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HIBT Lab! Saysh: Wes and Allyson Felix

HIBT Lab! Saysh: Wes and Allyson Felix

Thu, 16 Mar 2023 07:10

Allyson Felix is the most decorated American track and field athlete of all time. She’s also a mother. Those two identities came into conflict in 2018 when negotiating a contract renewal with her shoe sponsor, Nike.

Ultimately, Allyson broke ties with Nike because the new contract presented a significant pay cut and lacked adequate maternal protections. After struggling to find a new shoe sponsor, Allyson and her brother/agent, Wes, decided to take matters into their own hands and start their own shoe company, Saysh.

This week on How I Built This Lab, Allyson and Wes talk with Guy about their journey to the top of the track and field world, the decision to leave Nike, and how they built the iconic shoe that Allyson wore during her gold medal performance at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. Plus, why most name brand shoes aren’t designed for women’s feet, and how Saysh is working to change that.

This episode was produced by Chris Maccini, with music by Ramtin Arablouei.

Edited by John Isabella, with research help from Lauren Landau Einhorn.

Our audio engineer was Alex Drewenskus.

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This episode of How I Built This is brought to you by New York Times All Access. For the best in news, analysis, and culture, there's only one New York Times. And now, you can enjoy Times-level expertise in the areas of games, cooking, product reviews, and sports with a New York Times All Access subscription. In addition to original reporting from journalist Worldwide, you can unwind with spelling B, wordle, the crossword, and more. Enjoy delicious recipes and daily inspiration from cooking experts. Explore independent reviews for thousands of products and wire cutter and discover in-depth personalized sports journalism from the athletic. New York Times All Access, everything that Times offers all in one subscription. To subscribe, go to slash all access. When it comes to banking, startups have been told that protecting their cash must come at the expense of innovation. But that's a myth. Mercury is engineered precisely for the pace and creativity of startups. Get FDIC-insured checking and savings accounts via regulated partner banks, send money seamlessly, proactively manage your cash, and close the books in record time, all with confidence. Visit to join more than 100,000 startups that trust mercury with their finances. Hello and welcome to How I Built This Lab. I'm Guy Arise. Allison Felix is one of the greatest athletes of all time. In fact, she is the most decorated American track and field athlete in history. And yet, once she ran on the Tokyo Olympics, she did so without a shoe sponsor. And it happened because her previous sponsor, Nike, offered Allison a contract that she felt was a lowball. And so, Allison decided to do something totally unconventional. She made her own shoe, and she became the first Olympic athlete to run in a shoe that was her own brand. The idea came from Allison's brother and business partner, West Felix. And now, they turned that single idea into a shoe brand called Sage. It's a lifestyle and running shoe brand that is designed specifically for women's feet. And you might be wondering, wait, aren't all women's athletic shoes designed for women's feet? Well, the answer actually is no. And you'll hear why in a moment. Allison and West both started track and field as teenagers, and it wasn't long before their talent and effort led them to much bigger competitions. West, you were really the first track star in your family, because from what I understand, Allison, you didn't really start running track until you got to high school. And West, you went to USC on track scholarship, right? I did. Yeah, I went to SC on a track scholarship. And, you know, Allison and I always kind of joke that it went from when we were younger, people would come up to her and be like, oh, you're West's sister, right? And, you know, and then real quick, it like switched. And it was like, you're Allison's brother. So it was something, Allison, and I really were able to share together this love for the sport, this, you know, this kind of passion to try to excel in it. She just, you know, a whole lot better. Allison, you decided your senior year of high school to go pro, which I guess was kind of controversial at the time, because you were offered, obviously, every school wanted you on their team, including USC where West went. But you decided that you would sign a deal with Adidas and become a professional athlete and still eventually go to college and do your degree. But that was kind of like a, as I say, it was kind of a controversial decision at the time, right? Definitely. It was something that in the US, to my understanding, no one had done before. And so, you know, people had all their thoughts on it. I remember watching one of West's track meets. It was like the USC UCLA dual meet. And it was on TV. And so I'm watching in the broadcast. And somehow, like my name comes up. And they start talking about this decision. And if I go pro, it's the worst decision in the history of high school. And so it was just a lot of people had different thoughts on it. And so, as a family, it really came down to a timing thing. You know, West was at USC. And I understood, like, to be a collegiate athlete, like NCAA's came first. You do all of the events. It's about points and all of those things. And at this time, the Olympics were going to be the next year. This is Athens 2004. Yeah, Athens 2004. And so it was like, if I'm going to try to make that team, I'm going to try to make that team. And the Olympics one event peaking at the right time and giving myself the best shot. And so, ultimately that was kind of the decision maker. And that was a 200 meters. Exactly, yes. So as a result of that, you could not get a scholarship and compete at the collegiate level. you are, you've got the successful career at USC, PEC 10 Champ in the 100 meter. I mean, but also it sounds like Wes, you were also really focused on just college and getting a degree knowing that probably this was not gonna be your career. Yeah, definitely. I like never