It’s been a while since I last posted here on the blog. We have been busy tweaking our internal processes and improving our builds. As most of our returning clients from 2014-2016 would notice, our fitting and silhouettes have improved and our senior shoemakers have progressed their last making skills to be able to make a sleeker looking shoe even with a wider fit. This was done throughout 2017 and we’ve been trying to expand our offerings also by easing on the self-imposed limitations that I implemented to show other small workshops what we could do with Filipino talent mixed locally available materials from Marikina. I was in talks with small local entrepreneurs wanting to launch their own shoe brands, local tanneries for developing leathers for a more upscale market, foreign investors wanting to develop our local industry to be ready for export, and retail estate suppliers for a possible retail outlet expansion. Yes, it has been a busy and tiring 2017. And we were to busy being Black Wing Shoes that I nearly forgot what we wanted to become from the beginning.
Routine and Mainstream
Logically, when a brand reaches a certain size and becomes “mainstream” it should scale up production to meet demand and increase it’s reach by expanding it’s territory. By taking advantage of the brand reach, the brand and business would perform better financially, making it more financially rewarding for the business/brand owner. But then again, in doing this, the brand may alienate the founder and the market that supported it in the first place. This is what almost happened to us. We were performing at my established maximum output and retraining shoemakers so we could expand production, I feel that we technically hit mainstream when our organic marketing strategy grew our Facebook following to 10k towards the end of 2017 and 8k over at our Instagram account with support and followership growing still. We got busy, I got busy, so busy that I forgot how to stop and listen to my heart more than my mind. I went into talks with people in hopes of expanding the brand, because it was the next logical step. It was routine, almost textbook even. And everybody whom I talked to felt really positive about the possibility of Black Wing going mainstream. To be honest, even I got excited about it. Imagine the possibilities, just imagine what could be accomplished. I got so caught up in maintaining Black Wing’s operations that I set it on a path of growing financially but stagnating as a brand. This is the risk of routine. Routine is a trap that most businesses fall into then they wake up after some time only to realize that the competitor has already gotten ahead and that they are so far away from their original vision. Routine can kill passion, it is the promise of the happily ever after which it’s not. Without passion, without love for what you are pursuing, the endeavor becomes empty and the fire that once blazed can be easily snuffed out by opposition and the occasional disappointments.
But if the goal is just to set up a good and profitable business then you’d want routine and want to become part of the mainstream. Innovation can be part of the routine, keeping up with trends and releasing improvements every couple of years becomes part of the product-service life cycle. The heart of the business becomes something that is out of a textbook. Routine can kill the spirit of the business by killing the passion that drives it. I felt trapped, trapped by deadlines, trapped by my responsibilities to the business, I was trapped by the thing that was Black Wing. While we are moderately successful, I never saw us growing towards our original goal: which was to revive and make our local shoe industry great again.
But as Duke Leto Atreides (Dune) would put it: Knowing that there is a trap is the first step to avoiding it.
Like any responsible business manager, I strove to created a system to monitor and regulate the routine which was Black Wing. This was so I could clear my head and get time to fix our bearings. It was also a way for me to train a new manager, so I hired a new assistant. Easing the burden of monitoring everyday tasks greatly helped. I got to experiment and explore shoe care and maintenance services, develop my finishing skills and understanding of locally available materials, talking with people to explore options and possibilities. Stepping back from micromanaging gave me time to think and assess as to where Black Wing is, where it was headed, and where I would want it to be.
Earlier this year, I took another step back by cutting production by 20%. This is to ensure quality control and give us enough breathing room to develop our sister, or should I say “child”, brand. It was both a business and personal decision as I personality felt that Black Wing had gotten away from me and away from the vision of what it should be. I decided to bring Black Wing back to where it was last 2016. I have to admit, 2017 was my lost year. A good thing that came out of it was I was able to experience what I do not want to happen to Black Wing when we are able scale it up successfully. R&D was pretty much shelved during this time and it mostly became about business expansion. I felt that it lost it’s heart, so I decided that I want to bring it back.
Core techniques that were developed during 2017 were actually my finishing skills. This is when I studied how to recondition and properly polish old and new shoes. While I might still be a novice at it, I would share my experiences and knowledge in future posts for this year. I also learned how to effectively use locally developed acrylic leather paints to stain and paint leather to make it part of our service offerings. What I basically realized at the end of the whole “keeping busy” part was that, as an entrepreneur, one must be aware of keeping balance between keeping up with the everyday routine tasks required to maintain a business and poking around and finding ways to innovate your business model.
