Atheism, Reddit and Kickstarter – how a unique Berlin shoe startup found its footing

atheist shoes
atheist shoes

david bonney atheist shoesIt’s not often, if ever, that you get the chance to proclaim your lack of belief in the almighty through the medium of footwear. And it’s even more seldom that cobblers find fame and funding though platforms such as Reddit and Kickstarter.

But then Atheist Shoes are not your usual Zalando fodder, and David Bonney is no leather-aproned Gepetto.

In his quest for the perfect shoe, the style-savvy former advertising executive stumbled upon a perfect confluence of old-school manufacturing, 21st-century marketing and a healthy smattering of iconoclasm. The result? He’s launched a unique fashion brand, exemplifying the potential of alternative funding platforms.

The genesis of Atheism

Dublin-born Bonney eschewed a promising career as a strategist in the London advertising scene to move to Berlin in 2008: “I was on the point of making a lot of money in advertising, but I was unhappy. I also didn’t want to dedicate myself to London, so I thought I’d give Berlin a chance. It allowed me the quality of life and freedom to come up with the concept for my brand.

The idea to create a shoe platform emerged from personal experimentation, explains the soft-spoken 33-year-old.“I’d always loved shoes and I’m always searching for the best shoes, so the shoe concept came before the atheism. In fact, I was having coffee with an artist friend and he had been painting little T shapes onto shoes as a project, and I said: ‘Oh, we should extend that into a crucifix and make Christian shoes.’

atheist shoes

“We thought seriously about making Christian shoes that could have water in the sole – to emulate how Jesus walked on water. But we soon realised we didn’t feel very good about this – we wanted to do something that we believed in, which is nothing. And that’s how Atheist shoes were born.”

With the help of a Berlin shoemaker, the first pair of Atheist Shoes were made as a calfskin prototype at the end of last year, with the phrase “Ich bin Atheist” etched into the sole for wearers to spell out their beliefs, be it in sand or snow.

Yes, people still use Reddit – and it can catapult your brand

From there, Bonney touted the prototype around, securing stockist deals in both Berlin and Stockholm. But it was a random post on Reddit that proved to be an, ahem, godsend for the brand, catapulting it into the consciousness of its active atheist community: “Getting a satisfactory manufacturing deal was dragging, so in the meantime I decided to put a post on Reddit to see what the hardcore atheist community thought of it,” explains Bonney.

“We posted on 8pm on a Friday, went for a curry and when we came back, we already had 100 upvotes and we were on the Atheism frontpage. From there, we got 650,000 page views in 24 hours and over 1000 requests for shoes. I was getting emails every 30 seconds saying ‘we want your shoes’. It was the first confirmation that what I was doing wasn’t barmy.”

A subsequent Kickstarter project further confirmed a lack of mental illness by selling $59,000 of shoes in four weeks, almost doubling its initial $30,000 goal.

atheist shoes

Kickstarter versus traditional funding. Keep your equity and retain your branding

If Bonney is to be believed, the Kickstarter campaign was also another stroke of serendipity over strategy: “Kickstarter actually saved my ass by giving me a medium stage. The website and manufacture of the shoes were taking a while [Bonney had secured a Portuguese workshop to put the shoes into production]. Kickstarter allowed the goodwill that we had built up on Reddit to be capitalised upon quickly” he explains.

But this stop-gap until a retail solution was also coupled with a frustration at traditional investment solutions: “I didn’t want to give a lot of equity away – and I didn’t want a lot of rigid business-school advice affecting my branding – it’s a very delicate flower.

“I also found that there was a lack of imagination form any potential investors. I wanted as many German investors as I had English, but no-one was interested. there seemed to be less enthusiasm or curiosity compared to London. I think that German investors are good at delivering something that already exists more efficiently. They are looking for security and for guaranteed return.”

Is Berlin all icing and no cake?

Bonney is currently going into final stages of production of a run of 500-1,000 pairs of Atheist Shoes, with a retail website launch touted for 1 May.

He is refreshingly candid on the notion of how Berlin has helped or hindered his startup’s progress: “If anything Berlin has been an obstacle for me. I’m sure that I could have produced the brand quicker in London or Stockholm and found the right personnel and backers more quickly.

“But the one thing that Berlin afforded me was the time and lack of pressure to create the brand. And obviously, the design of the black circle logo and typography is influenced by Bauhaus.

“And Berlin is a friendly city when it wants to be, and a great place for testing out a concept with bright, trendy people. If I could see the shoe in Café Oberholz then I know I’m onto a winner.”

See Bonney’s top tips for the style-savvy gent here

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