thought about it as a career. I knew I wanted to work in sports and entertainment, wanted to, you know, do deals and didn't have this full master plan of what that would look like, but at the time it was just, let me run fast and work hard and it was what was paying for college. And, you know, and also like I was running well, winning felt good. And my dad said, you know, if there's an opportunity to continue running, why would you not take that? You know, like school's gonna be there, your mind's gonna be there, but this opportunity to run professionally to go and sign a sponsorship deal, that's only there for a little bit. And you did, after you graduated, you did become a professional athlete for a few years and ran for Nike. I mean, it sounds like you were trying. I mean, you were sort of, there was a goal possibly that at least compete for the Olympic trials. But you, I guess there was a detour that you took as a result of an illness, right? Yeah, totally. I had a liver virus. I just was in practice and just felt really tired, couldn't hit times, you know, and my coach was kind of like, what's going on? You know, and I was like, I'm not sure. And he's like, are you getting your rest? Are you doing all the things? And I'm like, I'm doing all the things, like nothing's changed. And I went to the doctor and so we start the test and they run through and see like, yep, your liver enzyme levels, liver function levels are like off the charts, something here is wrong. And it's probably a good six months of just in and out of the hospital, constantly taking tests, liver biopsies. But ultimately we got to a point where the doctor just said, you know, where we know that there's something wrong with your liver. We know that there is at least a minimum of virus attacking your liver. We think that you need to stop competing. And so stopped competing. And yeah, and I think in a lot of ways, it was like, it was really hard, but it was probably the best gift I could have gotten. Meantime, Alison, you became a student at USC. And I guess you weren't on the track team. You were competing at the international level, but you were a student at USC studying education. Yeah, I was studying education. I was a normal student, but I was also a professional athlete at the same time. And I was having a really tough time, like my freshman year, because the way that track and field works is the majority of your competitions are overseas. And so here I am, like, you know, in Switzerland racing and trying to explain to my professor, why I need to take like a final on the road. And they're like, but you're not on the track team, you know? So it was that first year was really, really bumpy. You would go to the Beijing Olympics and compete again. And once again, you won silver in the 200 meters. The team won gold in the relay. And meantime, Wes, you kind of knew that your career as a runner was over. And so what did you decide to do? Yeah, I knew that I was really interested in business. And so I called one of my friends and I was like, hey, I think I'm going to start like a fake business. Like I just want to practice, like to just see, like, what are the steps? How do I build it? Like, what do we do? And he was like, yeah, that doesn't sound like a good idea. Like, why don't you just actually start something? And I was like, yeah, I have no idea how to do that. And he was like, well, I think you could figure it out. And so I had this idea that was a online women's fitness email newsletter. And I like learned how to code and, you know, I took this idea and built this website and built out an email newsletter subscription service. And, but along the way, you know, I also was talking with Allison and was just like, yeah, I don't know, I'm like, kind of, I'm getting into this thing, like building this thing. But I've always wanted to, you know, do deals for athletes. And what if we work together? Like, what would that be like? And we started this conversation of just exploring it, you know, and what would that even mean? What would it look like? And I remember that, you know, Allison had like her contract with Adidas and it was this really great deal, really, really incredible opportunity for her, a really big deal in the sport. But I looked at what she was making off the track. I was looking at, you know, those sponsorships that she had outside of Adidas. And we kind of looked at each other and I was like, I think I can do that. I can go scrape up that much money. And I was like, in worst case, you know, then it doesn't work. And then you go back to, you know, a more traditional agent in the sport, but what if it does work? And we get to do it together. And so I remember I wrote her a letter and this was after our conversation and we should look for this one day because it was probably so ridiculously formal, trying to be professional at 25 years old and sent it over to her and said, you know, basically, dear Miss Allison Felix, I think we can partner up and I think we can change the world a little bit. And yeah, she was sweet enough to say, yeah, I think we can. So you basically become your sister's agent at this point. Yes. And one of the cool things that you did, I think it's so important for anyone who is going into any field to think about doing exactly what you did was you reached out to Serena Williams agent, Jill Smoller. You didn't know you had no connection to, I guess you got to her over Facebook and you said, hey, can I hang out with you for a little bit of time just to learn from you? Yeah, completely. I thought there is a whole lot that I don't know. But I also knew that this dream or vision that I had for my little sister was bigger than just what I had seen in track and field. And I thought, okay, if we could build any sort of business around a female athlete, who would I want her to be? And I was like, well, Serena. Yeah. And I was like, well, who helps Serena? Do what Serena does and looked it up and found Jill's name and got her phone number called the office and got to her assistant and tried to set a meeting and couldn't get a meeting, couldn't get a meeting, couldn't get a meeting. And finally, I was like, I'm just going to try on Facebook. And I had no idea if she would be on Facebook and sure enough, she was, sent her a message. She