Building Flatheads Sneakers ft. Ganesh Balakrishnan

"Since my first startup was a tech-based company, I have realized that having a good knowledge of the underlying technology always pays off. Once you have that, you can always build new applications on top of that."

Ganesh Balakrishnan

Who doesn’t love sneakers? Long talks about cool trending sneakers, design symbolism, and celebrity endorsements are common in today’s workplace and almost everywhere else.

But, have you ever heard of sneakers made out of bamboo yarn? Or even banana yarn for that matter?

Flatheads, our very own Indian shoe brand has been creating waves in the sneakers industry with their unconventional and innovative shoes made out of unique natural fibers, designed for the modern urban workforce.

In one of our code talks, we had the pleasure of hosting Ganesh Balakrishnan (Co-founder, Flatheads). Ganesh talked in-depth about his journey with Flatheads, sharing invaluable industry insights, and dropping some gospels about career and life all the while.

Here are a few excerpts from a truly inspiring Code Talk-

What's the story behind naming the company FlatHeads?

Flatheads stands for automotive enthusiasts. Our Co-founder is a biker. Even I used to participate in drag races when I was in the US for a while. The term ‘flathead' is an automotive engine that is used for drag racing.

Incidentally, Flatheads is also a native Indian tribe in Montana.

Flathead is an abbreviation for car enthusiasts. Our co-founder enjoys riding his motorcycle. When I lived in the United States for a while, I used to compete in drag races. The word 'flathead' refers to an automotive engine used in drag racing.

In addition, the Flatheads are a Montana native Indian tribe.

How did you end up choosing and creating the product?

We followed the first principled thinking while choosing the product. We're creating shoes for the Indian workforce. What's the problem statement?

We have a tropical climate in India, it's mostly warm and humid. The normal shoes people wear aren't designed to maintain the perforation. As a result our feet generally stay 2 to 3 degrees hotter than our body.

"We wanted to make t-shirts for the feet."

That was the initial idea. We decided to remove all the unnecessary elements from a conventional shoe including extra layers of foam and cushioning to make the shoes more breathable. To ensure the softness and elasticity of the shoes, we used single-layer knit fibers.

Our approach to designing was different from the traditional designs.

Another problem was that there weren't many manufacturers of knit fibers in India at the time. A few who were there didn't accept our orders as they had other engagements from Europe. So, we outsourced the manufacturing of the first set of shoes to a manufacturer in China.

But during the pandemic, Indian suppliers took a hit as their exports were canceled. And that's when they started working with us.

Currently, our shoes are manufactured in Jalandhar and Kanpur, and the knits are made in Southern India, mostly Chennai.

How did you manage to get the first 100 customers?

As we're creating shoes for the urban workforce, we figured out that aspiration is a common theme for all of us. People are either already entrepreneurs or they have aspirations of building a startup and achieving greatness in their careers. So, entrepreneurs were our first set of the target audience.

In the initial stages, we wanted to do things from the ground level.

"Do things that don't scale” as Paul Graham puts it at Y Combinator.

I started reaching out to them on LinkedIn and Twitter, convincing them to try out our made-in-India innovative shoes. Our team decided to deliver the shoes directly to them. They were the early adopters and they started talking about the brand on their handles, which gave us the initial buzz.

A lot of people on LinkedIn actually resonate with our ideals when we talk about our startup journey and the innovation and design that goes into building our products.

Creating shoes for the urban workforce, we discerned a shared aspiration among individuals. Whether they were already entrepreneurs or harboured dreams of establishing a startup and attaining eminence in their careers, aspirations united them all. Consequently, our initial target audience comprised entrepreneurs.

During our initial phases, our approach was grounded, embracing the philosophy encapsulated by Paul Graham at Y Combinator: "Do things that don't scale." I contacted them through LinkedIn and Twitter, persuading them to experience our innovative shoes made in India. Our team opted for direct delivery to these early adopters, who began endorsing the brand on their social media platforms, generating our initial buzz.

On LinkedIn, a substantial number of individuals resonate with our ideals when we expound upon our startup journey and the intricacies of innovation and design inherent in our product development.

How do you decide on the prototypes you're going to launch?

It's a data-driven decision for us. We research what colors people are wearing, what fabric they prefer in shoes, what's the purpose in most cases, and so on.

Case in point, colors like black, grey and navy blue are demanded more as people could wear them to work or for many other occasions. They also go well with most outfits. In contrast, fewer people purchase more expressive colors like lavender, green or red. So, we decide the ratio of our inventory accordingly.

We also have people from fashion institutes like NIFD who conduct market research and create magical designs.

More importantly, we focus on the material. We're creating shoes from natural fibers like bamboo and banana yarn, and we're trying fabrics like linen in shoes that haven’t been done before. That's our unique proposition, after all.

A lot of work goes into figuring out knitting techniques, making the fabric rugged enough for footwear, and various other aspects.

Our decision-making process is data-driven. We research people's colour preferences, shoe fabric choices, and the footwear's intended purposes.

For instance, colours such as black, grey, and navy blue enjoy higher demand due to their versatility for work and various occasions. They also complement a wide range of outfits. Conversely, expressive colours like lavender, green, or red have fewer takers. Consequently, we adjust our inventory ratio accordingly.

Market research is conducted by professionals from fashion institutions like NIFD, who craft enchanting designs.

Furthermore, we place a strong emphasis on materials. Our distinctiveness lies in using natural fibres such as bamboo and banana yarn in shoe production and exploring unconventional fabrics like linen, a novel approach in the shoe industry.

A substantial amount of effort is invested in perfecting knitting techniques, ensuring the fabric's durability for footwear, and addressing various other considerations.

Why did you decide to get into the shoe industry despite so many popular market leaders like Nike, Adidas, etc.?

