Portland-based BALA Footwear rocketed to almost immediate success in the early months of the pandemic. But a dispute between founders and its marketing team alienated its core customers, and now the startup is pivoting.
Few people are more in need of a good pair of shoes than nurses. And almost nobody has stronger opinions about shoes than a nurse.
Some health care workers love their Crocs. [No comment.] Others are partial to Danskos. [I started wearing Danskos when I worked as a caregiver in the early 2010s, and I still have three pairs.] But the shoe that still feels good after a long shift, that one can comfortably run in when an emergency arises and that’s easy to clean after working in a messy environment — that’s the holy grail for anyone who works long hours on their feet. Make them stylish enough that customers might want to wear them outside of work and you’ve got something special on your hands.
And that’s what BALA Footwear was meant to be.
Founded by three former Nike employees, and launched just months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, BALA was almost an immediate success. The footwear company distinguished itself by engaging its target customers — nurses — directly in focus groups and on social media. The company focused on direct-to-consumer sales and on getting the word out through influencer marketing rather than traditional advertising.
But before a year was up, one of the company’s founders had left, along with an early employee and a social media ambassador brought on to help market the shoes. Just a few months later, the social media ambassador died of cancer.
Those who remained with the company faced an immediate social media firestorm after the other founders left, with nurses announcing online that they had no intention of buying or wearing BALA shoes ever again.
Now the company is adapting both its business model and its marketing strategy in an effort to regain the good graces of a target market the company won over quickly — and alienated almost as fast.
Brian Lockard and John Eberle met at Nike’s climbing gym in 2013. Lockard came from suburban Philadelphia and trained to be a journalist, then went into marketing; when he met Eberle, he was Nike’s director of strategic planning. Eberle, then a vice president in Nike’s running division, is a 40-year veteran of the sportswear industry.
Eberle also teaches at the University of Oregon’s division of sports-product marketing. One of the requirements of the program is to shepherd a product idea through the life of the 18-month program. One student approached him about developing a new pair of nursing shoes.
“I said, ‘The last thing this this world needs is another damn pair of shoes. We’ve got plenty of them,’” Eberle tells Oregon Business.
BALA Footwear co-founder John Eberle. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
But the more research he did, the more he thought there might actually be a need for a new, better pair of nursing shoes. He called Lockard, took a summer off, and the two went about doing some market research to find out what was missing in footwear for health care providers.
“I always think in startups there’s an opportunity moment where you know you can create the business. There’s a moment when it actually becomes real,” Lockard says.
For him, that moment started with a phone call to a friend of his wife’s who had worked as a nurse for 10 years. Over dinner and a bottle of wine, the three talked about nursing shoes for two hours.
“She said, ‘I feel like a pro athlete who is still young but is feeling broken from a decade of working hard,” Lockard tells OB. And, he adds, she went through three pairs of shoes per year.
Lockard and Eberle spent the rest of the summer interviewing hundreds of nurses about what they wanted and needed from a shoe.
The footwear industry, Lockard says, “spends millions of dollars innovating in service to the greatest athletes in the world. We believe that health care professionals should be treated like professional athletes. And yet they were still wearing shoes that were designed for someone else.”
Lockard and Eberle gave the student who initially approached them, and had gone to work for another company, a cash settlement and parted ways. They tapped Caprice Neely — an award-winning footwear designer who’d worked for Nike, Under Armour and Adidas — to design the prototype using the market research Lockard and Eberle had gathered.
It needed to be sturdy enough to be comfortable for long shifts. Nurses needed to be able to manage the occasional hallway sprint without risking a rolled ankle.
And while nursing is physically tiring and emotionally draining, there’s another issue rarely considered when it comes to designing professional apparel for nurses: the squick factor.
One of BALA’s standout features is a fluid-resistant outer layer that can quickly be wiped clean.
The Bala Twelve. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
“If you’re transporting an incoming patient and they pee on your feet, there was no way to deal with that. Imagine spending half your workday with someone else’s urine in between your toes,” Lockard says.
And in September 2020, BALA was born.
Within just 12 days after presales of the BALA Twelve — named in honor of the 12-hour shift — were announced, the company had already sold $1 million worth of shoes.
BALA got there not with a massive ad buy but with a commercial that, according to Lockard and Zach Smith, who handled marketing for the company starting in February 2020, cost just $37,000 to shoot and $3,000 to boost on Facebook.
Smith, a former pediatric nurse and founding member of NurseGrid, a nurse-scheduling app that sold for $25 million in March 2020, was handling the company’s marketing at the time.
That ad featured Ebi Porbeni, a nurse whose Instagram channel, Nurselifern, launched in 2014 and boasted 1.2 million followers (and still does). Smith reached out to Porbeni about a partnership shortly after he started working for BALA and says the two immediately became close.
Influencer marketing is the practice of seeking endorsements and product placements from influencers with the popularity or expertise to drive sales. Porbeni had both: Smith describes him as the “king influencer” in the world of nurse influencers, one with enough clout to affect other nurse influencers’ interests and posts.
“The only reason this shoe was ever known about was because of his platform,” Smith tells OB. “Then all the other major influencers knew about the BALA Twelves because they knew Ebi.”
Born in Lagos, Nigeria, Ebi — as Smith and others in the nursing world refer to him — had worked as a nurse for several years before launching his Instagram account and becoming a social media sensation, posting memes geared toward nurses’ sense of humor and professional frustrations.
Seeking partnerships with influencers is an increasingly popular way to reach customers, especially those in niche markets like the one BALA serves. But Smith says he reached out to Porbeni because he immediately understood that the company had to engage the community in an authentic way.
