This Startup Introspective was authored by Joseph Marquis, Co-Founder & COO of Ponto Footwear
This is a question that I think every entrepreneur asks themselves at least once (if not monthly). It could be interpreted as “How did I, a Mechanical Engineer with a Master’s from UC Berkeley, end up as founder/COO of a footwear brand?” or “How did the business come to face X challenge, and what the hell are we going to do about it?” or “How did we as a society get to the point where everything is so polarizing that we can’t even agree that making products more sustainably is a good thing?” I’ve found that the answer to questions like this typically starts with being more mindful of ourselves, others, and our connection to the planet.
Without getting too “woo woo spiritual”, entrepreneurship and founding a startup has been something of a religious experience. Apart from the endless imposter syndrome and questioning your own decisions, there is a certain amount of blind faith that things will work out. There is a tangible amount of “following signs from the universe” when opportunities are seemingly dropped into your lap. Entrepreneurship is a drunken walk. The path is not linear, and you stumble, trip, and veer off course constantly. It makes sense that it can be easy to lose track of how we got here.
For me, I need to zoom out to answer this question. How did a mechanical engineer with a cushy Silicon Valley job, that used to call shoes “foot prisons” end up as the founder of a fashion brand? Well, I’ve always been interested in sustainability and making/building things with my hands. And pretty much everyone wears shoes…. And it turns out the footwear industry is one of the dirtiest….
It took nearly a year working as a full time founder before being able to fully come to terms that starting a footwear brand was actually a very worthwhile endeavor that could have a huge impact. Not just an impact on the materials and engineering side of things, but an impact on our relationship with everything that we own. We must ask ourselves how everything that we interact with on a daily basis was produced? What do these goods really cost? What is their purpose?
For our shoes, we took a lot of inspiration from industrial designers. A famous quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery states,
“A designer knows they have achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away”.
As a consumer under capitalism, we are constantly being bombarded by new products, features, trends, etc. Rarely, if ever, are we asked if we could do more with less. We saw a need to fight against the inherently unsustainable trend of fast fashion. We saw a need for more mindfully designed products that enable you to seamlessly transition across the various aspects of your life.
The world seems as though it is only becoming more polarized, where if you aren’t one thing, then you have to be the opposite (that is as political as I will go for now…). I’ve found that in my reality, most things exist somewhere in the grey. The pandemic has shown us that the lines where we used to draw boundaries across the many aspects of our lives have become blurred. Whether it’s working from the comfort of our home couch or digital nomading, we are now demanding more autonomy over many aspects of our lives. Consumers are able to express more choice in their purchase decisions than ever, and have extremely high expectations when it comes to products that ought to seamlessly embolden the newfound flexibility many of them have between work and life, that specifically technology and remote work invited us to explore.
Yet brands have failed to meet this moment, still providing products where aesthetic, comfort, durability, and sustainability are generally at odds with one another. Consumers all want the same things: to feel confident in their walk, comfortable in their gait, and leaving a footprint behind that’s light & mindful of the burden it puts on our planet.
Using footwear as one example, we no longer need dress shoes for the wedding, loafers for work, runners for the gym, sandals for after the gym, etc. We designed our first shoe line to be something of a paradox. We call them “dress sneakers”. I’ve worn them to many a wedding, while also having dogs pee on them during a daily walk (they’re water/urine repellent). Like many first time founders, we designed the product for ourselves. We wanted a shoe that we can pretty much wear anywhere, look good in, and feel good about wearing. While we started by designing for ourselves, we have grown slightly wiser and started the process to rinse and repeat this process for other design constraints and other products.
I guess my answer to “How did we get here?” is simply “one day at a time”. We’re working to make products that empower us to be the best versions of ourselves and reshape our relationship with ourselves, each other, and our planet. We feel like frauds while doing the biggest and coolest thing we’ve ever done. We don’t always know exactly where we’re going, but we’re trying to enjoy the ride.
Ponto Footwear is an Alumni of the Newchip Accelerator May 2021 Cohort. The company was founded by Aaron Roubitchek and Joseph Marquis. It is based in San Diego, California. Learn more about Ponto here.