Start a Conversation With Your Feet! Behind the Business with Common Ground’s John Tawney

image of the faces of common ground
FS Local Contributor
  • Published
  • February 22, 2017

Sometimes, putting your foot in your mouth isn’t a bad thing (metaphorically speaking.)

Common Ground is a fashion shoe company that has a pretty interesting goal – they want their shoes to spark conversations about social issues. Founder John Tawney is a passionate believer in social justice with a background in footwear – when looking for a new career path, he used his experiences to come up with a unique idea designed to make the world a better place.

John was very happy to share the mission statement and story of Common Ground with me – enjoy his interview below!

Tell us about your business in as much detail as you can. What is it that you do and who are your customers?

Common Ground exists to inspire empathy and spark authentic, productive conversation between real people on challenging social issues.  We do this through footwear – graphically representing different viewpoints on each foot – reminding people that we must work together to make progress.

Common Ground products remind one to:

  • Walk in the other shoe so as to better understand those holding different viewpoints
  • Work together (like two shoes) to deliver progress
  • Never underestimate the power of one’s steps to impact the lives of others for the better

Our belief is that real progress requires real understanding. Common Ground footwear is here to help make that happen. Common Ground targets challenging social issues with a strong human component; issues in which you can imagine yourself in the “other shoe”.   They fall into two categories:

Equality: These are not issues of right or wrong. These are issues that ask us to look beyond prejudice or bias and to recognize and appreciate our differences. We ask people to imagine the viewpoints and feelings of the person in the other shoe, work to understand how that person would like to be treated, and then use that understanding to take positive and productive steps (no matter how small) for progress.

Gridlock:  These are issues in which we have allowed our differences to become divisive, resulting in conflict and paralysis that is destructive in the face of increasing challenge.  We ask people to seek a different path, one in which they commit to working together, seeking out mutual understanding, and identifying common ground. It’s not an easy path, but it’s a vital path to move us beyond the gridlock that grips our world.

Common Ground stands firmly on the side of equality and progress.

Our products (shoes/graphics) as well as our brand (logos/stories) are designed to invite discovery and exploration.  In many ways, this parallels daily life and the countless interactions we have with others – each one presenting a rich opportunity to discover new perspectives.

Current footwear collections are gender equality, marriage equality, gun violence, and immigration.

Why do we do it?

  • We believe progress occurs when people begin to understand each other.
  • We believe empathy and conversation are vital first steps to building understanding.

We started a shoe company to help make that happen.

Our customers are:

  • People who believe in the power of empathy and conversation to solve problems.
  • People who are willing to open themselves to new viewpoints.
  • People who choose to look for and recognize common ground.
  • People who recognize that it is their steps and their interactions with others that will deliver lasting change.

They are people that want to change the world.

image of common ground shoes

What made you choose this path? Is it a family legacy or are you a pioneer? Did you go to school for it or are you learning as you go?

The first step was recognizing a desire and need to change paths. Prior to Common Ground, I was fortunate to enjoy twenty-five years in the footwear industry.  The majority of those were spent at Nike creating footwear innovations such as NIKE SHOX, NIKE FOAMPOSITE, and NIKE iD (Nike’s on-line customization service.)  It was incredibly enjoyable and I had the good fortune to work with extremely talented people.  But having done that type of work for many years, there was a desire to step into something new – something that would allow me to apply my skills and experience towards “doing good” in this world.

So having decided to change paths … what path to choose?  It came down to three simple factors:

  • Leverage Footwear Experience/Expertise.  It made sense to leverage my experience and contacts within the footwear industry.  In addition, having worked within the innovation space for so many years I was well-versed in the role that empathy plays in solving design problems.
  • Stay Challenged.  Stay Learning.  Work with great people. I would consider these three to be essential factors in any career path decision.
  • Purpose – Do Good.  Mid-life, four kids venturing out into a complex world, one child having successfully battled cancer, etc. – all of these factors influenced my perspective on life and what I wanted to accomplish next.   What did I want the purpose of my next work chapter to be?  I gravitated towards inspiring people to be better problem solvers.  This evolved into a focus on the two best problem-solving tools I was familiar with:  empathy and conversation.

So for my next path …..I decided to stay in footwear (experience), start a company (new challenge), that would inspire empathy and conversation (purpose). I’m a pioneer in terms of starting a company but I was blessed with parents who encouraged me to follow my dreams, to not be afraid to fail, to live with purpose, and to explore.

Did I go to school for it or are you learning as you go?

