When Kim and Brian Gross picked up their 1-year-old daughter Riley from day care, she was often barefoot -- even in the winter.
Because the child's shoes were hard-soled, the day care workers took them off to let the youngster toddle more easily. It was only a matter of time before the socks came off, too.
Frustrated in their search to find shoes flexible enough for their young child to wear through the day, the Cockeysville couple decided to design their own. Now Rileyroos, as the shoes are called, are sold in stores in Maryland and beyond.
The quest to create the shoes started about two years ago, said Brian Gross, 37, who has spent the past decade working in marketing at companies such as Kraft Foods and Procter & Gamble.
He made industry contacts, while his wife, 33, who worked in marketing at McCormick & Co., pursued contacts in the fashion world, he said.
Then they did research on what kind of shoes would be best for children, he said.
The result is a line of shoes, leather or suede, that include padded rubber soles that curl above the toes to add traction when a child begins crawling. The shoes, designed for children ages 6 to 24 months, are soft enough to be scrunched into a ball with only a little effort.
When children are learning to walk, they should go barefoot as much as possible, said Mary Weck, a 40-year veteran pediatric physical therapist at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago. And when shoes are necessary, the footwear should be as close to barefoot as possible, she said.
"Shoes should be flexible and pliable," Weck said. "And they should allow the child to respond naturally to the sensory input of their feet."
Brian Gross said he and his wife started with the idea of a moccasin, but instead of a cloth bottom, they designed shoes with a flexible rubber sole.
Armed with several design sketches, they attended a shoe trade show, where they asked several manufacturers to produce sample shoes. After perusing the finished shoes, they selected a Chinese company called Wenzhou Zhufeng Trade Co. to make their product.
They tested their designs and identified several problems, he said.
"Some kids put pressure on their instep when they walk," Brian Gross said. "The seam busted out. So we increased the durability of the thread."
After working out the kinks, the couple ordered more than 8,000 pairs of shoes and began selling them online and by word of mouth, he said.
Abby Plusen of Baltimore received a pair for her 3-month-old son, Gabriel, as a gift. She liked them so much that she started buying them as a standard baby gift, she said.
"The Rileyroos are shoes that I would want to wear if they made big sizes," said Plusen, 31, who works as a program manager at the University of Maryland School of Nursing. "And a friend with an older baby told me the shoes helped her son's walking."
Although a growing number of people started buying Rileyroos online, the couple's first big break came when a Hampden furniture store, called Red Tree Baltimore, began selling the shoes.
"We weren't sure how the shoes would sell in a furniture store, but Red Tree reordered four times by the end of the year," Brian Gross said.
After that, several local boutiques -- including Pied Piper, Lord and Lady Bug and Raw Sugar -- started carrying the shoes, which retail for $28 to $34.
The shoes are being sold in more than 75 stores in 14 states, Brian Gross said.
As business picked up, they turned to another source to persuade stores to sell the shoes -- mothers.
"We thought that moms would be the best advocates for the shoes if they tried them and liked them for their children," Kim Gross said.
Her husband said Jodie Turner-Smith, a mother from Richmond, Va., had better luck selling the shoes than he did.
"About nine or so shops in Virginia sell Rileyroos," he said. "Jodie beat down the doors of every shop she could."
Each year, they plan to offer new styles, Kim Gross said.
The biggest challenge is choosing fabrics and threads, she said. Recently she decided to add an animal print to the fall line.
"The challenge was to find materials that would work with children's shoes," she said, adding that she focused her efforts on cow and zebra prints.
"I looked at leopard prints, but they just seemed too adult for a child's shoe," Kim said.