wrote me right back and she said, what are you doing? Why didn't you call my office instead of meeting like a normal person? And I was like, I've been trying to get to you like through your office. It's not working. And she was like, all right, come in tomorrow. So I came in tomorrow and she's like, so what are we talking about? And I just pitched her what I thought Allison could be. And she said, I really like you. And I really like this idea. And I think Allison's incredible. Let's do it. Yeah. So what did that mean? I mean, because being an agent, right? There's a certain kind of approach you have to take. And so how did you learn? What did you learn from her about how to do deals and how to represent Allison the best way you could? Yeah, totally. And I would say like what Jill taught me right away was first humility. And she said, there's going to be days you might be on a private plane with the CEO of some big company. And there will be days you're going to go and you're going to run and you're going to grab your client water. You need to be exceptional at both of them because the job is both. And she was like, you are never that important to not go and run and get the water. And I was like, OK, wow. And that was easy with my sister, right? Because if she was thirsty, I wanted her to have water. But the other thing she taught me was how important information was. And she was like, a lot of people are going to come to you with opportunities. That's great. She was like, you don't need me for that. What you don't know is how much other people are getting for that same opportunity. And when she said that, it fully clicked. And my trust for her grew even more. And people would come to me. And they're like, you've got the biggest athlete in the sport. Why do you have this talent agency? Why are you doing that? The deals are going to come to you. Why would you split the commission there? And it was because somebody can come with a 10 cent offer, but it's really a dollar deal. And that's what Jill helped me with. And I learned really quick. They saw Allison's brother. And that was an opportunity to take advantage of us. And as soon as I brought Jill in, then it was, I've got to get it together. The numbers have to be right. It has to be fair. And so the issue wasn't, could we get the deal or not? We could get the deal. We just couldn't get the deal for the right money. And Jill made sure the money was right. Wow. OK, so here you are. The two of you are building a business around Allison and her incredible talent. And I guess shortly after launching your own agency, and becoming Allison's agent, Wes, you secured a new sponsorship deal for Allison. So leaving Adidas signing with Nike, and then two years later in 2012, Allison, you get to the London Olympics. You finally win the gold in the 200 meters, which that was a been an incredible moment for you. It felt like such a long time coming. And when Wes and I started to work together, it was like the sense of relief, because it was just like, OK, I can fully trust this person. I can put my head down and do what I need to do. And so I remember going into the London Olympics. And obviously, now the pressure is even more, because it's like, I've tried this twice before. I don't want to wait four more years to have another opportunity. And I just had this sense of calm. I remember getting to the starting line, and I logged every workout. I write everything down. I remember just going back over it, and I was like, I'm ready. Like, if this is for me, it is going to happen, because there's nothing else I could have done in preparation. And I remember just giving my all, and then finally, looking up to the scoreboard and seeing my name come up there. And it was just like, I think the relief was bigger than the joy. If that makes sense, it was just... And I think I also had just built it up. I thought, once I got this gold medal, everything was going to change. Like, this is what I've been aiming for. And then I remember coming home and being like, oh my gosh, I feel exactly the same. What happened here? And I think the lesson in that was just really, instead of just this one goal that I've been aiming for, like the beauty has been along the way. Like, that was the magic. And I had to just look back and say, like the next time I have a defeat or a failure, like, I'm going to embrace it. I'm going to go, I get another opportunity. Like, I'm just going to have a different mindset. Meantime, from a business perspective, what are the things where you guys thinking about to kind of build out the business? Were you already thinking about, hey, maybe we can do a line of apparel or maybe we can work with a beverage company? Were either of you thinking about starting something yourself or was it mainly focusing on endorsements and partnerships? Yeah, it was really focused on endorsements and partnerships. I think that like, everything that we had seen was this like constant reminder that the individual athlete, it's not really about that. It's about the big brand that you can help sell their product. And the goal is have the best brands. And if you have the best brands, then you'll have the best brand too. And so I remember us really focusing on the blue chip sponsors, you know, make sure you have Visa, Proctor and Gamble, Nike, Gatorade, like these are the ones that if you partner with those companies, you know, they have a similar type of storytelling and that's what allows you to become Mia Ham, Serena Williams, Michael Jordan. It's the sponsors that do it. You know, and so it was this idea that like our job is work really hard, Alison has to win on the track. I have to go find the sponsors and then make sure that there's a cohesive story. And if we do that, then, you know, everything else that comes into focus and it all takes care of itself. We're gonna take a quick break, but when we come back, we'll hear more about Alison's Olympic triumphs and the contract renewal offer from Nike, that changed everything. That's ahead in just a moment. I'm Guy Roz, and you're listening to how I built this lab. With Audible, you can enjoy all your audio entertainment in one app. You'll always find the best of what you love or something new to discover. Audible offers a really wide selection of audio books