The back pain Marchal experienced from running prompted him to create a minimalist shoe to alleviate his discomfort.
Inspired by the Christopher McDougall book, Born to Run, and learning that recent barefoot running research has shown that heavily padded footwear causes people to walk and run in an unnatural way, Marchal started looking for a pair of shoes with minimal support.
"Everything was made overseas, and that bothers me," says Marchal, who decided he would make his own shoes.
He made just one pair. The insole was cork, the outsole rubber and the top of the shoe was mesh. "They looked like slippers, but they were comfy," Marchal says.
After that initial pair, Marchal and his wife, Nathalie Bouchard, spent two years researching shoe production, finding the proper equipment and searching for a location. In 2012, SOM Footwear was born.
"Like any business, the beginning is always hard," Marchal says. "The setup of the equipment was very challenging. Now we're getting to the cruising pace. Eighty percent of the hard work has been done."
Marchal has gotten into the athletic footwear industry at a time when it is forecast to grow from $74 billion in 2011 to $84.4 billion by 2018, according to Transparency Market Research. The market is led by men's footwear, which accounted for 62 percent of the overall market. Women's athletic shoes account for 29 percent of the market.
The unisex Shoes produced by SOM, which stands for Sense of Motion, are manufactured one pair at a time in the company's 4,500-square-foot facility in Montrose. "We receive an order and then we produce the shoes," Marchal says. "It's not mass production." Marchal estimates that SOM makes, on average, about 35 pairs of shoes a week, although January and February tend to be a bit slower.
The shoes are breathable and waterproof. The wide toe box and soft, flexible sole allow for the foot to function naturally, while the lightweight design and zero drop mimic the feeling and health benefits of being barefoot. The shape of the shoe is always the same, but SOM offers a variety of fabrics to satisfy a range of tastes.
"A lot of people contact us because they like the comfort of our shoes," Marchal says. "They help with comfort and balance. Some people have very wide feet, and most of the shoes on the market are too narrow for them. People send tracings of their feet because we're basically their last hope."
Challenges: Marchal says the biggest challenge is finding materials that are made in the United States. "Since we've been in this venture, I've become really aware of the impact of outsourcing," he says. "We work hard to educate people about that, too." SOM gets most of its materials from suppliers on the East Coast, but it imports the soling material from Italy. "The sole is the toughest part to produce here. I know one company in Illinois that makes soles, but they have a minimum order requirement, and we can't afford that yet."
Opportunities: Making larger and wider shoes, as well as offering a children's line, will be the big opportunity for SOM. "We have a lot of demand for sizes 14, 15, 16 -- even 20," Marchal says. "Every week we receive emails from people asking about size 15. We're definitely going to work on it."
Needs: Marchal would like to bring on a partner with knowledge of the footwear industry. "We've been looking for partners," he says. "We need new blood, new ideas, new skills, and money."