Footwear Maker Aims to Build a Brand and a Community
In his low-top sneakers with hand-drawn red, pink, yellow and brown block designs, Raaja Nemani attracted attention during a backpacking trip overseas while on a break from his finance career.
The attention inspired Mr. Nemani to team up with fellow traveler Aaron Firestein, who drew the splashy designs, in 2011 to launch BucketFeet, a Chicago startup that now has 16 full-time employees and has raised nearly $6 million in venture capital.
The company's artist-designed footwear are sold in Nordstrom stores nationwide, and in a few months the women's collection will be sold at select Bloomingdale's stores and through the department store's website.
The pair used $100,000 of their personal savings to launch the business with the idea of connecting people around the globe through art. Its flip-flops and sneakers for men, women and children feature designs by more than 5,000 artists world-wide. The footwear ranges in price from $30 for flip-flops to $68 or more for sneakers.
The path hasn't always been smooth. Messrs. Nemani and Firestein ran out of popular sizes as initial demand increased, took orders from companies that went out of business and didn't pay, and suffered other mishaps that left their business teetering on the edge of failure more than once.
They're not the only companies offering casual shoes with unusual designs and a broader social mission in the $200 billion global footwear market. For example, Tom Shoes Inc. donates a pair of its shoes to a person in need every time a customer buys a pair.
The 32-year-old BucketFeet chief executive recently spoke to The Wall Street Journal about the benefits of "shameless" self-promotion and getting into major retail stores. Edited excerpts:
WSJ: How did you learn about making shoes?
Mr. Nemani: The parents of one of my [former] roommates at Northwestern University had started Destination Maternity. I called her for advice and she connected us to Li & Fung Ltd., a sourcing company for many consumer products.
We went to them with a design in our head for comfort, using quality materials and styles we liked. They brought not only sourcing, but design teams.
WSJ: How did the first batch turn out?
Mr. Nemani: It was exactly what we had asked for, but it didn't work. Everything was hard with brown soles, no branding and it was plastic, fake leather. The cartons that contained the boxes said 'BurcketFeet' and we made a classic mistake of ordering the same amount of each size, so we were left with a bunch of size 10 women's and size 8 men's.
WSJ: How did you handle those setbacks?
Mr. Nemani: We looked at our next challenge, which was how we were going to sell them. We had zero pride in how we did it and focused 100% on how to get in front of people at street fairs, trunk shows and every party we could.
We talked about it shamelessly everywhere and messaged every person we knew on Facebook and said 'please buy our shoes as a favor to us.'
WSJ: How did you take it to the next level?
Mr. Nemani: We took our samples to Brian Spaly (co-founder of men's clothing startups Bonobos and Trunk Club). He put in less than $100,000, but it spurred other angels to invest. We raised enough to create a website and manufacture more shoes.
WSJ: How did you get the Nordstrom distribution deal?
Mr. Nemani: We did a pop-up shop in New York in 2013 with Treasure & Bond, a store owned by Nordstrom. We caught Nordstrom's attention, so we were able to get a meeting with them in Seattle. We've now launched in 48 Nordstrom stores.
WSJ: What's your strategy for competing against other footwear companies?
Mr. Nemani: By doubling down on our artist community and the stories they tell, we're building our brand. It's like Toms saying 'yes, we sell shoes, but our mission is to improve lives.' Yes, we sell shoes, but we are really about building a community.
WSJ: How are you building that community?
Mr. Nemani: The first four artists were ones Aaron knew from Brazil. We were building it manually but it wasn't very scalable, so now we have an online tool that allows artists to submit designs on their own. They get paid $250 upfront when their design is accepted and then $1 for every shoe that's sold. Our artists include [Bruno Carneiro Mosciaro, also known as] Bruno Big, whose art appeared on Brazil's national team jerseys for the 2014 World Cup.
WSJ: What's next?
Mr. Nemani: We are launching high-tops and going into infants and toddlers. We are going from two styles today to six or seven by spring of next year.