You'll find competitors in every industry. If OnePlus thought about Samsung and Apple before starting, they wouldn't be such a big smartphone brand in the market.

The important thing is to believe in your purpose. Despite all these names, no one was making shoes for the typical urban workforce, no one was making shoes for work. You wear shoes for work almost 12 hours a day and yet no one has addressed this niche. So we decided to tap into the space.

We don't need to snatch the market share from Nike or Adidas. The casual workforce shoe industry itself stands at $1.5 billion today and is growing at 15% year on year.

That's the beauty of a brand. Different brands can co-exist in the same market banking on their unique selling proposition (USP) and brand ideals.

Ganesh calls himself a generalist and a business builder. Not to deter away from the fact that he started out as a mechanical engineer from IIT Bombay. Prior to Flatheads, Ganesh co-founded Momoe, a mobile payments product company that was later acquired by the e-commerce giant ShopClues.

How do you decide the target demographics? Why did you choose to keep premium pricing for your products?

In the industry, there are brands that play on volumes. Brands like Action, Sparx, Bata, etc. target the mass audience and intend to sell in huge volumes. So, they create the most possibly efficient shoes under the price range of INR 1000, and they're good at that.

We focus on comfort and innovation while making Flatheads. We're making shoes from bamboo and banana yarn that requires special knitting techniques and different kinds of machines that require more investment.

A lot of effort goes into collecting design materials, prototyping, research and development, and more. That's our niche. Our shoes go through 37 different tests before launch. We can't compare ourselves with the likes of Bata and Relaxo.

Our offerings cater to the needs of our target customers, and we want to keep innovating and designing for that segment.

Flatheads operates on Shopify. And you mentioned that 1000 crore businesses can be built using no-code low-code platforms like Shopify. Will No-Code platforms kill tech jobs in the future?

Since my first startup was a tech-based company, I have realized that having a good knowledge of the underlying technology always pays off. Once you have that, you can always build new applications on top of that.

Case in point, Shopify has an in-house app store that creates all the value. You'll find software like Zapier that connects Shopify to other tools like logistics and trackers. Similarly, there is other software for India-specific use cases.

It's true that Shopify is largely a low-code platform but all these apps for specific use cases would only be built by full-stack developers who understand all the technology layers.

Long story short, we'll always have one problem or another and there'll always be a need for problem-solvers in the industry. Only those who are well-equipped with the base layers of programming would be able to step ahead and innovate new solutions, be it in terms of building efficiency engines or other tools. There's no space for doomsday predictions like that.

You sell on Amazon, as you mentioned, as well as on your website. What's the difference between both channels?

When customers visit our website to purchase, they're our customers. We can connect with them, incorporate their feedback into our products, and re-target them on the launch of new products. Most of them are aligned with our mission, with the core value system that we have.

Whereas, on Amazon, we can't establish those deep connections with the customer. Millions of shoes are being sold on Amazon every day. Even though we're a small part of that, it generates a lot of traffic for us.

Even marketing and advertising are cheaper on Amazon as compared to advertising for our website, as it's a marketplace.

Our eventual objective is to bring customers directly to our website, as Nike or other established brands do. And, we'll surely keep moving in that direction.

How do you decide the advertising budget?

We have a target on how many shoes we want to sell and the growth rate. What are the price points? Then there are sale events such as festivals, where we look for opportunities to participate on other platforms. All these things come into consideration while allocating budgets for advertising.

We have a goal for how many shoes we aim to market and the growth rate. What are the pricing options? Then, there are sales events like festivals when we seek ways to participate on various platforms. All of these factors are taken into account when assigning advertising expenditures.

One of the recent events that impacted advertising, in general, was when Apple banned retargeting from iOS. How did you optimize for that?

Yes, that did create quite a dip in our advertising efforts initially. But we doubled down on our branding efforts to make up for the dip. We invested in photoshoots, and social media and onboarded Gaurav Kapoor as our brand ambassador to promote the brand persona. We also ramped up our offline activations starting with IT parks, apartments, etc.

One recent incident that had an influence on advertising in general was Apple's decision to prohibit remarketing on iOS. How did you prepare for this?

Yes, it did initially cause a significant drop in our advertising efforts. To compensate for the drop, we increased our branding efforts. We invested in photoshoots and social media to enhance the brand identity and hired Gaurav Kapoor as our brand ambassador. We also increased our offline activations, beginning with IT parks and residences.

One piece of advice you'd give to the students on how to build a professional career?

Three words. Don’t chase money. I know it’s easier said than done.

Talking through my own career lens, I aimed to be the best mechanical engineer out there after my undergraduate degree. I’d chosen a core sector job despite a lower package.

While being a part of a leadership program in my company, I got more inclined toward general management and the business side of things, which led me to pursue my MBA. Since then, I worked as a consultant, and as a director of strategy and marketing, and once I got a good enough idea of the business ecosystem, I ventured into startups.

It’s important to understand what makes you happy, and what would motivate you to wake up spirited on Monday mornings. I’d suggest you divide your goals into 5-year buckets. Focus on building competency over time, and the money will follow. You can always build new skills with practice, but competency is built by putting consistent efforts into one place or area of work. That’s when you upgrade from an individual contributor to a functional contributor.

Once you’ve built a strong foundation, you can propel your career to great heights.

'Hamara joota hindustani hai', Ganesh says with a pinch of humor during the talk. And quite rightly so! Flatheads Shoes was recognized as the 'D2C Brand of the Year- Footwear' at the D2C India Awards.

We hope for more such innovative startups to take shape and push the Indian industry forward under ingenious leaders such as the likes of Ganesh Balakrishnan. While we keep inviting them to deliver talks and inspire the future innovators and founders of the country. Stay tuned!