This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Clove, a new sneaker brand developed with nurses and doctors in mind, entered the market during 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 drafted in compliance with rigid hospital footwear requirements, which have made it difficult for health care workers to find footwear that both looks good and feels good. So Clove conducted more than 2,000 hours of research to design a sneaker that specifically met the needs of health care workers: a sneaker that was fluid-repellent, easy to slip on, and incredibly comfortable.
This approach seems to be working: Clove’s first sneaker sold out within two days of its initial release back in July and has been in high demand since.
Fortune recently spoke with founder Joe Ammon to learn more about Clove’s business, the lessons learned, the hurdles overcome, and the brand’s plans for next year.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: What were you doing professionally prior to launching Clove?
Ammon: Clove was born out of the time I spent in Wharton’s MBA program in Philadelphia. Prior to that, I worked in Deloitte’s M&A transaction services group in New York. I had always dreamed of running my own business—ever since my first enterprise of buying and refurbishing instruments with my brother in Ohio and selling them to families on the coasts as a teenager. The goal was always to build something impactful and lasting from nothing.
What inspired the launch of Clove? How can this better serve frontline workers, especially health care workers?
The inspiration for Clove came directly from my wife Tamara’s experience as a registered nurse. She was constantly researching and going through countless shoes, trying to find a pair that suited her needs on the hospital floor, without having to sacrifice her own personal style. It just became an ongoing conversation in our house, where we’d talk about the problems she had with each of them.
It was really frustrating for her, and I understood that this was an incredibly common pain point for so many health care workers. I couldn’t believe there wasn’t a brand eager to listen to their needs and eager to create a solution that supports them throughout their shift.
So when we decided to explore the idea of Clove, everything started with asking what seemed like a simple question: What if we designed a shoe where every single decision point—from the materials to the lace design, even down to the stitches—was made with health care workers in mind? Could we make something that was supremely functional that you’d be proud to be seen in grabbing groceries on your way home? It took over 2,000 hours of wear-testing in a hospital and months of iteration, but we created a design that does it all.
At the start, what was equally important was clarifying how we show up in the world and what we stand for and living by it—not just for our customers but for our team. Our leadership team went deep on why Clove’s mission was important to us as individuals—outside of the business case—and that was to create a culture of care. This is a practice that we continue to do today to renew our commitment and redefine our accountability. I do think this is why we have built such a fantastic team at Clove; we’re dedicated to the cause and not just the product we’re offering.
When Clove launched, which was right before the pandemic became a reality, it was important to us to be honest about what it means to be in health care. Yes, we sell sneakers, but to serve our mission and continue to create the right product, we have to be forthright and truthful about who we’re serving, what they’re going through, and what keeps them going. So we built the Clove brand to be fully aware of the highs and lows of life in this profession, from the feeling of losing your first patient—which my wife will never forget—to a family thanking you for saving a loved one’s life. Working in health care brings the full range of human emotion, and we wanted to represent an honest depiction of that in the stories we told and the people we worked with.
Right now, the world is seeing health care workers as heroes (and they are!), but they are also real people going through real trials and tribulations and barriers and a personal life full of different passions outside of the hospital. We’re excited to create a storytelling platform that amplifies the voices that often go unheard and is grounded in truth, empathy, and connection.
What went into the research and development process of designing footwear, especially for nurses and doctors on their feet all day? Did you interview or shadow any health care workers? What were they looking for most in a sturdy pair of sneakers?
We spent over 2,000 hours conducting extensive research trials at one of the world’s leading academic medical centers to develop a sneaker expressly designed for health care workers. I had learned firsthand from my wife which features were important to her and others in her field, but it was an incredible experience to get a deeper understanding of their needs, why certain features were important, and how even the smallest tweak could make a world of difference.
Through these hours of research, we interacted with hundreds of health care workers—from nurses to technicians to physicians, via interviews, surveys, and in-hospital observation. Many of them had very little, if any, opportunity to talk with other brands about their needs, so they were really eager to be part of this journey with us. And likewise—we continue to be so grateful to all of the health care workers who were part of testing in our early days and who continue to be part of our ongoing product development.
What we found that health care workers cared about most was cleanability, as they’re continuously exposed to blood, toxic chemicals, and bacteria on the job. So in response, we meticulously designed the Clove sneaker with fluid-repellent laces and uppers made from liquid-repellent and stain-resistant Clarino fabric, which can be cleaned easily with the same antibacterial wipes used in the hospital. We constantly hear that this is one of the most loved features of the shoe.
