'A whole family effort': How two toddlers sparked a footwear business

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The couple hope to make a difference in the lives of South Africans through local employment. (Instagram/common_tread)
The couple hope to make a difference in the lives of South Africans through local employment. (Instagram/common_tread)

  • Inspired by their two young boys, husband and wife team Nicole and John van Besouw started a business making barefoot design shoes. 
  • Common Tread started in the pairs garage with two second-hand sewing machines and some shoemaking equipment. 
  • They hope to make a difference in the lives of South Africans through local employment and by focusing on children's education. 


Mom of two Nicole van Besouw watched her two little boys stumbling over tree roots and struggling to clamber over rocks during the family's walks in Cape Town's forests.

As an occupational therapist, she knows that barefoot is best for little feet, but of course as parents we also know that there are times when shoes have to be worn for protection.

It's natural for parents to want to protect their children's feet, but in her professional capacity, Nicole understands that the complex and thick-soled shoes available in local shops can negatively impact her toddlers' feet and overall development.

Getting scientific, she describes to News24 how science shows us that the less cushioning children's soles have, the more their ligaments and muscles naturally strengthen. 

She says: 

Forcing developing feet into the wrong shoes will negatively impact gait (way of walking) and even cause deformities.

Determined to do something about this issue, Nicole and her husband, John, decided to try to make shoes themselves.

The couple started looking into designs that were the most functional and enabled optimal movement, as kids love to climb and explore.

"We wanted our shoes to help them to feel confident on their adventures," says Nicole. According to her, they also really wanted to give busy parents one less thing to think about, so they went with an easy fastening so kids could learn to put their own shoes on, by themselves.

After buying two second-hand sewing machines and some shoemaking equipment, John watched many YouTube videos and completed a shoemaking course during the Covid-19 lockdown.

He soon created the first pair of shoes in their garage, testing them on his toddlers, before going on to craft many prototypes beyond that.

The couple's two boys tried and tested the shoes on forest paths, climbing rocks, during park visits, and even wearing them to play-school daily.

The husband and wife team has partnered with a team of skilled artisans in Woodstock, Cape Town, who craft each pair from scratch. All materials are sourced from local suppliers, and the leather uppers come from Namibia.

The shoes are sold under the label Common Tread, and the couple has high hopes of becoming the leading barefoot design shoe and lifestyle brand in South Africa. They also hope to make a difference in the lives of South Africans through local employment and by focusing on the education of children.

With such lofty ambitions, it must be difficult to juggle work and family, but Nicole stresses that it has always been a non-negotiable to keep ''first things first". According to her, even if the process took a bit longer, which was sometimes frustrating, she and John always wanted to maintain their family bond.

"We worked on our designs and business plan after-hours, and the many late nights in our garage workshop and extensive training sessions with our team paid off in the end," Nicole says.

The couple emphasises that teamwork is crucial in making it all work, sharing that John's strengths in design and construction, coupled with a strong business background, balance Nicole's OT, research and marketing skills.

"It has been a whole family effort. Our toddlers love being part of the crafting process and often play around with some of the leather and tools, pretending they're making shoes of their own," Nicole adds.

"They have become walking adverts for our brand and love the outdoors and exploring the forest, rock climbing and telling their friends that their mum and dad made their shoes," she says.

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Five kids' footwear facts

Based on her research and experience, Nicole shares tips below that parents can use to ensure they are buying the best shoes for their little ones.

  • Zero-slope from heel to toe and minimal cushioning – a heel on the shoe alters the position of leg muscles and the spine.
  • A pliable sole offers grip but still allows for optimal flexibility of the forefoot during climbing, running and jumping. The foot needs to be able to absorb stress and adapt to all the various terrains.
  • Minimalist, thin sole allows optimal feedback (sensory input) from the environment - the foot is a sensory organ receiving messages to send to the brain. The more the child feels, the more confidence there is when moving about.
  • Wide toe box - the toes should be able to play in the shoe in a natural position. This improves natural foot function and stability during play, enhancing balance and proprio-receptive feedback.
  • Soft, natural, toxin-free materials - Parents should choose shoes made from raw materials. An example is a vegetable-tan leather lining that is breathable and naturally fights foot bacteria which causes foot odour.

The shoes should also be light and easy to fasten so that children can put their shoes on themselves. This is important to encourage independence.

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