How listening to the community helped a footwear company grow and give back during the pandemic

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Andy Wang - Image courtesy of Vessi Footwear
Co-founder, Andy Wang
Image courtesy of Vessi Footwear Ltd.

Vessi Footwear’s rising success over the last two years could simply be attributed to one thing — their willingness to listen.

From two resounding Kickstarter campaign responses in 2018 — raising $1.25 million and $1.4 million — which provided confidence to pursue the business, to actively seeking feedback throughout their rise as major Asian-Canadian innovators in the footwear industry, it’s been their community leading the way. 

And Vessi’s Andy Wang — alongside co-founders Tony Yu and Mikaella Go — couldn’t be prouder of a team that actively seeks and incorporates input from its community.

“We’re used to immediate feedback and that’s a strength we can take advantage of that traditional brick and mortar brands and retailers may not be able to,” Wang said about the digitally native company.

Ever since its launch, it’s been an uphill run for Vancouver-based Vessi, known for their waterproof sneakers and loyal online community. Having created the world’s first 100% waterproof knit shoes by using a patented Dyma-tex knit technology, Vessi now features four different shoe designs.

Even more impressive, the footwear brand has grown the team from three members to 25 worldwide in two years. They continue to expand their strong customer base across North America, and by Q1 of 2021, are expecting to sell their 1,000,000th pair of shoes.  

GIVING BACK DURING THE PANDEMIC

When COVID-19 hit, things felt uncertain, said Wang. They once again turned to their community. 

“We quickly figured out ways that we could help that really had to do with our community,” Wang said about the early impacts of the pandemic. “Instead of promoting our regular marketing campaigns, we turned our community into a think tank, and asked them how to give back in a moment like this.”

That led to Vessi quickly developing initiatives to give back, including the pay-what-you-can model.

The creative payment option asked their customers to purchase its shoes at certain price tiers. The higher the payment tier, the more funds were raised to buy surgical masks for healthcare workers in Canada and the United States.

Along with contributions from the company, thousands of shoes were donated to frontline healthcare workers and 500,000 masks sent to hospitals across North America. 

This led to the Vessi Community Fund, which reached out to its customer community again to support through micro-grants and empower “everyday heroes” who are making an impact.

“Many people really believed in the cause and wanted to help, so they took on the full cost which made it [possible] to donate more in the forms of masks or microfunds we were able to generate,” the 31-year-old co-founder said. “Through this [model] and the money we were able to raise, it stemmed into a lot of different ideas. We’re happy that we were able to help in any way.”

Wang admits that it was a rushed decision to push forward with these community initiatives, especially from a business point of view, because there was no guarantee as to what impact it would make. But it worked out — for the community and for Vessi, which tripled its sales from April onwards.

Vessi also recently launched a presale for their new sneakers, The Weekend. With the same community-focused intentions in mind, $5 from every order of their new product will go towards four different mental health awareness organizations.

It’s all part of the growth and continued community collaboration for the company as they head toward the three-year mark.

The Weekend Sneakers
Image courtesy of Vessi Footwear Ltd.

ADVICE FROM AN ENTREPRENEUR

Looking back, Wang admits to not having thought of himself as an entrepreneur. Channeling his more conservative mentality, Wang advises aspiring entrepreneurs to not dive into a full-time role when starting up their own ventures.

“It’s important to explore your passions and ideas, I fully encourage that,” he said. Wang also notes that his generation is enticed by the allure of startup culture and stories of unicorn companies. To that, he advises entrepreneurs to go through with plans, but be able to ask themselves the hard question: What is worth continuing and pushing through? “I see some people who struggle to admit that.”

“It’s important for everyone to understand that startup success involves tenacity, hard work, and also timing and luck — which is out of our control.”

Working alongside business partners and co-founders is another area which many new venture owners have to navigate, and such is the case for Vessi.

“To find a balance between our individual strengths and collaboration without ego is something easier said than done. I’m grateful we’ve been able to work at bettering our dynamics together, and also to help keep each other in check.”

That also leads back to listening, which isn’t just limited to the product and community initiatives but also when it comes to hiring the team. 

“We filled our teams with generalists in the beginning, and these people thrived on wearing multiple hats,” Wang said. “We’ve quickly had to learn that hiring professionals as soon as possible was key to scaling.” 

Image courtesy of Vessi Footwear Ltd.

KEEP EDUCATING, KEEP LISTENING

Wang, who was born in Taiwan, also understands that culture and community has influenced his journey so far — and remains an important part in learning through the creation process and working alongside the team.

In June, the company donated to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in solidarity with the Black community, and noted in a blog post that they are committed to journeying with their community in the fight for equality.

“It’s important that we keep engaging in conversations internally and finding ways to educate ourselves,” he said.

With all the challenges and success Vessi has gone through, Wang points out the learning and listening doesn’t stop for their online footwear brand. 

“It’s super cool to innovate a product that’s existed for so long,” he said. “Being an entrepreneur in a direct-to-consumer space, it allows us to talk to our customers directly.  That’s what I love about this.”