Comfort was also incredibly critical to our shoe design (the average nurse, for example, walks a marathon every week—and that’s only at work). In our research, we found that many health care workers had worn clogs or athletic shoes, which didn’t provide them with the support and protection they needed on the job simply because they weren’t designed to handle the rigors of a hospital setting. This gave us the opportunity to completely reinvent their sneaker. So we started by creating a rigid set of specifications and then designing around those. It’s been amazing to see how many customers have written in to say it has fixed their lower back pain, removed foot aches, and helped them feel just as comfortable at hour 12 of a shift as hour one. We’ve continued to innovate on this since launch, releasing a brand-new midsole foam formulation that has even higher rebound while maintaining the same durability for a shoe health care workers will wear more than any other in their life.
Over the course of talking to nurses, we realized that many kick off their shoes when they’re sitting at a nurses’ station, but need to put their shoes on very quickly when there’s a code blue alarm. So we also designed a laceless sneaker that would make it easy for them to slip on within seconds. These were little things that seemed relatively easy to solve for, but few brands appear to be addressing nurses’ needs at this level of detail.
We also discovered that every hospital had their own footwear guidance and policies, which makes it challenging to find a sneaker that fits your personal style. Some hospitals are restrictive of big logos or too many colors, while others ask nurses-in-training to wear white shoes to match their uniform. Taking all of these different restrictions into account, we carefully designed our sneaker so that it would be permitted at any hospital, while keeping a chic aesthetic that health care workers could look and feel good in.
Retailers have taken quite a hit during the pandemic, but then this is more of a niche product for a profession smack in the middle of the biggest medical crisis of the past century. What has it been like launching a company in 2020? What has it been like to work with supply chain partners and develop the initial collection?
At the onset of the pandemic, doctors and nurses started buying multiple pairs of Clove shoes to prepare for the long days ahead, quadrupling our sales. PPE was at an all-time need, as we all saw, and at Clove, it felt like we had a greater responsibility to do everything we could to serve a community that could really benefit from feeling comfortable and protected as they took on some of the greatest challenges in their professional career.
When orders started to pour in, in the months of March and April, we faced never-before-seen challenges around transportation as the pandemic froze many of the traditional supply chain routes. While we lost two weeks of manufacturing, our team moved heaven and earth to get sneakers out the door, but above all to be super communicative and transparent with customers about what we were experiencing and empathetic about what they were experiencing. It was inspiring to see how our customers reacted when we’d hit snags, like a shipping delay. We expected to have angry customers as they had already been waiting weeks for their order to come in, but instead they were thanking us for doing what we were doing and for working hard to navigate the unknowns. Part of me thinks that at their core these are some of the kindest and most giving individuals you can serve, but another thought is that we were jumping into the unknown—just like they were—and they appreciated us being honest and candid with them when we hit a roadblock.
Through these challenges, we felt that it was even more important to go back to our mission to support health care workers, and to our responsibility as a business, not just in this moment but beyond. Early in the pandemic, we were receiving a hundred emails a day from health care workers asking if we could donate sneakers in the areas that were hit most by COVID. In the emails, they expressed what they were going through, sharing that they had been wearing the same PPE for weeks, that their coworkers were falling ill with coronavirus. There were so many stories of loss and grief. It was heartbreaking.
To Clove, health care workers have been the unsung heroes of our world, putting their patients’ mind-body needs above their own. But since COVID-19 has thrust these workers into stressful and uncertain environments, it raises a question we all should have all been thinking about long before the outbreak even started: Who is taking care of our health care workers?
In our first year of business, we launched our “Clove Cares” program, where we donate product to health care workers in overwhelming need. To date, we’ve donated over $150,000 of products to COVID-19 teams across the country. Our team is really proud of that, and we’re eager to do more.
We also launched the Clove Collective, our give-back, ambassador program composed of 14 diverse health care workers who use their voices to ignite positive social change for themselves as well as their peers in the health care community. Each time a member’s community code is used to receive product perks, the Collective member makes a commission. Clove then matches each commission and donates to an organization that each member believes in wholeheartedly throughout each fiscal quarter. We were honored to kick off this program in partnership with the National Black Nurses Association (NBNA). In doing so, we were able to fully sponsor students to attend the NBNA’s 2020 annual conference. We’re excited to share more partners and causes that support our mission here soon.
That said, what has it been like to secure funding for Clove? Is it primarily self-funded, VC-backed, or some mixture of both?
I was lucky enough to find a group of investors early on who believed in Clove’s mission as deeply as we did. From the earliest days, investors like Brian Spaly, the founder of Bonobos and Trunk Club, Andrew Mitchell at Brand Foundry Ventures, and Deepa Gandhi and Melissa Mash, two all-star founders at Dagne Dover, rolled up their sleeves to help us navigate launching a new business. We’ve been on the journey together ever since.
Post-pandemic and five years down the road, where do you see Clove in the market?
Our mission is “to take care of those who take care of you.” So we’ll continue to stand by that with a commitment to creating the highest-quality products possible, while offering a platform that shares the diversity of their stories, both the highs and the lows.
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