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Thinking outside the (shoe) box

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Shortly after leaving his father’s shoe business to start Kenneth Cole Inc., the newly hatched designer wanted to attract attention at a big trade show in New York.

The show offered two options for designers: You could be one of a thousand companies setting up in small rooms at the Hilton, or you could create a fancy showroom. Cole found the first option limiting and the second one too expensive. So he decided to borrow a friend’s tractortrailer, park it in front of the Hilton and peddle shoes from there.

“I called the mayor’s office and said, ‘How does someone get permission to park a 40-foot trailer on the street in New York?’ And they said, ‘The answer, son, is that they don’t. This is New York. There are only two exceptions: if you are a utility company doing service or a production company shooting a full-length motion picture.’”

The next day, Cole changed his company’s name to Kenneth Cole Productions Inc. and filed for a permit to shoot a movie called “The Birth of a Shoe Company.”

“With the mayor’s blessing, I opened for business on Dec. 2, 1982,” Cole says. “I had two New York policemen as my doormen, compliments of the city. I sold 40,000 pairs of shoes in less than three days.

The lesson: “In business and in life,” Cole says, “the best solution isn’t necessarily the most expensive one, but it’s almost always the most creative one.”

— Adapted from “Kenneth Cole: How the King of Sole Got Soul,” Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Knowledge@Wharton.

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