Can a small start-up running shoe brand change the running industry?
By Brian Metzler
Amid the excitement about the soon-to-be-released ZoomX Vaporfly NEXT% 2 and new ASICS Metaspeed Sky and Metaspeed Edge racing shoes, another intriguing new high-tech racing shoe quietly debuted last week. The Artist, from the fledgling Austin, Texas, start-up brand Atreyu Running, finally arrived in the hands of customers who pre-ordered the shoe last summer. Thickly cushioned with supercritical, nitrogen-infused EVA foam and enhanced by a carbon-fiber plate, The Artist has similar components and design ethos as some of the other “super shoes” on the market, but at half the price or less.
While those new Nike and ASICS shoes carry $250 price tags — the same as the Brooks Hyperion Elite 2, among others — The Artist costs only $100. A hundred bucks? Yes, and that’s half the price of the widely acclaimed Saucony Endorphin Pro and the Adidas Adios Pro. It was sold during a limited pre-sale last summer and the entire production run sold out. (A secondary pre-sale of The Artist will be offered soon and produced this summer, according to the company.)
Entrepreneur Michael Krajicek launched Atreyu in early 2020 with the intent of building simple and lightweight, but well-made shoes as low as $55 on a subscription basis. Atreyu shoes aren’t sold at retail outlets, but the company does offer its Base Model shoe for $75 as a one-off, online purchase from its website in a wide variety of color motifs.
Part of Krajicek’s goal was also to shake up the status quo by creating special makeup models (including a racing model and a trail running model) for the audience of committed runners he’s quickly built, but without being inhibited by huge marketing campaigns or traditional design concepts.
Can a small start-up brand produce an elite racing shoe on par with huge billion-dollar brands? It would certainly be a disruptive force if it did. Proof might be in the performance, but so far, The Artist is getting rave reviews on social media by some of the runners who bought a pair. In several wear-test runs over the past week, I found that the midsole foam feels semi-dense and more compliant than the Nike Pebax foam —so a more stable ride that’s not as bouncy — and that makes it ideal for both moderate and fast-paced running. It weighs about 8 oz. and has a 6mm heel-toe offset (30mm at the heel, 24mm at the forefoot) with a snug fit in the heel and midfoot and a little bit more wiggle room in the toe box.
Did I mention it has $100 price tag? There aren’t many good running shoes found at that price anymore. Even if it doesn’t produce fast marathon times anytime soon, The Artist has already proved itself a worthy purchase for that price.
“We believe that is an honest price for the current iteration of that shoe,” Krajicek said. “We’re not trying to do it just to be a low-price brand. We find the proper margin that works for us and we price accordingly. As far as The Artist goes, it’s a two-piece molded insole with a one-piece mold on the carbon plate with the same upper we use on our Base Model. We didn't want to overprice it. We wanted to adequately price it.”
But again, the company is focusing on high quality over low price. Krajicek said the second edition of the Base Model is going to have more expensive materials and production costs, so that will be reflected in a price that’s higher than the $55/$75 pricing structure of the original version.
Atreyu doesn’t yet have plans to sell at retail, sponsor races, or buy advertising like most of its competitors do, although it does have a sponsorship relationship with 2016 Olympic runner and emerging pop culture star Alexi Pappas. Could Atreyu become the next Altra, Newton, HOKA or On? Or better yet, is it already becoming the next Allbirds? We never seem to think that new brands can make an impact in the established running industry, but the industry changed a long time ago and continues to evolve toward digital-first when it comes to running shoe sales, so don’t be surprised if the brand continues to grow and innovate as a small but significant disruptor.