My education as a mechanical engineer and work experiences certainly provided a solid foundation – but “learning as you go” is absolutely part of the process.  This reinforces my strongly-held belief in the value of “learning by doing”.

They say that to be successful you have to be passionate, so share what drives you every day. Why do you love what you do?

Similar to why we started the business:

  1. Challenge.  Learning.  Each day is filled with new opportunities and challenges.
  2. Opportunity to meet and work with really good people.
  3. Opportunity to make a difference.  We believe empathy and conversation help solve problems.

On a daily basis, we’re inspired by stories of people wearing our product or learning about our brand and seeing how it sparked new thinking.

We’re also inspired by people that recognize how progress requires their participation; a recognition (not always easy) that it is their ability to open their minds and do the necessary work to find common ground with others that will move us forward.   They recognize the vital role they play in the solution and that makes us extremely hopeful for a better future.

image of common ground shoes

Has it been smooth sailing or have you overcome adversity to get where you are?

Smooth sailing and start-up don’t generally coexist.  If things were smooth, I’d be worried we were overlooking something. I would summarize our biggest challenge into two buckets:

  • Traditional footwear business challenges such as sourcing, supply chain, shoe “fit” for a new brand, inventory (size, color, etc.), etc.
  • Executing at a high level on all fronts (design/branding/marketing/sales/manufacturing /customer service/PR/etc) given limited resources.

Our perspective is that we know there will be rough times, potholes in the road that we hit (and some we’ll hopefully avoid), category 5 storms, etc. and we simply need to be prepared to adjust as needed.

We all know that crazy happens. What’s the wildest thing that’s happened on the job?

Not exactly crazy or wild, but something that certainly sticks in our brains is when we first saw someone (someone you don’t know and not in your home town!) wearing our products.  It gives the entire team a tremendous sense of pride and encouragement.

What do you do with your time off? Are you familiar with that concept?

We view time off as a necessary component to solving problems.  It is a time when you can focus your mind on other things and gain new perspective.

Personally, I focus on time with my family, travel (a great way to build empathy), and building all sorts of things with my hands.

image of common ground shoes

This is the age of the social network. How important is social media to your business and how do you make it work?

Our business exists at the intersection of fashion and social causes – two extremely active social media topics, so we definitely work hard to integrate social media into our brand strategy.  We primarily see it as a vehicle to share inspiring stories; examples of people taking steps (no matter how small) to find common ground and solve problems.

What we have definitely learned regarding social media:

  • It is time-consuming.  Establishing a content strategy, generating content, and engaging with those that interact with our brand is not a small undertaking.
  • Social Causes and Fashion don’t always interact via the same platforms.  Social causes tend to be more aligned with Facebook and Twitter whereas fashion enjoys the strong visual nature of Instagram and Pinterest.
  • Tremendous (and real-time) source of feedback (positive and negative).
  • Encouragement / Inspiration.  Seeing a story of empathy or conversation in action, or getting a simple thank-you fires up our team.

How are you involved in your community?

We view our products as tools to spark and inspire empathy.  With that in mind, we are always reaching out to groups or organizations within the community who might benefit from using our products to stimulate thought.

What does supporting local mean to you?

For our brand, it means seeking out and hiring local talent to make this business flourish.  It means working with local universities to engage students and recent graduates.  It means tapping into the creative design and footwear professionals that call Portland, Oregon home.

When it comes to manufacturing our products, we’re often asked why we don’t make our shoes locally.  As a new business (and as someone who has personally spent years considering ways to profitably make shoes locally), we wouldn’t survive if we tried to simultaneously start a new brand and establish local footwear manufacturing.  So we opted to start a new brand, creating as many local jobs as possible (note that our apparel is screen-printed locally.)  One day, we will have the necessary resources and financial cushion to invest in local manufacturing opportunities – and it will be a good day for our company and community.

What does the future look like for you and your business?

We take it one step at a time – continuing to inspire individuals to understand those with differing points of view and to use that understanding to take positive and productive steps.

Do you have any advice for aspiring business owners just starting out?

Have a purpose – it will keep you centered when things go awry.

Work with good people.  They are your partners in this adventure.

Jump into the pool.  Learn by doing.

Be thankful.  Don’t let the stress or the unknowns blind you to the good of what you are creating.

FS Local Contributor


President at FS Local


Michael is the founder of FS Local. His passion for Internet marketing led to the development of FabulousSavings, an award-winning suite of coupon sites. in 2012 he built on this success and assembled the team at FS Local with one goal: to empower small business owners and help them achieve success.

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