Words by Alek Rose

We think your clothes and sneakers will mean more to you if you understand the people and the processes behind them. So that's why we're making moves to uncover more of the stories and the masterminds behind your favourite brands. This week we spoke to Isabel and José Maria of JAK Shoes to find out about their four year journey: the triumphs and failures, the impossibility of finding the perfect leather and what the future holds for one of Lisbon's finest exports.

For those who don't know, can you introduce yourselves?

Isabel: My name is Isabel, I’m born and raised in Lisbon. I’m 32 years old and I’m the co-founder and creative director at OFFICINA Lisboa and JAK, two Portuguese shoe brands. When I was a child my interest in shoes and design was very clear, I ended up attending design school in Lisbon and then pursued a Masters in fashion. Studying at architecture school taught me to approach fashion design as a problem solver rather than a trendsetter, and that’s the key to both of our brands’ design and marketing.

José: I’m Jose, I’m 35 years old, from Lisbon and I’ve been an entrepreneur since I can remember. At the age of 16 I started selling banner management scripts online and building websites for friends and family. Eventually this progressed into founding my first company in that area at age 21, while I was in college. Almost 15 years later, I’ve founded and been involved in several companies in the tech and advertising sector. Shoes came into my life when I met Isabel in 2012, who was the founder of the shoe brand OFFICINA Lisboa. Being a creative person, still involved with tech, there was an immediate sense of realisation when I saw a materials and a concept become a beautiful object. We partnered up in 2012 and I became fully dedicated to the project in 2017.

What are your favourite things to do outside of work?

Isabel: I’m passionate about music, cinema and arts. I follow my favourite artists’ work on a daily basis, travel and love spending quality time with friends. That’s what inspires me and keeps me creative.

 José: I’m a horse rider and more specifically a Horseball player, competing at national and international level, which pretty much takes all of my time outside of JAK and OFFICINA Lisboa, and much of my sleeping time… On a social level, there is always time for a drink with friends and a family gathering. 

If you had to sum JAK up in one word what would it be?

Future.

How did JAK Shoes begin?

JAK started in 2014 when we realised there was space in the market for a simple basic sneaker and a more direct to consumer approach. We knew what we wanted: sneakers that would remain unaltered over time, modern classics, as clean as they come. We debated a lot about the business model as well and ended up with a "no sales" policy and a price point that is fair for the high-quality materials we source in Portugal and for the shoes we craft. The initial process ended up being a relentless cycle of samples and fitting tests until we were satisfied with our first model, the Royal, but this process set the tone for all the styles that we have developed since then.

At only four years old, JAK is just coming out of its formative years - what have been the most important lessons you’ve learned?

The first two years were an important learning experience to master all the angles of the process of making an economically viable product and actually selling it. After that, we’ve spent our time optimising the process, sourcing and testing new components and focusing on our online channel which is already our primary revenue source.

Looking back, the most important lesson would be communication. The more digital we go, the better we need to communicate. The message needs to be clear, quick and efficient. This is valid for suppliers, partners, retailers and clients and we have been fortunate enough to come across incredible people that put their trust in our products and our brand. Ultimately, they trust us.

Another important lesson is that you should not expect all aspects of the brand to be perfect right out of the gate. The fact that there is room for improvement is the validation that we can grow, so we have learned to accept and embrace the flaws in order to evolve.

What have been the biggest successes and the biggest failures so far?

Like any other startup, we went from failure to failure until we got it right. We’ve failed numerous times in all aspects of the brand, from design to sourcing, production, photography and logistics, but we try to mitigate risk with process, resilience and hard work. It is a general cliché, but a truthful one. Starting a project is the “easy” part. There is the initial excitement, there are no deadlines to start, there is the core group of friends and family to help spread the word and the “new product that gets attention” phenomena. Keeping the project running and coming up with new styles on tight deadlines when you’re understaffed and overworked often leads to making mistakes.

When we started tackling the online store we also failed miserably. We had great feedback about the shoes from our physical store in downtown Lisbon, but our website just wouldn’t take off. Even when you have business experience in other projects, starting from scratch multiple times is a hard mountain to climb, especially because we are completely bootstrapped and we can’t afford to buy out of these mistakes.

The biggest successes came when we simplified the website and the communication channels to match our shoes. Over the course of fifteen months we grew our revenue fivefold and we started building a faithful customer base. Over sixty percent of our reviews mention our good customer service and swift processes; we are really proud that the effort we put into the brand is paying off.

Finally, one of the biggest successes we’ve had is the relationship we have built with the factory that produces our sneakers. It is a forty year old family-owned factory that exports almost all of their products and we were very fortunate that they believed in our project. They supported us from day one, helped us grow and invested a lot in doing so. Their tolerance, patience and flexibility is unmatched in the industry.

Materials are a big part of what you do at JAK. How long did it take to find the right leathers?

The clear answer is: we still haven’t. 

Leathers change every day. We have the right leather today, but tomorrow it may be different. No leather is the same and tanneries change their processes towards sustainability and quality every year. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. We have to iterate again: Just this year, we sampled over 10 different white leathers to find the right balance between between comfort, flexibility, durability and colour, and it has to be natural. 

Finally, where do you hope to see JAK in the next five years? 

We want to be recognised for what we do best. We want to set a standard for quality and simplicity at our price point. Also, the industry is growing towards sustainability, transparency and “true cost” awareness and we’ve always respected those values. We want to mature our products and processes and build a place in which people are happy to work. Financially we’re projecting a 40x growth in revenue in the next 5 years.

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Shop and explore the entire JAK Shoes collection at OPUMO.

Be sure to check out our ultimate guide to men’s trainers.