When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, the phone had no 3G and only 8GB of storage. A year later, it doubles its storage and adds GPS. A year later, it replaced a faster processor and an improved camera. The thing is, the iPhone has grown incrementally, a few updates at a time.
A similar model is at the heart of Atoms. The New York-based sneaker brand launched in 2018 and hit the spotlight in 2021, after The humans of New York published an article about Sidra Qasim, who co-founded Atoms with her husband, Waqas Ali. For four years, the company sold only A model on the site: a $129 “everyday shoe” that’s unisex, available in quarter sizes and an ever-changing color list. However, with each production batch that followed, Atoms continued to listen to their customers and improve this model with small adjustments like the length of the laces or the shape of the heel notch.
Now Atoms launches a second model, with more integrated support and a completely reinvented sole. It’s an opportunity for the founders to keep improving their products on the “atomic level,” as they say, and a welcome alternative to the frequent product drop model that fast fashion was built on.
Atoms isn’t the first to start small and iterate on a single product. When Moleskine was launched in 1997, it only sold a type of notebook. For over seven years, Away luggage has been inspired by their iconic carry-on, so versatile that People the magazine dubbed her “the little black dress of baggage”. And it is only in 2021, after almost 20 years, that Crocs breaks with tradition and fundamentally changes the silhouette of its famous clogs. Allbirds also launched a single product – the Wool Runners – although it has since grown into a billion-dollar company selling sandals, flats, hiking shoes and even slippers.
In the case of Atoms, however, the concept is rooted in the past of the founders. It all started with a shoe leather business in Pakistan, where Qasim and Ali grew up and met. While looking for business ideas, they came across a group of artisans making shoes in a small workshop and convinced them they could sell them on the internet. (Ali built the website; Sidra learned the trade and focused on production.) Then, in 2015, they were accepted into Y Combinator, which helped launch behemoths like Airbnb and Dropbox. When they moved to San Francisco, they were surprised to see the wide variety of milk and yogurt brands in the supermarket. “The types of stores I went to [in Pakistan] only had one type of yogurt,” Ali explains. “We found our life to be so simple because we had less choice,” says Qasim.
In the years since, the duo have struggled to make the business case for leather dress shoes in the United States. After countless interviews with shoe store managers and potential customers, they noticed a gap in the market for everyday shoes that were both comfortable and stylish. In 2019 they launched Atoms with the 000 model.
The first pair came with elastic laces (meaning you only have to tie them once) and circular cutouts at the bottom of the shoe which reduced the weight by 20%. In the next production batch, they decreased the heel height. Then the sole was made non-slip. Then they thinned out the bits of lace so they wouldn’t bend as much. Then they reduced the length of the laces. “We force ourselves never to compromise on product quality,” says Ali. “When your whole business depends on one product, you have to make sure it’s really, really good.”
The advantages of this type of approach are numerous. Small batch manufacturing helps them ensure better quality control. And fewer models means fewer SKUs, which lowers inventory costs and helps streamline their supply chain. But as Ali says, “Customers in the United States are trained to look for choices.” This is where the colors come into play.
When the 000 model was first launched, it was only available in three colors: black, white and black and white. Soon after, Atoms started releasing different colors every 45-60 days. (Customers pre-ordered, so it was never a burden on inventory.) From navy blue and neon yellow to crimson red, the 000 model was available in a total of 19 colors, including limited editions like a bitcoin themed shoe (it sold for $129 in 2021 and is now only available on eBay up to $600.)
The idea, Ali says, is to treat the “shoe like a canvas,” but also to build trust and customer loyalty for new colors. “Whenever we produce limited edition colors, our customers pay attention,” he says. To date, Atoms has raised $12.1 million, despite only selling around 100,000 pairs of shoes, highlighting a common problem for DTC brands that start small and find it. difficult to scale. Still, Ali says the brand gets most of its business through word of mouth and 30% of customers are regulars. (In 2020, Atoms revamped its entire production facility to create masks during the shortage; they sold half a million masks and donated 400,000.)
Now Atoms is launching its first new model in four years. The new shoe, which retails for $159, features a hidden tongue loop that prevents the tongue from bunching when you put the shoe on. While the previous eyelets were made from recycled brass, the new eyelets are made from recycled polyester, which means the whole shoe can be recycled more easily because it’s made of the same material.
The biggest change, however, and the one that forced the team to create an all-new shoe, is in the sole. The 000 model has a standard rubber outsole, copper midsole and insole. (Individual copper insoles do exist, but they are rarely built into the shoe.) Meanwhile, the 001 model has removable insoles with an even higher amount of copper, which eliminates stinky odors, and a more rigid in the shape of a cup. . Made from Atoms’ proprietary foam material, the beanie provides better support, including for people with inward rolling feet.
Arguably, many of these upgrades (aside from the one) could also have ended up in the 000 model, but the team sticks to its philosophy of improving one product at a time. “We want to focus entirely on the 001 model,” says Qasim, suggesting that the 000 model will take a back seat. “Our philosophy is that with each production batch, if we can improve something, we should do it.”