Inventors are the future of our world. They make our lives easier, safer and more efficient. Recently, I had the honor of sitting down with Eric Jackson, a distinguished African-American inventor and entrepreneur from Baltimore, MD. His most popular invention is Lock Laces®, an elastic no-tie shoelace that can be installed in every shoe with eyelets. They are a comfortable, practical, durable and cost-effective alternative to traditional cotton or nylon laces that come untied multiple times throughout the day. Jackson is undoubtedly an entrepreneur but, above all else, he is a humanitarian who genuinely cares about improving lives with his innovative designs.
Steven Wright: What led you to invent Lock Laces®?
Eric Jackson: Well, I was tired of my shoelaces coming untied and the laces getting destroyed when I’d step on the ends of them. The ends would become frayed and then the laces wouldn’t be any good.
Basically, one day after playing football, I came home to my mom’s house and my laces were completely tattered. I realized she had an old sewing kit in her closet and she had some elastic cord so I took out my old damaged laces and put the elastic cord in the shoe. I noticed the elastic cord gave a much better fit than the nylon laces, but the problem was that the laces still came untied even with the elastic cord. I thought to myself, “There has to be a way to benefit from the fit of the elastic lace and have them not come untied. There’s got to be a way to lock the laces in place.”
That was my actual thought, to lock the laces in place. That’s how I came up with the initial concept of Lock Laces®.
SW: After you had the idea for Lock Laces®, what were your first steps in creating the product?
EJ: Well, after I found out that the elastic cord was a better fit, for a couple weeks I looked for hooks, clamps, fasteners — anything that I could think of to attach the laces together so they would stay tied. Nothing really worked.
And then one day, I was in my closet and I saw this old winter coat that I had. On the ends of the hood drawstrings there were little barrel locks, the cylindrical cord locks that you press down, and that’s when it popped into my head.
I cut them off my jacket, put one on each lace, and I knew that this was it — that was my eureka moment, like the apple falling off the tree for Newton. I went to work the next day wearing the new shoelaces and a friend of mine said, “Where did you get those?” and I said, “I made them myself!” And he said, “Can you make me a pair?”
I asked him if he had an old jacket or duffle bag or anything with those little cylindrical barrel locks, and he did. So, he brought them in the next day and I made him a pair.
He loved them. He said “You could probably sell a million of these!” and I said “REALLY?” And he was like “YES!” And that’s when I started thinking about possibly doing something on a larger scale, not just with me and my friends, but to sell.
SW: Who did you determine to be your initial target market? How did your target market evolve?
EJ: Actually, just by happenstance, I used to run track in high school and I noticed that the utmost important thing for this type of athlete is to keep their shoes tied. So I started focusing my market on runners and, of course, triathletes because they have to transition from their bike to running shoes in the second part of the triathlon leg.
SW: How did you see your target market evolve?
EJ: I saw it evolve because a lot of the triathletes and distance runners that were using them started telling me, “Hey, these are also great for my pregnant wife who can’t bend over and tie her shoes,” or one of them would say, “Hey, my grandmother had hip replacement surgery and Lock Laces® are a godsend for her because she no longer has to worry about bending over and tying, retying or untying her shoelaces.” They were shocked that Lock Laces® turn any shoe into a slip on shoe.
SW: Who were your biggest supporters throughout the process?
EJ: My biggest supporters were friends and family, as well as the people who initially invested in the company.
In the beginning, I pretty much did everything on my own. I was the warehouse manager, the sales rep, the shipping manager — everything. But my biggest support initially was definitely friends, family and investors.
SW: What did your first prototype for Lock Laces® look like? What process did you follow when developing a prototype?
EJ: Basically, I liked the concept of the barrel lock but, to me, it wasn’t quite user friendly for a shoe. So, I took the idea of the barrel lock and kind of smashed it in my mind, added two holes to secure both laces individually and had Velcro USA make prototypes for me. That’s how we got the lock the way it looks today. I had a company manufacture it for me and that’s how it became the core lock that you see on Lock Laces® now.
SW: What made you go for the double lock with the 2-hole mechanism?
EJ: I did that because sticking two laces through one hole didn’t look aesthetically pleasing to the eye.
It was sort of cumbersome to try to do that and I figured that if you had a hole for each lace, it would be so much easier and look better on the shoe as well.
SW: Were you faced with any resistance when you went through the initial stages of getting Lock Laces® patented?
EJ: Well, interesting enough, when I first found a patent attorney, I showed him the idea and he looked at it and he pretty much said “Oh, I’m sure there’s something like that already in existence.” He didn’t really want to do it. Getting a patent search was a lot of money to me back then. I didn’t really have too much to work with.
He kind of dissuaded me from doing it thinking it would be a waste of money. I thought about it and I said, “Well, that’s fine, I just want to know for myself.”
