Startup of the Week: Sneakers for Startup Founders

In a crowded sneaker market, K-Swiss looks to the people who need performance footwear most: startup founders.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
Screengrab: K-Swiss

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The pitch:

K-Swiss, the American sneaker company, is a well-known brand in the tennis shoe industry. The company now has its sights on open-layout offices and WeWorks across the world with its Startup collection, which it calls a “a purpose-built shoe for the modern entrepreneur."

There are three shoes available; the Vision, the Icon, and the Court sneaker. I imagine the first shoe is meant to be worn while brainstorming, the second while designing the icon of your startup, the third for your day in court after accidentally toppling a democracy or failing to pay the designer who made your icon. The shoes come in colors like Ambition (green), Self-Belief (white), Risk (black), Vision (brown), and Ambition (grey). In case there was any doubt, K-Swiss’s website refers to the line both as “The Official Footwear for Entrepreneurs™” and “Sneakers for CEOs™.”


Designed for the entrepreneur in constant motion, the shoes boast features like a zipper, so the shoes can be removed quickly when moving through airport security, in the event you are a noob entrepreneur without TSA pre-check.

Another feature, as presented by K-Swiss, is “DTC Pricing.” By selling the shoe on its website, you see, K-Swiss is going direct to consumer, just like Casper and Soylent.

“By cutting out the middle man, we pass those savings onto you,” the website says, noting the $69 shoe is “priced for the struggle.”

What problem does this solve?

People who are bootstrapped for cash and cannot afford the $95 Allbirds wool runners (the unofficial footwear for entrepreneurs) can throw down the very nice $69 to signal they are in fact entrepreneurs.

For K-Swiss, this is not a surprising move, if you know the company’s history. The Startup collection is just the latest maneuver to find new customers in an extremely crowded market, a persistent issue for the brand. As far back as 1989, K-Swiss has struggled to find a unique identity, then-president of K-Swiss Steven Nichols told the Los Angeles Times.

Even in the eighties, K-Swiss employed the tactic of “attract[ing] attention through low-budget, and sometimes offbeat, celebrity endorsements,” such as the late Bud Collins, a tennis writer and legendary TV commentator, the Los Angeles Times story notes.

Today, Nike’s most visible athletes are probably LeBron and Serena, Adidas has Lionel Messi and James Harden. K-Swiss, on the other hand, continues to look towards offbeat demographics. The company currently offers a signature collection for children’s YouTuber Blippi, sneakers for gamers, and two models for Gary Vaynerchuk, a.k.a. Gary Vee, a successful entrepreneur, vlogger, and CEO of his own advertising agency.


What are The Experts saying?

“K Swiss just dropped a line of sneakers for the startup founder of 2011.” - Alex Sharp, startup founder

“The K-Swiss Startup is an eco-conscious sneaker built for the entrepreneur. Minimal design, maximum effort. #TheStartup (Sponsored by @KSWISS)” - @Entrepreneur

“You can only buy ‘The Startup’ shoes directly from K-Swiss' website.” - Business Insider

Who is giving them money?

K-Swiss’s parent company, E-Land Footwear USA Holdings Inc., was bought by Chinese sportswear giant Xtep International in May 2019 for $260 million. It is an acquisition that makes sense, as Xtep International has also described itself as a fashion-oriented sportswear brand, rather than “professional” in a 2008 Reuters story.

Should you buy them?

K-Swiss makes some genuinely cool shoes. I had a pair of all-white SI-18s that I used to go paintballing once, and then they had pink splatters on them which made them even cooler. But selling sneakers specifically for entrepreneurship is kind of like selling a hat for speaking Spanish. It’s difficult to see how it’s necessary, and comes off as superfluous and tryhard-y.

If you’re a budding entrepreneur who wants to let it show on your feet, perhaps this is the only option. But in the early aughts, wearing sneakers designed for skateboarding without actually skateboarding meant you were a poser, stealing valor from the extreme community. In the same way, if you haven’t yet disrupted an industry or dropped out of Harvard, you might want to tread lightly before wearing these shoes.