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Building a Shoe Brand from Scratch

Michael Krajicek is the visionary behind the outlier Atreyu shoe brand.

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Having a relentless, all-in type of mojo is what makes his world go ‘round and ultimately, he says, has been the secret to his success.

That simple but intense joie de vivre has helped the thoughtful 33-year-old visionary become a skilled musician, successful restaurant operator, 2:52 marathoner and two-time Ironman triathlon finisher — all after turning his life around in his mid-20s.

And that’s also very much the crux behind Krajicek’s launch last year of the most curious running shoe brand in the world. With stark and simple featherweight shoes, online-only sales and a unique subscription business model that offers wholesale prices to its recurring customers, Austin, Texas-based Atreyu Running is nothing if not original. 

With the upstart brand selling out of virtually all of the 5,000 initial pairs of its smooth-riding, neutral-oriented base model shoe, Krajicek appears to have piqued some interest. It might have something to do with price — subscription prices for its initial models are just $55 per pair, while one-time purchases are only $95 — but there might be more to it than that.

Krajicek is as thoughtful as he is unconventional in his demeanor, but he says he has the earnest desire to build a running shoe brand that’s built on integrity and community and not marketing jargon, false hopes or short cuts. He knows from his own experience that to achieve anything as a runner, you have to be tenacious about logging long miles, speed sessions and all of the extra stuff.

“Above all things, we believe running is not what we do, but instead it embodies the warrior spirit of who we are and who we aspire to become,” Krajicek says. “Running is hard work. The only way you can improve and achieve your goals is to be fully committed. We want to be a part of that and help runners on that journey.”

It’s a fact that running shoes are a commodity with a limited shelf life, wearing down after a few hundred miles or a couple of months. Krajicek wants to avoid producing heavy, overbuilt shoes with a high price tag for the sake of durability like most other brands, but instead wants to continually resupply customers with light and fast underbuilt models while building a brand immersed in the authentic culture of performance running.

Like online subscription companies that sell razors, wine or gourmet meals, the Atreyu model assures customers can get new shoes as frequently as they desire and also have access to new colorways, special makeup models and more. The delivery frequency can vary from every month to every other month or every third month — in other words 12 pairs for $660 six pairs for $330 or just two pairs for $110. A subscription can be canceled at any time.

It’s a unique business model based on efficient supply chain manufacturing and direct sales to a customer base he hopes he can scale.

“I didn’t want to build a product that’s merely built to last or withstand the ‘Is this shoe durable?’ question because runners are concerned about getting the most of their $120 to $140 shoes,” Krajicek says. “So I thought, let’s take price out of the equation. Let’s charge appropriately for the commodity and let’s build a high-performance commodity around the price. We want to build something you use passionately and purposefully, not something that is merely built to satisfy the requirements of price per material.”

Atreyu base model pair of shoes.
Atreyu’s base model pair of shoes. Photo: courtesy Atreyu

* * * 

Atreyu was founded on the concept of “everything you need, nothing you don’t.” In fact, that was the primary criteria in the initial shoe design brief Krajicek wrote in early 2019 and he’s been obsessing about it ever since.

The brand’s initial unnamed base model tips the scales at a scant 6 ounces (men’s size 9.0), but it isn’t minimalist in design the way so many “barely there” shoes were built a decade ago. Instead, the shoes have an amply cushioned, single-layer EVA midsole with a moderate 6mm heel-toe offset (21.5mm in the heel, 15.5mm in the forefoot), a simple but smartly designed form-fitting, one-piece upper and a clean yet stylish look. There’s a slight heel counter, a 5mm sock liner, and that’s it. There’s no structure-enhancing features, so any stability has to come from the runner’s lower-leg, ankle and foot strength.

With a medium-volume interior, a TPU-reinforced saddle and a lightly padded tongue, they snug up nicely and provide exceptional “feel-for-the-ground” proprioception. With nothing under the foot to get in the way of a runner’s stride, they serve up a soft, smooth, natural ride designed for quick-cadence agility. 

