Start a Sneaker Brand

A sneaker brand designs, manufactures and sells its own brand of sneakers.

To start making your own sneakers is not exceptionally hard, most of the components (equipment and materials)  used to make sneakers are readily available in SA. This is a follow up to the leathercraft business and thus we are referring to sneakers that can be made by hand, like in the picture above and not with air bubbles and stuff like that which requires specialised equipment.

One of the simplest designs to make yourself is the ONEDAY format using leather, it was created by Roderick Pieters and Troy Nachtigall. This can be used as a template, starting point, inspiration to see how it is designed. There are some people (mainly foreigners) making shoes using this foundation in SA.  If you look at the bill of materials and equipment it is pretty straightforward to understand what is happening here:

Leather (M)
Leather hole punch (E)
Eyelets (M) and an eyelet setter (E)
Leather stitching needles (E)
Heavyweight waxed thread (M)
Soles and insoles (M)
Poly cutting board (optional) (E)
Mallet for setting eyelets (optional) (E)
Leather tooling set if you want to get fancy (optional) (E)

The design above is based on the ONEDAY DIY sneaker in case you were wondering why there aren’t glue (which is often used) in that guide or wooden frames because there is already a template or pattern.

Now regulars will know how we start a business or in this case add value to a piece of value by turning it into a sneaker:
Skills, equipment and materials converge to create a product or service.

I have marked the equipment as (E) and material as (M) above. I don’t like to duplicate what I have already said before but the equipment is the tool that is used to turn the (raw) material into a product. In other words, the equipment is used over and over again but the material has to be replenished as used, this is important as you need to calculate how much material you need to produce a product, then we come to the skill and another input that has to be added to the equation – time. Another thing you have to factor in is the wear and tear to your equipment and how often it needs to be serviced, repaired or replaced, if you living hand to mouth, then this has to be calculated separately and factored in because if your equipment breaks you will need money to repair or replace. Example: A R10 premium can be added over and above the profit margin you have placed on your time and this money must be put away and not touched.

Handcraft skills are not hard to learn if you patient and don’t have a quick buck mentality. As stated previously there are a few ways to learn a skill:

  • You can take a course (usually the most expensive)
  • You can ask someone who has the skill to teach you
  • You can “work for what we can learn and not earn” to get the skill, but South Africans are too lazy and think they are being exploited (this is how I got started)
  • You can teach yourself and learn via trial and error, offcuts are widely available for you to practice on

Obligatory rant:
Now the  “work for what we can learn and not earn” aka traineeship movement could have taken off in SA but it hasn’t because of the entitlement mentality in which students want to get paid lots of money while GETTING TRAINING FOR FREE. But every time a company wants to train people for free out of the goodness of their hearts the spirit of entitlement kicks in and the students cry exploitation when they are asked to work for free in exchange for getting skills. That is why we have such a crisis; our education system is too poor to produce resourceful boys and girls, they have no skills or experience and one of the highest rate of youth unemployment in the world. / rant over

Now this skill to stitch sneakers is not hard to learn and later perfect, it’s one of those mindset things if you want to do it, you will do it,  there are even free books in the library to teach you like we used to learn before there was internet. Needles, cotton and scrap leather from bags, or charity stores or leather offcuts is readily available in order to practice, but even then,  what does the local marketscape look like? Is there a business here?

The local markets for sneaker
Manufacturing shoes is not new in SA, way back when South Africa was still a prosperous country and the communists weren’t at the wheel there were a few manufacturers, some are still left like Bolton Footwear (f/k/a Jordan) but in general, it is done at scale. Most competent entrepreneurs don’t even consider manufacturing in SA anymore and simply outsource to the East but even then you need some money due to minimum orders. There are some foreigners that run a hybrid product/service business in the leathercraft trade that make their own sneakers using a variety of the designs linked to above, but we know they have a lower cost of living and are used to a far inferior standard of living than we have here, whereas the locals want to live in luxury as soon as the money starts coming in. That is the making part but what about the buying?

South Africa generally has a brand obsessed culture, most won’t get the value of a unique handmade shoe vs. mass-produced dreck made by a 12-year-old in a sweatshop. If your shoe sells for R1000 then they will say but but but “I can get a Nike for that money and you are a nobody”. A handmade leather sneaker is a premium item, using expensive materials and is time-consuming to make, which rules out a low-cost model. The goal here is not to target the general streetwear consumer who shops at Sportscene or Jack Lemkus, but someone that will understand the value. Which will either mean having contacts or getting into a premium sales channel. If you can get celebrities or *cough* influencers to wear your clothing then you might be able to get traction that way etc.

Selling Strategy
The good thing about this business is that you don’t have to keep a lot of stock, you can set a turnaround time, and make as the orders come in. Remember shoes come in various sizes, so keeping stock of every size will be expensive. Samples are compulsory, there is an opportunity for an ultra-premium category if you have the skills and creativity and that is custom sneakers, where every single order is customised to the clients needs but offering à la carte options, in other words, you are manufacturing and customising and when you are manufacturing you have far more creative leeway than to customise a shoe that is already made up.

Manufacturing strategy
This is a business I looked into before, although not manufacturing in SA (Zimbabwe was our first choice), and the way I approached it was to develop a “platform” that can easily churn out shoes using a similar “foundation” but different designs and materials (leather, canvas, vinyl etc.). The platform in this context is not used as raised surface but as a design plan or paradigm. The analogy I used when planning was that of a vehicle platform, for example, Volkswagen Group’s “A series” platform is used to produce the Audi A3, Audi Q3, Audi TT, VW Golf, VW Jetta, VW Eos, VW Tiguan, VW Touran, VW Scirocco, SEAT León, SEAT Toledo, SEAT Altea and Škoda Octavia so instead of focussing on a lot of different designs, we invest in and build the infrastructure to make a type of shoe and the design is adapted to that type of shoe and then we just focus on optimising production to churn out as many for as cheap as possible, I’m still talking quality shoes just more efficient. This will allow for investors, designers and consumers all win by focussing on producing not only a “classic” like for example a Converse All Star or Vans Old Skool, Superga Classic or even Tomy but even different brands can use the same platform like with vehicles and that will also open the door to licensing deals where you produce for other brands under license if you look at Levis or Soviet shoes, there is little originality. But I’ll leave it there as I might still go ahead with that project, if for nothing else but to see South Africans jumping over the border to find work in Zimbabwe.

Related ideas
Make and Sell Customised Tomy Takkies

Image credits: scoochmaroo, emilyvanleemput