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Hands-Free Inc: The Journey of Quikiks, a Human-Centered Hands-Free Shoe

Hands-Free Inc: The Journey of Quikiks, a Human-Centered Hands-Free Shoe

By Steve Kaufman, Founder/CEO

What was your entrepreneurial journey like and what motivated you to start this business?

My entrepreneurial journey has led me down a long path full of twists and turns, working in fields as diverse as robotics engineering to the retail cheese business.  One of those twists happened after my son, Alex, was diagnosed with scoliosis as a teenager.  To help prevent the progression of the curve in his spine, he had to wear a big torso brace. However, the brace also prevented him from being able to bend over to put his own shoes on, so every day I was enlisted for the task.

           Alex’s Scoli Brace

Eventually, I had the idea to create a “hands-free” shoe so that he and other people in his situation could do this for themselves and they would not have to rely on others to do it for them -helping to restore their independence and self-esteem, while unburdening the caregiver.  I didn’t know anything about making shoes at the time. I just had an idea about how it might be possible. Since that original idea, there’s been extensive research, tons of prototypes made, countless conversations with medical professionals, and feedback from other people with disabilities facing similar barriers. 

Early concept prototype 

There was also A LOT of time spinning my wheels with footwear manufacturers who eventually threw their arms up and said, “I can’t do this.”

Development discussion at the factory

So why did I continue doing this? Four years into the development, and still working out the manufacturing issues, Alex was now out of the brace and didn’t even need these special shoes anymore. I persevered because I met so many people during those years that really did need them –either putting their own shoes on was difficult or painful, or just plain impossible and they had to rely on a caregiver to do it for them -just as Alex relied on me. I remember exhibiting a very early “proof-of-concept” prototype at an orthopedic device trade show in order to get feedback on my idea from industry professionals and one of the other exhibitors came over and told me that my shoes will enable her son with Cerebral Palsy to go away to college.  Whoa!  Stories like that over the years (and there have been many of them), have definitely kept me motivated to keep going.

First production run with the shoe master

Six years in and we finally had our product on the market – Quikiks, The World’s First Truly Hands-Free Shoes.  Since those early days, I am proud to say that we have positively and profoundly impacted the lives of people with conditions ranging from chronic back pain and arthritis to those afflicted by Parkinson’s, Cerebral Palsy and Multiple Sclerosis, people recovering from a stroke or hip replacement surgery or even cognitive issues like autism and dementia.  The list goes on and on.

Dorothy with chronic knee pain showing off her Quikiks collection

Gene with chronic back pain is happy to have his independence restored

What kinds of challenges have you faced?

We have definitely faced our share of challenges along the way, including raising brand awareness, particularly in convincing prospective wearers to try our product. However, we have relied on positive word-of-mouth recommendations and reviews to spread the word about our revolutionary product. As our visibility has improved, we have faced new problems, particularly in scaling up production and distribution to meet this increasing demand. This was especially true during the Covid pandemic when our supply chain completely fell apart. We did not give up though. Instead, we used the time to re-think the construction methodology of Quikiks and worked on improving the product, our supply chain and manufacturing processes, ensuring efficiency and sustainability.

Despite these challenges,  we have remained committed to our values of innovation, accessibility, and community outreach. We have partnered with medical professionals to guarantee the safety and comfort of our products. We have also connected with organizations serving people with disabilities to promote our products and receive direct feedback from customers.

What opportunities are you seeing in the market?

The feedback from our customers has been essential to the evolution of Quikiks.  In fact, based on learnings from our customers, the company is planning to soon launch a much-anticipated diabetic-compliant version of our hands-free shoes that will be insurance reimbursable.

Why is this important?  Well, one of the complications of diabetes is peripheral neuropathy, which can cause a loss of sensation in the feet. This means that people with diabetes may not feel pain, heat, or cold in their feet, and may not notice cuts or blisters that can become infected and turn into foot ulcers.  Regrettably, these foot ulcers are the cause of approximately 200 lower limb amputations per day in the United States.  Wearing diabetic footwear can help reduce the risk of foot injuries by providing a comfortable and protective environment for the feet. Our new Diabetic-Friendly Quikiks, will not only incorporate our proprietary hands-free technology, but are designed with soft, breathable materials that reduce pressure and friction on the feet, which can prevent cuts and blisters.

We are very excited that Hands-Free has recently been awarded a Commercialization Grant from a New York State fund in order to finalize its development and gear up for production of the new version of Quikiks -Quikiks 2.0.  In addition to being totally hands-free operable, Quikiks 2.0 will also be insurance reimbursable as Diabetic-compliant footwear, thereby opening up a vast new market by allowing Quikiks to be prescribed by podiatrists and make them more accessible to this vulnerable population.