across every genre, from best sellers and new releases to business, mysteries and thrillers, wellness, celebrity memoirs, and more. And get this, it's an Audible member, you can choose one title a month to keep from the entire catalog, meaning it's yours forever and you can come back and listen at any time. The Audible app makes it easy to listen anytime, anywhere, while traveling, doing chores, walking, working out, you decide. Lately, I've been using Audible to listen to Patricia Lockwood's, no one is talking about this, and it's been absolutely incredible to hear that book. New members can try Audible for free for 30 days. Visit slash built, or text built to 500-500. That's slash built, or text built to 500-500 to try Audible free for 30 days. slash built. Reading minds is hard. Good news is you don't have to. Remove the guesswork and build products with greater confidence by including direct customer feedback using user testing at each stage of the product development process. Companies are being asked to do more with less. They need to move quickly to build experiences that meet changing customer expectations, and they need to do so faster than ever, all while minimizing risk and costly rework. With user testing, you can get rapid feedback from your target audiences so that you can make higher confidence decisions earlier, faster, and throughout the product development process. Design, develop, deliver, and optimize products and experiences with confidence and less risk. Start your free test today at slash hibt. Welcome back to how I built this lab. My guests are Wes and Allison Felix. All right, so the two of you are building Allison's track career around sponsorships with big brands. And I guess this was sort of the typical playbook for an Olympic athlete. And Allison, you would go on in the real Olympics in 2016, anything to win silver medal and two gold medals that year. And then the next year, 2017, you are up for renegotiations with Nike to renew your contract. And I guess they came back with a surprisingly lowball offer. What do you remember about that? I remember when Wes called me, and he told me what it was. And the number was 70% less than what I had been making. And I remember just feeling like somebody had just like punched me. And at this point, that world championships that we just came off of, I think, Wes, correct me if I'm wrong. I think I had become the most decorated athlete at world championship history. Yeah, that's right. Yeah, so it was like this moment of like a high. Like we were celebrating like this is great. Like for me, I had been happy at Nike. And I was just like, OK, cool. I'm going to sign, you know, this will be my last deal. I'm going to end here. Like I didn't think anything more. So then when it came back, it was just like, oh my gosh, they don't believe in me anymore. And for me, like that is just huge. Like I tried to be a good partner, you know, go above and beyond whenever there was calls, you know, I remember getting a call like my 30th birthday that I had like planned for like a year. And you know, I got a call like, well, can you be here like somewhere across the world? And I'm like, yeah, I guess I have to cancel my birthday party, you know, so it was just very hurtful. Yeah. And at that point, as you mentioned, you had, you were the winningest track and field athlete in the world. Like you'd won more medals at world events, which is amazing. But this is a thing like, you know, it doesn't matter how often you go to the meetings and how often you show up at headquarters and how many times you say yes and all the people there who love you and work with you. Like at the end of the day, like, it comes down to a negotiation and that seems to matter and it's crazy, but it's like how big corporations work. Yeah. And I think that's, you know, that like you said, that's how it works. And I was like, okay, I guess I'm at that age where, you know, it's up and it's, you know, it doesn't matter that my performance hasn't gone down. It's just like this is what happens at this time period and it's business and I, okay. But then at the same time, I had been putting off like my real life stuff that I wanted to do because I was like, well, you know, my job is to win medals. I have to be focused on this. And so that's when all of that shifted. And I was like, okay, well, if they're offering me this, they think I'm done. I've been waiting to like, you know, I want to have a family, like do all these things. I've just why am I waiting any longer? Yeah. So you ran unsponsored because you were in these negotiations with Nike that would last about a year and a half. But meantime, you became, you were married and became pregnant with your first child. And you were worried about anyone finding out that you were pregnant while you were training. So you would train in the dark to hide your baby bump? Yeah. So this was like something that had happened in track and field. And I was naive to it, you know, when I was younger, you know, I'd been in the sport since I was a teenager and I kind of heard whispers and saw different things. And then as I got older, I really understood what it was. But women really struggled through pregnancy and motherhood in track and field. And so what they would do is if they were like in between contracts, like I was, they would hide their pregnancies, they would sign new deals and then they would carry on. Or contracts would be paused, athletes would be reduced. And so there was just like all of this struggle that would happen. And so I was just, I had so much fear around. Because she was still negotiating with Nike in the hopes of resolving this. Yes, it was the worst timing ever. And I told Wes I was like, I've been the best client up until now. I'm now I'm making life really hard for you. And so even where we started off those negotiations, we didn't have anything on paper yet. So the fear really was that even that 70% less would be taken away once they found out that I was pregnant. So that's when I started to say like, okay, I'm just gonna do what everybody else has done until I'm ready to, you know, see something on paper and disclose my pregnancy. And so I trained four o'clock in the morning when it was dark. I went on for a time period where I was competing and I was