Last but not least, there’s a stern wasp icon that, Krajicek says, is a meant to be an enlightened reminder to be brutally honest in approaching “the battle that lies within,” a slogan that adorned the first round of his shoes.

If you’re a running shoe geek, Atreyu’s original shoe is kind of like a Nike Mayfly crossed with a Saucony Kinvara, plus a splash of the innovative, entrepreneurial juju reminiscent of Newton, Altra and Hoka when those brands launched. But in reality, it’s something entirely unto its own — made special by a pinch of the pixie dust from Krajicek’s imaginative but genuine and fully committed vibe.

Mike and Joe of Atreyu designing a shoe on a computer.
Michael Krajicek works on a shoe design with another Atreyu team member. Photo: courtesy Atreyu

“It’s bold and a little bit crazy, but I love it personally,” says Chris McClung, founder of the Rogue Running events, coaching and travel business in Austin. “It’s innovative and bold, and if you’re going to disrupt the big players in the industry, the subscription concept is a good way to do it. I’ve probably run 100 miles in my first pair and I really like them.”

Krajicek and Atreyu are just getting started. A new round of subscription shoes are expected to become available in December. The brand is developing an outreach return service to accept used shoes back for cleaning and redistribution to people in need or to a responsible recycling program. And then there’s the much-anticipated arrival of its new marathon shoe in early 2021.

Called “The Artist,” it’s a long-distance racing shoe with a curvy, 2mm carbon-fiber plate embedded in a high-stack foam midsole. More than 2,000 runners bought into the pre-sell this fall at the early adopter price of $99. Yes, Krajicek expects it to compete favorably with the carbon-fiber-enhanced shoes that Nike, Brooks, ASICS, Saucony, Skechers and Adidas are selling for $180 to $250.

“We’re able to offer those prices by mitigating the supply chain, through optimal foresight and ordering with our database of subscribers. It makes sense at scale,” Krajicek says. “It’s not a magic bullet, but having a recurring base helps us determine who are die-hard users are and then we can be very effective with our ordering.”

* * * 

So who is Michael Krajicek and how was he able to start a company that’s an outlier to the business model utilized by 30 other brands in a $25 billion industry? He’s a peculiar visionary with a knack for disruptive ingenuity and also has what he calls “the superpower of sobriety” in his back pocket.

Growing up in Lake Charles, Louisiana, Krajicek was a good high school runner and hockey player, but his original passion was playing guitar and song writing. He had plenty of challenges as a kid — including losing his dad to brain cancer when he was 13 —  but he got grounded as he fine-tuned his focus around music in high school. After graduating from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston in 2008, he bounced around all over the U.S. in an earnest pursuit to make his mark as a professional musician.

He moved to Chicago to try to write music for a band. Then he was off to LA to take an internship writing jingles for TV commercials. Next was writing film score documentaries in Baton Rouge, followed by recording music with a folk band in New Orleans. He eventually found his way to Nashville, where he bottomed out and came to the realization that he didn’t want to be a professional musician. All the while, he had been living an out-of-control, alcohol-infused lifestyle that was catching up with him.

Completely down and out at age 26, he moved back to Lake Charles in 2013 and immediately joined a local Alcoholics Anonymous outpatient group. For three hours a night, three nights a week, he sat at a roundtable spilling his guts with people from all walks of life doing the same. He got sober and suddenly yearned for a way to be the best version of himself.

“It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Krajicek recalls. “The first session, all the dude had to ask was, ‘What kind of a man do you want to be?’ I was like, ‘Fuck! I had never been point-blanked with that before.’ I just wanted to be an entirely honest guy, a good guy. That’s all I wanted. And that’s what it took to get me back on track. That’s where that obsession comes from.”

With his musical career sidetracked, Krajicek knew he had to find work and get on with his life. However, in Lake Charles, that meant working in the service industry or getting a job at one of the natural gas refineries in the area. He’s never been against hard work, but he always fancied himself as a creative type. His brother, father and grandfather all found success as self-made entrepreneurs and he could feel the do-it-yourself vibe pulsing through him.