So, I paid the money and he went about his business and did the patent search. I didn’t hear back from him for about three weeks and that made me think that maybe he was right — maybe there was something similar already out there.
But on the fourth week, he called me and said that he was speechless and apologized for taking so long to call me back. He said that he had double-checked and triple-checked and that there was nothing in existence that was anything close to what I was doing. He said he was going to get started on my patent application right away and he suggested that I start marketing the product as soon as possible.
SW: To whom did you sell your first pair of Lock Laces®?
EJ: My first initial sale was to a random guy out on the street. I was actually going to go on a TV show, I think it was for WBAL in Baltimore. I was going to do an interview and I was out there with the laces and some guy walked up to me, pointed at the product and asked what they were.
And I said “Well, these are Lock Laces®; they keep your shoes tied!” He immediately asked if he could buy a pair, so he was my first actual sale.
The first retailer we were in was Downtown Locker Room (DTLR). The owner at the time really liked the product, and he was integral in getting me started in my first retail chain.
My first internet sale was June 11, 1999, and she lived in McLean, Virginia. The second was in Idaho. And I also remember my 10,000th Internet sale; I figured that was a milestone to remember. It was to someone in Atlanta.
SW: When did you first realize that Lock Laces® was going to be an extremely popular and successful product?
EJ: There was a guy from the UK, he was a sales rep for a company called Thousand Mile Sportswear. He had heard about the product and he wanted to sell it in England, so they became our first international distributor. This was an unsolicited sale; he contacted me.
That’s when I thought, “Wow, this is really cool, someone from across the Pond wants to sell my Lock Laces® in their country and become the exclusive distributor.” That was in ‘99, too, and that’s when it became clear that Lock Laces® have really great potential.
SW: How did you initially market Lock Laces® after you got a manufacturer? How did you get Lock Laces® into stores?
EJ: We had a website immediately, but the Internet was still in its infancy back then. They weren’t really doing as much with click-through rates and SEO optimization back then. If you didn’t have the money, you couldn’t really market on the Internet.
So we did Guerrilla Marketing instead. We went out to different sporting events like soccer and football games. We handed out laces, gave away t-shirts, went to a few running expos, handed out samples. We would hand out free pairs of Lock Laces® to anyone who had any association with any type of athletics.
SW: If someone asked you to describe Lock Laces® using three words, what would you say and why?
EJ: I would say easy, convenient and comfort. They’re easy to install and use, and people think they are very convenient.
We got a write-up in Reader’s Digest in the Travel section, and a guy said they were a godsend when going through airport security because he could just whip his shoes on and off.
And, lastly, I say comfort because the elastic lace gives you a much better feel and fit than nylon laces. They don’t constrict your feet. A lot of runners have problems with their feet swelling when running and they’ll gain half a shoe size. So, Lock Laces® accommodate that.
SW: What makes Lock Laces® different from other no-tie shoelaces?
EJ: I still think the ease of use. There are a lot of systems out there that come with multiple working pieces.
One no-tie lacing system you have to lace your shoes backwards. Another lacing system requires you to screw on these little clips on the shoes to hook them on. I still think ours are the easiest to install and use.
SW: What makes Lock Laces® a better option compared to no-tie shoes like slip-ons and Velcro?
EJ: Lock Laces® are vastly better because they allow you to wear any type of shoe.
We had one customer say she was so happy for Lock Laces® because now her father doesn’t have to wear those ugly Velcro shoes anymore. Because of Lock Laces®, he can choose whichever shoe he wants to wear and look stylish.
Another person said they were great for her kid who had developmental disabilities because he wanted to be like the “cool” kids and wear "cool" shoes instead of the Velcro shoes. So, Lock Laces® just allow you to wear any style of shoe you don’t have to wear specially made shoes.
SW: Why did you decide to work with Frank Sutton and his company, Positive Distribution LLC?
EJ: Initially, I had a meet-and-greet with him through a mediator. I was always interested in the possibility of trying to get Lock Laces® out there in the world even more, and I had heard of the past success Frank had with smaller companies.
I thought it might be cool to bring a fresh set of eyes to the table that could do some of the things I hadn't done yet. He also provided me with more resources as well.
But it wasn't until after I met with him that I was sold. He seemed to be such a genuine person, and he was honest and straightforward. I liked that a lot, so I wanted to go ahead and work with him based on those factors.
SW: Are you surprised at the growth and success of the brand today?
EJ: I wouldn't say surprised. When I first came up with the idea, everybody kept saying things like "you could sell a million of these" and telling me how they'd be great for this person or that person. So I'm not surprised at the growth and success of the brand today. I was more surprised that it took as long as it did. And, again, that was because we didn't have the proper resources initially to market and promote Lock Laces®. I’m proud of the success it has had, and it is so great to see where Lock Laces® is now.