pregnant and nobody knew. I wore baggy clothes, I rarely left the house. Like this whole time period that like I had dreamed about and that I was so excited about that should have been celebrated. Ended up being the most isolating, dark and lonely and just really difficult time period in my life. You also had pre-clampsia, which I'm very familiar with because my wife also had an art with our first child. And so you gave birth 32 weeks to camera and to your daughter. Yeah, I mean, it was crazy. And being an athlete, I think I took my health for granted. I just never imagined I would be in that scenario. And there was points where, you know, when I called my family, you know, they weren't sure if what they were coming for, you know, where they coming because I wasn't going to make it, where they coming, you know, to meet granddaughter niece. Like it just, it was very scary. And then I think it just made everything feel so heavy because we're going through still this just brutal renegotiations and then this like real life event happens where it's like, does any of this even matter? You know, I just want my daughter to survive. I want to be able to leave the hospital and it was just, it just felt like too much. And in my mind, I had this like plan before any of this happened. I was like, okay, I'm going to have this baby. I'm going to come back in four weeks. I am going to train like this is what I know how to do. I'm just going to get it done. And then everything went out of the window. I, it took much longer than I could have ever imagined. And I remember my first workout back. My coach, he gave me a treadmill workout. That was a 30 minute walk. And by the end, I am just crying because I just, I can't fathom how am I going to compete with the world's greatest. And I cannot even get through a walk. Wow. And so it was a very humbling beginning to the journey back. You are still on negotiations with Nike in 2019. Wes, you were very much involved with these conversations with Nike. And I guess they're not budging. They're not going anywhere, right? Wes, what do you remember about Nike? Just wouldn't move on their offer? No, they weren't, they weren't moving. And I think that one of the things that I would always try to do is let me put myself in their position. How would I look at this if I had their job instead of mine? And it was, you know, you can do what feels right and fair. Or you can potentially get a top athlete for a whole lot less. It wasn't that they didn't think she deserved more money. Or that they didn't have more money together. It was on their end, a smart business decision. They looked at her age and said, you know, even if she goes and she can win more medals, she's got four more years left is another company going to spend this kind of money and then also try to rebrand her. No, we don't think so. And there was an angle of this where we started to really fight for maternal protection. And it was because we said to them, you're already offering her 70% less. We were able to get it from 70% less to 60% less. So clearly you can see how great my negotiating skills were. So we get it to 60% less. And then we go through this process of disclosing the pregnancy to them. And for us, it was really important that we had the offer on paper. We wanted that in writing. But we were never for us just morally. We felt like it wasn't right to sign that contract without telling them that she was pregnant. And if they decide, they don't want you because you're pregnant, after they already offered you a contract, then they can deal with whatever the consequences of that are. But we'll give them the out. We'll tell them. We're not going to sign it and then tell them after the fact. So we told them she was pregnant. But we had the offer in writing. If they wanted to pull out, they could have pulled out. But then what we had to address next was the way that these contracts are set up, you get a bonus. If you win a medal, you get a reduction. If you don't win a medal. So here was going to be Allison. 10 months after giving birth. And she would need to go to the world championships. She would need to win a medal. And if she didn't, she'd get hit another 25%. And for us, that's where it was just like, no, that doesn't work. Like that's the line in the sand where that's not OK. And that's not OK for Allison. But that's not OK for any woman. She's having a baby. Yeah. All right, May 22, 2019, you kind of dropped a bomb on the world. You decided to write an op-ed in the New York Times about this experience of being pregnant while negotiating a contract with Nike. And I guess it came out of stories of other women athletes who were also dropped by Nike. And essentially, you made the point that like Nike talks about women's empowerment and markets to girls. But when it comes time for the rubber to meet the road here, they're not supporting female athletes to become odd. Yeah. So what originally happened was I had two teammates who were working on this story with the New York Times. And Wes was actually involved in it. Because he had done all these negotiations. And so he was working kind of like anonymously with them. And we were kind of sharing different things. And the idea was just that that's what that was going to be. It was never going to attach a name to it. It was just that. And then the women's world cup was coming up. And I remember this very vividly. I was sitting in Cameron's nursery. And I got a call from Wes. And he's like, don't shoot the messenger. But Nike wants to know if they can use your image in this campaign. I think it was in a commercial for the women's world cup. And literally, that was the moment that just changed everything. Because I was just like, what? Everything I had been through. And then the birth experience. And I'm fighting my way back to getting shape. And just like all of these things. And I knew he was working on the story. And I was just like, OK, I need to be a part of this story. And we have to do this. We have to put our names to this. And I looked at my daughter. That was the reason why. Because I wasn't going to let Cameron and her generation deal with the same thing. And at that point, it was kind of like, if I lose everything, then that will just be what it is. Because this has to come out. Wes, when