Hello! Who are you?

Hi, my name is Joona, I’m 28, and I’m one of the owners of Vivokauppa, which is a Vivobarefoot Store.

Tell a bit about yourself. What did you study?

I went to culinary school, to be a chef. When I was in high school, we learnt “home-skills” (kotitalous) and I enjoyed cooking a lot. So after graduation I went to work in a restaurant in Lahti for a year, and then to the army.

Did you have fun at the restaurant?

I did, I fell in love with the industry. Then, in the army, which normally lasts for six months for everybody else, they told me “you should go to the officers’ school”. In the end, my army training lasted for a year, and today I’m a 1st Lieutenant in the reservist Finnish army.

What do you learn at the officers’ school?

They train you to be a leader. It’s not elitist, but there are bankers’ kids, entrepreneurs’ kids, and so on. I come from a working class family but I didn’t feel awkward there, I saw I could myself become an entrepreneur, so the seed of the idea was planted there. Then, after the army, I understood I had to move to Helsinki if I really wanted to become a proper fine-dining chef. I got the number of Chef Pekka Terävä, who opened legendary restaurants like Olo (Michelin star), Emo, and others. I called him and said “can I come work for you for free, because I want to learn, and to know people”. He said yes, so I was working for free while sleeping in my aunt’s sofa, and it was one of the best times in my life. I realized that, if you want to be an entrepreneur, you should work for other people for the skills and the contacts, not for the money. Some people are like “I’m not doing anything for free, I want to get paid!” which is not very entrepreneurial. Better learn the trade, network, then start something of your own.

So I worked in different fine-dining restaurants in Helsinki, and then I started my first business, catering, with my best friend. Then, while I was in Haaga-Helia university studying restaurant management, I was also in the Olympic Culinary Team of Finland (it’s a team that competes on an international, Olympic level of cooking). We competed in the Olympic games in Germany, 2016, and got Silver.

How did you transition from the kitchen into the Vivobarefoot shop?

About two years ago, my father and his associate found the Vivo brand and wanted to open a shop of their own, so they asked me if I was interested. The only industry I knew was the food industry, but I’ve always been pretty good with social media, and I was curious about this new type of shoes. At first we opened an online store, then six months later we were doing so well that we opened a pop-up store in a building that doesn’t exist anymore (we shared a small space with a guy who was running a sports massage parlor). We opened two hours a day, twice a week, announcing on Facebook “we’re selling VIVO shoes!” and some days we had like fifty people in that small space, buying everything we had to offer. It was a huge success, it was crazy.

Why the success, you think?

Vivobarefoot was trending. It happened to be a cool brand at the time, and still is, it gets bigger all the time. People wanted to have these shoes, feel what they’re like. Our social media marketing was pretty good also. At the time we were doing it part time, my father was a therapist, I had my own projects. But it has grown to become our main thing.

Where does Vivo come from? Is it a franchise?

Vivobarefoot comes from Britain. Our shop is not a franchise, we import the shoes and sell them here in Finland. But we interact with Vivo often and they’re quite happy with us because we’re doing pretty well.

Let’s talk about the shoes themselves. What’s the concept?

The idea behind Vivobarefoot isn’t new, or technical. It’s just “the body is perfect the way it is, and since it’s not practical to walk or run barefoot, you just need a bit of protection”. They are called “barefoot” because that’s what they do: they let the feet alone, and provide a layer of protection from the ground and warmth from the cold. What they actually do is to remove all the unnecessary stuff that makes our feet walk and run the wrong way. Some of the models are designed for specific functions, like trail-running or for resisting water, but anything that interferes with the normal functioning of a healthy foot is taken away: no heel, no arch support, no thick soles.

Aren’t all those components an evolution in shoe-making?

On the contrary: heel cushions encourage heel-strike (hitting the ground with your heel first) because the presence of the cushion makes you lose sensibility. Heel-strike is directly related to injuries and pain in the knees and joints. Arch support neutralizes the foot’s natural arch, which is meant to compress when you hit the ground, and help propel you forward. Thick soles desensitize the natural sensors that exist in your foot’s soles and stimulate muscles that also contribute to forward motion. All of that is making our feet, and by extension our legs and the rest of our bodies, weak.

Vivo shoes, on the other hand, are wider (especially in the toe section) so when you walk your toes can be in a natural position. They don’t have heels (they have zero-drop, they’re flat) and no arch support. The soles are really thin, so your feet can go back to their job of being “sensors”. You should feel things when you’re walking and running, getting feedback from the ground, reacting faster, but thick soles disconnect you from that. If you walked in normal shoes blindfolded, you’d have no idea what you’re walking on. With Vivo, you feel whether you’re on asphalt, grass, sand. It’s a more natural way.

