Annie Mohaupt is the founder and CEO of Mohop, a Chicago-based footwear manufacturer. Mohop combines advanced 3D fabrication technologies with traditional artisanal techniques to produce custom-on-demand shoes for women and men. Mohop has been featured in INC Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, Huffington Post, and The Science Channel and has been recently been named both a national top-10 hardware startup and top-10 women-led startup.
Caryn Hartglass: Hello, everybody! Hello, everybody! Hello, I’m Caryn Hartglass. You’re listening to It’s All About Food and happy summer. It’s the second day of summer in most parts of the world, I think, and where I am, it’s hot. And I’m lovin’ it. I hope you are too, wherever you may be.
We’ll talk a little bit more about summer in the second part of the program, and we’ll be talking about, of course, my favorite subject: food. It’ll be a delicious time, I promise. I don’t want to bring up any sad stories about food today. I’m going to talk about happy food.
But in the first part, we’re going to talk about shoes again. I’m kind of into vegan shoe discussion lately because I think it’s important. We have a very special guest Annie Mohaupt, the founder and CEO of Mohop, a Chicago based footwear manufacturer. Mohop combines advanced 3D fabrication technologies with traditional artisanal techniques to produce custom on-demand shoes for women and men. Mohaupt has been featured in INC Magazine, Entrepreneur.com, Huffington Post, and the Science Channel and has been recently named both a national Top 10 Early Stage Hardware Startup and Top 10 Women-Led Startup.
Annie Mohaupt: Hello!
Caryn Hartglass: Hi! How are you?
Annie Mohaupt: I’m great, thanks. How are you?
Caryn Hartglass: Good! So I have a friend who told me about your shoes. Whenever I see her, she’s always sticking her feet in front of me [chuckles] saying, “Look at my new shoes. I just love them!” That’s how I found you.
Annie Mohaupt: Oh, that’s great. Yeah, Robyn’s really awesome. Happy to make shoes for her.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. She has a lot of vegan energy and a lot of passion for all things vegan. She gets very excited when she finds new things that she loves. And we all should. So I’m kind of fascinated about what you do. I watched the video that was on your website. So let’s talk about shoes. How did you learn how to make shoes and why?
Annie Mohaupt: Yeah. Well, I just started almost on a whim. My background’s in architecture and, when I was into architecture school, I really loved it because we got to make things with our hands. We got to make bottles. This is in a great fun class about the environment. But then when I was out in the real world, I was just doing drafting. I liked the career, but I really missed working with my hands.
I was doing house renovation at the time. We had all sorts of woodworking equipment in the basement and I was like, “Wonder if I could make shoes with this stuff?”
Caryn Hartglass: [chuckles]
Annie Mohaupt: I was just excited. “Let’s see if I can make shoes!” And the first ones were really, really awful. But after a little over couple of years of trial and error, I kind have figured out how to make really comfy shoes. So I made a business around that.
Caryn Hartglass: Did you do this all on your own or did you take any shoemaking training classes?
Annie Mohaupt: I did not take any classes. Part of the reason is my initial shoe design was very architecturally inspired. I was inspired by the work of these architectures named Charles and Ray Eames, and their experimentation of plywood is using several layers of plywood together to mold a two or three-dimensional item. I started using those sorts of techniques. The problem was I would run into roadblocks in designing shoes around that. It was an absolutely weird way to make shoes, but it really had nothing to do with traditional shoemaking at the time.
So I just invented my own type of techniques really around architectural and industrial design processes. In hindsight, I’m glad that I did that because it really led me to some breakthroughs I wouldn’t have accomplished if it was, “This is the right way to make shoes, and I’m going to make shoes this way.” I think there are a lot of fun and a lot to be learned in just experimenting, and seeing what works and what kind of new techniques you can bring to the table.
Caryn Hartglass: I love this. I had no idea, and I’m just delighted to hear how you learned how to make shoes. I support education and training, and there’s a lot that we can discover by taking classes and not having to “recreate the wheel,” as they say. But sometimes not knowing and just looking from within and creating, you come up with something amazing.