Mike Krajicek at his desk.
Mike Krajicek has relied on building relationships with industry experts and key vendors in his foray into the running shoe business. Photo: courtesy Atreyu

With the shock of sobriety and the reflective smack in the face from the AA group, Krajicek crafted a plan to open an artisanal hot dog restaurant in the tourist district of Lake Charles. (The inspiration, he says, came from a hot dog stand in Chicago known for its creative concoctions.) He invested a few bucks he’d saved and threw himself into a business he knew nothing about, but he did so with an open mind, a zest for learning as much as possible and applying his gift for outside-the-box creativity. 

Amid that crazy life change, he also re-discovered running as an essential daily activity and a way to stay balanced. He’d run an hour every day, rain or shine, even amid hot, humid conditions. It gave him an escape from the daily stress and hustle of the restaurant business, but it also gave him purpose and forward-thinking energy.

After initially hawking red hots from a mobile cart at parties, concerts, weddings and other events, the business turned into Botsky’s — a gourmet hot dog parlor inside a renovated gas station that specialized in unusual frankfurters made from premium ingredients and served with a side of sweet potato fries, local craft beers and a funky, ecclectic vibe. 

Krajicek was all-in and Botsky’s became a huge success, mostly by a growing by word-of-mouth reputation. At the same time, he was fortunate to have a mentor who was continually reminding him that simplicity is the key to happiness and success in life. He let that bit of wisdom, and Maffetone-style endurance training, fuel his full all-in immersion into running and triathlon, or, as he calls it, the endurance arts.

“I just loved the way running made me feel,” he says. “Every day at the restaurant, I would go out and run for an hour, just to clear my head. Running just became so synonymous with this quality of life and it just parlayed into this wild journey. And along the way, I just fell in love with running. And as part of my journey, I started dissecting my form, how I was running and the shoes I was running to get a more holistic view of it all.”

That’s when he discovered his appreciation for the natural ride and proprioceptive feel that lightweight, low-to-the-ground shoes deliver. One of his first favorites was the Adidas Adizero Tacumi Sen 3, a 7.4-ounce racing flat with a 6mm heel-toe offset. He learned what Newton Running founder Danny Abshire had been preaching about running with a midfoot/forefoot gait pattern, read Chris McDougall’s “Born to Run” best-seller, absorbed as much as he could about the minimalist shoe movement, and continually tried new shoes.

Living a full life and doing so completely sober, he continued improving as a runner and triathlete and began a quest to finish his first Ironman triathlon (which he eventually did at Ironman Texas in 2018) and chase a Boston Marathon qualifier (which he eventually got at the 2018 California International Marathon with a 2:52:33 effort). Along the way, he developed a creative passion for running and running shoes just as he had with his music and the hot dog restaurant.

“Everything I do is tied around this an inherent obsession with trying to boil things down with their exact need,” he says. “I would call it being obsessively honest. It’s one of the things that holds me back a little. Sometimes it can become a little bit intense for a lot of people, but I channel it into my research. I read all of the studies. I learn everything I can, and I go into things with intensity. I’m a mid-pack runner and I am not fast, but that’s how I fell in love with running and running shoes.”

The hot dog gig was such a triumph that Krajicek was named the 2014 Restaurateur of the Year by the local travel and tourism board. He worked like a fiend to grow it for a few years, but then got an offer he couldn’t refuse and sold it. He took some time off to perform as a storytelling singer/songwriter and focus on being fully committed to endurance training while thinking about how to start a new running shoe brand.

“The restaurant industry is brutal, but it will teach you a lot about starting a footwear company in a roundabout way,” he says with a laugh.

* * * 

Just as with his music and restaurant success, Krajicek has relied on building relationships with industry experts and key vendors in his foray into the running shoe business. Atreyu was born from a blend of absorbing as much knowledge as possible and trusting his own passionate instincts. He leaned on the smarts and experience of his older brother, Gabriel, to help formulate and fine-tune his business model and set out to meet as many people in the running industry and pick up as much running shoe know-how as possible. 