Modern shoes have made us weaker, you say?

I don’t say that, it’s based on studies. People are hurting their knees because thick soles prevent them from getting a realistic sensory feedback (how big the impact is) and their knee muscles don’t react as fast as they should. I myself see it everyday here, how “normal” shoes have destroyed women’s feet, bones hurting and sticking out, terrible. One of my best friends, he’s 26 now, has broken bones in both feet. He works in construction, and his “safety” boots are so hard and narrow that they break bones.

In the beginning I wasn’t aware of how important this issue is, health-wise. Nowadays, foot experts recommend people to come here because they understand the positive influence good shoes can have on health. Our customers often say “my podiatrist told me to try these shoes”.

Vivo aren’t perfect for every situation (there’s a reason why climbing shoes are super thin on the toes, for example). I myself play tennis on Vivo shoes and sometimes I could use a bit more sole. Probably Serena Williams or Roger Federer wouldn’t play better with Vivo, but I believe people who jog regularly would benefit a lot by wearing barefoot shoes.

How was your personal transition into Vivo shoes?

My first pair were running shoes, an old model called NEO. At first I was like “wow, these are really light” and I went running. I was painfully hitting the ground and thinking “what the heck is this!” Then I realized these shoes were different, and that I had to change the way I was walking and running. Shorter steps, no heel-strike, land with the balls of my feet. In the beginning I felt pain in the calf muscles, because I hadn’t used them much before. After those adjustments, I’ve been on Vivo shoes almost exclusively.

What if you have a formal meeting and need to go back to “serious” shoes?

We have this model, made in Portugal (Joona shows me a more formal, very chic Vivo pair) which we call “for the lawyers” and it sells like crazy. But our best sellers are the running shoes, because you can wear them everyday like a pair of Nikes. Hiking shoes are also popular. And the Magna Trail for light hiking, if you want go out with your dog into the forest.

Podiatrists recommend not to wear the same shoes for every activity all the time, but to have different pairs for walking, running, city, forest. According to a foot expert who was on YLE, people should have 14 pairs of shoes. That’s a lot, in my opinion. But three pairs of shoes per season is reasonable.

Are there any other brands doing this?

Yes, many brands are offering barefoot shoes. Makers are beginning to understand how important this is, and big guys like Nike and Adidas are exploring the concept.

What do you enjoy about being a shop owner?

I enjoy seeing that what I do makes a difference, either on social media, advertising, or talking with customers. I also like being the owner because, if I have some other appointment, I can leave someone here to hold the fort, which gives me freedom. But it can get hectic too. Some days, after people start arriving, I’m able to sit down and have break at eight in the evening, when I close. But it’s something I’m used to from the restaurant world.

Do you like to interact with the customers?

I’m an extrovert, I love being with people. I like to sell and I like to help, it’s a great feeling. It’s almost like cooking a great dinner, it makes me happy when people walk or run in shoes that feel amazing and are good for them.

Anything that you don’t like so much?

It happens in every business, but sometimes customers can be… childish. In Finland we have laws that give strong rights to the customers, and sometimes these rights are abused. For example, if a shoe breaks down within six months we have to repair it or change it. But sometimes people bring shoes they have worn for 8, 9 or 10 months, with no receipt or anything, and then they yell at us. A couple of days ago, someone came and said “hey, I bought these shoes ONE YEAR AND A HALF ago, and this glued part is falling apart!” She even said she had been wearing them every day for running and walking and wanted to know if we could replaced them for free! It’s an extreme example, but it happens. But in general, our customers are great. Most of the time I don’t even need to sell, there’s different groups, young couples, older couples, people with children. They start talking with each other “hey, I have that model, you should buy them!” It’s easy for me, because customers are 90% of the time really happy. And if their shoes break, they’re really understanding, they know it happens. And we just fix them.

And have you abandoned the food industry for the foot industry?

(laughs) Never. I’m still active with projects in the food industry. I may open my own restaurant one day, who knows. But Covid changed things, because I came here more or less full-time.

What’s in the future for you and this shop?

We want to keep growing, and seeing more people embracing barefoot shoes, either Vivo or any other brand. It’s not about us getting rich (which would be nice!) but about better health for the feet of the people.

This is Vivokauppa’s website, Instagram account, and Facebook page.