Annie Mohaupt: Yeah! I agree totally in the foundation of training. I have a lot of shoemaking friends now who are absolutely horrified-
Caryn Hartglass: [laughs]
Annie Mohaupt: [chuckles] -that I did not take any instruction. In hindsight, yeah, I can definitely see that it was a kind of crazy way to do things. Once in awhile it works out. But definitely, as an architect, I certainly wouldn’t want an untrained architect to be like, “Ah! I just thought this would look cool here!” [chuckles]
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.
Annie Mohaupt: I mean, there’s important things. Even with shoes. Structure where you have to protect your feet and not give you bad knees or anything like that. It really is a quality of life issue that the shoes need to be comfortable and to not hurt your feet or give you any blisters. Or worse, actual problems with walking. Because there are some shoes that really mangle your feet. So it’s important.
Caryn Hartglass: Absolutely. Well, I think the ones that are most focused on crazy fashions —tight, pointy toes, making our feet look smaller than they are— those are the ones that are really problematic. I don’t think we really know what the ideal support is for a foot, and maybe it is very individually based because I’m constantly reading about new running shoes and new concepts. We should have cushions, we shouldn’t have cushion, we should go barefoot. [chuckle] So I don’t think we’ve heard the last word on that.
Annie Mohaupt: I agree completely. I do a lot of research into that as well. There’s this barefoot movement versus “you need this great arch support.” Right now my feet are pretty flat. A lot of our shoes have really good arch support. But I’ve definitely read that tennis shoes are really not that great for your feet because they’re like these cushioned tombs: your foot can’t really move naturally; they’re encased.
Caryn Hartglass: Hmm.
Annie Mohaupt: I try to not do that either and try to figure out how to allow the foot to move naturally. Yeah, I agree 100%. There’s a lot of conflicting research for what is the best solution. It probably does boil down to what’s best for individuals or varying the sorts of shoes that you wearing. Obviously wearing five-inch heels every single day is not a good choice.
Caryn Hartglass: [chuckles] Not a good choice. Women, listen: it’s not a good choice!
Annie Mohaupt: [chuckles]
Caryn Hartglass: I mentioned this I think last week, but my sister who’s a commercial real estate attorney. She had won some recognition award where she lives in south Florida. She got up to make a very brief presentation talking about how she had succeeded. Her response was she wore men’s shoes.
Annie Mohaupt: Ha! [chuckles]
Caryn Hartglass: She went faster in men’s shoes. And I don’t think we necessarily need to wear men’s shoes, but we need to wear shoes that are comfortable and not crazy.
Annie Mohaupt: Yeah, I agree. Although we do make five-inch heels. I do like wearing them.
Caryn Hartglass: [chuckles]
Annie Mohaupt: [laughs] But I just don’t wear them every day. If I’m wearing our five-inch heels that we make, I’ll wear them for six hours. Usually not for an entire day of running around. I try to get a balance in there.
Caryn Hartglass: RIght. I’m looking at one of them, but it’s not really a five-inch slope, is it? ‘Cause the front has a platform too, right?
Annie Mohaupt: Yeah, exactly.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah.
Annie Mohaupt: It’s more like a three-and-a-half-inch slope, and I think it’s one of the very few shoes you can get high but still have arch support. You still have a lot of cushioning and all that.
Caryn Hartglass: Right.
Annie Mohaupt: Most five-inch heels or high-heels have a metal that runs through the heel. So when you’re hitting the ground, your weight is traveling through this metal spike and hitting the ground. It’s very hard to wear, and there’s no give to the shoe. No shock absorption. Versus our shoes are made out of wood, and wood is a fantastically shock absorbing material. That’s why people would have hardwood floors in their house or why shop keeps are so often seen wearing clogs. Our shoes are way less fatiguing for that sort of height. They really are, I think, a lot better for your feet.
Caryn Hartglass: I never really thought about that. That wood does absorb better. I like to do yoga more on a wood floor than on a concrete floor. And now I know why. [chuckles]
Annie Mohaupt: Yep. [chuckles]
Caryn Hartglass: Silly things we learn on this program and not so silly things. Did you make up the phrase “cushioned tombs” or did you get that from somewhere? I loved it, and I’m stealing it.
