Custom cleats a home run for small business success

Cris Collingwood//May 9, 2023

Ryan Stevens, right, delivers custom painted cleats to Phillies pitcher Bailey Falter. PHOTO/RYAN STEVENS

Custom cleats a home run for small business success

Cris Collingwood//May 9, 2023

A small business venture led its founder to connect his love of baseball with custom designing cleats for members of the Philadelphia Phillies.

Ryan Stevens got a shout out on national television during a home Phillies game as pitcher Bailey Falter wore Easter-themed cleats Stevens designed and painted.

And that, he said, was a home run for his enterprise, Nxt Lvl Customs.

Stevens started painting sneakers during the COVID-19 lockdown.

Cleats designed and painted by Ryan Stevens. PHOTO/RYAN STEVENS

“I always drew and painted in high school,” the 21-year-old Central Penn College senior said. “I fell in love with sneakers in college, so this was a match made in heaven.’

Stevens started painting sneakers for family and friends and thanks to social media, word spread, and requests started coming in. Many of the Central Penn students wear his custom sneakers.

“I transitioned to a business in late March, early April of 2020,” he said.

That’s when Falter reached out to him on Instagram. Stevens said Falter wanted a pair of shamrock-themed cleats for spring training since it was around St. Patrick’s Day. Falter wore them for the first Phillies home spring training game.

“The business really took off after the Instagram post,” Stevens said. “I was mostly doing horror-themed sneakers but after the video of Falter wearing his cleats, a lot of people started requesting cleats.”

Falter was the first, but now Stevens is making cleats for two other Phillies players, Bryson Scott and Edmundo Sosa, and several minor league players.

The Danville, Montour County native has set up a satellite shop in Harrisburg to work on the products while in school in Harrisburg. A baseball player himself, he said keeping up with demand has been a challenge while balancing school and ball practice.

The shoes can take anywhere from five to 14 hours to complete. Stevens said he uses Angelus leather paint and Liquid Kicks coating on the shoes.

The shoes sell for $200 to $250 depending on the design. Stevens said he supplies most of the sneakers, but the ballplayers provide the cleats they get through their endorsements.

“I’ve painted hundreds of pairs. I give a lot away because my mentor who is in Chicago said they are walking billboards,” he said.

To date, Stevens has earned somewhere between $10,000 and $12,000, which he has put into growing the business. He has already purchased new machines to help with the painting process in his home studio.

The business and marketing major said he has always had an entrepreneurial spirit and looks forward to fully launching production after graduation in December.

“The last six months have been insane,” he said. “This blows my mind.”

He plans to put his full attention into production over the summer break and will finish school virtually to continue to meet order demands.

Once he graduates, Stevens said, he plans to hire artists and teach them to paint shoes. He also plans to have a sales force to market beyond social media.

While he won’t be on the ballfield after this season, Stevens said creating custom cleats wiil allow him to stay in the game he loves while growing a business for his future.