Jo Farah’s journey into the sneaker care industry started in 2013, after returning to South Africa from the USA.
“I went into business with two friends who owned a streetwear store in Cape Town. We established a guerrilla marketing agency, working predominantly with well-known sneaker brands and retailers,” says Farah.
He noticed that there was a gap in the market for a high-end sneaker care brand. Fortunately, he has already made numerous contacts through working in the industry and this is when the Sneaker LAB concept began.
Sneaker LAB is the only sneaker care product range in the world to be Green TAG certified, is environmentally friendly and biotech driven. They are currently represented in 60 countries and have innovative brand experience retail stores in both Johannesburg and downtown Los Angeles and will soon be launching in Japan.
Sneaker LAB has grown rapidly with a constant average growth rate of 100% per annum over the past 4 years. Here are Jo Farah’s top 8 start-up lessons:
1. What you can learn from bootstrapping
I bootstrapped the business. Having a limited amount of money at your disposal forces you to think creatively as a business owner. This process also taught me to be frugal.
As a self-funded startup, I had to build on my experience and also think creatively to grow the business. If I had funding when starting out, I might have been able to grow the business faster but I wouldn’t necessarily have learnt all the lessons I did along the way.
2. Never underestimate the importance of networking
Meeting the right people can help you better understand your customers and their buying power, and this in turn gives you more insight into your business.
I think of our retailers as our partners, because growing their businesses results in increasing our sales.
I’ve always envisioned taking the brand global and finding the right relationships was the key to our success.
You need to find distributors who are as passionate about your product as you are and buy into your vision for the brand.
3. Why hiring the right people for the job is vital
As a startup, you tend to hire more junior or inexperienced hands. As the business grew, I was able to hire more senior people who brought with them a wealth of knowledge that helped grow the company in ways I didn’t initially expect.
Entrepreneurs tend to be jacks-of-all-trades, and the company can only benefit from hiring experts in their fields. As an entrepreneur, you can’t be the best in every facet of the business; you need key people onboard to ensure business growth.
4. What to do when your competition tries to replicate your IP
One unexpected hurdle was having competitors trying to replicate our product. From this, I learnt the importance of protecting your business IP.
Fortunately, we use a very unique formula that is difficult to replicate. We also have our brand equity trademarked and we invested heavily in this process as we expanded our international trade.
But in hindsight, I would have taken additional steps to protect our brand and product from the start of the business.
5. Planning is the cornerstone of operations, especially financial planning
So many businesses fail because they have no idea of where their money comes from, or where it’s going. It’s essential to have sight of your cash flow.
When I started out, I worked out how many products I would need to sell to break even, and then to make a profit, and this informed financial decisions. If you don’t have this in place, you’re shooting in the dark.
Many startups have great ideas, but don’t have the roadmap in place to allow them to start making a profit from their business and this is one of the reasons startups fail.
Now, we spend time on sales forecasting, plotting this as far as 14 months in advance and breaking it down monthly.
We plan the sales for each product on each line, looking at who our customers are and how they perform. We try to understand our retailers, and what sales are being made by them. If the retailers’ sales don’t align with the forecasts, we work with them to understand why.
6. An idea is worthless without execution
It was an eight-month long journey to develop the product and take it to market. Selling the product was the hardest part. The concept was born through a lack of branded shoe care products.
I spent time developing what the product would look like and how it would work, with a focus on the design and the name. Once this was completed, I had to find a manufacturer and work with potential customers and my network to get the product into retail spaces.
7. Finding your customers
At first, I thought our target market was people like me, who were into sneaker culture, and we targeted the lifestyle side of the industry through retailers. We soon realised our market was larger than initially thought, and that there was a demand in the outdoor and sporting goods markets.
Since then, we’ve come to understand that target market is anyone who wears sneakers, and this has come through learning about our customers and consumers.
We now market extensively across a number of platforms to ensure we’re reaching our consumers, with a focus on online and social media.
8. As you grow don’t lose the creative thinking
As a business grows, more red tape naturally develops which can be stifling to creative thinking that formed such a big part of the early startup phase.
At Sneaker LAB, to ensure that creativity doesn’t get lost, we have a flat structure and encourage input and idea from everyone on any area of the business.
We also encourage our people to build passion projects, to keep them inspired at work.