British shoe-maker inov-8 have grown from zero to become one of the World’s leading trail running shoe brands in just 10 years. We drop in on them to get the low down.
It’s hard to imagine any off road running race around the world without a huge number of distinctive footprints on its trails, those being from the highly recognisable and respected soles of inov-8 shoes, shoes conceived and honed on the windswept, boggy, and rocky trails of Northern England.
Just 15 years ago the inov-8 brand hadn’t even set foot on these, or any other trails; it was still an idea, or rather ideal of founding father Wayne Eddy, a man with many years of experience in working with and developing offroad footwear around the world.
In 2003 Eddy first took his shoes to production, and in that maiden year the pioneering Mudroc 290 shoes won the Snowdon International Mountain Race and also the World Mountain Running Association Trophy in Alaska, firmly establishing the new Brit brand as a force to be reckoned with.
Since then things have gone from strength to super strength for the company, based on brave and innovative thinking – backed by solid results. Despite being structurally and financially overshadowed by massive corporate competitors within this fast growing industry inov-8 continue to put the British foot firmly to the fore when the going gets rough. We spoke to Wayne Eddy about his, and the brands on-going journey.
ST; How did you get into the shoe-biz?
WE; “I came into the sports trade from the outdoor industry. I’d been consulting for Brashier, Musto and some other brands, but I could see that nobody was offering really good off road running products, and I was sure my team could deliver real innovation in this category; that’s how inov-8 started, and that’s also how it got it's name.”
ST; How has a small Brit-brand managed too hold its own against the huge international brands?
WE: “We've always been very focused on specialist products and at the extremes of athletic performance. From the O-Roc we developed for orienteering to the Mud Claw that delivers in the boggiest of British fells, we make products that deliver at the extremes. The bigger brands have to compromise, we don't and we won't!”
ST; What was the initial plan and ethos for the company?
WE; “The ethos of the brand has always been about innovation; looking at sport freshly, and taking a new approach. When we started developing off road running shoes Adi and Walsh were the only ones in the category, and the products weren't great.”
“When we started talking to the athletes we discovered that proprioception and closeness to the ground were their real product needs (after grip), and no one was delivering that.” “We came to the market with a fresh approach based around three principles, which we still use today; Firstly - Natural motion; we’ve always believed that your strongest ally in tough situations is a strong body. Our shoes put faith in the foot. They ask it to do the work, and challenge it to grow stronger, because if your feet are strong then you’ll be ready for whatever you land on.”
“Secondly - Striping it back; we believe that simplicity is key. We strip everything back so that it is natural and fast. Every seam, fabric, and contour is minutely scrutinized. Will it help you perform when you need it most? If the answer is no, we cut it out.”
Thirdly - Grip; when you’re going at it full pelt, or when your legs are buckling because you have pushed them to the limit, you need a shoe that can grip the surface, and hold true. We always start by creating the outsoles which defy the conditions, enabling you to put trust in your feet whatever your contact with the ground, that’s the most important aspect of an inov-8 shoe.”
ST; How do you manage to stay at the fore of development when bigger brands cannot?
I think were prepared to take risk and try new thing where others have beauracracy to cope with, by working with Mountain runners in the late 90s I discovered that too much cushioning and structure in shoes were encouraging poor running gates. My Team was able to quickly develop the arrow system of drop heights to help athletes develop better running gaits years before anyone was talking about minimalist or barefoot running. Now everyone is starting to bring out graded reductions in heal to toe differential but they are still way behind.
ST; What have been your most prominent, even most brave, developments?
WE; “In the last few years the F-lite series has been our most prominent product development, and I had to be very brave to back them at one point.”
“When we first developed the F-lite it was aimed at the World Mountain Running Championship competitors. We did everything right; we listened to the athletes and we developed the most stripped back and lightweight racing flat possible. It had an aggressive and wide griping outsole and a percussion fit, everything we thought we needed - but the market didn't take to it right away; we were ahead of our time.”
“After the first few seasons I was under real pressure to drop it; people thought it had too flat an outsole and that we were losing our aggressive outsole heritage, but now the F-lite is our best selling model internationally, and is finding fans in gym, on the road and the trail, we even had a pair in the Olympic triathlon this year.”
ST; How important is your location in the UK (Durham and the Lake District) when it comes to development and testing?
WE; “In the early days, when we were all based in the north east, having England's last great wilderness on our back doorstep was perfect for testing the range, and because we've always employed athletes throughout our team we've always had willing testers.”
“Now we have athletes working for us in our three main markets; UK, USA and Germany, as well as other athletes based in the Alps, Scandinavia, Russia and Australasia, all regularly report back on product development, but that docent stop the team in the Lakes getting out into the fells most lunch times!”
ST; How do you develop and weak new products?
WE; “Our Product development team are incredibly lean and quick to market. We have great factory relationships that allow us to rapid prototype and rework ideas on a bi-weekly basis.”
“Were always looking at refining and improving our products, but we are also very focused on who our product is for. Our athletes want things light, fast, and natural, so the challenge to the product team is always “Can it make the product faster first.” We rarely add anything that adds weight.”
ST: The fell running culture of the north - how important has that been in your growth?
WE; “Initially fell running was our total business. Our original shoes were developed purely in the north of England, but when Melissa Moon won the World Mountain Running Championships in Alaska (2003) with a pair of Mud Roc 290's (borrowed from a British friend) our international sales took off.”
“ Now, less than 25% of our business is from the UK. That said, the fells will always be at the core of our product development. It was working with fell runners that helped us understand the importance of proprioception, and encouraged us to develop the first transition system for natural running.”
“ Fell runners have helped us develop the majority of our innovations; that’s why we've built our creative hub and the core of our product development team - in the Lake District.”
ST; When striking the minimal balance with weight and durability what lines do you draw?
WE; “We always aim for the sole to wear out first! That may seem strange to road-runners, but grip is incredibly important off road, and so we use softer sticker rubbers where they are needed most. Added to the abuse our athletes put the shoes through means that any outsoles can be worn out rapidly.”
ST; Trail running has really taken off, worldwide, and ultra trail - how has this impacted on your direction and growth?
WE; “We’re definitely developing more products for the wider trail market. The launch of our Trail-roc series this year saw us develop product specifically for the hard packed trails of the Alps and the Colorado mountains.” “We've always had a big fan base amongst the ultra running community, and I believe this trend will continue to grow as more and more people seek out the next challenge, and to escape the cities.”
ST; Looking ahead, what areas do you see as having the most potential for development in the offroad running market?
WE; “From a pure volume perspective, adventure racing is the trend that will dominate the scene over the coming five years. We’re seeing huge traction for our most aggressive fell products in the US market too. People who are really serious about Spartan and Tough Guy events that are finding the product invaluable.”
“Looking at underlying, and long term trends, trail and off trail will continue to grow as people seek an escape from the daily grind, and we’re well placed to serve the more extreme of these athletes.”