Lyman Van Vliet was a mild-mannered physicist who couldn’t keep body and sole together—on his tennis shoes, that is. They were forever wearing out, “because if you serve properly, you drag your toe.” So a dozen years ago, he explains, “I came up with the idea of combining the qualities of an adhesive and a patch, all in one gooey substance.” He went to work in his garage, mixing gummy globs in his wife Sandy’s spaghetti pot. It was slow going. “I did one friend’s shoes,” Van Vliet, now 55, recalls, “and he defaulted a match because he was sticking to the court.” But after two years of experimentation—eureka!—Van Vliet discovered Shoe Goo: a honey-colored, rubbery sole that oozes onto the shoe and hardens overnight.
The Van Vliets turned their home in ritzy Palos Verdes, Calif. into a goo factory—with Lyman as kitchen chemist, Sandy, 52, as sales manager, daughter Michelle as package designer and younger kids Melissa and Michael as packagers—until a neighbor got upset at the 55-gallon drums of flammable solvent sitting in the driveway. By that time, though, sales of Shoe Goo had grown from the first 22 orders in 1972 to the current gross of almost $2 million (a tube, which will re-tip five pairs of sneakers, sells for $3.25). In 1976 the Van Vliets transferred the operation to a San Pedro factory. Two months later Lyman, a Wayne State grad, quit his job as a physicist at Hughes Aircraft (“Goo luck!” his colleagues saluted him).
“We’ve been fortunate to ride the crest of two waves—tennis and jogging,” Van Vliet says. The family company, Eclectic Products Inc., is expanding, repackaging its goo as Sportsman’s Goop (for leaky tents and such) and Shoemaker in a Tube.
Today the Van Vliets each drive Cadillacs (hers with “SHOEGOO” license plates, his with “ECLECTC”). And now, with shoes that take a lot longer to wear out, they can play endless games of tennis on their backyard court, which they’ve dubbed “the Shoe Goo evaluation laboratory.”