Allison told you she wanted to do this, take on the biggest athletic company in the world. How did you respond? Were you immediately supportive? Or was a part of you nervous? No, I was really supportive. And now I say it in a really calm way. I was there were definitely racing thoughts. But I remember I called up the editor at the New York Times. And where I live, you lose cell service from the house until you get down the hill. And I remember I called her at the house, and I said, all right, let's go. And then got in the car. I drove down the hill. When I got down the hill, maybe three minutes. I had an email from Nike. And it was no words just a contract that they sent via DocuSign. And I called the New York Times editor, and I said, wait, hold on, hold on, hold on. Did you already publish it? They just sent me a contract. And I think like in that moment, and how Allison remembers her moment of sitting in the nursery with Cameron, I remember for me, pulling off to the side of the road, shaking as I'm holding my phone, going through and looking at the contract and saying, like, they had to have changed it. And I go through, and I read through the first time, don't see any changes. I read through again, don't see any changes. I'm on my phone. I'm trying to figure out, how do I search the documents? I can just do like a key word search to just search for pregnancy, baby, maternity. I'm just not seeing it. I read through probably about 11 times, and I just didn't see it anywhere. And I was like, I have to be missing it. There's no way I just got the same contract. Why would they send it? What are the chances? And I called the editor back, and I was like, I read through it 11 times. There's nothing any different. And she was like, well, how do you feel? And I was like, yeah, let's go. Like, go ahead and publish it. And put my phone away and, you know, drove away. And remember thinking like, what are we doing? But there was still this column. I think I remember calling my dad and just telling him, you know, here's where it's at. And he just said like, you can be proud of this. This is the right thing. And kind of held on to that. And yeah, and then we let it out to the world. And I remember seeing the New York Times News Alert come through. And just like that moment was, it was terrifying. But it was also, I don't think I've ever been more proud of anything that Allison has ever done or that I've ever been able to do with her. We're going to take another quick break. But when we come back, more from Wes and Alison Felix about how their experience with Nike inspired them to start their own footwear company. Sage, which makes shoes specifically designed for women's feet. Stay with us. You're listening to How I Built This Lab. 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Follow business movers wherever you get your podcasts. You can listen ad-free on Amazon Music or the Wondering app. The The Welcome back to How I Built This Lab. I'm talking with former Olympic track star, Allison Felix and her brother and business partner, Wes. All right, so you released this op-ed in The New York Times, which details your experience with Nike. And that was the moment that you probably didn't realize it quite yet, but that was a moment that would of course change the trajectory for both of you, right? Leading you from this business model that was about endorsements and sponsorships to a totally different model where you would do your own thing. You would actually make a product and that product would be shoes. At this point, Allison, you were planning to be in the Tokyo Olympics in 2020, which of course happened in 2021. Obviously, Nike was not going to be your sponsor. And tell me how the two of you started to think about, wait a minute, why don't we just make our own shoe? Like, why do we actually need a Nike or a Devis on Allison's feet? Like, why not make it ourselves? Yeah, it started kind of with, first, I got a new athletic apparel sponsor. With Athleta. With Athleta, yeah. They actually, they had never sponsored an athlete before. They read the op-ed and they were just like, let's just have a conversation and see where it goes. And but I would say that that relationship really changed my mindset because I felt like they empowered me. They wanted to celebrate me as an athlete, but also as a mother and support the advocacy work that I had started to do. And so it was like, this is different experience. And so that set us off in the path of, okay, let's try to find this in a footwear company. Like, I love how this feels. It makes me feel good. At this point, I'm like, I see so much more value than just financial value. So let's focus it on this and let's find it. And so at this point, I'm still competing. So I'm wearing Athleta and I am actually wearing like Nike shoes and I would just like peel off the Nike sign and that's kind of what we were doing. And then I'm talking to Wes after like, we're doing the search of like trying to find, you know, this potential company. And I just got to this place where I'm like, I'm tired. Like I am so exhausted of asking these companies and like begging them to see my worth and my value. And it's like, how am I in this place? You know, I'm trying to compete for my fifth Olympic games. And I'm out here like hustling and grinding, like taking meetings and trying to sell myself to have like a shoes sponsor. And Wes, he's always been the like, the one with the big ideas and you know, the visionary, very like hopeful and optimistic and I'm like very much so the opposite. And so we're having this conversation and he's just like, well, why don't we just like, do this ourselves? I love that so much. Wes, how did the idea come to you? I mean, it seems so plainly obvious, but also so insurmountable as shoe, right? But of course, that made perfect sense. How did you land on that idea? Yeah, guy, this moment is probably gonna be as I share this with you, what's gonna keep me single forever. But it was the pandemic. I was sitting there. I was building Legos and I just, I remember thinking like building stuff. It's like so cool. Like I wonder what other stuff we could build. And that's how I kind of thought of it, you know, was like, huh, I wonder if we could build a shoe. And it wasn't a serious thought. I