Entrepreneur Builds a Global Sneaker Cleaning Brand

Updated on 5 May 2019

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This Entrepreneur Built a Global Brand by Taking Advantage of the Sneaker Boom

Streetwear and sports field sneakers are replacing watches and fine suits as a status symbol.

The sneaker culture is worth billions of dollars worldwide. Following the lead of overseas markets, including the USA and UK,  South Africa’s sneaker culture is experiencing a boom as the culture moves into the mainstream and even the boardroom.

“The sneaker industry has evolved. Over the years I’ve watched them go from being something that only kids and students wear to having billionaires such as Richard Branson wear them to meetings. At the end of the day it’s a shoe, it’s whatever makes you feel comfortable, because at the end of the day it’s who you are,” Thabiso Hadebe of Black Faff, a local customisation company told The Sunday Times in an interview.

As the sneaker industry experiences a boom, related industries are also on the up.

Riding the sneaker boom is South African-born entrepreneur, Jo Farah who recognised the emergence of the sneaker culture and established Sneaker LAB in 2013. The company, Sneaker LAB, manufactures a range of eco-friendly sneaker cleaning products including a sneaker cleaner, odour protectors, brush protector sprays, leather wipes and microfiber towels.

I’ve always envisioned taking the brand to a global level

Spotting a gap in the market

“Over the past four years, sneaker care has become more mainstream with the sneaker culture growing immensely. As a result, the sneaker care industry has too,” says Farah.

Sneaker care was a natural choice, says Farah, considering his passion for sneakers, streetwear and urban culture.

He also wanted to create a complimentary product to accompany the list of sneaker brands that has inspired him over time. Farah spent time in the United States and returned permanently to South Africa in 2008.

His hunch was supported by research which showed that there was a gap in the market for branded sneaker care products.

“There already was a range of non-branded products on the market, but my research revealed there was a healthy appetite for branded, environmentally friendly sneaker care products. That spoke directly to my business model,” he says.

Since its launch, Sneaker LAB which has headquarters in Cape Town has experienced 100% growth year on year.

They are also the only sneaker care product range in the world to be Green TAG certified, environmentally friendly and biotech driven. Its products are water-based, readily biodegradable, and the packaging is suitable for recycling. The business also operates internationally, in 50 countries across Africa, Asia, Europe and the USA.

sneakers brand smesouthafrica
Sneaker LAB’s range of products.

SME South Africa speaks to Farah about spotting a gap in the market, building a “cool” brand and entering the shoe care industry at the right time. 

The sneakers industry has been around for a while. When did the conversation move to shoe care?

Sneaker wearers and collectors are understandably sentimental about their footwear and have an appreciation for all things relating to sneakers, this has helped create opportunity for brands such as ours to tell their story.

My personal move into the sneaker care industry started in 2013, after having returned 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. It was at this time that I noted there was a gap in the market for a high-end sneaker care brand and this is when the Sneaker LAB concept began.

How big is the shoe care market? Why is it a lucrative one for entrepreneurs to consider going into?

It’s difficult to accurately measure the size of our South African sneaker care market, because we also sell into a number of other verticals, such as sport and outdoor. However, in 2017, the US market was estimated at around $24 billion and the global market at $55 billion.

The industry is a difficult one to break into, with the market experiencing strong competition from some large brands. We entered into the market at exactly the right time, with a product that boasts some very strong differentiators.

People love the story of an African brand

How important is it for you that you know your customers and the culture that you working in?

It is very important. We need to be perceived as a “cool” brand even though we make cleaning products. We position our brand as more than just shoe care. Sneakers are a part of people’s personas, and we understand the emotional attachment that people have to them.

We also have a good story as a brand. Consumers are looking to connect with brands they support and for brands that have a story they can resonate with in some way. In response to this, entrepreneurs need to be socially responsible, not only in terms of giving back to their communities, but also in terms of the products they offer. This is something we embrace with our environmentally friendly products.

The fashion industry is seeing a surge in the demand for upcycled and recycled products

Can you explain what exactly goes into manufacturing your range of products? What should entrepreneurs looking to go into this business know?

When I returned to South Africa from the USA, I was motivated to create employment and was committed to manufacture our products locally. The only elements we import are items that are not manufactured in South Africa, so we have no choice but to import them. Our factory is where the product solution is mixed, bottled and packaged. Ready to ship to over 60 countries.

This solution functions on a molecular level. Our biotechnology formulas use bacteria and enzymes to hyper-escalate nature’s natural cleaning process. The products are water-based, readily biodegradable, and the packaging is suitable for recycling.

What went into taking your brand global? What do you wish someone had told you before you launched globally?

I’ve always envisioned taking the brand to a global level. Things have accelerated rapidly since 2013, and we’re currently represented in 60 countries and have innovative retail brand experience in stores in both Johannesburg and downtown Los Angeles and soon to be Japan.

We’ve invested a lot of time into marketing the product and ensuring the visuals and packaging communicate that it’s a premium brand.
Finding the right relationships has been key to our success. You need to find distributors who are as passionate about your product as you are. It is vital they buy into your vision as a brand.

We’ve also realised that people love the story of an African brand: The market has responded well to the fact that we’re a proudly South African company and product.

Your products are available online at Zando and Sportscene, among others, how key are these kinds of retail partnerships? What went into conversations with these retailers?

To us, they aren’t retailers, they’re partners. We’ve worked closely with our retail partners and they’ve helped us to grow our business. The Foschini Group, through Sportscene, has been instrumental in our growth. We’ve learnt about retail through these partnerships and how to reach our consumer. This knowledge has been the building blocks we used to scale Sneaker LAB globally.

To capitalise on a trend you need to ensure it will have longevity

What is the connection between going green and sneaker culture?

There isn’t a particular connection between sneakers and green living, but globally consumers are becoming more and more green conscious and looking for sustainable ways of living. The fashion industry is seeing a surge in the demand for upcycled and recycled products. We support this movement and are striving to be as green a company as possible.

Why was it important to you that your products be environmentally friendly?

It was important to me that the brand was sustainable, so much so that sustainability became our chief differentiator. Sustainability should be a big drive for any brand. I believe that if brands aren’t sustainable and socially responsible, their business will suffer in the long run.

Advice for recognising and capitalising on a trend as an entrepreneur.

To capitalise on a trend, you need to ensure it will have longevity. You can’t create a sustainable business around a fad. If you do see a gap, make sure you understand what the gap is and how long the trend will last. The trick is to start simply – Sneaker LAB initially launched with just the Sneaker Cleaner and a brush. Now we have a full product range.

What are some highlights that you can share since launching your product?

One of the highlights was receiving our first order. It was a phenomenal moment. I, personally, hand packed the first 500 bottles that were heading to Sportscene because at that stage it was just myself and one other employee. It looked monumental to have a table covered in boxes. Today, we produce millions of units for the South African market every year and supply product to over 60 countries

Another great highlight was the opening of our experiential stores in Braamfontein, Johannesburg and Downtown Los Angeles, USA.

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