Originally published in The Daily Sound Oct. 21, 2010.
A doctor of physical therapy (DPT), Geoffrey Gray, spends most of his daytime hours at either the Elite Performance and Rehabilitation Center or the Peak Performance Project. But the UCSB alumnus has also made the time to pursue an entrepreneurial dream. He’s leveraged his expertise and passion for understanding the way the foot works to dismiss the notion that fashion and pain must be one in the same. Enter his company, Heeluxe, which makes inserts for women’s high-heeled shoes.
While the venture gets about 30-40 hours of his attention per week, in addition to his fulltime job, it hasn’t appeared to slow down the energetic Gray, who looks even younger than his 32 years and infectiously shares his exuberance for both the science of physical therapy and Heeluxe.
A runner in high school and triathlete when attending UCSB, Gray was interested in performance—particularly foot and ankle— early on. It was during his time as a student earning his DPT at Simmons College in Massachusetts that he had his first ideas of the performance in the context of women’s shoes.
“I was working a retail job, and looking at the high-heeled shoes, and thought, ‘man, there’s got to be a better way.’ It didn’t make sense to me that people would spend a lot of money on something that hadn’t changed in over a century. People complained about [high heels] a lot, it seemed like such a problem, but nobody wanted to try to fix it. I said, hey, without sacrificing the fashion, we should be able to come up with something that actually works.”
At the time, he lacked the expertise to act on this idea. But the idea never went away. Years later, after earning his DPT, getting trained by “some of the best people that make orthotics,” and working in the field for some time, Gray brought the product to market last April. This is not just a cushion.
“Cushions don’t really solve anything,” said Gray. He says his product, called the Talus Heelbed, shifts more weight to the heel with the idea of alleviating stress ion the feet, knees, and back. Gray recently completed a research study that found the insert reduced ball-of-the-foot pressure by 14% and the time it took to take a step was reduced by 23% versus high heels without the insert.
The products are intended to permanently stick to the inside of shoes, and do so through a high-quality adhesive—”the same adhesive used on surfboard deck pads, so it’s water resistant, heat and cold resistant, it can stay on better than any other product out there,” according to Gray. Each pair of inserts sells for $14.99.
Gray’s methodology in designing the product included collecting data, seeing many patients, and trying different approaches. Much of it was based on what he’d learned during the normal course of his business.
“I made a lot of orthotics,” said Gray, who added that it’s one of his favorite things to do. In doing so, he started to notice patterns of what’s comfortable for people and what tended to help certain problems. Specifically to address the high-heel insert product, he made casts of women’s feet in the position it would be in when wearing high heels. On these, he’d test his prototypes. Then he’d have people test them.
“We went through lots of trial and error,” said Gray. “I tested more than 50 different models before we got to what I wanted to start manufacturing.”
While the Talus Heelbed is manufactured in China, Santa Barbara-based concerns played a large role in development of Heeluxe. The graphics and logos came from Media 27, who “really helped me understand what a corporate brand is,” said Gray. Included in that company’s contribution: helping come up with the name of the Talus Heelbed. Its name (“talus”) comes from a bone in the foot that Gray calls “the cornerstone of foot alignment.”
The company also has two sales reps at this time.
The product is available online (heeluxe.com) and in 27 boutiques nationwide, including Bryan Lee in Downtown Santa Barbara and Lana Marme in Montecito. It’s currently available in three colors; black and red were the launch colors, but with Summer fashion, customers needed the “naked” color. Adding this shade was an example of Gray’s desire to stay flexible and incorporate good feedback as soon as possible. For Heeluxe’s next product, Gray is considering an insert for ballet-style flats, which don’t have much cushioning or support.
“We’re constantly trying to improve,” he said. “I want Heeluxe to be a brand that continues to make really innovative foot beds and inserts and insoles. I don’t look at this as the final product; I look at this as the first product.”
Challenges off the bat included the state of the economy.
“In a down economy, people want to try new products, but it’s a whole new brand, so it’s still pretty risky,” Gray said. He also mentioned that the trade shows he’s presented at have been very poorly attended.
Gray says Santa Barbara is a good place to start a company.
“The coolest thing I’ve come to understand is the impact that small businesses can have. I look at how many companies I’ve had to work with to get to this point; there are so many great, local companies in Santa Barbara that have really smart people working for them, and you can put all this stuff together locally. All the printing of the brochures, marketing campaigns, PR work . . . it costs a lot of money and a lot of time to start a business, but you can really see how it can affect your community in a positive way.”
Overall, entrepreneurship has been a rewarding experience thus far.
“I underestimated how hard it is to start a business from scratch,” he shared. “But it is so cool. I’ve never had a bigger sense of accomplishment.”