's the same shoe, we just keep evolving it, like the iPhone as an example. So the Rollie shoe that you see today is 10 years of experience that's gone into that shoe to make it better and better.
On having difficult conversations
- I got offered a partnership pretty early in the process with Australia's biggest footwear company. But after three years, they were about selling product, and I was about building a brand. And so you've got to make sure your partners are aligned, otherwise you end up losing focus.
- When they offered the partnership to me, I said, “Look, that’s a huge opportunity for me, but I've got a business plan, this is what it looks like for the next three years. If you guys agree and align to that, then we'll partner up.” And I think that was really beneficial. Most companies of my size at the time probably wouldn't have had a business plan, but because I had worked on the business model for six months, I knew exactly what trade shows I was going to, what my cost structures were, what the sales and marketing channels were, what my marketing spend was going to be versus revenue.
- You're better off just ripping the bandaid off and having a serious conversation and getting through it.
On the best advice he’s received
- If you imagine all your problems are a puddle, if you look down at that puddle, you can see them all and you can see them all clearly. But the minute you keep pondering over them and constantly trying to workshop them and get stressed by them, it's as if you're stepping on the puddle. You're then trying to tackle every problem, but you don't actually know which one to tackle first and you lose clarity. And all you're doing is making a mess.
- “Just because I don't eat lion, don't think a lion won't eat me.” So don't project your own values on other people. Just because you act a certain way, don't assume someone else will.
On scaling up
- When your team is small, you can influence everyone because they have one-on-one relationships with you or they see you and you lead by example. As the business starts to get bigger and as you start to bring on contractors and all of that, you need to be able to communicate your vision when you are not there.
- So you need to ensure that you've documented your values. You're hiring to those values, you're promoting to those values, you're firing to those values.
- My leadership style is about giving people visibility and having an open conversation and trying to constantly build. You want to let people fail so I empower people. But empowerment can also be sometimes bad if you empower the wrong people or you empower the right people at the wrong time.
- So I give people really good clarity on what's expected. You can always use that as a beacon to say, “Are we on track?” “How are we going?” “What do those check-ins look like?” “Do you need extra support?” And then it feels like you're not just attacking someone, but you're actually on the journey with them, because you've been clear from the start.
On operating rhythm
- The business rhythm is probably the most underrated thing that people talk about in business.
- It's one thing to create a document with the vision and then go and execute. But for me, it's all about the rhythm and what is required to be able to hit that. What do the check-ins look like? What's the framework for support?
- We have a fortnightly leadership catch up with just me and my GM and a PMO. We go through the timelines and our entire business is mapped out in Microsoft Project and we'll go through each line, see how everything's looking for the next month. We then have a monthly leadership catch up with the wider team and also the exec team, and that's really for gap closing and to drive performance outcomes. Then we have quarterly reports, which map up to our financials.
- I have a business plan and a financial document that I present each year and that's part of a three to five year plan too. There's also a 10 year vision with a financial plan that rolls up into that. Everyone's got complete clarity on what we're aiming for and we have regular staff performance check-ins and scorecards for each member.
- If you don't have a good business rhythm, then you're dependent on how good your strategy is. Yes, a good strategy is excellent, but execution is even better. But the reality is if you don't have a rhythm that checks in on your strategy regularly to make sure you're on the right path and you're hitting the right targets, you're only as good as your execution. Let's say you do really well and you crush it for a period of time. If you don't then check in and compound those efforts and re-look at why that worked, then you’re missing out on even more growth. So the rhythm holds you accountable for having a strategy and delivering on it.
On bringing his values to life
- My staff are essentially a reflection of who I am and the business that I want. The great thing about defining values is that I can then hire like-minded people based on that same set of values.
- We have a three stage hiring process. The first stage is all about cultural fit. We've got a two page document and there's three sections to it. The first section is to find out what they know about the brand and whether they’ve done their research. Then the second section is around how they've acted in their roles; how they tackle problems, how they deal with conflict. Then the last one is role-specific questions.
- If they don't get past that cultural fit phase, I couldn't care less whether they've got all the skills. If they're not a good cultural fit, you don't get past that stage. It's all scored too, and because the values are already defined, we’re able to work out how many of the five values the candidates have.
- Then we move to a case study stage, and then the third stage is actually where they get to meet the team and the team has influence over whether we hire them or not.
- We've had a lot of people come up to say that's been the most intense hiring process. But we want that. We also want people who are in the business to feel valued because they know that the person coming in must be good because they've also gone through our hiring process.
On his favourite interview question
- I try to ask someone a question about something that I have a really deep understanding about. What you can get as a response is a lot of buzz words, so I really go hard, to the point where I'll ask them what tools they use to drive those outcomes. You'd be shocked by the amount of people that actually have no idea.
Final message of wisdom and hope for future leaders
- Take a good, hard look at your personal and family life, as you do to your business. I wish I had learned that a lot sooner.