Atoms Shoes – Cloud Walking

My most astute, long-time readers will recall that I’ve shared in the past the amazing story of Waqas Ali and Sidra Qasim, the Pakistani co-founders of Markhor (originally Hometown) and now co-founders of Atoms. Waqas and Sidra are living the long, hard road to overnight success.

They’ve already pulled off a number of firsts: the most successful Kickstarter campaign ever run out of Pakistan, the first social enterprise to get into Y-Combinator.

And now, after having put on my first pair of Atoms, I think they just might have created a whole new category of shoes.

To be clear, I don’t have a particularly well-developed shoe or fashion vocabulary, nor am I young or hip enough to do a proper unboxing, so you’ll have to cut me a little slack here.

The short version of the story is: I put the Atoms on this morning, and I don’t want to take them off. Not tonight, not tomorrow. I just want to keep wearing them because they feel so darn good. And I’m already getting compliments on them.

They are a wild combination of just firm enough to feel like real shoes, just flexible enough to give me feel of the ground, and they have what I can only describe as a “squishy” feel under my feet that makes me feel like I’m being pampered. I have wide feet and most shoes are uncomfortable, but these are luxurious. I also love the mesh top, the same that my beloved, travel-essential and worn-down Nike Free 4.0 Flyknits have.

And, as an unexpected bonus, the shoes come in quarter sizes. Plus, when you buy them, you can mix and match each individual shoe to get a perfect fit–they send you multiple pairs and you keep the two (one left, one right) that fit best. If you’re one of the many people whose feet aren’t the same size, or if you’re fit-challenged for any other reason, this makes a big difference. Plus, since Allbirds only come in whole sizes, this could convert a lot of people.

And don’t take my word for it, here’s what TechCrunch has to say:

Step aside, Allbirds. Atoms come in quarter-sizes you can mix-and-match. Emerging from stealth today in a TechCrunch exclusive, this shoe startup’s obsession with satisfaction allowed it to replace my Nikes. I’ve spent the last two months wearing Atoms every day. They’re the first sneaker classy-looking enough for semi-formal occasions, but that I can comfortably walk or even hike in for hours.

I guess this all explains why more than 4,000 people have signed up to be on the Atoms waitlist before the public launch. You might want to sign up too.

Atoms Shoes

4AM Calls

Yesterday, I had the chance to catch up with the inimitable Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali, Acumen Pakistan Fellows and co-founders of Markhor. For those of you who don’t know, Markhor is startup that is crafting some of the world’s most beautiful men’s shoes, reviving a waning craft in Pakistan and making a major splash globally.

Markhor ran by far the most successful Kickstarter campaign out of Pakistan, raising more than $107,000, and Sidra and Waqas are now part of the select few high-potential startups in Y-Combinator – an unlikely turn for a shoe company in the midst of a bunch of tech startups.

Markhor_craftsmen

So, what do we have to learn from a pair that has their sights set on building a $1 billion-plus company selling luxury, made-in-Pakistan shoes to the world? A lot about a lot of things, but I was struck in particular by some lessons about tenacity and humility.

I asked them what they’ve learned at Y-Combinator so far, and Sidra shared, “one of the great things about the program are the mentors. How it works is that, if you set up time with a mentor, you get 20 minutes, no more. And when you meet with a mentor, they ask you three questions: ‘What did you do last week?’ ‘What are you doing next week?’ and ‘How can I help?’ You have to be ready! And what I like about that is that it communicates that their time is valuable, and that your time is valuable.”

Waqas took the point further as we started to talk about how to teach people how to use networks well. “You know, when I reach out to someone, whether a mentor or someone else I’m trying to connect with, you have to know how to write that email in a way that is clear and respectful and gets to the point. And you have to know how to handle that communication. Especially if I’m in Pakistan, I know that I might have to be available at 4AM to take a phone call. And I am.  Sidra and I will be taking 4AM phone calls for years to come. That’s OK.”

For me this connected back to Tuesday’s post about the power of humility. What I hear Waqas and Sidra saying is that, as they are reaching out to the far edges of their networks, they have to do that with a certain posture. If someone is willing to take a bet by giving  their time to help, it’s Waqas and Sidra’s job as to mirror that respect back – in this case by accommodating that person’s schedule at crazy hours. Their power in this moment comes from putting their ego aside, choosing not to frame that interaction as one with lots of power dynamics, and simply doing what it takes to make the connection they are trying to make – in this case by being ready to jump calls at 4AM, again and again.

