Have you heard of sneakerheads? The ones who have their hallways and closets full of sneakers, which, to regular people, look like they’re pretty much the same shoe, just in different colours?
Jesse Tran and Son Chu are two of those people.
“Back in Vietnam, we both used to have a lot of shoes,” they say. “A lot.”
Now, the duo are talking in the basement of their yet-to-be-decorated office in central Helsinki. The display window, as well as the door, boasts the company’s name and recognisable hashtag logo, but there hasn’t been time to put art on the walls.
In August, their company uFaktory and its brand Rens completed a historically successful crowdfunding campaign. A little later, Rens announced that a bunch of well-known Finnish business angels, including Ilkka Paananen from Supercell, have jumped on board as investors.
What has convinced both consumers and investors is a pair of shoes, made from 300 grams of used coffee grounds and six recycled plastic bottles. Like only true sneakerheads can, Tran and Chu wanted to make the perfect shoe: odour-resistant, waterproof, slip-on and lightweight, as well as stylish and sustainable.
The idea, the duo say, is to encourage people to make sustainable choices not through guilt, but by making an innovative and beautiful product that’s naturally attractive.
“We don’t want to push people by saying they need to save the world,” Tran notes. “We just make the product so good they want it anyway.”
Orders flying in from everywhere
The Kickstarter campaign gathered plenty of global media attention and comments from high-profile people, such as the ‘inventor’ of hashtags Chris Messina. Although Rens’ initial goal was to collect 19 000 dollars, it pocketed over half a million. Now, there are orders from over 5000 people for about 6000 pairs of shoes, which will be sent to 69 different countries.
“Rens is the all-time most successful Kickstarter campaign in Finland, as well as the most successful fashion crowdfunding launch in the Nordics,” Tran tells. “We’re pretty proud because people tend to say Sweden does these things much better, but here we are, right in Helsinki, making Finland’s name known on the world stage.”
Although the founders knew their product was great, the popularity blew them away. They decided they need to ride the wave, and, as we speak, it looks like all backers will receive their pairs of Rens by the end of the year, as long as they let the company know their shoe size and choice of colour on time.
The shoes are made in China, where the factories are compliant with BSCI (Business Social Compliance Initiative) and meet the prestigious Bluesign criteria, and shipped from Hong Kong. The long-term plan is to move production to Vietnam, where both founders are originally from.
Ignoring the haters
The Rens team working in the Helsinki office is very international. Between the seven-strong staffs and two founders, there are six nationalities, and many of the partners the company works with hail from different parts of the world.
Many of the advisors and supporters are Finnish, and Rens wants to be known as a Finnish company abroad. Tran and Chu, both of whom came to Finland to study and then chose to stay, consider Finland their second home.
“I came here with 1500 euros in my pocket. Finland has educated and given me everything, so I want to give something back,” Tran explains. “Being in Finland is also a competitive advantage, because here we can attract the best local talents and have the support of an incredible startup community. And it’s really safe here, too.”
From the safety of Finland, Rens is spreading all over the globe. The team is set to launch its own webshop and willing to partner with selected retailers as well.
The future is also full of plans the founders refuse to say a word about – including off the record. They only mention that shoes are just the beginning.
“We’re not a coffee shoe company,” Tran and Chu say secretively. “Every product we make will be innovative, made from sustainable materials and look beautiful.”
And as for those who’ve criticised the company for using a hashtag as its logo – Rens doesn’t plan to change it.
“We might’ve been several times bigger on Kickstarter had we simply removed the hashtag,” Tran admits. “But we can’t be epic and bold by simply blending in. We want to be distinctive, and that’s what we will continue doing – never ever following the norm.”