How often do we read that it’s the simplest ideas that go on to become the biggest business successes? This is a tale of a genius idea rooted in an everyday object: who knew that the humble shoelace could be reinvented and go stratospheric as an innovation with both style and substance?
That’s exactly what Gaston Frydlweski and Mariquel Waingarten did. They are the co-founders of Hickies, the brand that transformed the humble shoelace into an exciting commodity with fashion flair, customizable fit, and a whole new lease of life for the foot. We dug down deep and learned a lot from Mariquel Waingarten. You’ll be amazed…
Mariquel, it’s a long way from your previous lives of finance and hotel ownership to a neat idea like Hickies. When did the modular lacing system first occur to you?
The idea hit Gaston straight after college. He was a sneaker enthusiast and realized that everything around the sneaker had evolved—except the shoelaces. Industry leaders had made huge advances in materials, particularly the sole and upper design, but kept using strings to tie them. For me, it was the convenience of slipping into shoes in seconds and never having to tie them again. I liked sport, and saw how shoelaces constantly came undone. I also saw how my friends struggled to get their kids out of the house quickly because tying their shoelaces took forever. But it wasn’t until I was pregnant that I realized the importance of a technology that would allow me to slip on shoes with a more comfortable fit for my swollen feet in seconds—and look fashionable, too! Suddenly the evolution of the shoelace became something that would improve the footwear experience for everyone.
But we also spotted an incredible market opportunity: none of the big brands had stepped into the area of shoelaces as an independent accessory—they were still an unbranded commodity with no technology behind them. That’s what made us jump into the entrepreneurial abyss, quit our jobs and ventures in Argentina, and start Hickies in New York.
Are you both problem-solvers by nature who enjoy dreaming up potential solutions for everyday hassles?
Yes, we are. As a woman, my mind works like that. I’m a problem-solver by nature and a natural-born doer. Gaston is an inventor. He likes to challenge the status quo—in particular, things that haven’t been questioned or updated in a while. We have fun thinking how we would improve almost every item in our house, especially now that we have a baby—the baby world is very gadget-oriented.
It takes self-belief to turn an idea into a fully-fledged business. How did you get your business started?
Our backgrounds helped a lot. Gaston’s investment-backing past allowed him to become an expert in fundraising and company structure. We are selling in more than 40 countries now, and we have an international structure with a very efficient headcount. For such a young business, that reach is very hard to achieve, and it was Gaston’s experience in dealing with large international companies that gave us the right foundation. On the other hand, I came from a hospitality background, which made me sensitive to customer needs and gave me skills in how to build an “experience” around the product. This is fundamental, since our main challenge is how to change a daily habit. We complement each other, and that makes us stronger.
Do you see yourselves as designers or a business people?
We see ourselves as entrepreneurs with attention to design. Design is a very big part of our business—it’s what enables us to actualize our thoughts. We have an incredible design team who know what they are doing, so we try not to interfere, but our passion for ideas and execution is naturally invested in the way our design team works. Gaston is more of an engineer than a designer—he likes to invent, and he enjoys working with the product designer to improve materials and form. I’m more involved at the end of the design process; I love beautiful things and have a minimalistic eye. I love harmony and symmetry, and therefore I spearhead branding, packaging and the customer experience.
Talk our readers through the product. What do you make Hickies from? How do customers achieve the right fit for their foot width?
Hickies are made from high-grade Thermoplastic Elastomer (TPE). Simply put, this material allows for enough expansion to slip your foot into your sneaker, and then it returns to its original size. Just slip on and go, and never bother with tying again. Hickies conform to your foot and its movement for a snug fit, allowing maximal comfort for any activity. Customers can install Hickies using either one single lacing technique or a variety, in this way pinpointing any areas that needs to be tighter or looser. By joining them together, you can reduce or increase tension at any particular point.
How did you come to Swarovski crystals? With a crystallized line, are you tapping into the athleisure trend?
We wanted to create something that would elevate the sneaker. Women need practicality and comfort, but that doesn’t mean we’re willing to leave our looks behind. We want to find ways to personalize our outfits so that they work from the pre-work gym class to the office into the evening. Swarovski crystals allow women to add a touch of luxe to their sneakers, as well comfort and convenience.
Is it technically difficult to attach crystals to the stretchy base material?
It’s difficult to develop even the simplest ideas: it took us 10 years to develop Hickies and two years to develop Hickies by Swarovski. But everything is possible with the right team and a persistent attitude.
There are Hickies for adults and kids—what about athletes? Hickies for track shoes that an athlete can customize to suit their fit requirements?
Athletes are our biggest fans. Imagine performing and your laces come undone during your event? From Ironman triathlete Eduardo della Maggiora, Dogpound trainers Rhys Athayde & Kevin Mejia, 2016 Masters Champion Danny Willett, fellow pro-golfer Gerina Piller, and one-armed CrossFit athlete Aldridge Logan, we’ve seen our share of professionals performing amazing feats wearing Hickies.
What’s the next big idea? Are there any developments in the pipeline?
We’re constantly focusing on improving our product; 2018 will be the year for collaborations, developing our kids’ line, introducing a line of children’s charms, as well as new colors for adults.
You started five years ago, where is your company today?
We started with a dream five years ago and it’s amazing to see where we are now. We sold over four million packs of Hickies in 47 countries. We have strong partnerships in place with big players in the footwear industry. The biggest Hollywood celebrities, well-known models, and top professional athletes use Hickies every day. We have over 50 patents granted and a handful in process. We’ve won product design awards, graphic design awards, and e-Commerce awards. We have a team of over 25 people in 3 different countries. We’ve been featured in some of the most important media outlets in each region. We improved our first version several times following customer feedback. And we have also begun our charitable partnerships project, which has been very successful.
We’ve heard that “Hickies” is based on a love story between you and Gaston, and that this is why you chose the name?
“Hickies” means “marks of affection,” so we decided to make it the name our company, because Gaston and I are husband and wife. We believe love should be the driver of all great adventures. We want to “spread the love” and leave marks of affection on everyone’s feet!