Left: Nurselifern Instagram post from 2021, after Porbeni broke with BALA. Center: A current BALA social-media influencer-led marketing post. Right: The BALA Unit on Instagram
“Nurses are really used to seeing outsiders trying to penetrate our market to make themselves a quick buck,” Smith says. They trust each other more than they trust employers or advertisers, he says. So the key to broaching that skepticism was to engage someone who could “bring in a new product as a member of the community rather than as an outsider.”
But almost immediately after the company launched, Smith and Porbeni began to feel frustrated and disillusioned. He says Lockard was dismissive of Porbeni’s effect on shoe sales, claiming Porbeni’s social media posts only drove 20% of sales. Smith also says he and Porbeni felt like Lockard and Eberle didn’t think they knew how to market to nurses, despite direct experience in that world.
Ultimately, Smith, Porbeni and Neely left the company, with Porbeni posting in June 2021 that he was no longer involved with BALA but that he “badly wanted things to work out.”
Lockard and Eberle offered little in the way of specifics when asked about the controversy, but Lockard told Portland Business Journal this year that the three wanted sales to go through Nurselifern exclusively.
Smith disputes that, saying instead that Porbeni asked for royalties for the shoe sales he helped drive. (OB was not able to reach Neely for an interview.)
Porbeni’s dispute with BALA ran in tandem with a bigger challenge. He began feeling ill early in 2020 and was diagnosed with leukemia right before shooting that first ad for BALA. He went into remission for several months. But his cancer returned, and on July 20, just a month after announcing he’d parted ways from the company, Porbeni died.
The subject is still a painful one for Smith, both because of the abrupt and untimely loss of his friend — Porbeni was only 33 when he died — and because of the way he feels they were both taken advantage of.
“He was swindled and didn’t appreciate it,” Smith says.
After Porbeni announced his departure from BALA, an immediate social-media backlash ensued. BALA’s social media accounts shed followers, and Porbeni’s fans posted messages of support for his departure. Some tweeted that they were going to throw their BALAs in the trash.
And sales plummeted, with the Business Journal reporting a 75% dip in sales in summer 2021, but recovering over the past fall.
“When you’re an organization working with even people who have a very professional presence on social media, it’s just a different world,” says Kelli Matthews, the co-founder and managing director of the public relations firm Verve Northwest Communications, who also teaches at UO’s School of Journalism and Communication. “You work with influencers because you want access to their audience and their followers and their community, in a way that is often very hard or very expensive to cultivate on your own as a brand.”
But the flip side is that influencers act as a gatekeeper to the community, Matthews adds. So companies who want to use influencers as a central part of their marketing strategy need to prioritize having a strong relationship with the influencer.
She also noted that she recommends clients avoid focusing on just one or two influencers.
“It’s out of your control, and that’s both good and bad. It’s out of your control that you get authentic, genuine access to this community,” Matthews says. “But it’s also out of your control that if people feel slighted or the relationship goes sour or expectations are misaligned, you’ve put all your eggs in one or two baskets, and that’s not healthy for the brand.”
“Early-stage businesses go through change,” Lockard says. “And sometimes people don’t agree on the direction that a company should go. We clearly didn’t have agreement with the individuals who left us. But I think what’s notable is what we’ve accomplished.”
Last July BALA hired a new community manager who’s created a 30-person group called the BALA Unit, a community of nurses and other health care workers who meet monthly to talk about the shoes. And the company is forming partnerships with institutions like the Oregon Center for Nursing and the University of Portland, and has made in-kind donations to small hospitals.
Jana Bitton, the executive director of OCN, says she’s been in conversations with BALA — which has also been a financial donor to the organization — since shortly after its launch, and has been impressed with the way the company talks about the physical and emotional needs of nurses.
“BALA representatives often participate in our weekly call with nurses so they can continue to be connected with nurses in the Portland area,” Bitton says. “We meet with them on a regular basis to really find out what the nursing workforce looks like, both in Oregon and in the United States.”
Bitton says she’s aware of the controversy surrounding BALA but has felt comfortable continuing to work with the company.
“I never had a lot of doubts that they were a company that, even if they made some missteps, would eventually do the right thing, as they have I think,” Bitton says.
The company has also expanded its business model, which was originally based solely on direct-to-consumer sales. As of April, BALA shoes are now available at Shoe Mill, a chain of six Portland-area shoe stores.
Josh Habre, president of ERHCo Inc., at an area Shoe Mill location that is carrying BALA shoes. Photo: Jason E. Kaplan
Josh Habre, president of ERHCo Inc. — which owns Shoe Mill, along with several other Willamette Valley shoe stores — says he was immediately impressed by the design of the shoe and the materials used, which offer maximum shock absorption.
“I’m, like, 10 minutes into the conversation with them, and the little guy in my head is just doing backflips, like, ‘Ooh, this is awesome,’” Habre says.
Habre notes that many of Shoe Mill’s customers come in for wide-fitting shoes, and while BALA is working on a wider shoe, they currently produce shoes that fit a narrower foot. But customers who find a fit love the shoe, returning to buy pairs in different colors.
“If the shoes fit the customer, they’re loving them,” Habre says.
Eberle says the social media firestorm was “a difficult time,” but the fog eventually cleared.
“I said, ‘Let’s keep our eye on the goal here. The goal is not all the noise that’s happening on the outside,’” he says. “It’s servicing the health care professional from the inside out, and we can do that over time. That’s the most important thing. Anything else is just fog. Let’s clear the fog. It takes time.”
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated from an earlier version to correct the cost of BALA’s first ad and clarifying information on Smith’s and Porbeni’s roles with the company, as well as Smith’s role with NurseGrid. Oregon Business regrets the errors.
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