Velaasa is on track to alter the course of the specialty-sport shoes market
Lynden Reder was hitting rock bottom when he visited his father’s grave for the first time. He had been spending countless insomniac nights worrying. The father of two young children had just taken a tremendous risk by pouring everything he had into Velaasa, his track-and-field and Olympic-performance shoe business.
Reder’s father is buried in a southwest Minnesota cemetery where five generations of Reders have been laid to rest, including Reder’s great-great-grandfather, Joseph Reder. Joseph Reder built a homestead and farmed on the land Reder grew up on. Reder was able to invest in Velaasa because he had sold his part of this farm to his sister after their father died in 2008. “That money wouldn’t have been there if it weren’t for this incredible risk that this great-great-grandfather of mine took in homesteading the land,” says Reder.
Later, Reder phoned the Jackson County Historical Society in search of a horse-drawn plow his family had donated. Instead, he discovered that, a few weeks prior, a relative had visited the museum and dropped off a photograph of Joseph Reder in front of his business. While Reder had been under the impression that Joseph was a farmer only, the museum director explained that most of the farmer immigrants had different primary professions. Joseph’s profession? A shoe maker.
“My face went white, and it knocked the wind out of me,” admits Reder. “It was a very emotional moment for me and carried a lot of gravity. It felt very intended, and it was the most supernatural thing I had ever experienced.” Shoemaking, it seems, is in his genes.
The beginnings of a company
Velaasa has its genesis in a project Reder worked on while earning a Master’s degree in applied kinesiology at the University of Minnesota. He designed a wrist support for shot putters, while also learning essential business skills, such as how to file a provisional patent application and find a manufacturer. The product gave his company its brand name, which Reder’s high school friend and serial entrepreneur Eric Dinger helped come up with. Velaasa is a play on the word “velociraptor,” which Reder kept hearing in “velocity wrap,” the wrist support’s original name. Over the next six years, Reder developed more products for track and field, eventually leaving his coaching career to work on Velaasa full-time.
Initially, Reder reached out to distributors to see whether he could sell weightlifting shoes from other brands through Velaasa. When that failed to gain traction, he decided to take on the challenge himself: “We decided to gradually transition what had basically become an equipment-sales company to a track-and-field problem-solving company. We wanted to rebrand ourselves as a startup that was going to bring value to the track-and-field community,” says Reder.
He first took down the old Velaasa website. “As soon as you’re going to launch a shoe brand, so much of it is about imagery. So we transitioned first into being a tech startup with an app we developed for live virtual-reality 360-streaming of track meets. In the first year, all of the apparel and the shoe development was being done behind the scenes. No one knew about any of that. It was our trojan horse approach to getting into these college programs that were very tied down by their shoe deals. It was a way for us to come around the back door and get those initial funds while the shoes were still being done in secret.”
The shoes themselves
Track and field places specific demands on the feet. “The design, technology and materials of what you’re putting on your feet are really important,” Reder explains. “A basketball player needs something different than a sprinter, and a sprinter needs something different than a weightlifter.” Existing specialty shoes for track and field were of inadequate quality and design. “Decades have gone by, and these shoes have improved very little, to the dismay and frustration of a big segment of the track-and-field community,” says Reder.
After finding the ideal partner in local manufacturing company Otabo, Reder began working with footwear designer Doug VanderValk. “Doug has been great at bringing his technical expertise as it relates to the CAD [computer-aided design] side of the process, while I bring the athletic and drawing background. I do primarily free-hand sketching that he translates into 3D designs.”
Reder says that as a small company, they emphasize quality. “We knew that we couldn’t out-Nike Nike. In a race, there’s no chance we’ll win, but as it relates to quality and dedication to involving athletes in the design process, we absolutely can. We pick our battles wisely,” says Reder.
Reder is also changing the way shoes are sold while supporting aspiring Olympians. Because the fit and comfort of a shoe is something that can only be determined firsthand, the company hosts events at gyms for Velaasa track and weightlifting clubs so that the athletes can try on the shoes before purchasing them.
“We will send a kit of a size run of the shoes along with a code for that event. People can try the shoes on, one-click order them, and we’ll ship them from here in Minnesota. And then that club gets a commission on those sales, and they mail back the size run,” Reder explains. “This is a way for us to support those aspiring Olympians by basically cutting them into the deal with the shoe distribution itself.”
Velaasa has started with a weightlifting shoe called the Strake, but its future lies in developing a complete line of different track-and-field shoes in time for the 2020 Olympics.
This story appears in print in our July/August issue. For a complimentary subscription, click here.