It is not lost on Sidra Qasim that this is a very big moment.
Growing up in a conservative home in the small city of Okara, Pakistan, Qasim had long been told that her purpose in life was to find and keep a husband. And yet, she had always dreamed of much more for herself. Qasim produced a play as one of 15 girls at a local boy’s college in Pakistan. She and her now-husband Waqas Ali have started three companies together. In 2015, they were accepted into Y Combinator.
And now Qasim is replacing Ali as the CEO of Atoms, the New York-based sneaker startup the two of them formally launched in 2019. In the new role, Qasim will manage the board and be the face of the company to customers and its external partners.
“That is something personal for me,” Qasim tells me, pointing out how few women run startups or manage to raise venture dollars—not to mention Pakistani women. “I’m ready to take that opportunity.”
A leadership transition has been a subject of conversation between Qasim and Ali for some time now as the company has begun to really scale. Atoms’ shoes have garnered attention recently, drawing in more than $12 million in venture funding from investors including Initialized Capital and Kleiner Perkins. But the company really began taking off in Jan. 2021, after Humans of New York ran Qasim’s personal story and publicized the fears she has confronted while taking charge of her own life.
That year, Atoms’ revenue grew to $12 million, up from close to $6 million in 2020, Ali shared with me, and Atoms has now sold a total of more than 100,000 shoes. The team is still relatively small, with 17 full-time employees, including in its warehouse, and 11 contractors.
Ali explains that the transition is a natural one: He is more focused on design, creative strategy, marketing, and customer experience, while Qasim says she is honed in on the operational, financial, and strategic side of the business.
Qasim says that she and Ali had been weighing this leadership transition even before the Humans of New York story. She had decided to take some time to think through it, as well as the timing given that she became a mother last year. But particularly because of 2021’s influx of new customers, and the company apparently being positioned for profitability, Qasim and Ali say it was an opportune moment to guarantee the business would continue to run well. (Without sharing specific figures, Qasim says that she anticipates Atoms will become profitable “by early next year, for sure.”)
While Atoms may be seeing success in the market now, it’s taken a decade for Qasim and Ali to garner the traction they are experiencing today (We did not know making shoes [would be] so hard,” Qasim says). The two had originally applied for Y Combinator back in 2012, when they weren’t fluent in English yet, and got rejected. Their first shoe company was Markhor, a dress shoe startup that sold over 600 pairs on a Kickstarter campaign. But once they arrived in Silicon Valley in 2015 for Y Combinator, they struggled to gain traction in casualwear-obsessed San Francisco. After graduating from YC, the two of them spent three years developing the original Atoms sneaker, doing customer research, meeting with craftsmen, and visiting shoe factories they’d find on Craigslist, all while sharing a small house with four roommates in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. After they developed a prototype with their own capital, they raised a round of seed funding from angel investors.
“Before we had the company, we wanted to have the shoes,” Ali says.
Aatif Awan, LinkedIn’s former vice president of growth, who led Atoms’ seed round as an angel investor and now sits on the board, recalls meeting with Qasim and Ali in the basement of their home at the time, which they were using as a shoe studio. “The way they thought about comfort—that was pretty unique,” says Awan, adding: “A lot of small details they got very tight.” The sneakers feature elastic laces that only have to be tied once, and are lined with copper threading meant to kill bacteria and prevent stink.
Later on, Qasim and Ali would move to New York, and would garner interest from Initialized Capital, Kleiner Perkins, Day One Ventures, LinkedIn Executive Chairman Jeff Weiner, and other investors. Atoms also opened an informal bridge round for investors in early 2021 after the Humans of New York story.
Qasim says they have no plans to seek additional private capital at this point in time, though she did mention they would consider small checks from strategic partners. Right now, the key objective is bolstering Atoms’ bottom line.
Atoms’ primary supplier is Boss Corporation in Seoul, South Korea. The company recently launched its “Model 001,” which features a more durable sole, and Qasim and Ali are planning to launch two additional new products shortly. In November, Atoms introduced an art gallery in its office space in Brooklyn Navy Yard as a means to connect with and offer a platform for up-and-coming artists. The startup did a shoe collaboration with the featured artist from their first exhibition, Aerosyn-Lex Meštrović.
Awan says he is excited to see how far the Pakistani couple has come since he studied their prototype in the San Francisco basement.
“They are the two people who know more about shoes and care more about shoes than anybody I’ve met,” Awan says.
See you tomorrow,
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