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Alum startup turns sneakers into works of art

Stimulated by ENGN 0090, roommate pair started Electrolites Footwear during senior year

“I still wear sneakers only at the gym,” said Matthew Paul ’09, co-founder of the sneaker company Electrolites Footwear. After working with Electrolites for seven years, Paul and his business partner and former college roommate, Doug Berman ’09, are in the process of selling their company to a sourcing agent in China.

Four artists currently provide the design inspiration for Electolites’ products, according to the company’s website. Many of the sneakers sell for more than $300.

The design process consists of several stages. First, an artist submits artwork for Paul and Berman to review. If it passes muster, Paul meets with the artist.

The artist is then given three pairs of sneakers and told to design “one they wanted to make, one they thought we would like and one that is their craziest idea,” Paul said.

If he and Berman are impressed, they research how the handmade version will sell before they invest in the design and produce the shoe with artwork imprinted on the actual fabric, he added.

The collaboration between the artist and Electrolites is mutually beneficial, Paul said. “Often, our artists are doing well in school but are struggling to sell their work. They submit a design to us, and if we choose to sell the sneaker, in return, we advertise their artwork on our website,” he said.

The first shoe designer was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design named Korakrit Arunanondchai, who remains Electrolites’ biggest designer, Paul said. “Korakrit suggested some artists to us, but as the company grew, artists began contacting Electrolites themselves,” he added.

“We get more money for the handmade sneakers we sell, and they get exposure and money from whoever buys their artwork,” which Electrolites features on its site, Paul said. “When sneakers are eventually sold with the artwork on the fabric, we both benefit.”

“Not every one works out,” he said, reflecting on the “crazy” shoe design from one artist that used human hair for the laces.

Paul said he never imagined he would end up in the corporate world when he transferred to Brown after a semester at Tulane University and a semester interning for the mayor of Providence. He matriculated with an intended concentration of political science. During his junior year, he and Berman began to talk about a sneaker startup.

Berman was always the “cool one” and appreciated sneakers and their unique design, Paul said. Meanwhile, Paul handles the business end of operations and organizes the artist collaborations.

Originally, their idea was to buy the rights to L.A. Gear — an apparel brand that had gone bankrupt multiple times. When that didn’t work out, Berman suggested the pair launch their own business, Paul said.

Paul completed the requirements for his concentration early in his Brown career and took the “infamous” course ENGN 0090: “Management of Industrial and Nonprofit Organizations,” which pushed him to create a startup, he said. Electrolites was officially founded in June 2008, and working on the company became the focus of Paul’s final semesters at Brown.

“It took us a while at first to find a source to make the actual sneakers,” Paul said, adding that Barrett Hazeltine GP’15, professor emeritus of engineering and the instructor of ENGN 0090, was very encouraging and gave the duo the contact information of a shoe producer.

Hazeltine said Paul “was a very energetic and very determined person, and when something didn’t go his way, he just found another way.”

“We eventually named the company Electrolites because the shoes lit up, and no one yet owned the domain name,” Paul said. Immediately after graduating, he and Berman traveled to Taiwan to source the shoes.

“Every step of the process was a project in and of itself,” Paul said. The fear and potential for failure was very real, he added. “Nothing would have worked out if each facet didn’t work out.”

After selling the company, Paul said he may accept a scholarship to Cornell to get his master’s degree in business administration, or he may join another startup.


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