SW: Who was your biggest inspiration that led to your interest in inventing?
EJ: I was just fascinated by all the other inventions that other inventors had created in the past. And I was fascinated by how a lot of those inventions happened by accident. Like they would say, “necessity is the mother of invention.”
I never set out to be an inventor, per say. I was always an entrepreneur but I never set out to invent anything. I just had a need for my shoes not to come untied and I came up with the idea.
A huge inspiration for me was the meeting I had with Kevin Plank, the founder of Under Armor. We pretty much started our companies at the same time, and I was reading an article in the Baltimore Sun about Kevin and his initial success. After reading the article, I looked him up and called his office hoping to talk with him for a few minutes on the phone.
He answered the phone himself, and I asked if he had about 5 minutes for me to talk to him and pick his brain. And he said, “Well, why don’t you just come in and have lunch with me?” He told me to bring my product and he spent 3 hours with me, having lunch and showing me the warehouse and introducing me to all of his associates. He gave me all kinds of free Under Armour swag and I gave him all my Lock Laces®.
After that, we sort of had a little bit of a relationship and he was sort of a mentor for me for a while. Kevin is a Maryland guy just like me, so that’s why it was so easy for me to just go out there and talk to him.
SW: What’s the first thing a new inventor should consider when developing a product?
EJ: New inventors should make sure there’s nothing else out there in existence. You have to do the patent search, and that’s key for making sure your idea is unique and new.
I hear from a lot of people who have great ideas and, when I tell them to get a patent search, they discover that someone else had come up with something similar before. That’s why it’s important to get a patent search and see if there’s anything similar already out there.
SW: How did you initially finance your business?
EJ: I created a business plan, and I turned that business plan into a prospectus.
I just started showing my friends and family and telling them what I’d do with the money and, all of a sudden, people wanted to become a part of it and started investing. It got to the point where I’d have complete strangers calling and asking if they could see my presentation because they were interested in investing in my company.
The cool thing was that, in my initial business plan, my start-up costs totaled about $25,000 and I was able to raise over $80,000. So, I got more than 3 times as much as I needed to start my business.
SW: What is the most touching testimonial you’ve ever received from a consumer who was new to your product?
EJ: The letter I’m thinking about actually made me tear up when I read it. I actually kept the letter. It’s from a guy who was deployed in Afghanistan. He wrote about his experience as a veteran amputee. He said he received my Lock Laces® as a part of a donation I made to injured veterans. He was so grateful for Lock Laces®.
There was another great testimonial where a lady said that her son was being bullied because he had to wear funny-looking shoes. She said my Lock Laces® enabled him to wear regular shoes and that it made her cry to see that he was happy. Her letter was so emotional.
Those are the two stories that touched me the most.
SW: What challenges have you faced as both an entrepreneur and inventor during the past 20 years?
EJ: The biggest challenge is hearing the word “No,” or “We can’t” or “It’s not a good time” or “We’ll get back to you.” It’s the rejection from stores or from potential customers. The challenge is hearing the word “No,” and being able to keep going. That’s why I kept all of my rejection letters from all the major shoe companies.
When I first got my patent, I sent out samples and letters to Nike, Adidas, Reebok, Fila. They all said it was a great idea but they weren’t going to go forward with it, so that just gave me the determination to do it myself. The biggest challenge is not taking “No” for an answer, and having the determination to see it through. Never give up and always keep trying.
SW: Do you have any advice for struggling young entrepreneurs or inventors?
EJ: My advice would be: if you love what you’re doing, continue to do it.
Sometimes it can be a struggle, but if you’re passionate about it and you believe in it and it makes you happy, then do it. That’s the thing with most entrepreneurs. They have to love what they’re doing or it’s not going to work. You have to love the new venture that you’re starting. If you don’t have the passion for it, you won’t succeed. Some people are just wired to be entrepreneurs.
Not saying that other people can’t decide to start their own things, but you just have to have something in you. You have to believe in it because there will be some obstacles along the way, so you have to have passion, determination and drive.
SW: Is there anything else that you’d like to say about Lock Laces® or the process you went through with Lock Laces®?
EJ: I’m just happy that Lock Laces® helps a lot of people. I never foresaw the amount of people it could truly help.
When I first started Lock Laces®, I realized that they help so many people. Whether they help a triathlete decrease their T2 transition time, or help a soldier in Afghanistan adapt to losing a hand, or help that kid who had to wear clunky-looking shoes before Lock Laces®. I never knew how many people could benefit. And I never imagined I’d be working with the Special Olympics when Lock Laces® partnered with their Healthy Athlete Fit Feet Program.
Helping people find their independence again means more to me than anything else — way more than money ever could.
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