After a competitive running career and executive experiences with Rockport and Vibram, Tony Post struck out on his own in 2012 and launched Topo Athletic. In the nine years since, Topo – a name drawn from Post’s college nickname – has steadily made deeper inroads into the run specialty marketplace and earned a loyal following among runners with its distinctive performance running footwear for the road and trail.

            In building up his Massachusetts-based brand, Post has leaned on a rich array of personal and professional experiences, including some hard-earned lessons. The Topo founder sits with Running Insight senior writer Daniel P. Smith to detail his journey to establish and evolve his ascendant footwear brand.


Chapter 1: A runner is made

            Though Post enjoyed an active and athletic childhood growing up in Colorado, he did not pick up running until his freshman year at Tulsa University at the suggestion of a classmate. He was immediately hooked by a sport that made him feel “light and fluid.”

            Armed with a rudimentary training program, Post won both the mile and two-mile races at a school intramural meet during his sophomore year. Encouraged by the feat, he also felt himself at a life crossroads. Having never been east of Oklahoma and eager to experience more of the world, he took a year off school. The first six months, he saved money from working two jobs. The next six months, he drove around the U.S. in an old MG. He camped. He read. He explored. He ran.

“It was an important time in my life that helped shape me,” Post says.

He returned to Tulsa in the fall more focused. He won the mile at a regional AAU race, a victory that caught the eye of the Tulsa track coach.

“I know you won, but I don’t think you’re much of a miler,” Post recalls the coach telling him, “but I’ll bet you could run a good 5K.”

Post joined the team as a walk-on and later earned a partial scholarship to run cross country and track for the Division I school, where he specialized in the distance events and notched a more-than-respectable 3:49 in the 1500-meter run.


Chapter 2: Practical knowledge

After earning his degree in rhetoric and American literature from Tulsa in 1981, Post ventured to Boston to see how far he could take both his running career and a relationship with a girl. While he would marry the girl – 38 years and counting – he had more difficulty finding bliss as a runner. Training with faster and more experienced athletes, Post pushed too hard, too fast. Over 13 workouts each week, his weekly mileage soared over 100. The aggressive increase in both distance and intensity left him tired and regularly battling hip, foot and leg injuries.

 “Looking back, almost all of these injuries were related to over training,” Post says, though he admits the common practice of wearing shoes that were too small, especially for racing and speed training, “definitely didn’t help.”

As a junior skier and high school golfer, Post actively monitored his equipment’s role in training and performance. For instance, he studied the design and materials of skis and boots, seeking insights on how distinct elements might impact speed, control or feel. As a runner, that curiosity remained.

“It was important to me to understand how shoes could help improve the experience – not just for racing faster, but allowing you to train harder,” he says.


Chapter 3: The calling

In 1984, Post, anxious to learn more about how shoes were made, landed a customer service job at Rockport, an enterprising 13-year-old company aiming to bring athletic shoe sensibilities to the brown shoe world. A year in, Post moved into brand marketing and, later, became Rockport’s first product manager for men’s shoes.

Post traveled to shoe factories around the globe. He visited with last makers, bottom makers and mold makers. He picked the brains of material suppliers, designers and engineers. He studied things like last shaping and skiving materials for better assembly. He learned how different types of shoe construction suited a particular model or idea and discovered how slight alterations in manufacturing operations like heel lasting or heat setting could impact fit and feel.

“Back then, brown shoes used much less foam than athletic shoes, so you had to be more precise in design, engineering and fitting,” Post says. “It’s a different mindset from folks who came up through the athletic shoe side where more foam or painted leather seemed to be the answer to everything.”

            Post relished his spot in an iconoclastic organization that looked to tear down the brown shoe category’s status quo by making casual shoes driven by function, comfort and lightweight materials. That reality shined when Post ran the 1992 London Marathon in 2:49 wearing a pair of Rockport DresSports that incorporated ingredients of running shoe technology.

            “Even though our shoes were often considered unattractive or even ugly, they were comfortable, light and innovative for their time,” Post recalls. “We didn’t try to appeal to everyone, but for those people who got the concept, we provided them with something they really loved.”

            That business philosophy – being okay not being all things to all people – stuck with Post.

“Focus on a particular customer and find ways to deliver a better experience to those people so they can become passionate about your brand,” he says.


