RunBlogRun INTERVIEWS: Jim Van Dine, Brand President of HOKA ONE ONE, by Larry Eder

Thumbnail image for jimvandine.JPG
Jim Van Dine, Brand President of HOKA ONE ONE and Anhu, 
photo courtesy of Deckers Corporation

HOKA ONE ONE is an example of both how competitive the performance running market is, and also, how a great product matching up with the right parent company can make a difference between success and failure. 

HOKA ONE ONE was developed by a group of eccentric French designers and ultra runners. The product was a strong hit with ultra runners. It started to get a cult following. Boulder Running company's Johnny Halberstadt, who was selling HOKA ONE ONE in his store, sent a note to Jim Van Dine, who was at Deckers, managing the Anhu brand. 

Halberstadt wrote that Jim Van Dine and his CEO, Angel Martinez, both veterans of the run specialty wars, should consider HOKA ONE ONE, as the brand could do well with the Decker resources and Van Dine and Martinez's experience. 

Jim Van Dine, a long time runner, then tried HOKA ONE ONE and went from not running to running six days a week. He was hooked. Last fall, Deckers acquired HOKA ONE ONE.

 I sent Jim Van Dine these questions just after the OR show in August 2013. His answers reveal alot about how brand launches are still art much more than they are science. 

The belief by the team in a new product or brand has much to do with its present and future access.



     RBR, # 1. Where did HOKA ONE ONE come from?  

Jim Van Dine: Hoka One One is a result of Nicolas Mermoud's desire to have a shoe that would help him on downhill running during his ultra marathon efforts.  He collaborated with Jean-Luc Diard and his product development team in Annecy, France to develop such a shoe.  This was the same team that had invented parabolic skis - a game changing technology for that sport.  Jean-Luc was inspired by the oversize trend he had witnessed in tennis rackets, golf clubs, skis and bicycle wheels.  They started with a "blank slate" approach - that is, they did not examine current running shoes and look to improve them, they approached the project as if there were no running shoes and they were inventing them.  This release from conventionality spurred true innovation resulting in a shoe that provides superior cushioning and inherent stability.

RBR, #2: Why did you get involved?

Jim Van Dine: Johnny Halberstadt from Boulder Running called me a couple years ago, raving about this fantastic new brand of running shoes.  He said that he believed that the small brand would benefit from additional capital and more US market experience.  He said, "I immediately thought of you and Angel.  You are both long time runners with a long history of successfully launching brands and with the power of Deckers, this seems like a natural fit."  Angel is Chairman and CEO of Deckers and I am brand president of the Ahnu brand (and now Hoka One One as well).  We both started in the shoe business over 30 years ago in running specialty. Angel hired me to work for Runners World back in the 70's and then we opened a running specialty store together - a story that Johnny knew well.  Angel and I did some investigating and discovered that everything Johnny said was true - great product that was  very different from anything on the market and extremely loyal, even rabid fans.  So, after some discussion and negotiating with Jean-Luc and Nicolas, Deckers eventually acquired the brand last fall.  By the way, both Jean-Luc and Nicolas are both still actively engaged with the brand and we work very closely together on both product and marketing. 

RBR, #3: Tell me about your experience with the shoes?

Jim Van Dine: Well, I have become one of the rabid fans!  Hoka shoes have allowed me to return to running after almost 7 years of virtually no running due to a chronic bad knee.  Hoka shoes provide such protection that I am back to running 6 days a week!  It has been a complete re-birth of my running - and that is why I have never been more excited about a product either as a business person or as a consumer.  Hoka One One is a real game changer - which is why so many other brands - even those touting minimal shoes very recently - are now introducing Hoka inspired shoes.   However, it seems as if they are strictly copying the oversize nature of some of the most popular Hoka models - which is only one aspect of the design.  Simply being oversized will not provide the same benefit as Hoka One One shoes.  There is more to the technology than just that.

RBR, #4: We discussed the idea of HOKA ONE ONE as a recovery shoe,

what are your thoughts?

