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I’m Cole Tashjian- a New Jersey native who repatriated to Armenia 3 years ago. My company is Areni 1 Footwear, a lifestyle sneaker brand that celebrates the history of handmade shoemaking by bringing the craft into the future. Armenia’s home to the world’s oldest leather shoe, and Armeninan people have had a special connection with shoemaking across millennia, so A1 is my attempt at sharing that passion with the world.
I have one partner named Armen Mardirossian who is also a repat (from LA) and helps me out with in-country operations. We’re of a very different, yet complementary mindset, which helps out with decision making. In terms of other employees, we of course have the shoemakers and others helping with day-to-day ops. It’s a small operation, which allows us to be flexible and stay focused on what we’re all about: unique design, high quality production!
I love hearing people say “I’ve never seen shoe designs quite like yours” because that was the entire driving goal of the brand. I wanted to create a completely fresh aesthetic that broke out of the typical “20-year-rule” of fashion by looking for inspiration a lot farther back in the timeline. I think most of the sneaker industry is very much stuck in a rut of rehashing designs from the past 40 years. It has to be the responsibility of small startup brands to take risks in this arena, so I take that very seriously.
My day to day is similar to most entrepreneurs I’d say- lots of meetings, lots of coffee! In my case it’s a bit odd since I’m working across a lot of timezones, so I have on time and off time at inconsistent hours of the day. I oversee everything, so when I don’t have fires to put out, I’m generally spend more time on finding inspirations for our designs and planning the expansion of our collection.
Before Areni 1, I worked as an economic analyst for a consulting firm, so I had to really immerse myself in both the world of shoemaking and design to get up to speed. I provide the creative direction and vision behind the product, but I’m not a designer. That’s a skillset that takes many years of extremely hard work and I have the utmost respect for them, so I always make it clear that it’s not my role!
Working with the right manufacturer was tricky since there were many cultural barriers to surmount in order to build trust and communicate effectively. I am Armenian, but my family has been in America for over 100 years, and I didn’t experience the Soviet system, so it was very hard for me to relate to the local mindset.
When I showed my designs to the major factories in Armenian, some laughed and said “You can’t make this here, go to China.” They were stuck in a “can’t do” mentality unfortunately, but you have to sympathize since most of these factories and their shoemakers have been making the same style dress shoes for decades. For them, it simply wasn’t possible to do anything different, and even if it was, why take the risk?
Finally, I found a director who was willing to collaborate and who felt he could execute our designs. Looking back, I honestly just think he was curious…probably thinking “who is this American kid and what is he doing making these?” Without him, I’d probably have given up on the project, since being Made in Armenia is baked into the concept, and there wasn’t anyone else willing or able to make them. When we got our first 400 pairs produced, I knew we had something that could go far.
We launched on October 1st. Beforehand, we’d built up an email list of people who were most passionate about the brand so we could have a good early push, and we followed up on that by placing Facebook and Instagram ads. I think for such a new brand, our instagram presence is fairly strong, but honestly we don’t see great conversion through regular posts. I see them as just for checking in with our core base of fans, not for driving sales, that heavy lifting is all up to the ads.
I see a lot of new entrepreneurs thinking social media is this great opportunity to go viral and drive money to your business- honestly I think since the algorithms and structure of facebook and instagram have changed over the past 5 years, that’s no longer the case. There’s a much lower chance of achieving organic virality, and so social media has become a cost rather than an asset.
I’m afraid I’m a bit boring in this category: Slack for business communication, Skype for international calling, MailChimp for mailing lists, and Google Analytics are all the apps I use regularly. Pretty standard tools of the trade!
I’m primarily influenced by great designers and great historians/archaeologists. I have to thank researchers Dr. Gregory Areshian, Dr. Boris Gasparyan, and Dr. Mikayel Badalyan for their incredible work and support. These guys are legends in the field of archaeology and history who deserve more recognition than they get for shaping our ideas of how ancient peoples lived. Without them and their many colleagues, my brand could not exist.
In terms of designers, of course Tinker Hatfield has an influence on any new sneaker brand, but in our case it’s really his philosophy that interests me the most. The whole idea of it being better for 50% of people to hate you and the other 50% to love you than for most of them to be indifferent. That encouraged me to be bolder in our designs. Yohji Yamamoto would be the other one, he has too much design influence on us sometimes! I’ve had a lot of design meetings where I end up yelling “too much Yohji! Let’s start again!” because as much as I love the guy, obviously we strive to be unique. Personally I think the qasa is the greatest sneaker design of all time.
On the business side, I have to recommend Naval which is investor Naval Ravikant’s podcast. If you’re an entrepreneur this is a MUST LISTEN. Honestly, the best advice I could give anyone is to go listen to his advice, the guy is so succinct and insightful on business. On his advice, I also read Nassim Taleb’s work.
There have been several times over the past 2 years of putting this together when I very seriously considered giving up. We hit so many production snags, supply chain issues (Armenia is landlocked and has 2 closed borders), had arguments during prototyping, and there was even a revolution here while I was setting up the brand! As entrepreneurs, we know the odds are against us. Once you accept that this is a marathon not a sprint, take some deep breaths, and focus on knocking down one problem at a time, you realize that almost all problems have solutions.
And for the ones that don’t, there’s no shame in throwing in the towel. I had a second project here that went sour because of bad partner communication, and my only regret is that I didn’t cut and run even sooner, so if your gut is saying “get out” it might be right
Keep your eye on what moves the needle. You’re gonna have so many things to prioritize, analyze, and sort, so when in doubt, think about what brings money into your business and laser in on it. Especially early on, that’s what matters most. Next to bringing in revenue consistently, building an audience with a high opinion of you is crucial. For the most part, investors want to buy your audience, not your product. If you can build an audience with limited resources, that’s a proof of concept worth buying into from an investment standpoint.
The best lesson I’ve learned is that business school classes and an economics degree do not prepare you for entrepreneurship. Doing business is much more about managing human relationships and understanding the emotions of the people you work with (and your consumer) than analyzing data and writing business plans, although those are important skills too! If you can intuit how people are feeling, and really strive to step into their shoes, that’ll take you farther than knowing regression analysis or Python.
In our first 30 days, we’ve made $40,000. I’m happy with that; it’s a strong start and we’re rolling over into an Indiegogo campaign once the Kickstarter is over to reach that audience too. The vast majority of our sales are from the US, with the rest from western europe and a few from Asia. The most exciting part of our customer base so far is that very few of them were familiar with Armenia before finding out about us, so we’re able to spread the word about our history and culture through our shoes. Our most popular model is the Premier High Top, which surprised me since it’s certainly the bolder of the two we’re selling now.
We have a couple new models in the works that we’ve posted on our social accounts, but we’re still tweaking them in several ways. I’m very exacting when it comes to prototyping and pre-launch testing, so it ends up taking a long time, but there’s nothing worse than launching something that’s half-baked!