Tyler Way has netted some of his best clients by ducking security guards in the Palace of Auburn Hills while waiting outside of the Detroit Pistons locker room.
“The first custom shoes I did for an NBA player was a pair of Nike Air Force 1s for Tayshaun Prince featuring his number and ‘Prince of the Palace’ nickname,” Way recalls.
Way first started customizing sneakers in his dorm room as a freshman at GVSU. Since then, his custom footwear business
has grown exponentially with an impressive roster of clients including LeBron James, who pays as much as $2,500 a pair. These shoes are treated more like an atypical canvas than a well-loved pair of kicks. Most of Way’s sneakers never touch the hardwood of a basketball court or the blacktop of the street.
“Each pair I work on comes with a custom wooden display case," he says. "Many players keep them on their fireplace mantels or in their trophy rooms.”
Way has created promotional shoes for popular outdoor brand Merrell and Crons Athletic Company. He's also auctioned a number of pairs off for charity. Shoes, however, are just the beginning.
Way’s sneaker business is a combination of two of his greatest passions: basketball and art. Sidelined his senior year with a back injury, Way realized that he didn’t have a shot at a college basketball career. Custom-designing sneakers has allowed him to work with many of his favorite players while putting another talent, creative design, in the spotlight.
In addition to custom footwear, Way is currently working on a series of paintings called “We Are All Mascots.” The first piece of the series, Michigan State University’s Sparty mascot, sold to NBA star Jason Richardson. Shortly after, the next mascot painting was purchased by recording artist, Mike Posner.
“I never studied art formally,” Way admits. “I just have an eye for it and enjoy the challenges it presents.”
Way has a particular knack for creatively applying his talents to successful projects. His office is full of defunct Steelcase furniture that he has expertly refurbished by hand. These mid-century artifacts were featured in a video he pitched to Steelcase’s marketing department. “The idea was to portray the durability and value of their furniture but with a Do-It-Yourself, grassroots twist," he says. His focus is transitioning from art and design to something more along the lines of branding and advertising as his business evolves and grows.
For now, Way’s operation is still small. He has no plans to directly hire any employees in the immediate future. Instead, he prefers to collaborate with other entrepreneurs, who bring different skill sets to a project.
“I can focus on specific pieces of the project rather than trying to do it all myself. After a couple years of having no choice but to do it all myself," Way says, "I’ve since learned the power of collaboration.”
One such collaboration project is with Michael Hyacinthe’s [Fashion Has Heart]. The nonprofit organization aims to utilize the power of art, design and fashion to aid wounded veterans and their families transitioning back into civilian life. Way is currently working on several designs via [Fashion Has Heart] in honor of wounded veteran Corporal Josh Hoffman. In 2007, Hoffman was paralyzed from the neck down when wounded by a sniper while serving in Iraq. Though paralyzed and unable to speak, Hoffman is working closely with Way to create designs that tell his powerful story.
[Fashion Has Heart] is partnering with national companies Musicskins, MMA Warehouse and Ranger Up to take the Corporal Hoffman Series designs and to produce vinyl covers for electronics and apparel items to raise funds for other wounded soldiers.
“In all actuality, Josh is the designer; we are just the ones helping him put it all together,” Hyacinthe notes on the collaboration’s website
. More can be learned about [Fashion Has Heart] here
At 25, Way represents a new breed of entrepreneurs. Not only does he draw on a vast array of skills, he also knows how to use them in combination and concert effectively. Taking a lesson from the basketball court, he understands the value of teamwork, knowing how to focus on a specific role while trusting his collaborators to do the same. While a quick glimpse at his projects list suggests continued growth in the coming months, Way, doesn’t pay much mind to money or material success. His burgeoning business is “at least profitable -- enough to let me keep renting my office and pay my heating bills," he says. Instead, he says, “I focus on the things I am passionate about and enjoy doing more than anything else.” Way follows the old adage of “do what you, love and the money will follow.”