Jake Anderson is the co-founder and CEO of Forsake, fashionable outdoor boots and sneakers designed for travel and adventure. We went to Union College together and at graduation, I vividly remember Jake talking about his new shoe company that he had started with our buddy, Sam Barstow. 6 years later, we sat down over eggs and toast to discuss life as a business owner, the travels that inspire the business, and what’s to come.
I’ve known you and the company for so long, but I don’t know how the concept really started. Run me through the history of how Forsake came to be:
It started after I took a trimester off at Union in the winter of 2010 and moved to Montana. I lived and worked at Big Sky for 4 months. When I was out there, I was surrounded by young, active 20-somethings wearing their favorite sneakers, but never hiking boots.
When I got back to campus, I saw a poster for a business idea competition. I had been thinking about that disconnect between sneaker and hiking boot, and this was an opportunity to create a type of shoe that had all the performance features that you need for an outdoorsy lifestyle, but one that functioned in comfort like an everyday sneaker. So I recruited my friend Sam, who was also a big skier, to help write a business plan.
We ended up being the only ones on campus to submit a business plan so they cancelled it for lack of participation. But Sam and I were committed to the idea. We were introduced to a college alum named Jim Mann who worked for Nike and had connections with factories. He said if we gave him shoe designs he could help us make samples, so we put together our savings and hired a designer to make our first product line over the course of senior year.
After graduation, we went to China, met with the factory, and brought samples home to put them on Kickstarter. Our first campaign failed -- we couldn’t raise enough to meet the minimum value that the factory required. So, we switched to a factory with lower minimums and succeeded with our second campaign.
Once we hit our goal at the end of 2012, we started showing our product line to retailers. We ended up getting maybe 8 stores on board across the country and in the summer of 2013 shipped to all our Kickstarter backers and these 8 stores. The stores were all independent specialty outdoor stores in New England and the Rockies.
When you were first designing the shoes with Sam, how did you go about doing that?
We looked at shoes already on the market and picked out specific features and elements of them that we liked. Then we’d buy the shoes and send them to the factory with post-it notes pointing out what we wanted to emulate.
Are the factories easy to work with?
It’s taken time to figure it out. Most factories in China rely on volume to make money. With footwear especially, there’s a lot of upfront production as it’s labor and time intensive. So, we had to convince them from the beginning that it’s a worthwhile product. Not easy considering we were two kids in our early 20’s with no footwear experience! We had to get other people, like Jim, to vouch for us.
So, you were at 8 stores in 2013, then what happened?
We got a lot of momentum after we launched. We partnered with independent sales agencies across the country and expanded the product line to include low top styles for spring and summer. Then in 2014 we got into REI. That was a huge turning point for us. In a year we went from 8 stores to over 50.
Who are your competitors?
We have many competitors. Outdoor footwear brands like Teva, Timberland, and North Face are all expanding into more casual products. We compete by focusing on versatility above all else. We design our shoes to wearable and functional in a variety of settings and environments -- work to play, peak to pavement.
Outside of you going out and selling direct to stores, how are you getting straight to your consumers?
Right now 50% of sales come through stores, and 50% is direct-to-consumer. We rely primarily on social media, word of mouth, PR, and original content to drive traffic and build awareness.
You recently launched a women’s line. Thank you for my shoes, I wore them every day this winter. How’s it going?
That was our next big step in fall 2016. It’s going very well!
I know a few months ago you were trying to figure out a way to include a social mission into your product, what’s happening there?
Yeah, we wanted to find a way to give back that felt genuinely part of our brand and story, and what we value. We do a ton of travel ourselves and we encourage others to do the same, but travel - particularly air travel - is a massive contributor of fossil fuels into the environment. We wanted to do our part of offset that.
What does that mean exactly?
It’s two things. One, every time we ship a pair of shoes, we contribute to a UPS program that uses carbon credits to offset the carbon emitted from each shipment. And two, every few months we aggregate the amount of travel and report it to a carbonfund.org who calculates our total emissions and allows us to purchase carbon credits to offset it.
What are the biggest challenges of running your own business? When you started 6 years ago, what do you wish someone would have told you or prepared you for?
When I started Forsake I had absolutely no experience making, designing, or selling shoes. This was both a blessing and a curse. I’m not sure I would’ve gone through with it had I known beforehand how time-consuming and capital-intensive it would be, but I also made a lot of mistakes that someone with a bit of experience could’ve avoided. I become really good at finding and asking other people for help.
And what about the rewards, what are aspects of owning a business that you wouldn’t want to trade in, if in a different career or position?The biggest rewards for me come from creating something tangible, managing that project from start to finish, and seeing the direct results of your finished work. Whether that’s launching a new product or website or campaign. I don’t think I could ever give that up.
Do you wear your Forsakes every time you go hiking now?
Definitely. We designed Forsakes to be the perfect shoe for everyday wear and day trips. If I was going on a weeklong backpacking trip through the mountains, I may consider something stiffer or with higher ankle support, but I don’t do too much of that.
What’s the best hike you’ve ever done?
The best trip I went on recently was to New Zealand. We did one of the “Great Walks” called the Kepler Track. It’s a 3-4 day loop and you stay in bunk houses along the way. The first is high up in the mountains, so it has a very exposed alpine feel. The second is in a valley that’s very jurassic park-y, and the third is on a beach next to a lake. Very cool.
What’s the next place?
This winter I’m going to Asia for a couple weeks, then up to Alaska next summer to backpack through Denali National Park.
What shoes are you gonna wear?
We’re coming out with a new style next spring that will be perfect for rougher and more technical terrain. It’s called The Range. Stay tuned!
So, it’s been a pretty awesome run so far. What’s some advice you’d give to anyone who has an idea or sees an opportunity but doesn’t know how to proceed?
When you’re starting a business it’s easy to get overwhelmed. You have a million things in your head you want to accomplish, and there’s always an exhaustive amount of work to accomplish it. The best way to start is to focus to doing one thing really really well, and delivering it the people who care about it the most.