Joseph Oduori is the founder of Footsmile, a Nairobi-based start-up founded in 2016 that customizes leather shoes for both men and women. He is also an Agribusiness and Enterprise Development student at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT).
If you have ever bought a leather pair of shoes, then you’ve probably heard the line “nakwambia ukweli hii ni ngozi,” loosely translated to ‘I’m assuring you this is pure leather’. I’ve been hit with the same old line more times than a lone lady in an engineering class in JKUAT. It is a staple of every shoe salesman in Kenya, whether it’s a hawker on the crowded streets of Nairobi or at an upmarket shop. More often than not, the shoes won’t last a year, especially for parents with young kids whose leather school shoes also double up as football boots and skateboards for sliding on sandy floors.
It is such an experience that inspired Joseph Oduori (Joe) to start FootSmile, a start-up that makes customised leather shoes for both men and women. I caught up with Joe to find out more about his experience starting a shoe business in Nairobi while balancing that with the school.
So how did you get into the shoe business?
About two years ago, I found shoes that I really liked in a shop in town going for Ksh. 1,800, which was quite an amount at that time, for a campus student especially. However, they turned out not to be pure leather but rather made of a lexin material and they didn’t get through three months. I was disappointed.
Months later, I was still on my search for shoes when my father recommended a cobbler he knew from back in the day. At first, I was a bit sceptical, but I still gave the fundi (cobbler) a deposit for the shoes, a week later when I went to his shop for my shoes I was surprisingly impressed by the quality, the shoes were one size smaller than what I wear, but I didn’t mind. I walked around with a smile on my face despite my legs struggling to fit in the shoes.
It is this experience and time spent in a business class in school that sparked an idea in Joe, he had discovered that there was a way to make custom-made leather shoes, and he also knew from first-hand experience that getting pure quality leather shoes was like ancient pearl diving, you are only successful after hundreds of misses.
How much did you need to start?
I started it like a joke with Ksh. 2,500 of my savings and sold my very first pair to an acquaintance, actually for a while my friends weren’t convinced that I was really the one behind the business, but they soon came around.
I knew I had a good thing going when a friend bought an additional three pairs in a two months span (contrary to the popular belief that men buy one pair of shoes every decade or two), I registered Footsmile and started the gruelling journey of balancing school work and business, doing shoe deliveries in my free time and on weekends. After a while my lecturers found out what I was up to and started buying; almost half of the lecturers in the department I was in have my shoes and that helped me grow.
What Inspired the name Footsmile?
Well, I first named the business after myself; Joe Shoes Collection but later decided to change it to Footsmile, a name inspired by the reaction I had when I got my first pair; my first customer also had the same reaction when he saw wore the shoes, a big smile.
Describe your typical day.
My day normally starts at 5:30 am when I get to find out the orders for the day and also try to figure out how I can get new markets and this I do mostly online. This is the time that I also plan my workers’ schedules both at my display shop and at the workshop.
At around 7:30 am I get to my display shop and check the stock to match them with the records. I then have to get to the workshop by 9 am where I get to see what has been done by the fundis. From around 11 am I deliver all of the online orders for the day and then do a final stop at the workshop to check on the fundis. I finish my day at the display shop documenting the day’s sales and close by 8 pm.
So what motivates you to wake up to your business every morning?
I am inspired every day because I’m chasing after a dream, a vision; I really look up to making my products reach the whole world and make a name that stands out like Nike or Clark’s and even outcompete them.”
Joe currently sells his shoes from a shop in Umoja Inner core estate and has since moved from Juja where he started.
So why Umoja, and being in Nairobi, what challenges have you faced while operating in the region?
I went to Umoja Innercore simply because of purchasing power, right now for instance in Juja, most of the students keep going back home because of the constant strikes, and the lecturers are also not there. On the other hand, a majority of the population in Umoja are working class and stick to the area, their families are there.
The challenge of the Nairobi market is that guys are in such a hurry to get their orders fulfilled. For instance, it takes me three days to service a normal order, but I typically find clients who want the shoe customised for them in one day or two, which is difficult to do cause the shoes can’t take such a short time to customise well. Additionally, since the fashion industry keeps on changing you can’t accurately predict what shoe design a client will want, thus I can’t do huge stocks as typical shoe companies do.
What other challenges do you generally face?
Fundis are unpredictable I tell you, it’s much easier to work with machinery than people who want to be constantly supervised. For instance, you get a big order for shoes to be used for a wedding and such orders often come with a short delivery time schedule. A few days to the event, you realise that your fundis have not yet started work, and that’s when they become very good at stories, ‘oh this was not enough, oh! That wasn’t there… oh!’ what would you do?
Joe then goes on to surprise me by revealing that for people not used to it, spending an extended time around shoe glue can make you ‘drunk’ or nauseous, and this is an occurrence that makes it hard to oversee fundis the whole day similar to how a farmer would supervise his/her workers. Additionally, some fundis take advantage of the fact that skilled labour is a challenge in Joe’s industry and after receiving payment; would go drink and fail to report to work the next day.
So how do you cope with it?
I make random visits to keep them on their toes and I also try and diversify the fundis I work with, currently I am looking at bringing in a machine from China that will fasten the whole process and make it cheaper to make shoes.
What would your advice be to other young aspiring entrepreneurs?
I would advise young entrepreneurs to always take the challenge posed in the market and never run away from it. Never fear starting a race because of failure, if you fall you will fall ahead not behind, so start now.
Do you believe you have achieved the vision you set out on?
My business has not yet reached where I want it to but it’s on its way there. We have a long way to go. I still need machinery that can make us more efficient than we currently are by using fundis that keep on being unreliable with limited-time orders. We can’t stretch the capacity of fundis but we can do that with machinery.
What is your most memorable moment so far?
One of my friends at church was having a wedding and decided to trust me with the challenge of making his custom-designed shoes. I still can’t forget his expression when he saw the shoes just a day before his wedding. He was so excited, something I couldn’t have expected from my earlier interactions with him. He was the person that got me thinking about doing shoes for weddings and events, which has really widened my market.
What do you think sets you apart from other businesses in the industry?
You won’t wear a Footsmile shoe and find someone else with the same design anywhere else, there are no uniform designs with us. So I challenge people out there, if you find a design of a shoe you like, take a picture of it, reach Footsmile on our Facebook Page or WhatsApp with the colour you want, and the size and we will customise it for you.
On that note, I’m still mulling over whether I should take Joe up on that challenge and send him pictures of T’Challa’s awesome shoes from Black Panther; don’t be surprised when you soon start seeing superhero feet walking around town.
To find out more about Footsmile visit their Facebook page Footsmile Ltd
Gabriel is an entrepreneurship enthusiast, with a fondness for questioning the workings of everyday things. He is an entrepreneur, a lover of stories and a member of Rotaract.
He is a freelance writer ( engage me at www.writegarage.com), skilled in crafting engaging content; from fintech to marketing techniques, startup culture, business development, analysis...the list goes on ..the only thing that keeps him up is the fact that anyone can change the world.