When Ryan Goldston presented the business plan for Athletic Propulsion Labs (APL) at the University of Southern California's entrepreneurship programme, his professors told him it was going to be a massive failure. While they tore the plan down for its radical perspective on retail and e-commerce, they certainly didn't have the foresight to see that it would go on to become the blueprint for one of today's most edgy athletic brands melding lab-tested performance technology with a good dose of style.
For brothers Adam and Ryan Goldston, skirting textbook formulas for success have given them the space to forge their very own. Over the past decade, the 28-year-old founders of footwear and apparel brand Athletic Propulsion Labs have grown their childhood dream into a covetable badge of style carried by retailers the likes of Mr. Porter and Saks, and most recently, Lane Crawford and Pedder on Scotts. Today, the brothers share the spotlight as honourees on the 2016 Forbes 30 Under 30 list as game changers in the retail and e-commerce space — not too shabby for a company that began as a two-man operation in a dorm room.
Not everyone gets it right on the first try. But for the Goldston brothers, they certainly struck gold with their inaugural line of products — basketball shoes built with patented performance technology that helps wearers to jump higher. In October 2010, the NBA banned APL's shoes for giving players an unfair advantage, splaying the brand across headlines the world over. The APL portfolio has since expanded with running shoes for men and women, as well as sporting apparel.
We sat down with Adam and Ryan Goldston on their recent visit to Singapore to pick their brains on building something from nothing, alternative models of e-commerce, and their cool kicks from Athletic Propulsion Labs.
What sparked your desire to create your own line of basketball shoes?
AG: Growing up, shoes and basketball have always been our two main passions. We played basketball and football in college at the University of Southern California. Our dad created the Reebok pumps and L.A. Gear Lights — and that was kind of a defining moment for us because we were the first product testers ever for the L.A. Gear Lights. So when we were five, we were running around and giving him feedback on where they should put the lights on the shoes. Our dad got us interested in footwear and we loved sneakers since we were kids, so we wanted to create shoes when we got older.
One thing that we thought — and have proven — was missing, is the fact that there are no shoes that instantly made you jump higher and perform better. So we started out wanting to make basketball shoes that could make you jump higher and instantly make you a better basketball player. We've always wanted to create an athletic brand and basketball shoes were our way into creating that brand.
Is that how the name, Athletic Propulsion Labs, came about?
AG: We got the inspiration from NASA and their Jet Propulsion Lab. When we started the brand, we knew people — and we're talking about basketball here — were not just waiting for the next fashionable shoe, but one that was game-changing, one that could give an added benefit. So propulsion is at the core of that, and lab refers to a space where we can create forward-thinking, new innovations that are athletic at its core. Everything we create is performance-focused but we do it with style.
How has the company grown since the days where it was a two-man operation in your dorm rooms?
RG: It has grown quite a lot. The big seminal moment happened when APL was banned by the NBA. That happened in 19 October 2010. It became the top news story and one of the most highly searched terms on Google. There were tonnes of articles on the NBA ban, and it really propelled our brand in just 10 days. It pushed us to a whole other level.
For the next four years, we sold exclusively through our website. In 17 June 2014, we launched our running shoe for both men and women. Today, we don't only sell on our website but also the top retailers across the world. In the States, we're at Saks, Barneys, Mr. Porter, and Net-A-Porter. In Asia, we retail at Lane Crawford and Pedder on Scotts. We've grown drastically and it has been a really, really fun experience.
AG: Our business is unique because we only bring on creatives and outsource the infrastructure. At our headquarters in the United States, we have 10 to 15 people in-house who work on the creative side, so that's how big our team is. But we have a big network in China that covers development, production, sourcing and manufacturing.
What's the biggest challenge you've encountered so far?
AG: The biggest challenge for us is doing something different and unique, and doing it in such a big industry. The world in which we compete in is owned by multi-billion-dollar companies. You really have to put your faith in the fact that you're creating the best possible product. Right now, we don't have the marketing budgets that these big brands have. We put our faith in creating these amazing products that speak for themselves and trust that the consumer is going to respond to it — and they have.
I think a lot has got to do with the times that we've living in. If we wanted to do this 10 years ago, it would have been impossible. But with social media giving people access to a world that's so much more global, and people getting interested in emerging ideas that are pushing industries forward — it's a really exciting time for us.
