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Building Kengos: a Footwear Startup — Part 1

Building Kengos: a Footwear Startup — Part 1


6 minute read

My name is David Costello and I am the Founder of Kengos. I am originally from Pompton Plains, NJ, a small town about 40 minutes outside of NYC. I am married to a wonderful woman named Paula, who is currently a bilingual 1st grade teacher and is originally from Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia. We currently live in Brooklyn with our dog Canela. This is my first post of an open-ended series on the ongoing story of creating Kengos, a footwear startup with a mission.

The inspiration

I started Kengos on the belief that plant-based materials could be used to make amazing footwear that wears out slow but breaks down fast. The industry status quo creates an astonishing amount of waste. I had the hunch that with the right team, amount of time, and investment, we could harvest and engineer organic materials (petroleum- and animal-free) to make shoes that perform to customers’ expectations without the need to compromise on cost, durability, style, or comfort. After their useful life, these products would break down much faster than traditional shoes — which can take centuries to decompose in landfills — because of their organic composition, substantially reducing their environmental impact.

I felt strongly that in order to achieve a “substantial impact”, the business must become a brand that competes in the mass market. Building a small niche brand that only serves a tiny segment of the market would significantly limit the scope of our business and therefore the scope of our impact. To go after the mass market, we need to build amazing products and we need to market them in a way that is culturally relevant.

My early career

Prior to starting Kengos, I worked in corporate finance for seven years. I started my career in the healthcare industry and enjoyed the mission of the work I was doing but found the route-to-market to be too convoluted. After four years I decided to switch industries and moved over to luxury goods, working for LVMH in the wine and spirits business as a Commercial Finance Manager. I loved working for a consumer company that made things people interacted with, but after three years I felt that I wanted to do something more altruistic with my life’s work and decided to return to school to pursue an MBA. I was lucky enough to get accepted to the Kellogg School of Management and arrived on campus with both this desire to do something purposeful with my work and a long-time affinity for shoes.

The beginning: Fruit Shoes

In the spring of my first year at Kellogg, I got into David Schonthal’s New Venture Discovery class. On the first day of this class, every student pitched a startup idea and the class collectively voted on the five best ideas to explore for the quarter. My idea, which the professor had coined Fruit Shoes, was lucky enough to be selected. For the following ten weeks, three classmates and I set out to validate the marketplace for sustainable footwear by conducting over fifty one-on-one in-person interviews in Chicago and Los Angeles. Going into this class, I was envisioning a high-end men’s dress footwear brand that made luxury items from sustainable materials. However, these customer interviews quickly taught me that this was the wrong product positioning: the product should be lower priced, unisex, and casually styled.

Startup founder Dave Costello learning how to make shoes

My first lesson: Get out and validate!

These interviews provided the first great takeaway I had regarding starting a business. Too many people, myself included, spend an exorbitant amount of time and money writing business plans, developing products, calculating profit margins, etc. before doing the absolute most important (and free) thing: validate the demand! If you have an idea for a business, first clarify what problem you believe the business is solving, then seek out individuals who you believe are experiencing this problem and ask them about it. If they light up, get excited, and show you the 5 ways they’re hacking together a solution for the problem today, you’re onto something. If no one will make the time to talk to you about this problem, then they probably won’t pay you (become a customer) to solve it. Either way, it’s very valuable feedback that costs nothing!

Where to find interviewees — We had the most success finding people to talk to through:

  • Facebook and LinkedIn groups — Locating and posting in relevant Facebook and LinkedIn groups. Make an announcement in the group asking if anyone has 20 minutes to talk with the founders of a new company trying to solve X problem on Zoom / the phone.
  • Referrals — At the end of every interview ask the person if they know three people who would be open to talking to you. Most of the time they will know at least one person to connect you with.

How to conduct the interviews — The goal of these interviews is to learn from your interviewee. To do this you need to:

  • Get them to talk freely, so don’t monopolize the conversation or ask yes/no questions. Instead, ask very broad open-ended questions and let them talk.
  • When they stop talking prompt them to continue by asking quick open-ended follow-ups (e.g. tell me more about X).
  • When you hear something that is of interest, gently steer their response to go deeper in that subject.

For a 30-minute interview I would prepare two open ended questions and spend nearly the entire interview discussing them, saving only the last 2–3 minutes to get some demographic info (age, occupation, interests, metro area, etc.). You can learn more about this interview style here: The Long Interview (heads up, this is more of a textbook than a novel).

Next steps

Now that I had a better idea of how to position Fruit Shoes in the market the next steps were to figure out 1) how to build a supply chain and 2) how to build a team. Stay tuned for Part 2 to hear more!

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