Latest: The Couple Who Built A Shoe Empire From Nothing
“Just two kids from a small town in Pakistan, who escaped their conservative families” is how Sidra Qasim describes herself and her husband, Waqas Ali. Sidra and Waqas are today the power couple behind Atoms – a New York-based footwear brand known for its quarter sizes and comfortable sneakers. But the road to success was not an easy one for them, and now Sidra has opened up about their journey in an interview with Humans of New York.
“It’s the same story taught to every Pakistani girl. We are raised from a young age to believe that our purpose in life is to find and keep a husband,” she says in the first of her 11-part interview. But even as a child, Sidra had bigger dreams, and she held on to them even as her family pressurized her to get married right out of school.
Sidra, who belongs to the small town of Okara, first met Waqas at her aunt’s house. He was one of her aunt’s students. “We’d discuss life, and society, and human emotions. It became the only chance I had to exchange my ideas with anyone. And Waqas took my opinions seriously,” she says.
After school, she enrolled in a college and became one of the only 15 female students there. It was after she successfully produced a play to help with flood relief efforts that Waqas asked her to join him in Lahore – where he had moved to study further – and become his business partner.
“It finally felt as though my talents were being recognized, and the next day I asked for my parent’s permission. But they refused,” she says.
The refusal came as a blow to Sidra, who describes lying listless on the couch for weeks – to the point where it scared her father. Eventually, they agreed to let her move to Lahore, where she began working with Waqas on a company named ‘Social Media Art’ which aimed to help brands establish a social media presence.
As their company struggled, Waqas and Sidra grew closer. “We never discussed the status of our relationship, but both of us could feel a closeness. We were bonded by our journey. Both of us were defying our parents,” she says.
“But after a year of rejection we had begun to lose hope.”
A ray of hope came from unlikely quarters, when Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali met with a group of craftsmen in the local village council of Okara. “They were making leather shoes on the floor of a two-room workshop,” she says.
Sidra returned to the workshop again and again for a week and, in the end, the craftsmen agreed to collaborate with them.
While Waqas worked on the website, Sidra ensured that the shoes they produced met the highest quality standards.
” We called our collection ‘Hometown Shoes.’ And after we launched our website, the first order came in right away,” she says. Although they made a loss on the order due to the high shipping cost to France, the couple did not give up hope.
“After a year we were selling about 50 shoes per month. We were happy to have any business at all, but it wasn’t nearly enough to survive,” says Sidra. They started a highly successful Kickstarter campaign and raised $1,07,000 in 2014 by selling over 600 pairs of shoes.
After that, Sidra and Waqas got married in a small ceremony – and immediately began to work on their application for the Y-combinator accelerator programme in San Francisco. “The admissions process was more selective than Harvard, and they’d helped launch companies like AirBnB and Dropbox,” says Sidra.
Although she describes their interview as a “disaster”, they did get through and moved to the US.
Their time at Y-combinator was one of making mistakes and learning from them. “We were the only company in our group who didn’t raise money. And to make matters even worse, it had been a formal event,” says Sidra, describing Demo Day which is sort of a final exam for participants of the programme. “Many of our classmates had dressed up. But none of them were wearing the shoes we had sold them.”
Doing more market research helped them understand that most people wanted shoes they could wear every day, and so Sidra and Waqas shifted their focus from formal footwear to casual.
“We researched the highest quality materials, and we put all of our findings into a document called ‘Ideal, Everyday Shoe.’ Then we gave all our notes to a talented designer. Together we built a prototype, and we called them ‘Atoms,’ because we’d gone to the atomic level in search of quality.”
It took them several months to manufacture their first collection after extensive customer feedback and market research. “By the time we were ready to launch, 45,000 people had signed up for our mailing list. On the first day of sales our website crashed,” says Sidra.
Their company expanded to 25 employees, but they also had to go through a round of layoffs. At the beginning of the pandemic, to stay afloat in the face of dwindling funds and investors unwilling to put in more money, Atoms expanded to making masks.
“One year later we’ve sold 500,000 of them, and donated 500,000 more. Our shoe business has continued to grow, and once again investors are calling on the phone,” says Sidra to Humans Of New York.
She concluded the interview by talking about the change that her business has helped brought about. She has been able to help her family back in Pakistan financially. “But more importantly I’ve provided an example,” she says.
One of her younger sisters is now working as a fitness coach, the other is selling sanitary pads. But the biggest transformation, she says, has been in her mother – a school headmistress who now tells her students to be financially independent and learn technology.
“She’s telling them all the things that I needed to hear as a little girl. The road was so lonely for me, and maybe I still carry some unconscious resentment,” says Sidra. “She’s telling them all the things that I needed to hear as a little girl. The road was so lonely for me, and maybe I still carry some unconscious resentment.
“But my mother has apologized for not supporting me more. And consciously I have forgiven her.”
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