Annie Mohaupt: What was the phrase?
Caryn Hartglass: Cushioned tombs. When you were talking about tennis shoes, you called them cushioned tombs.
Annie Mohaupt: Okay. I’m not sure. I believe I might have gotten that from an article that I had read a long time ago that was by a podiatrist talking about how tennis shoes were not exactly all that great. I can’t remember if he used the phrase tomb or not, but it was definitely the impression that I came away with from the article.
Caryn Hartglass: [chuckles] I love it. I’m using it.
Annie Mohaupt: [chuckles]
Caryn Hartglass: Another thing that I love is you use a combination of 21st century machinery (robotic machinery), but at the same time, your products are artisanal and handcrafted. Can you talk about the combination of the two?
Annie Mohaupt: The combination is in a lot of ways a necessity of byproduct of our processes. In my background of architecture and in studio, I learned a lot about using new and emerging processes such as 3D printing. We use a machine called an EUC machine that’s kind of like a 3D printer, laser cutters, and things like that. There’s a lot of stuff this machinery can do that is better than what the human hand can do, where there’s so many more details that I can put in the shoes that just wouldn’t be possible entirely by hand.
That said, at this point, technology has not evolved so that shoes can be made entirely by machine—except, for say, the croc, which are molded into one form. Your average shoe, for example, has 60-70 different components and 60-70 different steps. That’s a lot of labor, a lot of work, which is why 98% of shoes are produced abroad.
The problem with that is there tends to be a lot of human rights abuses in the supply chain. Even though I do believe there are major companies trying to be responsible, the infrastructure in the system, especially in developing countries, just aren’t really set up to avoid exploitation. It’s kind of part of the system right now.
What I’m trying to do is incorporate a lot more automated and robotic processes so that we can take out a lot of the labor in shoemaking. Ideally, teenagers, instead of having to work at shoe factories, can go to school and that sort of thing. For me, a lot of the automation that I’m really excited about is really about human rights and welfare, and trying to get rid of this current system of mass production that we have. Mass production has brought us a lot of great things in the world, but it’s also brought us a lot of exploitation. What I’m trying to do with my business is take out the exploitative processes from shoemaking; basically, removing a lot of the labor. Our shoes right now have a lot fewer components and a lot fewer steps. And those components and steps can be done with automated machinery.
But that said, there still has to be a human hand involved in making a great pair of shoes because there are so many materials in a pair of shoes. You need to have materials that are supportive; the materials that are still, some that are really soft. The shoe itself has to serve a lot of functions in terms of connections with the elements and being comfortable, supportive, and all that stuff.
So that’s kind of what I’m working on: removing as much labor as possible right now in order to avoid exploitation but also provide a better product for customers. Fully automated processes that we use—we can actually take what is now a 2D scan of your foot and we convert that into a 3D model. Then we digitally carve the footprint to your exact foot shape. The great thing about the robotic processes that we use is that we can actually do that; it’s impossible to make one-off shoes with mass production, but with robots, we can create one-off shoes at a mass production price points.
Caryn Hartglass: Well, I applaud you for everything you’re doing. You want every business to think through all of that and make a product that makes the world a kinder, better place. I’m scanning the women’s shoes right now, and they are really cute. There are clogs and sandals. You’re a Chicago based business. What shoes are you going to have when the snow falls? Are you planning any colder weather versions? I imagine they’re more challenging.
Annie Mohaupt: [chuckles] Yes, exactly. I’ve actually been doing this for ten years now, and for the first nine years, we only had sandals which made it really, really difficult to go to business. Because for half the year, we’re absolutely going insane with orders, we can’t keep up at all. Then the other half of the year, we don’t have much money coming in. It was really up-and-down, up-and-down; it’s hard to grow from there.
Just last year we did start introducing closed toe clogs and things like that. This year we do hope to have some kind of quad-booties sorts of shoes, and we’ll continue to develop from there. Definitely the sandals were a good launching point for creating our automated processes just because closed toes shoes are way more complex.
So to come up with these new systems that we’re inventing—because we’re making shoes in a way that nobody has used to make shoes before. We’re kind of reinventing the shoemaking wheel here. We just have to start with simpler shoes and, as we master new processes, then we can create more and more complex shoes.