When he moved to Austin in December 2018, Krajicek immediately took a job working the sales floor for the Rogue Running by JackRabbit shop on Pressler Street, just a few blocks from popular running trails along Town Lake. He learned the ins and outs of the retail business, connected with reps and got priceless input from a wide range of runners.

“I just wanted to do what I was hired to do but also be able to ask questions of the customers,” Krajicek says. “So I did on-the-ground market research for about a year as an employee, talking about shoe-fitting, asking them what their preferences were, where they got their info from, how they ran in their shoes. It was the best education ever.” 

He met an industrial designer who taught him the ins and outs of product design. But most importantly, he connected with Gary Pitman and Todd Miller of Proof of Concept — Portland, Ore., footwear manufacturing consultants who worked with numerous running shoe brands, including Altra, Adidas, Newton, Nike, Li-Ning and Skechers. The savvy industry veterans provided invaluable help to Krajicek in getting the first Atreyu shoe off the ground as a liaison between the brand and the factories in China, while also providing nuanced insights about material sourcing, prototyping, pre-production samples, midsole foam durometers, manufacturing schedules and other key details. 

Atreyu shoe brand shoes.
Photo: courtesy Atreyu

It’s not hard to build a running shoe from scratch if you have knowledge about design, materials and production, Pittman says. But if you’re a start-up and not a multi-million dollar company like Brooks, ASICS, New Balance or Nike, overseas factories will expect you to pay for the necessary molds and tooling upfront. That means you need at least $150,000 in seed money to get started or have the ability to sell shoes before their produced.

“One of the things that has made a difference and allowed some of the smaller start-up brands gain success is starting off with a direct-to-consumer model,” Pitman says. “With the wholesale business, it’s difficult to get wall space in running retail stores. When you’re a startup, that’s a hard thing to overcome. But if you’re able to start with a Kickstarter program or a situation where you can get a couple of thousand people to buy upfront to pay for your samples and first round of production, like Michael did, that is a big boost. But that just didn’t exist 15 or 20 years ago.”  

Looking ahead to 2021, Atreyu, which has a staff of just three other people — new president Joseph Cabrera and sales and customer service gurus Noah Dennis and Jake Martin — have a lot of ideas on their drawing board, including another round of subscription shoes in March, a new performance trainer with an energetic midsole foam slated for next summer and possibly a trail running shoe in 2022. 

The biggest challenge isn’t making those new shoes, it’s building a brand and creating a buzz in order to sell more shoes. Atreyu has no marketing budget, just prevalent social media that highlights its shoes and oozes the company’s unique and authentic happy-go-lucky vibe.

“We’ve worked with a lot of brands and startups to develop a lot of really nice shoes that never made it to market,” Pitman says. “And the reason they never made it to market was because the people behind it weren’t marketing experts. I think Michael is an exception to that, I think [Altra co-founder] Golden Harper was an exception to that. As we always said at Nike, Nike is a marketing company it’s not a footwear company. It’s the ability to tell a story about your shoes so people will buy them.” 

For now, the jury is still out on Atreyu. There are loads of positive comments on its social media posts, but also plenty of pros and cons from the loyalists at the Running Shoe Geek Facebook group. Online review sites Road Trail Run and Believe in the Run have given the base model shoe favorable assessments, so the brand appears to be on the right track.

But selling 10,000 or so pairs of first-generation shoes doesn’t make it a success, and the slim markup margin doesn’t provide the brand with cash flow excess. As it was, Krajicek used the revenue generated from the sell-in of The Artist racing shoe to fund the second batch of his original base model. But if his word-of-mouth reputation and subscription audience continue to grow and, if The Artist is deemed a success — and so far there has been good buzz from early wear-testers — there’s plenty of reason to think Atreyu has at least a fighting chance. 

“It’s been an amazing journey so far,” Krajicek says. “The response to what we’re doing has been really gratifying. When it started, one of my biggest goals was to get a Boston Marathon qualifier and to run Boston. And whenever I get to run the dadgum thing, I’ll be running in a pair of shoes that I created, so that’s pretty cool.”