Reviving the Passion
2017 was not a wasted. Like I said, while the business innovation stagnated in a sense, we were able to polish our methods and I got a glimpse of one of the possible paths that Black Wing can go through once we achieve proper scaling of our production. While taking in the experience, I was already trying to find ways on how we can avoid the trap of stagnation which is akin to what I call the subcon trap which I have mentioned in previous entries. Basic gist of the subcon trap is that as a subcontractor/supplier, you become to busy fulfilling orders and following instructions that you forget to think for yourself and one day wake up with all your competitors working on the next big thing already. When that happens, your business would have a hard time catching up which can sometimes lead to the failure of said business. Black Wing was in danger of having this happen to it.
That is why towards the end of 2017, I have been searching of ways to innovate the service further and create new services for us to expand. Instead of expanding production capacity, I decided to opt for the expansion of our service offerings and implemented the reduction of our production quota earlier this year so we can do some R&D which is pretty much like investing for a more sustainable future for the brand. It has been difficult and frustrating but now we have our prototypes tested and methods updated for the additional services which we will be offering this year.
First off, “The Lounge” services will continue for those wanting to avail of it. It is where we recondition and polish your shoes whether it came from us or not. We would however caution that if the leather used for your shoes was heavily processed, we might have issues when cleaning/conditioning them. Second, our “child” brand Dapper Tod will officially be launched within the quarter. Preorders for sizes kids 5-10 for certain styles will commence next week. You guys might want to visit our Facebook page dappertod for details and updates. Third is the development of our semi-bespoke offering. This is a step up from what we do at Black Wing and will offer more options as well as the creation of the clients’ own last but is still a couple of steps below full bespoke. That is it so far for our commercial expansion, now we go to the more interesting part.
When Black Wing was conceptualized, it aimed to create awareness among local shoemakers as well as consumers that locally made shoes can still compete in a global market while starting at the local level. I believe that we have achieved that goal and that we have proven that we can stand against the ebb of foreign brands being brought in by marketing companies (who instead of growing local brands, pursue a less difficult/stressful but more capital intensive route to expanding their brand roster). We have also proven that micro can work. We are operating with less than 10 artisans when we hit our breakthrough 2 years ago. It can be done, and with the artisans receiving standard wages with performance bonuses and benefits. Happy workers and artisans make for good products and services after all. Recently, I have developed a performance grade system which aims to keep track our our artisans so we can properly grade them in terms of their talent for their craft. It is a simple method of meeting the required units/points per week and then mistakes will be subtracted from the weekly score which will be then tallied every quarter. I am gathering data right now in order to set benchmarks. After which I will publish the mechanics of the system for other workshops to use. This is to professionalize the craft in order to bring the dignity back to shoemakers so that it would be treated as a serious profession and not some “no-choice” job because of a lack of formal education which makes it akin to no-skill laborers. The push for mass production has taken the artisan out of the profession and transformed the shoemaker into a living and breathing version of a machine which is being deployed in more advanced facilities in China, Vietnam, and India. And these shoemakers are poorly paid hence the lack of younger people who seek it to become their profession. Local artisan shoemaking will not be relegated to the history books of Marikina and as part of a museum tour or experiential workshop. It is a heritage industry, one that most industry players and local officials fail to see and develop instead they force mass production models and “going big”. We are now a segment of the industry which is neglected in favor of big business since our voices cannot be heard still. For the longest time, we had no representation. Real shoemakers have had no representation this past decade. Businessmen and big brands represent a segment of the industry but not the industry as a whole.
This is why I will be working on a program which seeks to develop local artisanal shoemaking by coordinating with the various stakeholders and talking to our LGU so that our industry segment would be officially recognized. We are technically the marginalized sector of this industry because business interest takes precedence and the stakeholders are divided, often fighting against each other for the favor of big business. I will be talking more on these initiatives once we get the ball rolling. But suffice to say, the passion for this industry and this art has been rekindled within me and the fight starts a new.
As we look towards the future, we must look at it with a hopeful perspective. As I have learned with my recent personal struggles, it is important to first identify the issue, learn about the issue and accept the consequences, pray for wisdom and guidance, keep a hopeful perspective, formulate and test solutions, and keep on pushing forward never giving up. We owe it to the future generations to keep this segment of the industry thriving. As a Marikeño, I owe it to those who came before me to not let our heritage die out.