Design

The unconventional startup – Atheist shoes

When you think of startups, what are the first words that come into your head? I bet there's something techy in the first three words you think of. Well, this is one Berlin startup that is bucking that trend. Atheist Shoes is, as you might expect, a shoe company, dedicated to selling beautifully soft leather shoes and boots. Founder David Bonney tells us about how the startup has been going against traditional wisdom and trends, and what he's learned from endeavouring to make things with his hands rather than his head.

March 31, 2014

1. They’re making something real

“We are a startup, but we don’t feel that the startup scene has really embraced us. We’re not doing anything cutting edge or technologically sexy, and the trend at the moment is not towards the production of real products – instead people are interested in companies selling infinitely scalable technology. But yes, we’ve had all the supply chain problems that tech companies wouldn’t have. I like our point of difference – I sometimes feel bad for the programmers, because there’s just so many of them!

People are interested in how we got started with Kickstarter. I’m not sure that Berlin startups have embraced crowdfunding as fully as they could have. There are some that do it really well – Bonaverde is a good example. They used Kickstarter as marketing – which is, in fact, the best way of using it.”

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2. Their shoes come with a religious standpoint

“We make no profit yet, but when we do, we will dedicate a chunk – we’ve said 10% but we hope more – to secular causes. However, it’s more the case that the shoes themselves, with their statement of “Ich bin Atheist” on the sole, are how we’re advancing the cause of atheism.

We could have put other things on the sole and they would have sold better, but we didn’t want to do that. It’s about making Atheist innocuous, so that it’s no longer a dirty word.

We could’ve made Atheist insurance, or bottled water – but we chose shoes because it was strange and unexpected.

More than one person has come to us and said they would like to work with us, minus the Atheist branding. They just want it to be an empty brand – an attitude. But that’s not what we want to do.”

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3. Their marketing is built into the product.

“We consciously knew that choosing our branding, it would give us a great fanbase that would help us. We aimed to have zero marketing spend, and we have, pretty much. If you gave me a million euros tomorrow, I wouldn’t know what to do with it to give us financial growth. We don’t have a very clean ratio of conversion, and it’s also very seasonal (another problem tech firms don’t have!).

The best PR thing we did was sending packages to America with “Atheist” packing tape on it, and packages to the same people with neutral, brown tape. We did enough to make it statistically valid and the “atheist” packages went on average three days slower and ten times more likely to disappear completely. The only conclusion we could reach was that US Postal Service was discriminating against atheists. Since then, we’ve only used brown packing tape going to the US.”

 

4. They want to sell their products entirely online

“We’re trying to be entirely online, which for a shoe business is hard. We’re running contrary to a lot of trends.

We have a product that is much nicer to touch and to wear than another. We have lovely nubuck on the outside and calfskin on the inside, plus vegan versions. If we were in lots of shops, we would be able to sell much more, because of the power of touching the shoes.

But shops who would like to work with us can’t because we don’t charge enough and they wouldn’t make enough profit. This is the decline of retail and the middleman…

Ultimately, we don’t want to work with retailers. This is why we’re currently running a pop-up shop on Torstrasse. We’re slowly coming to the realisation that if we’re going to grow exponentially, we have to get the shoes into people’s hands.”