Jim Van Dine: There is no doubt that Hoka One One shoes are ideal for 

active recovery runs.  Why not ease the stress on your legs and body as 

you are doing your long runs and recovery runs?  Some think of Hoka 

One One shoes as only ultra shoes or shoes for older or "broken" runners.  

But that is somewhat limited thinking.  I was once a fairly elite runner 

(hard to believe now, ha!) and I wish that I had these shoes back then.  

I was frequently injured and I wish that I had Hoka One One shoes to 

help protect me.  I may not have had to give in to the injuries and retire 

from competitive running as I ultimately did. 

RBR, # 5. Does it make a good long run shoe?

Jim Van Dine: Hoka One One shoes have been adopted by a large segment of the ultra running community, so I would say definitely yes.  In fact, at the Speed Goat 50K a few weeks ago (July 2013), 27% of the finishers wore Hoka shoes.  No other brand had more than 7% share of the runners in the race. 

RBR, # 6. How do you see running continuing to segment?

Jim Van Dine: Running as an activity will continue to thrive of course.  Most people recognize that running is perhaps the most efficient fitness activity and the increasing social aspect of running convinces me that running participation will continue to grow.  The fun aspect - color runs, monster runs etc. - only make the activity more appealing.  Ultra running has grown considerably in the last decade and I believe that will continue to grow as well.

In terms of running shoes, there will always be a need for a variety of different types of products.  There are just so many individual variations and needs, that there is no one shoe or one brand that will work for everyone.  Anyone who disputes that does not have the experience of fitting thousands of runners one pair at a time.  Only when you've done that, can you fully appreciate the tremendous variety of needs. 

RBR, #7. What is different on the new HOKA product?

Jim Van Dine: Our newest shoe, The Conquest, is designed primarily for road running, but will work well on all but the most technical trails as well.  It features a new midsole foam called RMat.  It is an injectable natural rubber compound.  Unlike most injected foam, it does not have any expansion out of the mold which allows for much more precise tuning - which is very important to the Hoka technology.  

It is resilient enough to use as both mid-sole and outsole.  Though slightly heavier than most EVA foams, the fact that we do not have to apply a complete outsole allows us to keep the shoe lightweight - especially for the Hoka oversize dimensions.  It is a neutral shoe, but has tremendous inherent stability.It recently won two awards at the Outdoor Retail Show:  Outside Magazine gave the Conquest the "2013 Outside Gear of the Show" award and Gear Institute awarded us with the "Best New Gear - Outdoor Retailer, Summer 2013".  

Not bad for the first new shoe introduced since the Deckers acquisition.  And it really represents the tremendous collaboration between the founders, Jean-Luc Diard and Nicolas Mermoud and the Deckers Hoka One One team that we are building here in California.

RBR, #8: Tell us about the Speed Goat 50k? 

Jim Van Dine: The Speed Goat 50K is a race that was started in 2007 by Karl Meltzer as a special event for the Snowbird resort in Park City, Utah.  Karl wanted to put on the "toughest 50K in the country" - and he accomplished it!  The race has over 11,000 feet of vertical climbing on tough terrain!  Karl is an extremely accomplished Ultra runner and a member of our Hoka One One team.  He has won more 100 mile races than anyone on the planet and has twice been named Ultra Runner of the Year.  So, when he asked us to sponsor the race two years ago, we were happy to help.  

RBR, #9: What do you want dealers to know about HOKA ONE ONE?

Jim Van Dine: Beyond everything I have already said in this interview - I want specialty running dealers to know that Hoka is managed by runners who have all worked at running specialty stores.  We understand the importance of these dealers and will work hard to be considered the absolute best possible brand partner for each of them.  We want to earn their business and earn their respect as valued partners. 

RBR, # 10: What do you want to tell the consumer about HOKA ONE ONE?

Jim Van Dine: Hoka One One shoes provide benefits that will work for all levels of runners: those just wanting to get off the couch to those that want to complete their first race to those who want to be (or are) among the running elite.  Hoka One One shoes are not just for old or broken runners (like me!) - they are for runners who don't want to be broken in the first place!  They are great for long runs and great for active recovery runs for the more competitive runners.

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