My first million: profiting from plastic marshmallows

He may have been unimpressed the first time he saw them, but once he'd tried wearing a pair - 'like walking on marshmallows' - Duke Hanson of Crocs was sold. And thousands of customers around the world agree.

The first time Duke Hanson saw a Crocs shoe, he wasn't impressed. "Man those are ugly," he told Scott Seamans, the friend who'd found them in a small Canadian factory a few months before. They looked heavy and plasticky; not at all suited to their Caribbean sailing holiday. "He said just try them on. And once you try them on, they're very soft and comfortable; like walking on marshmallows." The secret was the resin they were made from, croslite a light yet resistant material patented by the factory. At the time, Crocs shoes were just clogs, not best suited to sailing, so Seamans made a strap to counter that problem. "We started loving the shoes" and by the end of the trip, they had decided to go into the footwear business.

So with another friend, George Boedecker, the three men leased a warehouse in Miami's Little Havana and made a deal with the Canadian factory to become its sole US distributors. Three months later, they set off for the Miami Boat Show and started throwing shoes to passers-by, who rapidly became fans once they had tried them on. By the end of the show, the company's entire inventory had been sold and they had built up a solid customer base to expand upon.

"One of the smart things we did in those original shows was to put reorder forms in the shoes." Customers took the shoes back across the US and suddenly their little firm in Miami was getting orders from as far away as Minnesota and California. "People would take them home, their parents would want a pair, their kids would want a pair. And it just grew like that, by word of mouth." Any marketing would have been wasted early on, Hanson reckons, because "either people wouldn't have recognised it or would have loved it so much we wouldn't have been able to fill orders".

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A year later, the pair asked Ron Snyder, a mutual friend and then head of the global division at Flextronics, to come on board. He had helped the electronics manufacturer boost sales from $3bn a year to $16bn, and the friends thought he could do the same for them. Snyder told them they were thinking too small, and that they could have a global brand on their hands. Snyder turned to friends of his in Boulder, Colorado, who gave him the $5m he needed to buy out the Canadian manufacturer a critical move. "We had control of our manufacturing, our material, and therefore intellectual property. Now we could start making the material ourselves. We could take it and build it somewhere else we had complete control of our destiny."

Subsequent growth has been massive. From sales of just over $1m in 2003, the firm turned over $355m last year, with a $200m gross profit. It's been an incredible journey for Hanson, who was out of work before the company began in 2002. "I would never have imagined I'd be sitting in London five years later, having just done a 15-city tour of Europe, and everyone leaning across and saying I love those things'," he says. "Because when we were the first three people wearing them in the US, people just looked at us like we were from the moon. To go from being unemployed on a boat to travelling the world and talking about a brand that people love is really just a dream come true."

Jody Clarke

Jody studied at the University of Limerick and she has been a senior writer for MoneyWeek for more than 15 years. Jody is experienced in interviewing, for example in her time she has dug into the lives of an ex-M15 agent and quirky business owners who have made millions. Jody’s other areas of expertise include advice on funds, stocks and house prices.