Unemployed and adventurous, Aaron Firestein moved to Argentina after graduating from college to study Spanish and volunteer with L.I.F.E. Argentina, a nonprofit that serves kids living in extreme poverty. That's where he met Raaja Nemani, who had recently quit a job in finance to travel the world for a year. He and Firestein wound up at the same organization.
"We met playing soccer with street kids," recalls Firestein, who had an artistic bent and had been drawing designs on canvas shoes since college. Nemani admired them and Firestein sold him a pair. And so the seeds for BucketFeet were planted. The company now collaborates with more than 13,000 artists globally to produce canvas shoes with original designs.
But the partners didn't go into business together immediately. Nemani wore the shoes on the remainder of his trip around the world, and found that his original footwear sparked conversation--and envy--wherever he went. "At the end of his trip, he approached me and said, 'This is a cool idea, and we should turn it into a company,'" recalls Firestein, whose college nickname was "Bucket." Nemani had re-entered the finance world and was working in Abu Dhabi, so the two planned their company over Skype calls until finally moving to Chicago together in 2011.
Testing the market
The partners did some research on the shoe industry, found a sourcing agent in China, and raised $60,000 in 2010 on ProFounder, a now defunct crowdfunding platform, to make the company's first 2,000 pair of shoes. Firestein was the company's first artist. "It really came down to knocking on doors," says Firestein. "I spent a few weeks driving around the country with shoes in my trunk, introducing myself and saying, 'You should buy these.'" Initially, small-boutique owners were charmed by the product and took it on.
Jeff Cantalupo, CEO of the Chicago-based brand-strategy firm Listen, was an early angel investor in the company. "When I first met them, they were carrying around duffle bags of prototypes," recalls Cantalupo. "What excites me about the business is that they stand for something greater than just the product. It's about connecting people through art."
The BucketFeet model is similar to the one at T-shirt company Threadless, which, as it happens, is also based in Chicago. Artists upload designs that are then printed on canvas shoes. What's different, however, is that BucketFeet chooses which designs go into production.
"To let it be decided by voters was a little scary," says Firestein. "With footwear, you have to make sure that whatever is going into production is going to be the best. And we have a really good eye for what's going to be viable."
Anyone can submit artwork to the BucketFeet platform; artists whose designs are chosen get $250 up front and $1 per pair sold. "Artists can make from $750 up to $20,000," says Firestein. "The most popular artist is a guy from Colombia who created a pineapple grenade image." On BucketFeet's website, artists upload videos and profiles of themselves to more intimately connect with consumers.
Getting distribution right
BucketFeet started out as an online brand, exclusively. Firestein thinks that may have been a mistake. "We probably should have gone to trade shows two years earlier and worked more quickly to get into brick-and-mortar," he says.
Now the company's shoes are sold in 30 countries and can be found in Bloomingdale's, Nordstrom, and the company's own stores in Chicago and New York City. With more than 50 percent of the company's revenue coming from overseas, Firestein, who estimates revenues of approximately $15 million this year, says BucketFeet will continue its international expansion, as well as explore other retail markets within the U.S. While he says that footwear will "be the bread and butter for the foreseeable future," he's also considering expanding into accessories such as hats and socks. The company is funded to the tune of $13 million, which includes a strategic investment from "an industry giant" who Firestein cannot name.
"The challenge," says Cantalupo, "is growing the brand at the right speed based on the outlets we believe are the best to grow distribution. I think the reality is that the brands that will be most successful in today's new world will be able to optimize direct to consumer."