Nancy Brekke-Jones displays some of her Replace-A-Lace products that make it easier for the elderly, people with special needs and others to put on their shoes.

Nancy Brekke-Jones made foot comfort and support the focus of her 26-year career in footwear. She added ease of, freedom and independence to her list when she established Replace-A-Lace in 2015.

It’s been a labor of love for Brekke-Jones, the creator of the original no-tie hook and loop shoelace that uses easy-close straps.

During part of her footwear career, she worked in the retail setting and not a day went by without customers asking for Velcro-style footwear for aging parents or family members having surgery or who had diabetes or simply struggled with putting on their shoes.

At the time, the industry offered one basic style of footwear that fit the bill, and it was typically only available in black or white — and sold out.

“They’d look at footwear that was available in different colors, patterns and fashion styles, and then we’d go to the Velcro style and it was so limited. Customers would be so disappointed, and it was hard to tell them we were sold out,” she said.

Some would ask, is there anything you sell to attach to regular shoes, and while the answer also was no, it sparked something in BrekkeJones.

“It was one of those things where I thought, ‘Well, someone is going to invent this — it’s just a matter of time,’” she said. “It was such a simple idea that I thought it was going to be out there. After many years, and nothing appearing on her radar, Brekke-Jones decided in 2014 to immerse herself in research online in her spare time.

Nothing popped up, and she began work on a prototype to convert regular lace shoes to ones with straps. She cut some straps of Velcro apart, bought shoes and played around with how she could configure the materials in an easy-to-use way.

She also tested the design on her children’s shoes, encouraging them to run around the house to see if she had a good product. BrekkeJones thought of the name — Replace-A-Lace, which her husband also liked, “And it just went from there,” she said. “Once I got it to where I wanted, I took more baby steps.”

These included finding suppliers to help with the material, specifying how to attach the product to shoes, finding supplies for the attachment post on the piece. Every aspect of the product is custom-made, and it evolved as much as Brekke-Jones did during the development process.

“It’s really been a learning experience,” she said.

She started selling the product in late 2015, offering it for sale on social media. “It was just out there, and it was a sale here and a sale there,” she said. “Since everything was self-funded, it was a process; I waited until I had money to order more supplies, for example,” she said.

As she describes it, it was decided for her when to leave her regular job. In 2017, the store at which she was employed was shut down, propelling her down the Replace-A-Lace path fulltime.

Simultaneously, Brekke-Jones connected with Nicolet Technical College to take some business-related coursework that led to creating a business plan, designing a website and pursuing a trademark or patent.

“So much of my time is spent researching things out there and how to do things,” she said. “Since everything is done by me from the website to ordering materials, putting the product together, receiving and processing orders and packing orders, I want to make sure to do things right.”

At the same time, she sought out the assistance of a patent attorney and mentioned that to her accountant who connected her with his grandson, a patent attorney.

“It was an example of how my gut told me I was on the right path and everything happens for a reason,” she said.

Trademarking the product was important since it is different from other options out there that try to sidestep using laces.

Two things Brekke-Jones recognized were drawbacks with existing options: once they’re on the shoes, they’re on and can’t open. Two, they’re very stretchy and aren’t as secure as Replace-A-Lace.

Thanks to that and their versatility, people can convert any regular shoe with laces into shoes they can now easily put on and take off.

“Many people have already spent a significant amount of money on footwear at specialty shops and could no longer wear them,” she said, “and Replace-A-Lace finds a way to make them functional for people who kept saying, ‘These shoes no longer work for mom or dad because they can’t tie the laces.’ ”

Replace-A-Lace not only replaces laces, but it restores freedom, ease and independence. “I heard a lot how it gives a lot more freedom and independence in their choice of footwear but also personally as well because they can put on and secure their own shoes,” she said.

Year after year, sales grew, but Brekke-Jones faced some blips along the way including when she lost her job and then again when COVID-19 hit.

Brekke-Jones participated in a trade mission trip to Australia offered by the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation in late 2019 to learn what it takes to have an international product.

In early 2020, she traveled to Arizona to do research on the appeal of the product and associated needs in retirement communities and nursing facilities, barely making it home before COVID-19 closed almost everything.

That was the case for Brekke-Jones’ business through the rest of 2020 into early 2021 as she couldn’t secure the items she needed from suppliers to produce many Replace-A-Lace lace replacements.

“Sales went to nothing when the suppliers I got merchandise and supplies from were shut down, too,” she said. “I feel like I’m starting over in a way.”

As part of the upturn, she’s redesigning the product’s packaging to make it more ecofriendly, taking and enhancing her website with new pictures and streamlining her product offerings to the most popular colors.

Her focus remains the same: the aging population who, for many reasons, need an easier way to put on and take off their shoes.

“It’s not always the elderly, either, but younger people who are living more active lives and may need hip and knee surgeries as well as those who have experienced strokes, arthritis and dementia,” she said.

Her trip to Arizona was enlightening as it reinforced her focus on targeting the sons and daughters of individuals with the need as they’re the ultimate buyers.

“The nursing home residents aren’t the people who would buy the product because they’re there and wearing slippers much of the day,” she said.

What COVID-19 did reveal to Brekke-Jones is the desire by a large percent of older individuals whose desire to not enter a nursing home or assisted living is a key market for her — people who need devices, technology and aids such as Replace-A-Lace that allow them to stay in their own homes and live independently longer.

At this stage, Brekke-Jones is looking forward to getting back to some sense of normalcy and to dive into sales and marketing efforts she began pre-COVID-19.

“I’m so thankful for this product,” she said. “When you’re in business, there are always obstacles to overcome, and there’s definitely no shortage of those, but I believe I’m on the right path.”