Ten Thousand Steps In The Wrong Direction: My Chat With the Co-Founder of Atoms

Last week, I sat down with Waqas Ali, the co-founder of Atoms, at their pop-up store in Soho. For the uninitiated, Atoms is a sneaker company that stormed onto the scene last year with a sneaker (the 000) that was full of user friendly elements such as quarter sizing, copper-lined soles to prevent bacteria and “tie once” shoelaces. As a lifelong sneakerhead, my interest was piqued when Atoms reached out to us at Kolkata Chai for a collaboration and we’ve been building with them on different projects since.

I was excited to sit down with Waqas because of my interest in the stories of minority entrepreneurs, especially ones from South Asian backgrounds. See, there’s one class of South Asian founders — the ones that come from well-resourced backgrounds, connected parents and Ivy League educations and then there are the ones that get it out the mud. I have nothing against the former group, but I can’t personally relate to that story. My interest is always in the group that scrapped and clawed to launch their ideas and build a tribe along the way. I didn’t know too much about Waqas’ story before we started but I had a feeling him and I shared a similar founder’s DNA.

Waqas’ story starts in a small village of Pakistan with no internet service and ends with him and his wife’s shoe company being the first Pakistani company to be accepted to the prestigious Silicon Valley accelerator Y Combinator. For the sake of brevity, I’ll share three of my favorite moments from his journey with accentuated his tenacious nature and inability to accept failure as a result:

  1. He started his first company, a social media “agency” with no laptop and did all of his communications from the library at his university in Lahore.
  2. His first shoe company won a grant from Google to the tune of $10K but his excitement quickly dissipated after he realized he didn’t even have a bank account for the money to be transferred to Pakistan. After much finessing, he was able to convince Google to send a portion of the money to his network of family and friends.
  3. After funding his first shoe company, Markhor, through Kickstarter, Waqas flew from Pakistan to San Francisco to personally deliver the shoes to backers that lived in the city, along with a handwritten note.

That should give you an idea of what type of an entrepreneur we’re dealing with here.

Through the course of the conversation, Waqas and I shared our personal experiences and the moments which have resonated the most. Here are ones that stood out to me:

  1. Curiosity is a customer: Waqas’s theory is that every question or comment you receive around your product is an opportunity for you to listen and convert that person into a customer. If they’re curious about you, the ball is in your court to win them over. It doesn’t matter if it takes you a year (or two) to convert that person, because if you do it the right way, the person will be with you for life. It’s the classic dilemma about how to scale the “unscalable” interactions but this idea of listening, receiving and starting genuine dialogue is a tactic with massive upside that both builds your tribe and your CLTV.
  2. 10k Steps in the wrong direction: Like many successful founders, Waqas was candid about his mistakes and miscalculations when trying to get his company off the ground. As important as it is to take your first step, it’s important to acknowledge all the missteps that came before and applying those learnings on your new journey. The key here is to not fall victim to “analysis paralysis” or trying to get everything right — each one of your missteps is a lesson and when those lessons compound over time, it makes for a pretty effective founder.
  3. Climb Your Personal K2: “K2” is the name of the second highest mountain in the world, after Mount Everest, but potentially the deadlier one to climb. It’s also a code name Waqas and his wife/business partner, Sidra, used when undertaking a quest to make the ideal everyday shoe in Atoms. It’s basically the idea of identifying the most challenging problem around a specific product or industry and then going about solving it. For them, it was creating a sneaker that people would want to wear every day. Regardless of what it is for you, it should be big enough to feel impossible at first. You won’t find a solution or conquer your K2 overnight, but if you chip away constantly in a sincerely inquisitive and iterative way, the momentum will start to shift. Whether that’s connecting with the right investors, finding vendors for your supply chain or anything in between, you must be obsessed with the climb.

Out of those three, #3 is my personal favorite. A lot of times we get so bogged down in the execution of an idea that we don’t let ourselves dream and indulge in what our personal K2 looks like. From my nearly two hour convo with Waqas, I learned that it’s not necessarily about the destination or when you arrive there, but more about the learning that happens along the way. Not a bad way to end 2019.

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