The equation is flipped because, in taking this stance, Sidra and Waqas are essentially unstoppable. No behavior, whether a rejection or a slow reply or someone asking them to twist themselves into knots to meet their timing, can stop their forward trajectory.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur running a startup, a leader of a nonprofit, or a fundraiser of any stripe, the biggest trap is to allow each interaction to become a measurement of your worth, to take it all far too personally. What Waqas and Sidra model is the power of an unshakable commitment to mission: when the goal becomes our purpose, when we exist to achieve that goal, then we do what we have to in service of that mission – no questions asked.

Every great company has a story, and Markhor’s is a beautiful one that’s still being written. It is a different story coming out of Pakistan, it is the craftsmanship of Pakistani artisans, and it is some really beautiful shoes. It’s also an unfolding story of two amazing entrepreneurs who dream big and back up every dream with a willingness to show up and work harder and smarter every day.

In reflecting on where they are in their journey, Waqas shared, with a twinkle in his eye: “In our first month, we sold seven pairs of shoes. And we lost money on each pair we sold! Now we are selling thirteen pairs a day. And that number keeps going up.”

That’s what overnight success really look like.

[bonus: the best riff ever about 4AM]

Beauty and grit – from Lahore with love

Waqas Ali keeps telling me that he sleeps.  I’m not sure I believe him.

The last time I saw him was in late June in a coffee shop in Lahore.  We sat down at midnight, and it was clear that his day was just getting started. The Ghana-Germany World Cup game was being projected on a 15 foot screen in the background, but there’s no risk in being distracted when Waqas starts talking.  His energy is infectious.

Waqas and I first met two years ago. He was the young, quiet, skinny kid in a group of six applicants that were part of the final selection for the Acumen Pakistan Fellows.

Well, quiet until he started talking…

We asked each applicant to tell their story and share how they’d heard about Acumen and the Fellowship. Waqas, who is from a humble background, and who seemed a bit shy until he got going, told us that he wasn’t doing well in college but he did spend a lot of time in the library. He ended up making his way to a corner of the library where there were old copies of the Harvard Business Review, which he started pouring over every day, and he eventually found his way to Seth Godin’s blog and to Acumen. He told us about his dreams, interspersing bits about bringing dignity and opportunity back to his village and talking about what he felt he had to learn from Mark Zuckerberg. I remember thinking that he was either a crazy dreamer or that he was going to change the world.

Fast forward two years and I know now that Waqas is much much more than a dreamer. I’m one of many people who has had the chance to watch Waqas and his partner Sidra push through barrier after barrier in their crazy, beautiful dream to build a global-quality, ultra-premium shoe company using the skills of local Pakistani craftsmen. I’ve had just a tiny glimpse of the challenges they have had to overcome, and it’s been a long long road just to get to today.

As Waqas has told me many times before, there’s just nothing harder to get right than shoes. Sizes, leather, tanning, fitting, craftsmanship, brand, shipping…..  They’re getting it right, and then some.

Yesterday Waqas and Sidra’s company, Markhor, launched their Kickstarter campaign. In 22 hours they hit their $15,000 goal. I have a feeling the momentum is just starting to build.

I got my hands on a pair of Markor’s new shoes earlier this week. These are some of the most beautiful shoes I’ve ever seen. I don’t have much of a shoe vocabulary but “buttery” comes to mind when describing the quality of the leather and “immaculate” is how the whole shoe feels. They are exactly as beautiful as these pictures.

Markhor shoes

Of course there’s a lot more to this story than beautiful shoes. There are the artisans who Waqas and his team patiently invest in – not just working with them and providing them with the potential for a brighter future but treating them as family, and helping them through personal hardships. There’s a story of bootstrapping entrepreneurship in its truest, most raw farm. There’s a different story coming out of Pakistan. And there’s the chance to get in early on something that’s going to be big – like if you’d bought some of the first pairs of Tom’s shoes before everyone else was doing it.  Unique gifts are hard to find these days, and this is one of them.

Check out the Markhor Kickstarter campaign to get your hands on a pair of very special shoes, and to be part of a very special story.

Markhor shoes_video