The write stuff

By: Nathan Donato-Weinstein, Gold Country News Service
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No one's ever asked 8-year-old Spencer Richard to write all over his shoes before - after all, isn't that how you ruin a perfectly good pair of kicks? - so he looked a little confused when presented with a black marker and told to go wild. Richard, who was shopping for back-to-school sneakers at Shoe Box Kids in Roseville with grandma Dixie Richard, grasped a black marker and tentatively scribbled a few lines on a shiny white portion of the toe. He rubbed his creation and, like magic, it disappeared. Smiles appeared. "That's pretty cool," he said with a grin. Reactions like that could spell success for a pair of engineers who've designed and brought to market the shoe - dubbed, not unreasonably, Graffeeti. The brainchild of Kelye McKinney and Jim Mulligan, both managers in the city of Roseville's Environmental Utilities Department, the shoes are a kind of walking whiteboard that let the wearer draw, wipe off and redraw using colorful dry-erase markers on its special panels. They're "re-markable," the company's Web site declares. "It's a tactile experience that's really kind of fun," Mulligan, 46, said. "It's just a fun way to draw and express yourself." Mulligan, a Roseville resident, and McKinney, 42, of Lincoln, have been kicking around business plans for years before arriving at the shoe concept. The idea, McKinney said, "was just a brainstorm sort of thing one morning" in 2005. But it seemed a natural fit, combining a few things the pair was well versed in: the whiteboards ubiquitous around the engineering projects they work on, for one, as well as the technical know-how to bring a good notion into fruition. "I said, 'Wait a minute, that could work,'" Mulligan recalled of the moment McKinney pitched the idea at him. The nascent company, Rocklin-based Graffeeti Inc., is already gaining some serious recognition, including an appearance on MSNBC's "The Big Idea with Donny Deutsch," ABC's "Good Morning America" and a piece in The New York Times. Graffeeti shoes also were featured in Newsweek's "The Checklist," a weekly roundup of "hot picks." "It's truly the only thing that I can think can out-Nike Nike," Deutsch gushed on the show. "What's so brilliant about it is everything that all parents want for their kids to day - which is to be creative, have fun." Not bad considering the shoes, which run for $31.99 to $35.99, are sold at only a few locations, including two locally (see box), as well as online. But bringing Graffeeti from concept to shoebox - and what's shaping up as the current must-have - took two years of patience and hard work. After hiring a patent lawyer to make sure no other product like it was available, McKinney and Mulligan undertook some hands-on research and development. "We started off buying shoes off the shelf, taking them apart and cobbling them in my garage," Mulligan said. Trial and error resulted in a prototype sandal employing a shiny, white plastic material related to the humble dry erase board. It was through connections made at a Las Vegas trade show in early 2006 that they were advised to switch to the sneaker format, at least to start. Throughout the year, the pair, who had no previous experience in the fashion industry, focused on product development, working with a shoe designer and sourcing agent - a specialist skilled in navigating the ins and outs of the footwear industry. Less formal help came from another source: their families. McKinney, mom to a 10-year-old daughter and 5-year-old son; and Mulligan, who has a daughter, 14, and two sons, 11 and 5, consider them some of their prime business partners. The children recommended a larger writing surface on one of the models, for instance, a suggestion that made it into the final product. The result is a slightly retro high top in black, blue or pink canvas featuring four writable panels. A low-top model in black or blue canvas and a more wraparound-style panel is also available. Each includes a rainbow of six dry-erase pens, specially formulated not to "ghost," or leave residual shadows, after being wiped off. (The pens are short enough to be secured to an attached pen loop and not drag on the ground.) And the sales? "The interest has been great," said John Dykes, owner of Shoe Box Kids on Pleasant Grove Boulevard, one of the first retailers to carry the product. "Kids love to be able to draw on the shoe, especially the ones old enough to write. And I have two on hold for someone in Oakland." Kids like it because it taps into the universal desire for self-expression, and it's playful to boot, the owners said - picture an ongoing game of tic-tac-toe played on the shoe during school. (Just don't try it during class time.) "It's also, 'Don't limit yourself,'" McKinney said. "It's about creativity and doing something different and not being limited." The age groups of those responding to the shoe have also shown no limitations. While Mulligan said they planned on a "tweener" demographic, children up to high-school age are inquiring about getting the shoe in sizes other than those available, which top out at 7 ½ in junior boys and 9 ½ in girls. Dykes confirmed adults with diminutive feet are scooping up the shoe. The oldest was a 65-year-old grandmother. But in a hyper-competitive market where tastes change as frequently as a youngster's shoe size, McKinney and Mulligan know they can't rest on their successes. To that end, the pair is rolling out a sandal late this month. A dry-erase backpack is also in the works. Increased sizes are being looked at. And stay tuned for variations on shoe styles. "We stayed pretty much with classic retro at the launch, but we might get a little more wild as we go on," McKinney said. As for their day jobs? "They're still the priority," McKinney said. "That's an important thing for us." But if the shoe fits ...