Vincent Vu knows that every race is won by simply putting one foot in front of the other.
This December, the Richmond entrepreneur crossed his first major finish line when his barefoot training startup, Kinis, released the Nomad 804, a minimalistic “shoe” for indoor exercise that offers wearers as close to the barefoot experience as you can get without actually letting your naked soles touch the gym floor.
With a name that nods to origins — “Nomad” refers to the hunter-gatherer lifestyle of our ancestors and “804” is the Richmond region’s area code — the Nomad 804 encapsulates the driving philosophy behind Kinis.
“We don’t just sell you the product,” said Vu. “We sell you the ‘why.’”
Vu’s journey toward founding Kinis followed a long and winding road.
Born in Vietnam in the wake of the war, Vu became a refugee at age 7, and it would be eight years, many spent in the United Nations Galang refugee camp in Indonesia, before the family was able to emigrate to the U.S.
They spent nine months in Sioux City, Iowa, before coming to Richmond. A graduate of Tuckahoe High School and the Savannah College of Art and Design, Vu has called the River City home ever since.
It was in 2017 that the budding entrepreneur, who has a background in architecture and manufacturing design, began reflecting on one aspect of his time at Galang: the games he played with other children there.
Like many young Richmonders, Vu was passionate about fitness and worked out frequently. But he soon began suffering from injuries that he couldn’t overcome. New shoes only made the problem worse.
“It got to the point where I couldn’t work out anymore,” he said.
Searching for an answer, he recalled playing soccer barefoot, day in and day out, at the Galang camp.
“We were perfectly fine,” he said.
With extra time on his hands due to a layoff, Vu began to research barefoot training, studying foot anatomy, reading books like Christopher McDougall’s bestselling Born to Run (also the inspiration behind Health Warrior), and conducting experiments on himself as he trained at ACAC in Short Pump. Slowly he came to a conclusion: “Whatever I’m doing, it’s the shoe that’s causing me the problem.”
Proponents of barefoot training argue that shoes, by taking the burden of stabilizing the body off of feet, keep feet from developing strength, allowing a host of other problems due to weakness to develop.
Vu’s own findings supported that view, but none of the lightweight footwear intended for barefoot training on the market met his needs. Many prioritized comfort — and that, he said, wasn’t the point. Others wore out quickly or had other design flaws.
He realized that to get what he wanted, he would have to draw on his design and manufacturing background to make it himself. And so he set aside a year to pursue the project and cleaned out his 401K. Kinis was born.
“There’s always an opportunity to improve the market,” he said.
As a startup, Kinis makes a range of products for barefoot or what Vu calls “barefoot-like” training, including socks and knee and calf sleeves. But the pinnacle of its early efforts is the Nomad 804, a kind of footwear for indoor training that resembles a sock with a rubber sole.
To build prototypes, Vu worked with Honeywell in Hopewell, Mayo Knitting in North Carolina and factories in Shanghai to come up with material flexible enough to mold to the contours of the foot in motion but durable enough to handle vigorous exercise.
“I literally would spend hundreds of hours testing to make one sock,” he recalled.
Throughout the process Vu was supported by numerous partners. Daniel Howell, a professor of biology at Liberty University known as the “barefoot professor,” offered feedback and testimonials, while local athletes and fitness instructors tested out the various iterations of Vu’s creation. A designer with the Brand Center at Virginia Commonwealth University designed the Kinis logo, while mentors with Startup Virginia, which Vu joined in January 2018, offered guidance.
With the Nomad 804 now out on the market, Vu is already looking toward new innovations, such as adding sensors to track data such as foot stride, and hoping to expand Kinis’ reach.
In many ways, he offers the strongest testimonial for the Nomad 804’s efficacy: his own pain has long disappeared.
“We really want to put [the Nomad] out there for the Richmonder,” he said. “If it worked for me, it should work for other people.”