But it’s definitely frustrating, for sure, in Chicago. Like those first nine years, it would be a snowy day. I would tell somebody that I make shoes, they would look down at my feet, and I would say, “Oh, no. I didn’t make these.” [chuckles] Now that we have our clogs and stuff, I have shoes that I can wear as long as it’s not two feet of snow on the ground. But looking forward to boots, for sure.
Caryn Hartglass: Yeah. I look forward to more small businesses. I don’t think bigger is better; I think smaller is better in many cases. I don’t like the word efficiency often when it’s applied to businesses because of the exploitation that you spoke about earlier. We need to get back to smaller businesses that do things more in a custom way. All of us are individuals. But of course it’s going to be more expensive, and your shoes are pricier than what I can get at Payless, unfortunately, which probably exploits on so many levels including environmental.
I look forward to a day when we don’t have to have —what’s her name— Imelda Marcos from the Philippines with the closet full of shoes. We have a collection of finely made shoes that are made to fit our feet from compassionate, conscionable businesses. Conscionable—I didn’t say that right, but from people who are thinking from the beginning to end about their product. That’s my wish, and you’re a part of that. So thank you.
Annie Mohaupt: [chuckles] Thanks. We’re definitely working toward that. I think it really is going to come down to finding that balance between efficiency and production at a local level. So it is really hard for smaller businesses to compete on price. There are definitely more and more people who would rather pay $150 for a pair of shoes that’s going to last them years instead of buying $30 pairs of shoes constantly. We’re definitely seeing that in our customers.
It’s really great too. We do a lot of fairs and events, and we’ll have customers come up and, “I got a pair of your shoes eight years ago, and I still love them!”
Caryn Hartglass: Wow.
Annie Mohaupt: Yeah. It’s really fun to hear that and it’s great to know that we’re creating something that’s that durable. It’s a great way to kind of keep customers too because they come back. Because they know that they’re not going to have to be throwing those shoes in the garbage after wearing them a few miles.
Caryn Hartglass: Now your shoes are vegan.
Annie Mohaupt: Yeah.
Caryn Hartglass: There’s no leather. What’s your reasoning for that?
Annie Mohaupt: I actually grew up on a sheep farm and did 4-H growing up. I was a real kind of farm girl, and I was never necessarily opposed to humans using animals because, on a very small farm, our sheep were kind of part of our family and it was kind of presented as “the circle of life” thing.
When I got into college, I had a few friends who were becoming vegetarian and I was like, “That’s crazy! Why would you do something like that?” Just in the spirit of challenging them, I started doing research as to why somebody would become vegetarian and I learned about factory farms. Then I realized, oh, the idyllic farm that I grew up on was not the norm at all whatsoever. I became really horrified by the systems that I read about so I’m a vegetarian. A couple years later, I went vegan.
When I started the company it wasn’t necessarily that I wanted to start a specifically vegan shoe company. It was more “I wanted to make shoes” and then, “Oh, by the way,” they’re vegan, eco-friendly, and all that stuff. Just because those were my beliefs. Then it really started taking off from that input, especially from the eco-friendly.
We launched in 2005, and in 2006 Al Gore’s movie An Inconvenient Truth came out. At the time there weren’t any eco-friendly footwear companies. All the fashion magazines and stuff wanted to do stories on eco-fashion and wanted to put shoes in there. If you googled “eco-friendly shoes”, ours were the first or second thing that came up. It was a great and bad thing.
Caryn Hartglass: [chuckles]
Annie Mohaupt: It kind of launched us. We got a lot more popular than I could really handle at the time. I was still making shoes in the basement. But it’s great to see that started becoming more popular because it was never, ever a selling point for me. The shoes were vegan or eco-friendly. It wasn’t a marketing ploy whatsoever; it’s the right thing to do. I just wouldn’t feel like I could sleep at night running a business or having a product any other way.
Caryn Hartglass: Hmm, but it is. It is an excellent marketing point.
Annie Mohaupt: Yeah. I was really lucky that [chuckles] the world kind of came around to my point of view in that regard.
