in Branding

What I learned in the shoe business

I once started an athletic shoe line.

Trust me, this is just as weird for me as it is for you. I almost never put it on my resume and since I don’t carry around samples anymore, it’s not even a conversation that comes up when people stop into my office.

The story of Omnivore went something like this. A Chinese firm was looking for a U.S. partner to market shoes after a major brand left their factory. I was not looking for a shoe deal, because that doesn’t make any sense. I was instead looking for a company to manufacturer Tennis Polo racquets, since in those days that was my big thing. The sport was only about a year old and I thought it’d be cool to see if that were possible. After a few negotiations and the timing of a kind investor, we had ourselves a shoe company and nary a toccer racquet.

Can’t win ‘em all.

I poured myself into the business. I learned more about supply chains, pricing and the marketing of athletic shoes to fill a MBA student case study. Not surprising, the exercise was doomed from the start because there’s a reason startup shoe brands don’t crop up very often and it comes down to capital and the fact that most brands here spend billions on marketing. We even signed up for shoe exhibitions with major brands and people from shoe stores were actually really good at giving advice. Any aversions I had to cold calling were exorcised that year.

Failure is a tough thing to talk about. I don’t shy away from it, it’s just feels less relevant in a world where everybody likes talking about their wins. Part of why I’m dredging this story up, is precisely because I think people need to tell their paths even when it resulted in them not winning.

The hardest part of talking about failure is figuring out where it fits in the grand scheme of your course. So for years, I just left Omnivore off my resume and rarely talked about it. It felt weird to talk about “co-founder of an athletic shoe startup,” because here I was working in a completely different market doing entirely different work. It was before the time when everyone was building an app, so I wasn’t as comfortable trying to explain it to people. Plus, I just felt weird because I’ve always tried to divorce my athletic pursuits from my professional ones so people don’t see me as a “former athlete,” which as a young black guy made me uncomfortable.

What helped me get some perspective were coworkers in these jobs. In the first few years of my career, I’d bring a few pairs of the shoes to decorate my office which led people to ask me about them, but save for those conversations it never came up.


Omnivore 5G (2005)

For a long time, I just didn’t think people would take me seriously.

The thing about so-called imposter syndrome isn’t this feeling that you aren’t good enough. It’s that other people are better. That your path to where you’ve landed isn’t as good as other people’s path and therefore, it gives me the platform to judge you as lesser than.

What’s funny about this — and what got me past this idea — is realizing that by diminishing myself, it gave people the chance to just take what I wasn’t saying as canon. In other words, by cutting out full parts of my professional experience, people would simply take stock of what they knew and make the assumption that I didn’t know as much. I’ve always viewed variety as a strength.

I watched Eddie Huang’s talk from #bigomaha in 2012 and he really doubles down on this idea of having lots of different hustles. I appreciated it, because even the people in the audience seemed to struggle with his narrative of having success being multifaceted in a world that tells you to pick a lane, stick with it and never ever deviate.

Your path belongs uniquely to you. Trying to fit your pathway into the way others have done it, will likely yield very different results. More importantly, I’ve learned that you just have to own the wealth of your experiences.

Rather than diminish what you’ve accomplished, figure out how to make sense of it and make it important within the context of where you want to be. The extra legwork can seem like a hassle or a distraction sometimes, so it can be a lot easier to just do what I’ve done in the past and just don’t talk about it. The greatest contributor to impostor syndrome is failing to give ourselves the license to thrive. In an effort to protect others from our bright light, we do everything we can to hide and diminish it.

I’ve become stronger and more empowered when I’ve taken stock of my contributions and share them with the people who are interested.