Features | From Pivot Magazine

You’re about to see Vessi sneakers everywhere

How an upstart shoe company’s business model is allowing it to compete in an already crowded market

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Vessi sneaker underwaterVessi sneakers are made from an ultra-lightweight waterproof mesh knit from a vegan, no-leather polyurethane called Dyma-tex (Photograph by David Wile)

Over the past decade, Vancouver serial entrepreneurs Mikaella Go and Tony Yu have launched no fewer than 10 startups, including Nanotips, a dab-on liquid solution that makes gloved fingers readable by touchscreen, and Arkadia Supply Co., lightweight, easy-to-pack camping gear. Their latest venture, developed with their friend Andy Wang, is their most audacious for being the most ubiquitous: a new sneaker brand, Vessi. Canadians are among the world’s biggest per-capita footwear consumers, spending roughly $8 billion, or more than $620 per family a year, on new treads. Those sales, however, are dominated by just four brands—Nike, Adidas, Skechers and New Balance—whose combined global marketing budgets are more than $10 billion. 

Vessi’s founders have taken a philosophical approach as Davids among Goliaths. “Being small also allows us to be agile and act quick,” says Go. To Glynis Tao, a Vancouver-based consultant who helps apparel startups develop business plans, there are limits to following in the path of masters. “I tell new brand owners they are not making a product, they are solving a problem the existing, dominant players aren’t,” she says. “You have to be different.” 

And this is where Vessi’s strategy becomes clearer. Their sneakers are made from an ultra-lightweight waterproof mesh knit from a vegan, no-leather polyurethane called Dyma-tex that was developed in-house. This move makes the shoes well-suited to the growing number of people buying into cruelty-free living; a study by retail research firm WGSN INstock shows the number of animal-free leather items on the market has close to doubled between mid-2018 and the same period last year. The business itself was launched lean, with little overhead and an Instagram-heavy marketing blitz—micro-influencer endorsements cost a lot less than Michael Jordan or Serena Williams. And it helped that Wang’s family already owns a textile business that developed the waterproof knit. 

Before their 2018 launch, Vessi put out a rendering on Kickstarter in 2017 and raised more than $1.25 million. Within the next year, the company expects to sell its millionth pair of sneakers.


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