What’s the competitive landscape look like and what sets Quikiks apart?

Of course, another challenge with pioneering a new market category is the inevitable competition that comes.  There have been many big-name and well-funded companies that have come along to get into the hands-free market.  I think what sustains us is remembering our purpose, which is not just to make a mass-market “life-style” shoe, but to go the extra mile to truly make a positive impact on the lives of people who struggle with using typical footwear. Unlike competitors, we have remained committed to developing the easiest to use hands-free shoes that can accommodate a wide range of needs. Many other “hands free” shoes on the market require the wearer to wiggle their toes into the entry to find their foot’s way in and to use one foot to pry the shoe off of the other to get out.  These are motions that can be very difficult for people with balance, dexterity or cognitive challenges. Quikiks shoes are uniquely hands-free through all points of use –from either a standing or sitting position, you can easily slide your foot into the wide entry-way without bending over, and simply kick them off without strain to remove and you do not need the opposing foot to do the work of getting your foot out. Structurally, the shoes feature a larger toe box, a wide, flat bottom sole for stability, and a stretchable upper, adapting to each user’s unique needs. Hands-Free Inc. is also a company which embraces its humanity and humble origins, prioritizing connecting with every individual customer to adapt their shoes to their needs. Whether that means changing the insoles, ensuring the shoes’ compatibility with AFOs, accommodating orders with differently sized feet or even customizing the holding strength of the securing clasp, Hands-Free Inc. prioritizes accessibility over profit.

But what truly sets Hands-Free Inc. apart is our partnership with Services for the Developmentally Challenged (SDC), a non-profit organization that serves people with disabilities. I am the president of the Board of Directors of SDC, and we have partnered with the organization to create an inclusive Quikiks assembly and distribution facility that will employ people with disabilities.

It has long been a goal of SDC to provide long-term employment opportunities for the individuals in its programs in order to nurture their independence and impart in them a greater sense of purpose, pride and self-esteem.  However, aside from some short-term transitory jobs or occasional volunteering, finding such employment opportunities have been very difficult to say the least.  The agency had considered starting its own business venture to realize this goal, but decided that the start-up costs and the legal intricacies involved with a not-for-profit agency, funded with Medicaid dollars, made setting this idea in motion prohibitive.  So, this goal of the agency’s vision has yet to be fulfilled.

But, besides seeing this unmet goal as a member of the Board of SDC, I have more personal reasons to get this collaboration off the ground.  You see, aside from Alex’s scoliosis, he was born with other developmental disabilities, which make it impossible for him to be employed in a typical work environment, making me understand very well the need for accommodative employment situations.  Alex has already been helping me in the business in the ways that he can -like exhibiting at local trade shows with me.

Steve & Alex at trade show

 Alex, VP of Sales, working the room

And I am eagerly looking forward to working with him in the new SDC x Quikiks assembly and distribution facility.

This partnership between SDC and Hands-Free is an amazing synergy whereby both organizations are fully aligned in their mission to create employment opportunities for people with disabilities. The facility will serve as a model for other businesses looking to create inclusive workplaces.

Can you share some lessons learned and advice to new entrepreneurs?

I think Hands-Free Inc.’s success can be attributed to our ability to listen to our customers, staying focused on our goals, and remaining resilient in the face of challenges. I hope my founder’s story can serve as inspiration to other entrepreneurs, showing that with hard work, persistence, and a willingness to adapt, anything is possible. For those looking to start a business, I can offer the following advice: Do your research, listen to your customers, and stay focused on your company’s mission. It’s essential to have a clear understanding of the problem you’re trying to solve and the audience you’re trying to reach. And remember that success doesn’t happen overnight.

I consider Hands-Free Inc. much more than just a shoe company. We strive to be a company that embodies the values of innovation, accessibility, and community outreach. Our commitment to creating inclusive employment opportunities through our partnership with SDC, I believe, genuinely sets us apart from other businesses. We’re not just talking the talk, but walking the walk.   So, the next time you or your loved one struggles to tie your shoes, remember that there is a company only one click away whose sole mission is to make your life a little bit easier and in doing so, enriches the lives of people with disabilities.

Monika Wassermann is a doctor and a freelance writer based in the UK who lives with her cat Buddy. She writes across several verticals, including life, health, sex and love, relationships and fitness. Her three great loves are Victorian novels, Lebanese cuisine, and vintage markets. When she’s not writing, you can find her trying to meditate more, weightlifting, or wandering around in town.

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