Creating Platforms for Change
Pamela Cosper is a self-proclaimed computer geek. As a former software engineer, she often approaches problems from a technical standpoint, using her years of programming and sales experience as a basis to tackle obstacles in her way.
So when Cosper and husband Christian Brahe-Pedersen decided to start a new shoe company from the living room of their Lake Oswego home four years ago, her mind quickly related her technology background to the new problem at hand.
The whole idea started, though, while Cosper was attempting to stuff nearly 20 pairs of shoes into a suitcase for a vacation to Mexico several years ago.
"I ended up with all these shoes that were very similar, and my husband is over here saying, 'That's going to be an extra bag fee.' But I had to have them because they all went with different outfits," Cosper says. "So I'm there sitting in my lounge chair hanging out with my best friend, and we're laughing about how stupid the whole thing is. The only difference between all those shoes was the tops. Why can't we have one where the tops come off?
"And all the sudden," she says, "I went, Oh, there's my shoe business.'"
Cosper's epiphany led to Platforms for Change, her proprietary shoe company that is looking to shake up the fashion footwear industry in more ways than one.
Cosper's company has created a platform wedge for women that allows the top to detach from the base of the shoe; that means the wearer can swap out the top at their pleasure with hundreds of different designs, colors and styles.
"I looked at it from a computer programming standpoint," she says. "All I needed was a common platform, and then there are more things I could add onto it."
Her idea draws inspiration from the concept of application programming interface, or API. API is a set of subroutine definitions, protocols and tools that make software programming easier by supplying a set of common building blocks with which to create the new application.
Cosper's shoe is very similar: a shoe sole with fasteners that allow the user to change the tops as they please.
What makes her shoes even more interesting is that the system by which the tops are made will remain open source. Anyone interested in creating their own tops will be able to build their own designs and upload them to a universal marketplace hosted by Platforms for Change, where they can be bought and sold by anyone who owns a pair of Cosper's base soles.
The idea, she says, is to create a community of users that drives the demand for the kind of styles and types of tops that are manufactured — a facet of the company that is likely to connect with the maker movement of independent designers, inventors and tinkerers.
But don't think that the road to final design was just sunshine and daisies; it took Cosper more than 50 iterations of the shoe fastener before she found a solution that was both durable and intuitive to use. She spent almost a year and a half sending designs to engineers — many of whom were based in Oregon — to develop, test and manufacture. She 3D-printed designs at three times the actual size to stress test and study.
It also wasn't easy finding ways to source her products entirely from manufacturers in the United States. In researching the footwear industry, Cosper and Brahe-Pedersen found that a majority of the waste associated with the manufacturing of footwear is the production of the sole.
She was initially told by consultants and industry insiders that she would need $4.5 million to create four different designs, that she would need to order 10,000 pairs of each design and that it would take 18 months to produce shoes, with six of those months spent in China.
"I didn't have $4.5 million, and I was really depressed after I found that out. What if I made a shoe in a (specific) color that's no longer in style, and then I have 10,000 pairs? The whole thing is ridiculous that it takes 18 months from paper to production," Cosper says.
She decided to buck the proverbial norm when it comes to shoe manufacturing. She started reaching out to manufacturers and laser cutters based in the U.S. to find responsibly sourced sustainable materials on which she could place a lifetime replacement guarantee.
"This makes it so we can respond to trends in days," Cosper says. "All said and done, this process reduces environmental impact by almost 90 percent."
Since Platforms for Change doesn't have to produce a massive quantity of its shoes in several styles, Brahe-Pederen says the cost of keeping inventory is much lower than for other large shoe distributors who buy 10,000 pairs without knowing for certain whether there's a demand.
"We're able to design things in real time that respond to trends, and we can provide just enough of a product to meet that demand rather than have to forecast what people are going to like in a year from now and have to take a chance on a bunch of inventory," he says.
Another interesting aspect of the couple's business is they're aiming to keep their entire company mobile. There will be no store, just an online marketplace where orders are filled and shipped directly to the consumer.
Every aspect of the business will remain in the cloud, from research and design to sales and accounting. This will allow the company to remain nimble and to pivot on a dime if necessary, the couple says.
Accordingly, Platforms for Change is taking advantage of an Oregon law allowing limited liability companies to register as a benefit corporation, meaning every decision they make is in the interest of reducing its impact on society and the environment.
American consumerism and global capitalism drive the decisions of the fashion industry at large, Cosper and Brahe-Pedersen say, but they decided that was not the way they wanted to do business. The couple cites the documentary film "The True Cost," directed by Andrew Morgan, as a source of inspiration for opposing the traditional methods of shoe manufacturing, an industry that sees nearly 75 percent of its products end up in landfills, according to Cosper.
The documentary explores issues around low-wage workers in developing countries, as well as the after-effects of production that include soil and water pollution, pesticide contamination and excess inventory that creates massive piles of waste in landfills.
To make their vision a reality, Cosper and Brahe-Pederson launched a Kickstarter campaign earlier this month with a goal of reaching $24,000 by July 11. They're currently at nearly $17,000.
"I hope we blow this out of the water, because that means we'll be getting attention for doing business in a different way," Cosper says. "Let's not just have these huge corporations design products and have them feed it to us. Let's have a business where we're getting input from the community and real, live feedback. We don't need this to be some huge company. For me it's about the opportunity to create a community."