Rising StarRising Star: Matt Murphy of Proper Course & Co. Brings Fashion and Function to Outdoor Footwear

Matt Murphy, Founder & CEO of Proper Course & Co.
Matt Murphy, CEO and Founder of Proper Course & Co is redefining the outdoor sandal.

It’s the height of summer, and water beckons. Whether you’re swimming, surfing, or sailing, you’ll want to make sure you’re properly attired for the occasion.

But here’s the problem: outdoor gear often focuses on function before fashion, resulting in attire that gets the job done but makes you feel kind of goofy in the process.

As a case in point, sailing enthusiast Matt Murphy wanted a sandal he could not only wear while sailing but also feel stylish while wearing. He couldn’t find one, so he decided to make his own.

Here, Matt talks about the birth of Proper Course & Co and his own entrepreneurial journey:

The spark that inspired the birth of Proper Course & Co: I grew up around the water and boats – surfing, fishing and learning to sail. Proper Course & Co. is a natural extension of my love of shoes and fashion, combined with my passion for life on the water.  The spark for the brand came from identifying a real gap in the market.

The problem that Proper Course & Co solves: It’s simple. There is a major hole in the premium men’s sandal market. Guys can buy either a surf-inspired flip flop or an outdoor-inspired sport sandal and that’s about it. So what does a guy – who has an eye for design and some disposable income – buy if he doesn’t want to wear the surf brands he wore as a teenager, or doesn’t identify with outdoor/hiking/river rafting-inspired brands? That’s where Proper Course comes in. We make performance footwear for the sartorially inclined – using the drivers associated with sailing (technical / luxury / sport) to communicate the brand message.

The story behind the name: Proper Course is a sailing term that essentially means the fastest way from the starting line to the finish. We landed on that after an extremely detailed review that included several dozen options at the start of the search. Not to go too crazy into the details, but we analyzed and ranked everything from how the name supported the brand position, to how it scored in Internet searches and if it could be trademarked – just to name a few things. We even created a scoring matrix to see how the top choices ranked against each other. At the end, Proper Course & Co. was the winner! And I know we got it right because I couldn’t imagine using any other name.

What differentiates you from your competition: The biggest differentiator is our design thinking. It permeates every level of the brand and is at the core of what we do. I believe most brands only pay design lip service. We’ve also created an innovative strapping system that allows our sandals stay on your foot better than a normal flip flop, but are far less cumbersome/clunky than most sport sandals. You can also adjust how they fit, and they have a drainage hole, non-slip non-scuff soles and different technical finishes and materials.

How you make money: Proper Course & Co. makes money by wholesaling our products to brick and mortar retailers, selling directly to consumers through the Proper Course & Co. website, and through various third party online retailors.

I should note… our official launch date is spring 2015 so we technically haven’t made any money yet – we’re just spending it. However in the first year, we’re focusing heavily on the online component of our distribution strategy.

The best thing about being an entrepreneur: To me, the best thing about being an entrepreneur is creating something that didn’t exist before. And being able to innovate and push the boundaries of what is possible.

What has been the biggest surprise in your entrepreneurial experience to date? I think the biggest surprise I’ve had is just how open people are to discussing new startups and ideas. I’ve definitely pulled meetings and had conversations with people who are so far out of my league, I’m still amazed I was allowed in the room. The other thing that amazes me is just how helpful people are. The “it never hurts to ask” ethos rings true in my book – you never know what people are willing to do to help … all you have do is ask.

Your biggest success: We’re still hunting for most of our seed funds, so I’m hoping that my answer to this question will be changing shortly. But to date, my biggest success is creating a collection of shoes that tells a unique story and fills a genuine need in the marketplace.

Your biggest failure: Haven’t had any “real, true failures” to speak of.  But I’ve had a million curve balls. And what I’ve learned is you just have to roll with what’s been put in front of you. You can’t dwell on it, you can’t let it eat at you – you absorb it, process it for any positives, and you move forward.

What keeps you up at night: EVERYTHING!!! Haha. From funding to marketing, product development, distribution and everything in between – I think about it all, all the time. I will say that I keep a notebook close by, because you never know when inspiration or clarity will strike.

The best entrepreneurial advice you have received: Oh man, that’s a tough question. I’ve had so many great conversations with so many great people while developing Proper Course & Co. it seems like a nugget of wisdom comes from every single on of them, so it’s hard to pin down the best advice. However, I recently read an interview with Andy Spade, founder of Jack Spade (among other iconic brands), that has really resonated with me. In it, he basically said that product is everything – consumers see through inferior products, so without a spot-on offering, you have nothing. And he also said that once you get the sales, you’ll find the financing.

Your #1 piece of advice for a budding entrepreneur: Ideas are easy. Execution is difficult. Grow a thick skin and stick with it.

What’s on your reading list:  People always recommend books for me to read, but I can never remember any of them. So I’m not the best to get reading lists from. My advice is read what you find inspiring and read what makes you think, “What’s next?” That said, I’ve been reading a book about Jony Ive – he’s the designer behind almost every kickass Apple product under the sun. If you’re a design fan, it’s a great read. It really digs into some interesting process stuff and talks about how Jony helped Apple rediscover its design-driven roots.

The song that best describes your entrepreneurial journey: Is it a cliché to say “What a Long Strange Trip” by the Grateful Dead? Seriously though, when I first started conceptualizing Proper Course & Co. I couldn’t have imaged all the twists and turns. It seems like surprises and new challenges are always on the horizon.

What wild success looks like: I’m not going to say that Proper Course is going to become the next Nike (though I wouldn’t complain if that happened). But I really admire their drive to constantly innovate and push boundaries. And that’s what I would want for us. I think it’s important to stay true to the brand’s roots but to keep exploring and pushing the envelope of what’s possible.

In addition to that, I see Proper Course & Co. expanding to a full line lifestyle brand that includes outwear, watches, sunglasses, bags, etc.

Your favorite local business: There are too many local business to list … Portland has so many people and companies doing so many awesome things, it’s really an inspiring place to be. If I did have to pick one, I’d pick McMenamins. I find it fascinating that these guys go into buildings that are overlooked and neglected and are able to create something so fresh, new and fun – but at the same time, stay true to what came before. The Kennedy School in NE Portland is on my standing tour for all of my out of town guests! Haha.

What you wanted to be as a child when you grew up: I think it depended on the week… it ranged from fighter pilot and a fire fighter to a professional basketball player and a racecar driver. Growing up though, I always had a little side business. I sold candy out of my locker in elementary school; I made custom bracelets, mowed lawns, painted houses, etc. So I guess I subconsciously always wanted to be an entrepreneur … I just didn’t know what it was called when I was a kid.

Benefits of starting a business in Oregon: It’s a great place to start a business. Portland in particular is the epicenter of footwear in the U.S. so I couldn’t be in a better spot for what I’m doing. The level of talent and experience in this city is unmatched. Plus, Portland has such a supportive startup community. People are always open to lending advice and making introductions – and OEN is definitely included in this list!!

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