wasn't thinking about a business or anything like that, but then when Allison called and she kind of, she speaks to that frustration. And at times that kind of gets me to like, you're just, you're being negative. Like, there's hope here somewhere, but in my own frustration, I said to her, well, why don't we just build our own? And, you know, she says back, like build our own shoe company, and like older brother, I double down. And I'm like, yeah, yeah, why don't we build our own shoe company? And she's just kind of quiet. And then she comes back and she's just like, well, yeah, put together a plan. And I was like, wow. Oh, okay, okay. And I put my legos down and I actually started thinking about it. And again, like it's the beauty of building something is you don't quite know what you're building. You just start with the first step. Something I tell myself a lot and try to share with people is, you know, it's not about 10 steps. There's just one step, 10 times. And I just thought through like, what's the first step? And I went back to her and told her like, I think this is the first step. And she was down to take it. Wow. All right, so let's start with the nuts and bolts here. You know you wanna do this. But first, Alison's got the Olympics to prepare for. And you wanna design a shoe and presumably, you want the shoe ready in time so she can run in them in Tokyo. I mean, first of all, you guys had some sponsorship money. So did you have enough to at least finance like a prototype? Yeah, we were able to, yeah, self-funded and we said, we knew that if we were gonna launch this, you know, it started with the shoe she runs in in the Olympics. And at that point, we were just thinking, if we make the shoe she can wear in the Olympics, we think other track kids, college kids, high school kids, they'll buy this. What an incredible platform, right? To be for runner to be wearing her own shoes in the Olympics? Totally. We were like, yeah, we're gonna be able to sell like a thousand of these or maybe like even 5,000. We're gonna be able to sell these shoes, you know? And I remember talking with a developer that we found and asking her like, here's what we wanna do. Do you think it's possible? She's like, I mean, it's possible, but it's gonna be really hard. And I was like, okay, but also like, how expensive is it gonna be? Because, you know, during that whole fight, Allison didn't get paid for almost two years. You know, so there was fear and stress around, is this the right thing to do? Is this a good use of money? Are we just doing this? Cause we're frustrated, like, but we worked through the process and got an idea of how much it could potentially cost, but in that process, there was something that Tiffany Beers, the developer that we worked with, said to us that changed it all. What'd you say? She was like, well, you know, shoes are not made for women. And I think we're like, okay, what does that mean? Yeah, what does that really even mean? And I'm like, no, we've all been to like, footlocker, like we see, what's that wall of shoes on that side, you know, the pinks and all of those ones. And she's like, no, like they're not made for women. She was made off of a last, which is a mold of a foot. And it's a man's foot that has been used to make women's footwear. And that just like, it took a while to sink in. And then it just kind of like blew us away. We're like, well, so what is that wall? And eventually we understood like, that wall was just marketing. There's nothing different about them. And then that changed our whole course of how we were going about all of this. And that was because then all the sudden, that feeling that we felt there, it mirrored exactly what Allison felt when she got that offer of 70% less. It was, you have been so loyal to this company and they're totally taking advantage of you. They're taking you for granted. And we looked at that thought of that wall and footlocker of women's shoes by the major footwear brands. And we said, if that's marketing, women are coming and buying those shoes, not knowing their men's shoes. They're buying those shoes because they believe their women's. And it just helped us to see there was a much, much bigger problem. And the bigger problem was that women were being overlooked by the brands their most loyal to. Yeah. The idea that all shoes are basically designed from men's feet is weird to me, right? And so this idea of building a shoe around a woman's foot, it's almost shocking to imagine that that was revolutionary, right? I mean, both of you sound like you were shocked when you discovered that. I mean, I had been a runner for, you know, 18 some years at this time and I had no idea. And then we learned that there were molds of like women's feet, right? Yeah, we learned that like, you know, as we talked with the last makers, as we went to go and build shoes and, and you know, we said, okay, we have this idea, you know, and what we're hearing is it's not out there, but we want to build a last based on women's feet. And the guys like, yeah, you want the model, AJ, nine, whatever, whatever. And I was like, wait, what? You have it? And he was like, a last based on a woman's foot? I was like, yeah. And he's like, yeah, yeah. We've been studying feet for the last hundred years. Like, yeah, we have a last based on a woman's foot. And, you know, inside I'm like, okay, well, how did we miss this? The whole thing is crumbling. Like this was a stupid idea. And I was like, well, who uses it? And he was like, nobody. And I was like, why would no one use it? And he was like, you know, probably money. And he's like, you'd be making two shoes instead of just one. And I was like, huh? And we had still never made a shoe yet. So that kind of made sense to me. If I have a business where I make a hundred million pairs of shoes, you're burning through molds. And no one's asking you for a different shoe. Women aren't saying we're unhappy with our shoes. Make one for me. Because they think they already have one for them. And they don't have anything to compare it to. They've never put on a shoe made for a woman. So you guys are fully committed to building the spike shoe for Alice and the compete in the Olympics. But it seems so complicated and challenging. I mean, you obviously found the