What happens when you take a great idea, create a Kickstarter campaign, generate some buzz, then fall short of your $40,000 goal? If you’re Fernando A. Robert, you parlay that experience into a successful startup launch. Robert’s Weekender backpack for sneaker enthusiasts may not have captured the necessary funds from the crowdfunding website, but it did catch the eye of marketing pro Dre Pabon. The two met over social media and formed a partnership that led to Robert’s startup, The Shrine Company.
The Birth of a Sneakerhead
When Robert was growing up in the mid-1990s, Air Jordans turned sneakers into must-have fashion wear. “I grew up in that realm and was kind of in love with sneakers,” he recalls. “Sneakers are what got me into design.” After eight years as a freelance luggage and bag designer in San Francisco, he dreamed up a way to merge his two loves: “a luggage brand targeted toward sneaker enthusiasts.”
He saw an opportunity to create a bag with compartments where sneaker lovers like him who travel with multiple pairs can easily store their prized accessories. “There wasn’t anything like it on the market,” he says. His first design — the one he put on Kickstarter — was a travel backpack with compartments for two extra pairs of sneakers.
Kickstarter Falls Short, But Twitter Delivers
After the Kickstarter went live, people started contacting him to tell him how much they loved his concept. “I knew if I got it in front of the right audience that people would really find it appealing,” says Robert. He also knew he needed help if he was going to build a successful business. He is good at design and production, he says, but “I knew I needed someone that was specifically a marketing guy.”
Enter Pabon. He had an immediate personal connection with the product. “I travel for work and marketing trade shows. I also wear a size 13 sneaker,” he says. “Two of my shoes will take up basically the whole bag” of a standard carry-on. When he saw Robert’s Kickstarter video on Twitter, he says, “I immediately retweeted the video.”
Robert thanked him for the retweet and the two started a “direct message” conversation through Twitter. “I had never worked with bags before,” says Pabon, who has over 20 years experience as a marketer for urban street wear. “But I knew this was something I could [grow through] influencer marketing.”
Pabon soon began running social media for the fledgling brand. “After the Kickstarter failed, we started to grow the buzz via social media,” he says. He cultivated an Instagram community that took on a life of its own.
Social Media for the Win
Their first big break was getting one of the bags into the hands of basketball star LeBron James, who loved it and used it on road trips. At the NBA All-Star Game, player Dwayne Wade saw James’s bag and became interested in the company. Their second big break came when Wade posted photos of the bag on social media.
Those photos were a game-changer. The Shrine Company went from 250 Instagram followers to over 3,000 in one night. The time was ripe to begin production. “There was huge demand at that point,” says Pabon.
The startup financed its first production run in June 2014 through pre-orders, which it promoted through its Instagram community. “Since then we’ve basically been self-financed,” says Pabon. In the second half of 2014, they introduced a duffel bag, which sold even better than the backpack.
In addition to selling directly to customers online, the bags are in 45 retailers in the U.S. and Canada, with a 50-store test underway in Foot Locker and Foot Action stores. The startup also has several outlets in France, and Pabon says, “We’re slowly expanding internationally.”
Both Pabon and Robert credit the power of social media for their current success. “Before the Kickstarter campaign, I never even knew [about] Instagram,” Robert says. And, even more fundamentally, Pabon says, “If it wasn’t for that Twitter post I saw, we would never have even met.”
Photo of Dre Pabon and Fernando Robert courtesy of The Shine Company.