Bringing back the lost art of fine shoemaking
As the children of an Air Force colonel, brothers Trenton and Heath Potter grew up on military bases all over the world, from Japan to Europe and across the U.S. After graduating from the University of Tennessee, both brothers moved to Nashville and embarked on separate careers.
But it wasn’t long before they discovered a shared passion for well-made shoes, polished to military precision. In 2011, Trent opened a pick-up and delivery shoeshine business and brought Heath onboard.
Business was pretty good. Then, about three years in, the cobbler they outsourced repair work to announced that he was planning to retire — and asked if the brothers were interested in buying him out. The whole family chipped in, and both Trent and Heath quit their jobs to focus on shoe repair full-time.
By 2018, the brothers had started to make their own shoes as well, so they decided to split the business into two separate brands: Potter & Sons shoe repair and Southern Polished sandals. Both businesses were popular, but as they relied on local foot traffic for income, there were big fluctuations from week to week. “I actually had to go get another full-time job on [Nashville’s] Music Row while Heath and my dad ran the companies,” says Trent. “That’s when I had the idea to start a YouTube channel. [I thought] we can just talk about what Heath and I do every day – help people learn about taking care of their shoes.”
So in 2019, Trenton and Heath made a video with another shoemaker they’d met at the Menfluential conference for men’s lifestyle content creators. When it went live a few weeks later, Trent and Heath found they had over 1,000 subscribers. By the end of the year, it was 100,000.
It was a huge boost for their businesses. The brothers increased their average annual revenue by about 8 times, with the overwhelming majority (about 95 percent) coming from YouTube. With that extra revenue, they’ve been able to employ seven people: three in customer service and four to help make the shoes.
The money also helped them reinvest in their business and move into a larger space. “We spent the first several years in a 900-square-foot building that was falling down,” Trent recalls. But once their channel took off, they moved into a 5,000-square-foot facility with enough room for a shoe repair workshop, an area for shipping and fulfillment, and a storefront for Southern Polished.
“All of that took place because of YouTube,” Trent said.
When COVID hit, many of Trent and Heath’s neighbors in Nashville had to shut down their businesses. “If we had not started our YouTube channel a year before [COVID], I can confidently say our business would have closed down, too,” says Trent. “There’s just no way we would’ve been able to stay in business [without those] online orders.”
In fact, business is booming. “There’s actually a waiting list for our shoes, sometimes for up to four months,” Trent says. Last year, when they released their first video about Southern Polished, they sold hundreds of shoes in a single day. “Prior to that, we were lucky if people walking into our shop bought two pairs a day,” he says.
Their business has also expanded in other ways. Several shoe companies have asked the brothers to review their brands, and they’ve collaborated with a few leather companies to make Southern Polished sandals. “When you have an audience, when people listen to your story, they’re willing to take a chance on your product,” Trent said.
Telling their story and sharing their message of sustainability is extremely important to Trent and Heath. “We live in a throwaway culture,” Trent says. “[We want] to educate people that there’s better stuff out there that you can keep for years. If you spend just a little bit more on a really high-quality shoe, you are not only giving other shoe cobblers business for years, but you can keep it for 10, 20, 30 years.”
Trent and Heath are proud that their success has also inspired other cobblers, helping to restore the shrinking industry. “We’ve watched other people come along after us, all over the world. They will say, ‘Hey, I was watching you guys and y’all helped me get started.’ So now they’ve got channels, too.”
“Almost 10 years later, Heath and I continue to repair shoes, shoot YouTube videos, and make sandals for orders that come from all over the world,” says Trent. “Thanks to YouTube, our audience has grown tremendously. Heath and I continue to create new ideas and products, as well as work on collaborations with other businesses and YouTubers...things we never had a chance to do before we began growing on our channel.”
All that hard work is paying off. Not only is their business growing, but they’re also reaching a growing number of viewers with their message of sustainable quality. “People are leaving comments on our YouTube videos saying, ‘I went out and bought my first pair of really nice shoes because of you guys. Before that, I’d always just worn throwaway shoes,’” Trent says.
That kind of feedback is what keeps them both going, making high-quality shoes that will last their customers for years to come.