Chapter 4: Entrepreneurship calls

            After a 15-year run at Rockport, Post was named president and CEO of Vibram USA in 2001. As a supplier of rubber outsoles, Vibram worked alongside footwear companies of diverse sizes, strategies and approaches, and Post soaked in their varied perspectives. He also savored the Italian brand’s long-term approach and its unrelenting focus on craftsmanship, quality, performance and longevity.

            In 2005, Post helped lead Vibram’s foray into the running market with FiveFingers, an attention-grabbing, barefoot-like design that challenged conventional construction with its thin, flexible outsole and individual toe slots. It was radical and groundbreaking, mysterious and controversial, but boldly demonstrated that running shoes could break wildly from traditional formulas.

            “We helped pave the way for new ideas like Altra and Hoka and others,” Post asserts.

            Still, Vibram’s FiveFingers wasn’t his running shoe – and Post hungered to create footwear that hit on the performance characteristics he considered most vital: a low heel-to-toe drop that encouraged a more natural mid-foot strike, a roomy tox box combined with a secure waist and heel and top-shelf components that delivered comfort, performance and durability.

            “I wanted the shoe to feel light and like a natural extension of the body,” he says. “I didn’t want any gimmick for marketing’s sake, only technology that improved the experience.”


Chapter 5: “Topo” establishes Topo

In 2012, Post left Vibram and launched Topo, imagining a differentiated performance running brand that could break through in a challenging, competitive marketplace. Though some assumed Topo would be a minimalist shoe company given Post’s leading role in bringing Vibram FiveFingers to market, Post himself appreciates cushioning.

            “I knew there was a market for natural running shoes with some level of cushioning and protection,” he says. “That’s where we saw the opportunity for Topo.”

            Even before developing Topo’s first prototypes, Post set the company’s values around fit, comfort and low heel-to-toe drop (settling on 5mm, 3mm and some zero-drop options) to propel natural movement.

“Shoes won’t fix you,” Post says. “I wanted to make shoes that help you become stronger and stay active your whole life.”

            Post and his earliest associates worked on the brand’s first last shape for months. They pined over details such as toe box size, heel fit, weight and materials. The initial last – an undeniably unconventional concoction – featured a curved featheredge, a more rounded calcaneus and less rake in the toe shape.

            Topo introduced its first three models in 2013, all of them split-toe (or tabi fit) shoes that isolated the big toe, a key stabilizer in running, walking and hiking. While Post was all in on the split-toe design, a concept long utilized in Japanese footwear and employed by Nike and others on various occasions, consumers were not as enthusiastic. Though Topo’s earliest footwear earned high marks for its lightweight cushioning and natural, low-drop feel, the split toe failed to gain traction. Post quickly – and painfully – realized his error and acknowledged that Topo would need a more conventional toe shape to survive.

“Consumers just weren’t ready for it, and I should have known better than to put all our eggs in one basket,” Post admits.

Topo sold off its inventory and retooled.

“There were many days back then that I wasn’t sure we could survive such a big miscalculation on my part,” Post says.


Chapter 6: Evolving

            Somehow, Post says, Topo retained many of its earliest dealers and the company endured. It listened to customers and accounts. It continued learning, experimenting and tweaking its footwear. Post encouraged the cross pollination of ideas and opinions to forge a stronger company and, even more, better product.

Over recent years, Topo has found success and acclaim with road models such as the Ultrafly and Magnifly as well as trail models like the Ultraventure and MT. It has unveiled compelling updates with models such as the MTN Racer 2 – “The best trail shoe we’ve ever made,” Post boasts. – and the Phantom 2, a recent release that delivers more cushioning than any other Topo shoe to date. The company also features a compelling slate of recovery and hiking footwear as well led by the Rekovr and Trailventure, respectively.

“Just like runners, the goal each season is to get better,” Post says. “In every part of our business, we ask ourselves, ‘What did we learn from the last season? The last year? How can we grow from that knowledge to make ourselves and the company better?’”

In fact, when asked about his favorite shoe or the most important model in the Topo lineup, Post always shares the same reply: “The next one.” That, after all, will showcase Topo’s company-wide commitment to continuous reflection, growth and improvement.

“I’m always focused on ‘the next one,’ but I am also proud of the shoes we make today,” Post says.

And, much as he learned at Rockport, Post is not interested in trying to be everything to everybody. Rather, he stands focused on pushing Topo to excel and lead the natural footwear niche. Others, he says, can be the lightest, the most cushioned or the most aesthetically daring.

“The goal is to make every Topo work for that consumer we have in mind,” he says.