From his first order of sneaker cleaner, which he personally packed by hand, Sneaker LAB founder Jo Farah has grown his unique business into a global brand. Today, the company is represented in 60 countries and is the only sneaker care product range in the world to be Green TAG certified.
Established in 2012, Sneaker LAB has created an environmentally friendly biotech driven premium shoe care brand and is the scientific authority on sneaker care. But at Sneaker LAB, caring for the environment is not the only way they’re making the world a better place. They produce locally to promote job creation, and a portion of the company’s profits are donated towards developing young leaders in disadvantaged communities.
“We position our brand as more than just shoe care. Sneakers are a part of people’s personas, and we understand the emotional attachment that people have to them. We also have a good story as a brand. Consumers are looking for brands that have a story they can resonate with in some way. In response to this, entrepreneurs need to be socially responsible, not only in terms of giving back to their communities, but also in terms of the products they offer.”
Farah took some time to discuss how he started this unique product brand that has changed the face of sneaker culture with us.
How did you come up with the idea for Sneaker LAB?
I have had a love of sneakers, street-wear and urban culture for many years. When I returned to South Africa in 2008 after living in San Diego I set up a guerrilla marketing agency with two friends who owned Shelflife store at the time. We did a lot of work for big brands like PUMA, New Balance, Adidas and Nike to name a few. Through our work, and being heavily involved in the then fairly new but growing sneaker culture in South Africa, it dawned on me that there were no premium branded sneaker care products available locally and the imported product were extremely expensive.
Was it a single moment of inspiration or did it evolve over time?
In 2012, a few years after I had parted ways from my business partners, I started to import and distribute various brands. At the time there was a big gap in the market for premium sneaker care products. One evening a very good friend of mine was visiting my offices, and I was showing him the various brands I was importing. One brand was an imported sneaker care brand I was thinking of bringing into SA. Very quickly, he pointed out that it was just soap and water in a bottle with a brush, “Why don’t you make it yourself?” At the time I didn’t give it much thought but for some reason his words stuck with me and about a month later the journey toward developing Sneaker LAB began.
Rumor has it that you hand-packed your first orders, is this true?
Correct the first order was for 500 bottles for sneaker cleaner and was packed on the boardroom table.
Why did you choose to make Sneaker LAB environmentally friendly?
In developing the brand there were three fundamental points I wanted to instill in the brand ethos. One, to be a socially responsible brand produced locally to create jobs in South Africa. Two – the cleaning technology in the products had to have long term sustainability and differentiate Sneaker LAB from the competition. Three – to be the number one globally recognized premium sneaker care brand.
What was the biggest challenge you faced on your journey?
One of the greatest challenges we faced was when one of our biggest international competitors attempted to copy our product in an effort to enter the South African market. They underestimated the strength of the brand, the uniqueness and potency of our product formulation as well as consumer brand loyalty.
You have said that people like hearing the African story behind Sneaker LAB. What is the real African story you want to tell with your brand?
It has always been a vision of mine to create a business that made a real difference and had a positive impact on people and the world. I lived abroad in the US for 6 years. When making the decision to return home I decided that whatever work I did needed to have a positive impact in South Africa. It was important to me that Sneaker LAB be produced from as much locally sourced material, utilised local suppliers and created jobs. Once the brand had grown to a size where we were mature enough, we partnered with goldyouth.org and began to donate a portion of every sale both locally and globally. goldyouth.org is an organization dedicated to developing young African leaders through knowledge, tools and support to reach their full potential.
How does it feel to have accomplished international status and to be making such a difference in young people’s lives in the process?
I’m very proud of what we have accomplished and extremely excited about our future. I may have started the brand and business, but without all the amazing talented people behind the business we would not be where we are today. Giving back and being a socially responsible brand is of the utmost importance to me personally, we strive to make a difference in all aspects of what we do. To see how we have helped impact people’s lives in positive way makes what we do all the more meaningful.