Telecom Engineer Becomes Biodegradable Shoe Designer

In the very back of one of the halls of the fashion trade show called MAGIC, I came across an entrepreneur in the footwear section whose enthusiasm made me stop in my tracks. He couldn't have been more happy to share information on how his shoe line was completely different from all of the other exhibitors. It was not only eco-friendly but made largely from up-cycled materials and completely biodegradable. The brand is called Ultrashoes, it's based in Portugal and run by a father son team. Here is a Q&A with the son, Pedro Lima, who launched Ultrashoes just two years ago.

Why did you decide to start Ultrashoes?

Two years ago, we understood a simple fact: The shoe industry is a major polluter. Even in Portugal, an EU country following some of the most advanced anti-pollution regulations in the world. My main inspiration are the piles of waste that we see everywhere nowadays. I can't accept that a fork from fast food dinning is only used once, knowing that it could be used dozens of times. So, that fork (or a milk pack, or car tire) is always a question...how can I make shoes out of this?

Also, I meet wonderful people in the green community who offer suggestion like wrapping our shoes in plastic coffee bags (reuse the waste, protect your shoes and give an amazing scent) or using old airplane seats for making the upper.

Ultrashoes are designed very differently from 'regular' shoes. For example, a vegan shoe must be 100% vegan, it can't have a non-vegan lining with vegan soles and upper. Everything must be coherent or the customer won't understand and will not be interested in our shoes. So, when we design a new shoe, we start with baselines that must be met; currently, vegan means 100%, biodegradable means at least 99%, recycled (we prefer up-cycled) means at least 60%. And these baselines are there to grow. We currently make our vegan shoes at least 30% recycled (though most are 60% recycled) and we are beginning the study of two new baselines: recycled/biodegradable and vegan/biodegradable.

We then try to drill this down to every component and process involved. Our boxes are recycled, recyclable, without glue, staples or ink. The glues for the shoes are water-based. We continuously look for new sources of waste. Right now, we already use airplane seats, milk cardboard packages and car tires in our shoes.

Up to 15% of all the leather entering our factory is from 'wasted' material from another product. This was the main fact powering Ultrashoes; use waste to make shoes and do it to the maximum extent possible, keeping the cost low enough to still be able to sell our shoes.

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What were you doing professionally before launching Ultrashoes?

I was a telecom engineer, starting right after college about 20 years ago until two years ago when I decided to launch Ultrashoes. Being in the telecom industry was actually an advantage in the shoe manufacturing industry, which is a very traditional one, as I'm able to look at some issues from a different perspective.

Our parent company, KayakStorm, is our family company based near Porto, Portugal. Launched 15 years ago by my father and two amazing partners, Kayak Storm is dedicated to casual shoes and exports to 30+ countries around the world, employing 70 people. But we've been making shoes in my family for around 70 years. My grandfather started as a shoemaker, making shoes by hand and selling them in his small shop. Two of his kids (my father and my uncle) joined the business, but not before working outside the family business to gain experience.

How do you manage to have an affordable price point using these materials?

The main reason the our shoes are not difficult to sell is because they are actually cost-effective. Only a very special niche of customers in some of the most advanced countries in the world would buy them if they were much more expensive than regular shoes. What we've managed to do, through the use of off-the-shelf materials (or sometimes more accurately, out-of-the-waste bin materials) and using a lot of imagination, was to get vegan and recycled shoes that cost about the same as a regular shoe... all without compromising quality or style. Biodegradable, unfortunately until now, was impossible to produce without adding a (up to 30% ) premium.

So, now we only need to have access to a proper sales channel where we can tell the story behind Ultrashoes. Selling them to the final customer is the easy part as they have no downside. We are currently selling our shoes to advanced markets such as Germany, Belgium, France, Italy, Turkey, Hong Kong and Malaysia. We plan to use our well-established sales channels for the regular shoes to sell Ultrashoes to more markets. The US, being a huge, sophisticated and (to some extent) eco-oriented market is, of course, a priority.

Is the design process different with this type of shoe?

The design, in a narrower sense, of these shoes is not too different from designing regular shoes. We work with two design teams, one Portuguese and one Italian. For comfort, we have eco-friendly materials able to replace every comfort component in a shoe, sometimes even cheaper than regular components (and this makes us wonder why people don't use them more often). Most of my end customers are from the green community, people truly concerned about the future of our planet but I know that some clients actually buy them because they like the urban look and design, considering the eco side just a nice benefit.

Do you plan on manufacturing extensions to the line?

We've had several requests from customers for products such as belts, wallets, purses, etc. As they are not our focus, we are working together with partner companies to be able to provide them.

What are your goals for the next 3-5 years?

I think it's more than possible that Ultrashoes will represent more than 60% of our KayakStorm production within 3 years.

Having left the corporate culture of telecom, what do you enjoy most about working at a small family business?

The best part of working in a family business is that you can trust everyone you are working with. If, for example, someone is criticizing your work, it's really because that person truly believes you could do it better and not for some hidden agenda. Plus, you get to know every employee very well, you know that person's family and their problems and you can help. This works both ways and is very good for business because everybody will probably have a more satisfying work life this way. After having worked for large organizations, I can confirm that work is much more effective in a family business. That's why some large organizations like to identify themselves as a family business.

What business challenges have you faced as the company begins to grow?

The shoe market is changing rapidly, mainly due to Asian competition. Large, single-model orders vanished and were replaced by many more small, multi-model, multi-color orders; adapting our way of production to this new reality has been both challenging and interesting.

What advice can you offer others who want to start a family biz?

For those starting I would say that trust (in you and in your family) is everything, and knowledge of the industry, the processes and of the market is a close second.

Will you be selling direct to consumer anytime soon?

We don't sell direct to consumer, we are an industrial/wholesale company and intend to stay that way. Selling our shoes is much easier if the customer can hear our story told well from a retailer they trust. For this, in the beginning they were sold to small stores in Europe only. We went personally to these stores and took a few hours to do a workshop, explaining everything about the shoes. The intimacy was high, the message went through quite easy, sometimes the customers were invited on the spot to join us and would buy the shoes right away.

As the concept grew, we started to provide our retail partners with more and more support material, never forgetting that this story telling was a key component to our success. And, yes, of course our support material is eco-friendly too!

Pedro Lima's passion for helping the planet and changing the footwear industry is so admirable. After a tremendous response from the marketplace, I'm betting that Ultrashoes has a much bigger booth at the trade show next year!

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