Caryn Hartglass: [chuckles] Oh gosh, I would love for the world to come around to your point of view on every level.
Annie Mohaupt: [chuckles]
Caryn Hartglass: And hopefully we’ll have more. I don’t know if the fact that you’re a woman entrepreneur that had anything to do with your decisions, but I’m definitely excited to see women entrepreneurs and women businesses out there. You won a few award or grants for your business, and one of them was for being a woman-led business. I read in your bio. What was that about?
Annie Mohaupt: Yeah, it’s very exciting. I started off the business as a handcrafted business. We couldn’t keep up with demand so I started incorporating more and more automated technologies, robots, and those fun things. In the last few years, we’ve been hearing more about 3D printing, digital manufacturing. So I felt like I could come out of hiding and say, “Well, I used these sorts of technologies too!” And it’s on the scale of what will hopefully become a bigger company based on these principles of sustainability, company manufacturing, and all that stuff.
About a year and a half ago, I really committed to creating a scalable company rather than artisanal and handcrafted. It really was about creating something much bigger because I really do believe the whole system is broken. The whole mass production of footwear is awful. I decided that the system isn’t going to change until people come up with better ways of making things than our current mass production.
Big companies don’t have any incentives to change the way they’re doing things, so change is going to have to come from smaller companies who are really driving forward scalable changes in manufacturing technology. I joined a startup incubator here in Chicago. We went through their program and learned a lot more about how to pitch my company and how to create a scalable gross oriented company. As I graduated from the program, I started applying for various competitions and things like that. We’ve done really, really well. Like I said, we’ve been on a couple different top 10 national lists for the work that we’re doing, and now we’re just about to embark on seeking funding for the business so that we can grow.
One of my big concepts is to local production, and that’s one thing I’m really focused on creating local mini-factories. So instead of like now having one big factory on the other side of the planet that’s producing shoes by the tens of thousands, having mini-local factories—they’re kind of like Starbucks in the way that Starbucks has a palette of materials that they remix to make tons of different custom items. So we have our kind of palette, our vault fit for vegan, eco-friendly materials, and you can come into the store and have your foot scanned there. Then the shoe can be made right there.
Caryn Hartglass: Mm!
Annie Mohaupt: In an hour by our machinery. After you get a pair of shoes, we have your foot on file. Anytime in the future you’d like to order a pair of shoes you need—you decide that, “Tonight’s the date night and I don’t have the perfect pair of shoes!”
Caryn Hartglass: [chuckles]
Annie Mohaupt: You can go online. We already have your foot on file, we’d make it at a local factory, and send it to you via drone [chuckles] or person that we have in place at that time. It’s decentralizing production.
Caryn Hartglass: I’m loving this; I’m just loving this whole concept. Having your foot on file is just awesome. I’m just so excited about what you’re doing and hearing about your business process. Doesn’t everybody want to give a big hand of applause to Annie Mohaupt? I do. I think you’re amazing. Thank you for what you’re doing and thanks for joining me today on It’s All About Food, even though today it’s all about shoes.
Annie Mohaupt: [chuckles]
Caryn Hartglass: So people can head to mohop.com and look around. You have free shipping, is that correct?
Annie Mohaupt: Yes.
Caryn Hartglass: Free shipping, that’s nice. Any kind of issues? I know that you have a great customer service ‘cause that’s what Robyn told me.
Annie Mohaupt: Yeah, absolutely. We will remake shoes. We have a full repair return policy. If we make a pair of shoes for you and they don’t fit perfectly, you can send them back for a full refund. You can make any changes that you need to the fit. What’s most important to us is that each customer has the best pair of shoes that they’ve ever had with our shoes because that’s how we grow. People walking out in the street and when people say, “Oh my God! Cute shoes!” they can tell them about Mohops.
Caryn Hartglass: Annie, thank you so much for joining me on It’s All About Food today. All the best to you, and everybody go to www.mohop.com! Okay, be well.
Annie Mohaupt: Thank you so much. I thank you. It’s been a pleasure.
Caryn Hartglass: Yes, thank you. Okay, let’s take a couple minute break. We’ll be right back, and I’m going to welcome you to summer!
Transcribed by HT, 7/29/2016