Nashville-based startup sources leather shoes from artisans in Peru. Photo Courtesy of Nisolo.
Tired of hearing about slow fashion, sustainable fashion, ethical fashion?
You might not be the only one. Didactic fashion campaigns can get tiresome, says Nisolo founder Patrick Woodyard. That’s why he’s putting his startup on a different track that’s ready to compete with the big guns of fashion — in branding, aesthetic, and social media.
Started 5 years ago, Nisolo, which means not alone in Spanish, is a brand devoted to its supply chain. It began in Peru, employing a team of artisans, crafting leather shoes. Woodyard, working in the microfinance world, was stunned by the workmanship but frustrated by the lack of a market. So he founded a company, specializing in leather shoes and catering to the American market. LA-based designer Zoe Cleary partnered with him to create classic designs, with everlasting appeal (transcending seasonal fashion trends).
Five years since, the brand has grown and acquired other companies as well, branching out beyond the confines of leather workshops in Peru to exploring new domains — handbags and even jewelry out of Kenya.
There’s one lesson that defines Nisolo’s journey, according to Woodyard.
“The story matters. But the product and design is just as important, if not more important,” he says in a phone chat from the company’s Nashville headquarters.
Sadly that’s not the reality: fashion is the second largest polluting industry in the world. So how does Nisolo aspire to change that — and get customers to love the journey?
“Not only are we working on always creating the best product, but also the branding,” he says. “Customers have to love the brand just as much. That is, how we present ourselves to the market. It has to compete with what’s out there, the mainstream brands, not just the cause brands.”
Yet how can a small mission-driven compete compete with the colossal budgets of high street names?
Nisolo started scrappy, bootstrapped with small-sized loans. Woodyard had little space in the annual budget for marketing. In fact, the company spent anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 a year on marketing. “That’s it. That’s all we could afford in the early days. But we made it work,” he says.
Small budgets meant getting creative in how the startup could attract new customers. For instance, they partnered with musicians (given they’re based in Nashville); Nisolo did features on young musicians like Conner Youngblood and in return, the artists showed off a pair of Nisolos. Plus, they cajoled top-notch photographers to work with them for less (or for products).
But now it’s time to ramp it up, Woodyard says.
This January, the company raised their first round of outside capital. Their marketing budget has grown to $50,000, says Woodyard. While that’s still a drop in the bucket compared to high street brands, it’s given them more flexibility to develop the brand and the aesthetics. For instance, Woodyard says they’ve invested in better photography, an aspirational Instagram feed, and are updating the website.
“It’s not all about cause branding,” he iterates. “We have to make sure the whole experience, the social media, the website, all of it needs to be exceptional, not just the story.”
Too often, he says, cause brands only focus on their impact. And while that may be noteworthy, he finds that maybe 10 percent of his customers are interested in deep dives on their supply chain and social impact.
“Most people I would say just want to check the box, ‘ethically sourced,’ and then start shopping. So we need to think bigger.”
This shift in thinking, Woodyard says, has led them to more business and opportunities. “We have fashion brands coming to us, wanting to collaborate, because of our improved storytelling, design and aesthetic.”
All this isn’t to say that the story of how the shoes are made isn’t important. Woodyard is still keen to tell customers, especially those that want to dig deeper, about their impact. However even that can’t be simplified, but needs to be thoughtfully done, he says. “I don’t even think we’re scratching the surface there.”
Woodyard has been to countless gatherings of social entrepreneurs and development experts. But he’s less keen to be branded as a “social entrepreneur” these days.
“This is the way stuff should be made. You’re not doing a favor. This is our responsibility as residents on this planet, and as entrepreneurs. We need to be more mindful of each other and the planet,” he says emphatically.
Often impact is simplified: buy a shoe, support artisans, for instance. And Nisolo has about 60 artisans working in Peru to produce its lineup. Yet it’s more than just a transaction. The company has invested in their education, helped them improve their English, provided loans, and connected them to healthcare services.
“As someone who was working in microfinance, this is amazing, and I want to tell this aspect of the story better. But it’s always a balancing act of how much, where, and when is best.”
This juggle between design, branding, and impact is perhaps unique to fashion’s new breed of mission-driven entrepreneurs.
Going forward, Woodyard says that he’s keen to build out Nisolo’s website further and make “data-driven decisions” across the business — be it in storytelling, marketing, sourcing.
“Let’s face it. We might live in a world where we’re constantly hearing about social impact, social entrepreneurship, etc. But the average American isn’t. We still have a long ways to go in revolutionizing the fashion industry and making this mainstream,” he says. “We have to be tactful about how we approach it. It can’t just be all about doing good. Let the product and experience speak for itself as well.”
[ BY:Esha Chhabra] [ Forbes] [ Read More ]