Jeff Kelley took a skydiving break to talk shoes, government policy, and how to live life to the fullest.

Entrepreneur, Inventor, and Founder of Sanuk Jeff Kelley called me a few minutes before leaping out of a plane (despite his fear of heights) on New Year’s Eve to explain how he turned his comfy foot fetish into a kick ass company that distributes to over 50 countries internationally. He also gave a little insight as to why the U.S. needs entrepreneurs more than ever–and how our government is squashing their spirits.

Jeff started making sandals out of inner tubes and carpet in 1997 for a niche surfing and skating marketplace. They’ve since joined the mainstream shoe industry, but Sanuk has managed to stay true to its roots.  “Sanük” is the Thai word for happiness and balance…also the mantra at this funky little company that keeps it cool and made it big.

Alister & Paine: Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur or inventor?

Jeff Kelley: They call me ‘the Fiddler’ because I’m always messing around with stuff. Trying to take my ideas and turn them into cash.

Alister & Paine: What’s been your marketing strategy?

Jeff Kelley: We were all over the place. Nowadays with computers and the way kids are once they get a brand figured out, they’re off to the next thing. By really not ever allowing ourselves to be pigeon holed into any one particular thing, and by throwing stuff out there that nobody’s ever seen before, it gave us a brand image that we could really get away with doing anything. That set the tone and DNA for the brand that still lives today.

Alister & Paine: It’s a pretty heavily saturated marketplace. How did you brand yourself into such a tight niche of the industry?

Jeff Kelley: By constantly doing what Nike and Sketcher and Crocs and those guys can’t do. We’re completely random. It separates us and it still gives us that feeling that we’re a brand that works out of a garage.

We’ve had guys like Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaugheyembrace the product and wear it religiously. Vanity Fair asked Brad Pitt what his favorite shoes were and he said ‘Sanuk Sidewalk Surfers’. You can’t ask for a better endorsement than that.

Alister & Paine: How is the shoe itself so revolutionary?

Jeff Kelley: I knew there was something to the way shoes don’t allow your toes to move and engage as they should, and I also knew that the construction of flip flops would give you a much closer range of being barefoot than a shoe would. I used those concepts to create the Sidewalk Surfer.

People might buy our shoe for the first time cause they look cool, but they wear them and go ‘oh my god these are the most comfortable things I’ve ever worn!’ And that’s why they buy the 2nd and 3rd and 4th pairs.

Alister & Paine: Is the whole company into the surfing lifestyle?

Jeff Kelley: Surfing defines, more than anything, who Sanuk is as a brand. 90% of the people that work for me surf or skate. We really embrace the lifestyle.

Alister & Paine: Why do you think you’ve been so successful?

Jeff Kelley: We don’t know if we’re going to die tomorrow—I could splat right now out of this plane.

At least I’ve gone through my life doing what I’ve loved to do the whole time. There are a lot of people making a lot of money that aren’t happy at all.

The people that are doing what they like are happy regardless of the money they make. People that are happy attract other people. It’s an ongoing snowball of good karma.

If you’re doing what you like, you’ve got people around you that do what they like and everybody’s happy, other people want to be part of it.

Alister & Paine: Is our current government conducive to the entrepreneurial spirit you speak of?

Jeff Kelley: Hell no! Are you kidding me? They’re trying to squash anybody that is successful.

They’re taking away the rewards of the risks people want to take, and when you do that, it’s going to collapse. The government is absolutely doing the worst possible job they could ever do by de-incentivizing anyone to take a risk.

Alister & Paine: Why are entrepreneurs so important to America and the economy right now?

Jeff Kelley: Because there are so many people out there getting degrees that they need people without degrees to employ them….!

Alister & Paine: Tell me about Sanuk’s inception.

Jeff Kelley: I have a fetish for comfy footwear. I saw this opportunity and just went for it.

How did you raise capital?

Jeff Kelley: I used all the equity that I had on my home and all the cash I had to get the thing started, which wasn’t a whole lot.

Then I went the licensing route with a company called C and C for the U.S., Canada and Europe. I kept the rest of the world for myself.

Alister & Paine: Do you consider yourself an entrepreneur or inventor?

Jeff Kelley: They call me ‘the Fiddler’ because I’m always messing around with stuff. Trying to take my ideas and turn them into cash.

Alister & Paine: What’s been your marketing strategy?

Jeff Kelley: We were all over the place. Nowadays with computers and the way kids are once they get a brand figured out, they’re off to the next thing. By really not ever allowing ourselves to be pigeon holed into any one particular thing, and keeping people guessing by throwing stuff out there that nobody’s ever seen before, it gave us a brand image that we could really get away with doing anything.

That set the tone and DNA for the brand that still lives today.

Alister & Paine: It’s a pretty heavily saturated marketplace. How did you brand yourself into such a tight niche of the industry?

Jeff Kelley: By constantly doing what Nike and Sketcher and Crocs and those guys can’t do. We’re completely random. It separates us and it still gives us that feeling that we’re a brand that works out of a garage.

We’ve had guys like Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey embrace the product and wear it religiously. Vanity Fair asked Brad Pitt what his favorite shoes were and he said ‘Sanuk Sidewalk Surfers’. You can’t ask for a better endorsement than that.

Alister & Paine: How is the shoe itself so revolutionary?

Jeff Kelley: I knew there was something to way shoes don’t allow your toes to move and engage as they should, and I also knew that the construction of flip flops would give you a much closer range of being barefoot than a shoe would. I used those concepts to invent the Sidewalk Surfer.

People might buy our shoe for the first time cause they look cool, but they wear them and go ‘oh my god these are the most comfortable things I’ve ever worn!’ And that’s why they buy the 2nd and 3rd and 4th pairs.

Alister & Paine: Is the whole company into the surfing lifestyle?

Jeff Kelley: Surfing defines, more than anything, who Sanuk is as a brand. 90% of the people that work for me surf or skate. We really embrace the lifestyle.

Alister & Paine: What do you think is a sign that you’ve finally become successful?

Jeff Kelley: We don’t know if we’re going to die tomorrow—I could splat right now out of this plane. (Jeff is about to sky dive as he talks to me).

At least I’ve gone through my life doing what I’ve loved to do the whole time. There are a lot of people making a lot of money that aren’t happy at all.

The people that are doing what they like are happy regardless of the money they make. People that are happy attract other people. It’s an ongoing snowball of good karma.

If you’re doing what you like, you’ve got people around you that do what they like and everybody’s happy, other people want to be part of it.

Alister & Paine: Is our current government conducive to the entrepreneurial spirit you speak of?

Jeff Kelley: Hell no! Are you kidding me? They’re trying to squash anybody that is successful.

They’re taking away the rewards of those risks, and when you do that, it’s going to collapse. The governments absolutely doing the worst possible job they could ever do by de-incentivizing anyone to take a risk.

Alister & Paine: Why are entrepreneurs so important to America and the economy right now?

Jeff Kelley: Because there are so many people out there getting degrees that they need people without degrees to employ them….!