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The U.S. has 3.8 million nurses. Companies are finally designing for them

Clove, which designs shoes for the unique needs of medical professionals, is one of a growing handful of startups focused on the nursing industry.

If you’re not a medical professional, “Clove” might seem like a strange name for a startup that sells nurses’ shoes. What does a spice used in cookies and mulled wine have to do with the people who care for patients? But here’s the thing: Doctors and nurses will get that Clove is really a kind of inside joke. The “C” in the name has a little bar on top of it, which is medical shorthand for “with.” (As in, take this pill every four hours “with” water.) So in medical speak, Clove is a secret code that means “with love.” “It’s a subtle way of signaling to nurses that we get them,” says Joe Ammon, Clove’s founder. “That’s kind of our thing.”

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[Photo: Clove]

Clove launches today as an online direct-to-consumer brand. It sells a single product: a $129 shoe for nurses, doctors, and other medical professionals that comes in black, white, blue, and rose. (In another nod to the profession, the colors have names that are relevant to their jobs: The rose is called “pink up,” which is the term for when a baby is able to leave the NICU because color has returned to his or her face.)

The shoes are meant to accommodate all of the functional requirements of the job. They are liquid-repellant, since nurses are exposed to bodily fluids and toxic chemicals throughout the day. They are supportive, since nurses spend extended periods on their feet during their long shifts. And Clove has also taken into account the many specific codes that hospitals have around professional dress: Some don’t allow big logos or too many colors, to create a more professional aesthetic, while others ask nurses-in-training to wear white shoes to match their uniform.

[Photo: Clove]

Despite these rigid requirements, Clove still manages to look chic. In fact, the luxury heel designer Stuart Weitzman had a small role to play in their design. Ammon came up with the idea for the startup while getting his MBA from Wharton, and fortuitously, Weitzman, an alum, was visiting the very semester Ammon had begun working on the shoe. Ammon asked Weitzman out to lunch and showed the world-famous shoe designer his sketches. “He took out a pen and began immediately sketching over my design,” says Ammon. “To be honest, I was a little relieved: I trusted his eye for design way more than my own. And nurses take so much pride in looking professional, I didn’t want to let them down.”

Ammon started Clove after watching his wife, Tamara, deal with a slew of footwear problems as she went to nursing school and began working in a hospital. He watched her buy four pairs of shoes—clogs, sneakers, flats—over the course of four months, costing her hundreds of dollars, but the result was always the same: She would ditch them after a few weeks because her feet were too sore at the end of the day, or they made her ankles roll in, or they let in liquids.

[Photo: Clove]

When it comes to uniforms, there’s a booming industry devoted to scrubs. Companies ranging from medical device companies like Medline and Jorgensen to uniform manufacturer Aramark to fashion brands like L.L.Bean to startups like FIGS all create uniforms for nurses. But there isn’t a straightforward solution for footwear. Over the years, nurses have turned to brands that happened to produce shoes that meet their needs, including Dansko and Crocs, which led these brands to launch shoes specifically for the nurses’ market. Nike also just launched a sneaker for medical professionals.

“Nurses are by nature problem solvers, so they’ve found ways to make existing products on the market work for them,” says Roy Rosin, the chief innovation officer at Penn Medicine, the hospital affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania. “But I don’t know of any shoes that are custom-designed for nurses. In most scenarios, shoe brands are adapting shoes made for other purposes to cater to this market.” For instance, Nike designs shoes for athletes while Crocs designs shoes for amphibious outdoor activity. “What’s different about Clove is that it’s designing shoes from scratch to meet nurses’ needs,” Rosen says.

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As Ammon watched the discarded shoes pile up in his house, he began to talk to his wife about the problems with each of them. Clogs, for instance, are very comfortable for some, particularly those with high arches. But for people with flat feet, the shoes can be very painful and, more dangerously, they can lead to twisted ankles. Many turn to sneakers, but most athletic shoes are designed with a tongue that is susceptible to letting in fluids. Crocs are waterproof, but they’re not great at ventilating, which leads to sweaty feet. “I found that a quick way to break the ice among nurses is to talk to them about whether they like their shoes,” says Ammon. “This is an ongoing source of conversation and griping.”

[Photo: Clove]

As an MBA student, Ammon began to see a bigger business opportunity in his wife’s struggle. After all, there are 20 million medical professionals in the United States. And while there aren’t specific figures surrounding the nurses’ shoe market, it’s worth noting that the scrubs market is worth $10 billion. So Ammon launched Clove, snagging pre-seed funding from lead investor Brand Foundry Ventures, along with angels like Bonobos cofounder Brian Spaly and Dagne Dover cofounders Deepa Gandhi and Melissa Mash.

[Photo: Clove]

Ammon proceeded to conduct hours of focus groups with nurses and hired a shoe designer, Jacob George, who was particularly drawn to the business because his mother was a nurse and often complained about sore feet. Together, they tried to design a shoe that would accommodate the unique and highly specific needs of nurses. For instance, they realized they needed to create a liquid-repellant shoe, but the shoe also needed to have ventilation, so they found a particular synthetic fiber that has pores so small they prevent fluids from entering but let heat out. Over the course of talking to nurses, they realized that many kick off their shoes when they are sitting at a nurses station, but need to put their shoes on very quickly when there’s a code blue alarm. So they designed the shoes to make them easy to slip on within seconds. “We heard horror stories of nurses running to a code blue barefoot because they didn’t have time to lace up their shoes,” he says. “These were little things that seemed relatively easy to solve for, but few brands appear to be addressing nurses’ needs to this level of detail.”

Wharton is a breeding ground for direct-to-consumer startups, including Warby Parker, Burrow, and Colugo. The model makes sense for Clove because it allows the brand to keep prices affordable—and keep a direct line to customers. But as Rosin, Penn Medicine’s head of innovation, points out, a critical aspect of the direct-to-consumer movement is that these startups reinvented ubiquitous products, once thought of as commodities, with engaging branding and design—the way Harry’s did with razors, Away did with luggage, and Lola did with tampons. Meanwhile, according to the American Association of Colleges of Nursing, there are some 3.8 million nurses in the U.S., and the industry is growing.

“Part of what sets Clove apart is that it’s creating a real brand around its shoes, one that makes nurses really feel seen and understood,” says Rosin. “Nurses don’t really have anything like this out there.”

For Ammon, it was extremely important that Clove’s branding hit exactly the right tone. The Clove team embedded itself among communities of nurses, gathering feedback about their lives and needs. Every aspect of the user experience, from the website to the Instagram account to the products, is designed to express that Clove “gets it.” In each box of shoes, for instance, there’s a pack of three pens that are emblazoned with the words “For Borrowing Only” since a common complaint at the nurses’ station is that people always take their pens without returning them.

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“I had a lot of respect for nurses before I met my wife, but that respect only grew when I saw what she goes through every single day,” Ammon says. “I see the mission of Clove as supporting nurses, both literally and metaphorically, as they support their patients day in and day out.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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