designers. And they were willing to sort of work with you on this. And I don't know, to sort of understand that maybe they'd work with you on the project in a bigger way on this shoe brand. Yeah, I think like one of the things that we found where we had more friends at Nike than we realized. And when that op-ed came out, I think there were a lot of people who said, thank you so much, because I've had a hard experience. And maybe my voice wasn't as loud or maybe it didn't feel comfortable to speak out. There were a lot of people that really respected what we had done around the op-ed. And as we reached out to our developer, she was former Nike. She reached out to a designer who was also former Nike who then said, yeah, we're in. They said, we built Michael Johnson's spike in 1996, the most iconic spike ever made. We'd love to help. We believe in what you're doing, what you're standing for. And we worked with Mike Freeton on this spike. And Mike was one of Bill Bauerman's original protégés. He was there in the shed with the waffle maker, like putting shoes together. He's this master pattern maker. And he said, oh, this is exactly why we started Nike at the very beginning. It's lost its way, but this is why we started it. And he was like, I would love nothing more than to be a part of it. And so we were able to have the best in the world working on this shoe. And they did it and definitely delivered on an unbelievably iconic shoe for a woman and the first shoe to win a gold medal by an athlete who owns the brand too. Wow. So you, last year, I think you closed a series a round, $8 million, Athleta wasn't an investor. And you now have two lines, the Sage One and the Sage Two. You describe them as lifestyle shoes. So they're not designed necessarily for running, but you're designing a specific running shoe as well right now. Yeah, so our Sage One is lifestyle. So it's great for walking. It can do a workout really well. I mean, I participate in all the wear testing and I like, I go in on them. So it is possible. But yeah, so excited. Like the shoe that obviously has been, I don't know if I should call it my baby because I actually have a baby. So I probably shouldn't say that. But just, you know, really what I'm passionate about is this running shoe and really giving women something that they haven't felt before. And not for the woman who is like trying to, you know, break the marathon world record because I just don't feel like that is every woman. But, you know, the woman who is doing all the things, I'm really excited to bring this into the world. Yeah. You know, one of the smartest things that, I mean, in some ways it was the luckiest thing that happened to you that would happen with Nike because one of the smartest decisions you guys made from a business perspective was you depersonalized your business, your business was built around Allison's ability to endorse and to win races. And now you've built a brand using Allison's expertise, West your expertise as runners. And a business that, you know, can live beyond the two of you that you've built. And that's what's most meaningful. Like I want this to be so much bigger than myself. It is about women deserving better. And that's our mission, like that's our purpose. And we are all so aligned by that. And it is, it should go so much further than just myself. And so now as I've transitioned from track and field, like right into this business that I love and believe in, I love that it's centered around that very core message. Yeah. And West, when you think about, I mean, you know, just two years ago, you're like, let's make a shoe and your sister was like, what? And then I've got a shoe and I've got a brand. So I mean, tell me about the vision. I mean, obviously this is so much of this is about women and creating products for women. When you think about what SACE will be in 10 years, how would you describe it? Yeah. 10 years from now, I hope that SACE is a brand that that women feel really gets them. A brand that they are really proud of, that they know, sees them and works really hard to know them. We've talked a lot about how we celebrate women holistically. We have a maternity returns policy where if you're a woman whose foot changes size while you're pregnant, I can't imagine like all the sudden waking up in my foot's a different size. And now I need to throw out every shoe I ever had. So for us, we feel like our contribution to you doing the most incredible thing on the face of this planet, we can send you another pair of shoes in your new size. So I hope that like we are a brand that can meet women exactly where they are for everything that they need from us. And if we can do that in footwear, then we don't want to stop there. We want to ask women, what else is broken? What else are you realizing? Is it made for you? And we want to do our best to look for other things that aren't made for women. And then we want to show up and provide those products for women and make sure that they continue to feel seen and known by us. Wes and Alison Felix, thank you so much. Thank you. Thank you, this was incredible. Hey, thanks so much for listening to How I Built This Lab. Please do follow us on your podcast app so you always have the latest episode downloaded. If you want to follow us on Twitter, our account is at How I Built This In Mine is at GuyRaz. And on Instagram, I'm at Guy.Raz. If you want to contact the team, our email address is hibt at This episode was produced by Chris Messini with editing by John Isabella and research by Lauren Lando-Einhorn. Our audio engineer was Alex Trewenskis. Our music was composed by Ramteen Arabliui. Our production team at How I Built This includes Alex Chung, Casey Herman, Elaine Coats, JC Howard Liz Metzger, Sam Paulson, Kerry Thompson, and Kira Wachim. Niva Grant is our supervising editor, Beth Donovan is our executive producer. I'm GuyRaz and you've been listening to How I Built This. Hey, prime members, you can listen to How I Built This Early and Add Free on Amazon Music. Download the Amazon Music app today or you can listen early and add free with Wondery Plus in Apple podcasts. If you want to show your support for our show, be sure to get your How I Built This merch and gear at Before you go, tell us about yourself by completing a short survey at