Footwear Company Founder Runs With a Good Idea

by Katherine Gustafson on December 20, 2013
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It turns out good business ideas can grow on trees — or at least stem from them.

Feelgoodz founder Kyle Berner says he got his idea for a successful small business from a pair of flip-flops he picked off a tree-shaped display in a Bangkok market. The all-natural rubber sandals were the most comfortable Berner had ever worn — and he wanted to make them available in the U.S.

So, in 2008, Berner launched Feelgoodz, even though he had never started a business before and didn’t know the first thing about footwear.

“I didn’t even know rubber came from a tree,” he recalls. “The concept that the flip-flops came from a tree amazed me. [The vendor] told me there was a whole economy of rubber tappers in Thailand. That amazed me even more. I was in that market and I was like, ‘This is the coolest thing I have ever seen.’”

Passion vs. Knowledge

Berner let his enthusiasm for following his passion outweigh his lack of knowledge, because he believed that Americans would appreciate footwear that’s made of natural materials and supports a micro-economy.

“I’m a flip-flop guy,” he says. “I love flip-flops inherently… I became obsessed, and I tracked down the manufacturer and sat down with them with a list of questions. I didn’t know what I was doing; I had never been in the footwear industry before. I just loved the product and the concept.”

Berner bought 300 pairs of shoes from a manufacturer and stored them in a shed in his parents’ New Orleans backyard. He started selling them through his family’s network of colleagues and friends and quickly expanded his reach. Less than a year after he’d returned from Thailand with a load of flip-flops and a business idea, he secured space on the shelves of Whole Foods Markets.

Today, the Raleigh, N.C.-based Feelgoodz sells its shoes in more than 300 stores nationwide, employs a staff of nine, and supports farmers and artisan cooperatives in Thailand, Vietnam, and Guatemala.

Farm-to-Foot Approach

Berner has developed an innovative “farm-to-foot” philosophy, which entails working directly with raw materials suppliers and artisans in source countries. Berner says he personally visits all the villages, farms, and workshops involved in his supply chain to set up arrangements and to ensure good working conditions and fair pay.

His advice for other would-be entrepreneurs looking for a big idea is to find a way to tap into your excitement instead of thinking too strategically, or, worse, focusing on potential profits.

“If you look everywhere for opportunity, I don’t think that’s the right approach,” he says. “You can tell when you meet an entrepreneur who’s passionate about something vs. one who isn’t. It stems from something they absolutely love or an interest that they have, or something happened by accident and they found this idea they fell in love with.”

That idea can be as simple as a super-comfortable flip-flop.

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