The new Carson Iguana Racer is built in the U.S. with mostly U.S.-sourced materials.
Would you invest $400,000 of your own money to start a new running shoe brand? That’s what entrepreneur Everett Carson did.
Carson Footwear, the world’s newest shoe brand, went live on Jan. 15, selling a unique, minimally designed trail running shoe online for $100. The brand’s Iguana Racer is remarkable for how it looks and runs, but so is the story of how Carson launched the company out of his newly built production facility near Portland, Ore.
Part of the story is how different the shoe is. It’s built with a polyurethane midsole/outsole and a dye-sublimation printed mesh upper with the eyeball of an iguana staring out from each side. It has a zero-drop profile with just 10mm of material and a thin sockliner between a runner’s foot and the ground. A men’s size 9.0 weighs about 9.5 oz.
Based on Competitor’s initial wear tests, the shoe is super flexible and agile, severing up exceptional “feel for the ground” and a very natural, uninhibited ride. The polyurethane undercarriage offers pretty good protection for running on technical trails (it doesn’t have a rock plate) and reliable traction from the trail tread built into the outsole.
So how did the Iguana Racer come to life? Like many runners, Carson, 50, read “Born to Run” a few years ago and tried running barefoot.
“I read book that and thought, ‘This is just a bunch of BS. Running barefoot? C’mon,’” Carson says. “So I tried it, and I kind of agreed that biomechanically it’s probably better … but there’s just no way I can run barefoot.
“My first mile trying to run barefoot, I’m running and thinking, ‘This is totally unnatural.’ But after a mile and a half or 2 miles, I totally understood it. You land on the ball of your foot and there’s no impact going past your ankle. So I was like, ‘Oh man, these guys are right!’ So I keep on truckin’ and at mile 3 I had to quit because my feet were bleeding.”
He says he tried running in Vibram FiveFingers and some minimally designed running sandals, but neither provided the protection and cushioning he wanted. Shortly after those initial experiences, Carson, who owns a successful marketing and publishing company, started tinkering with the idea of creating his own shoe brand. Working mostly on weekends and at night, he spent more than a year making sketches, considering the materials he might use and developing his first prototypes. The more he learned, the more immersed he became in material sourcing and manufacturing options.
Instead of creating a midsole from layers of ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA) foam and similar open-cell foams and then using a durable rubber compound for the outsole like almost every other shoe brand, Carson settled on a one-piece, single-density polyurethane construction for his shoe.
“Polyurethane behaves a lot differently than EVA,” Carson says. “It absorbs and distributes the energy in all directions, whereas EVA doesn’t distribute energy, it absorbs it vertically. Up and down is the only way it moves and that’s why it smashes down.”
Two years ago, he decided to go all-in and build a facility in Milwaukie, Ore., so he could manufacture the shoes in the U.S.
“Everything going overseas is just so cumbersome to work with. Unless you’re already in the industry, there’s no way to navigate that,” Carson says. “But hey, it’s just as easy to bring it here and do it on a small scale and understand the process and start building a factory. At the end of the day, I just didn’t design a shoe that I thought would run better, minimally on a trail—I took on a bigger project to build a factory to make them.”
He started buying the machines, molds and tools he would need to build the shoes, many of which came from overseas.
“The polyurethane machine I bought got held up in customs like it was a nuclear reactor,” he says with a laugh. “There’s not a lot of them over here.”
He worked with BASF to develop the right compound for the single-density polyurethane chassis and, after several prototypes, had a version he was happy with by early last year.
“I could come up with a new name for it, like Sunshine Foam. But at the end of the day, it’s polyurethane,” he says.
Since then, he and his team of four employees have been working on fine-tuning the manufacturing process and continuing the wear-test process.
“They are very comfortable when trying them on, almost slipper like in how light they feel and how much room your toes have,” says Bill Ramey, who has wear-tested the shoes for the past year. “Yet somehow, the feel very secure on your foot as well. Everett worked really hard to put together a shoe that fits well and he’s accomplished that. I also like that he works on every step of the process so he can control the quality and he understands what goes into every phase of production. I’ve got some samples that Everett made completely himself, from pouring the soles to all the stitching, so he’s put in the time to learn the craft.”
Carson says he’s put more than 800 miles on a pair he’s been running with since February. Aside from some wear and tear around the ankle collar, he says the shoe hasn’t broken down at all. His wear-testers have given him rave reviews and encouraged him to keep moving ahead.
“The ride on the trail is really great,” says Jeff Gallup, who writes a blog called “Barefoot Inclined.” Gallup has run 75 miles in his test pair, including a long run of 12 miles. He says he wished the shoe had a rock plate, but Carson already has plans to build one into a sockliner for future models.
“For the running I’ve done in them, I think the protection is good, but much like any minimalist shoe, you have to stay focused on foot placement and form to avoid the nasty rocks on the trail,” Gallup says. “I’m not sure yet if the protection is enough for an ultra-distance run, but compared to the 17mm stack height of shoe I’ve run ultras in, these feel pretty close with respect to cushion and protection.”
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Believe it or not, the inspiration for the unique upper of the Iguana came from the Rodrigo y Gabriela album cover.
“I was working on some dye subs and that song came on and I saw the cover and at first I thought I started looking for images of snakes and reptiles and came across a baby iguana image and blew it up and that’s how it happened,” Carson says. “It happened pretty quick. I started at 7:00 in the morning and by 9:00 that morning we were printing them out and saying, ‘hey, this is pretty cool.’”
He says he started the brand without any outside investment, funding the company with about $400,000 of his own savings.
“It’s been a crazy process,” he says. “After two hard years with a lot of capital expense from my personal bank account, I didn’t know if what I was going to get was going to be worth a shit. But I like what we’ve come up with and a lot of the people who have been running in them do too, so that’s a good start.”
For more about Carson Footwear, go to carsonfootwear.com.