PORTLAND — In a startup's office overlooking downtown Portland, three creative business owners — a sneaker-shop owner, an event marketer and a watch designer — gather to judge a wall full of shoe designs.
The sketches — 50 of them — had been submitted online by would-be artists on the promise that Ryz would make and sell dozens of pairs of the most attractive shoe.
Ryz founder Rob Langstaff watches quietly in the background. The former Adidas America president hopes to replicate this contest each month, staging it on Ryz's Web site and inviting users to submit designs and vote on the best. He'll give winners $1,000 and a $1 royalty for every pair he sells.
Langstaff's startup joins a number of young companies nationwide engaged in "crowdsourcing," a practice that relies on online clusters of consumers to design products and figure out which ones to sell. In Ryz's case, it's MySpace meets "American Idol," with footwear as the unit of expression.
It's a model some think will be the future of consumer product-making, combining social networking, open-source design and viral marketing.
Some academics think consumer-driven design will displace corporate research-and-development centers at many corporations because it ultimately outsources both design and marketing in a way that cultivates and retains customers.
"It's a more economic model," said Eric von Hippel, a management professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the 2005 book "Democratizing Innovation."
"The users are making designs, and other users are getting to choose the ones they like. The first function replaces in-house research and development. The second function replaces marketing research," he said. "If you're looking at it from a manufacturer's point of view, you're exporting all these costs."
It's an extension of the open-source software movement, which brought us the online encyclopedia Wikipedia, said Karim Lakhani, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School. The popularity of social networking and the availability of desktop design software have made designing products much easier than even seven years ago, he said.
Customizing shoes online is nothing new. Nike, Vans and Timberland, among others, allow consumers to pick their own color schemes on existing models. In Vancouver, B.C., John Fluevog Shoes solicits entire dress-shoe designs online and has produced 12 high-priced models over six years, said company marketing director Stephen Fluevog.
This week, boot maker LaCrosse Footwear began offering its Danner-brand enthusiasts a chance to design boots online or at its factory, where they can pick their own leather hide and watch as the boot is made.
But Ryz aims to make Ryzwear.com a place where sneakerheads, trendsetters, designers and early adopters visit frequently to design, discuss and rate footwear.
"The corporate design team is limited by its walls," said Langstaff, who used contacts cultivated while at Adidas in Japan to launch Ryz. "The corporation shouldn't be dictating what the consumer wears. The consumers should."
Here's how Ryz will do it. Each month, Ryz will post a different standardized shoe silhouette on its Web site (a high-top shoe and a low-top shoe will be Ryz's first two). Users can download the template and, using Adobe Photoshop, illustrate or add images across the shoe.
Site visitors can rate and comment on submissions. After a month, a winner will be declared and Ryz will order a run of the winning design — 100 pairs to start and 1,000 pairs by next year — from a contract manufacturer in China.
Two weeks after the contest ends, Ryz will sell the winning shoes on the Web. The retail price: $75 to $90 a pair.
Hall of Fame listing
In addition to the cash prize and royalties, winning designers also will get their profiles attached to each pair and a listing in Ryzwear.com's Hall of Fame.
By 2012, Langstaff hopes to allow users to design the entire shoe, from the shape of the sole to the shape of the eyestay. He also hopes to get into technical athleticwear. He expects to rely on customers to do most of his marketing.
"We think they will be really powerful evangelists because they've got a business incentive to get their friends to vote," Langstaff said. "Viral marketing is built in. You're treating the designer as a business partner, and he or she should be your business advocate."
Langstaff says Ryz's planned five-month production schedule will give it a leg up on larger footwear companies that take 11 to 18 months to produce a new style. "We can capitalize on trends before competitors," he said. "We can be very nimble."
Ryz's model mimics Chicago-based Threadless.com, a successful T-shirt startup launched in 2000 by two college dropouts.
Others have followed suit. Massachusetts-based Local-motors.com is even trying to crowdsource custom automobiles.
Ryzwear.com's community page includes an artists panel that will comment on designs. Langstaff hired former Nike Jordan Brand publicist Theresa Tran to find "trendsetters" for the panel, which he hopes will lend legitimacy to the site and lure other sneakerheads and fashion followers.
Among Langstaff's consultants is Mikal Peveto, a former Adidas and Fila footwear executive who started design-your-own shoe site Customatix in 2000. Peveto believes Ryzwear can succeed where Customatix failed because consumers today are more comfortable interacting and purchasing online from less-established companies.
"Our timing wasn't great. We couldn't get people to buy because they didn't trust the brand," Peveto said. "Now is a completely different time than in 2000 because there are so many different brands that are valid."
Outside investors have been somewhat cool to Langstaff's idea, and it still has much to prove to its consumers.
It must attract an online community without using traditional advertising or appearing too corporate, lest it turn off big-brand-weary trendsetters. And its Web site and design tools must be sophisticated enough to satisfy its tech-savvy audience.
"I think the business will evolve as they learn," said Eric Rosenfeld, principal with Portland-based Capybara Ventures. "The competition may not be what people get excited about. It might be that for the first time in my life I can design the graphics on my shoe."
Rosenfeld said investors have been cool to Ryz because they see it not as a runaway financial success but more as a slow-growing business that will provide its founders with a good living.
"Similar businesses, many of them don't turn into giants," Rosenfeld said. "Even Threadless isn't that large."
Langstaff begs to differ. Though he's coy about how he will make shoes so quickly, calling his arrangements a trade secret, he thinks Ryz will live up to its name.
"This concept of social networking and crowdsourcing is in the trendsetter and early-adopter phase," Langstaff said. "It will become more and more the normal way of doing business. When it becomes mainstream, that automatically means it becomes big."