RG: One of the things we always say is that experience is valuable, heritage is valuable, but so is inexperience. Inexperience is just as valuable — if not more valuable — as experience because you're looking at something with a fresh perspective and you have a new take on something. You're not clouded by what you've been taught before. A lot of people that we've brought onto our team are new to the industry, so they have a very different perspective — and that's why we think we have been able to carve a big market within our category.
Inexperience is just as valuable — if not more valuable — as experience because you're looking at something with a fresh perspective and you have a new take on something.
Could you tell us more about the brands you would like to collaborate with?
AG: We've got a lot of big fashion houses and celebrities coming to us and looking to collaborate, but our main focus is to continue building the APL brand. However, we've rolled out some collaborations that resulted in runway shoes for Creatures of the Wind, and metallic shoes for GQ.
RG: We also have a Lane Crawford exclusive coming later this year.
AG: It's part of our Made in Italy line, where a lot of the collaborations are happening. They're higher priced and feature a mix of our TechLoom, suede, French neoprene, leather, and nubuck. It's basically premium, natural ingredients combined with synthetic textiles. So it really blends both the fashion and performance worlds into one.
In terms of experimenting with new materials, what was the trickiest one you've encountered by far?
RG: Metallics. From knitting it correctly to gauging how it reacts to the heat, it proved to be one of the hardest to work with. But when you get it right, it's beautiful.
AG: We're introducing 3D stretch knitting in Spring and we're one of the first ones to do so. It basically has a TechLoom base but it features a different kind of knitting that's layered and stretches dynamically with your foot. So for example, if you want to move your pinky toe, that's the only part of the shoe that would stretch. It moves more or less the way your foot would move.
In Singapore, APL is retailing exclusively at Pedder on Scotts. How did this come to be?
RG: For any market that we enter into, it's important for us to enter with the right partners. We have a tight distribution across the globe. We were in the States speaking to the buyer at East Dane and he asked if there were any markets we were looking to move into. Asia was top on the list for us, so he introduced us to Peter Harris, president of the Pedder Group. We've been to Singapore once before and we loved it. On top of that, we're huge fans of Lane Crawford and the Pedder Group, so we thought there really wasn't a better partner to enter the Asian market with.
So you would have already seen the huge range of footwear Pedder on Scotts carries in the store, which brings me to my next question — how many pairs of sneakers do you own?
AG: Oh man [laughs]. We have so many pairs. I personally have at least a thousand.
RG: For sure. Part of it is also having your own shoe company. In the apartment I lived in before, there were sneakers just stacked to the ceiling. I have closets full of shoes. As you walk into my apartment, the floor is lined with more shoes — and that's just a small percentage of what I have. On hindsight, I do have a lot of shoes.
AG: They're not all in our apartments. We have them in storage, our warehouse, and even the office.
What's on your playlist at the moment?
AG: Future, Drake, Nipsey Hussle, Rick Ross. We like rap and hip hop mostly.
RG: A lot of Future and Drake. Those are really the ones I like the most.
What are you reading right now?
AG: I don't spend a tonne reading but the book that made a big difference for me is 48 Laws of Power. It explores the dynamics of interacting with people and it has made a big difference in the way we make our decisions. Most of our free-time is spent going to the gym or reading emails [laughs].
RG: I'm a voracious reader when it comes to articles as I'm trying to expand my knowledge base in the shortest period of time.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to start their own business?
AG: To tell you the truth, if we had known how hard it would be from the beginning, we wouldn't have started down the path. Obviously, at this point, it has become worth it. You've got to have unwavering faith that you're going to create what you've set out to create. You have to be comfortable with the uncomfortable. There are so many things you just can't see coming and you have to be able to pivot really quickly. You have to be comfortable knowing that nothing is certain.
RG: You have to really believe in what you're doing. You can't listen to people who are going to tell you that it's going to be the best or the worst. If you listen to the good, you're blind to the bad, and vice versa. You have to be comfortable and know that you can do it yourself. We're blessed that we started APL in college, so if we failed, we couldn't fall very hard. A lot of times, you have to be comfortable chancing it. Understand that it is going to be so much harder than you can ever imagine. But when you do succeed, the pay-off is worth it.
Athletic Propulsion Labs retails exclusively in Singapore at Pedder on Scotts. Level 2, Scotts Square. 6 Scotts Road.