Ask An Expert: Volumental’s Alper Aydemir on What Footwear Companies Can Learn From Big Tech

The rate of change has never been greater — or faster — for the footwear industry, with new challenges popping up every day in nearly all corners of the business, from navigating cash crunches and supply chain issues to understanding the latest technological advances. In its “Ask An Expert” series, FN asks industry leaders — all solutions-based providers — to take on some of the most timely topics.

Footwear has historically been slow to adopt new technologies, but 2020 has seen the industry embrace all forms of digitization. While the benefits are clear, it can be challenging to figure out how to deploy these solutions effectively; where to concentrate attention; and how to fully adopt the mindset of a tech-savvy company. But those who figure this out will be greatly rewarded, particularly by consumers who are already flocking online.

Alper Aydemir, co-founder and CTO of footwear technology platform Volumental, drew on his previous experience at Google and NASA and shared with FN how footwear brands can think — and act — like a successful tech company.

FN: How can smaller brands and newcomers to e-commerce try to keep up with more experienced and experimental e-tailers?

Alper Aydemir: On the technology front, what used to take a team of 10 to accomplish now only takes a fraction of that. There are two-person teams with tens of millions of users. The fact that you’re smaller actually makes you better: faster, more nimble, more aggressive. My advice is that there are a lot of folks, especially startups, who are solving e-commerce for you, so aggressively bank on them. They will give you the white-glove treatment and you can grow together. Stripe did this all the way to become a $35 billion company. Using tools and platforms such as Shopify can greatly overpower your small team, which can actually run circles around heavier teams. I’ve seen that countless times in my career: A team of five building more than a team of 35.

FN: The pandemic has shone a light on a lot of areas that need improvement. What advice do you have for companies struggling to know where to start?

AA: Prioritize ruthlessly, which is hard and takes leadership. The leaders need to step in and provide clear priorities to the team, as to what to do and what not to do. Lack of leadership usually leads to either randomness or doing everything all at the same time; the so-called “peanut-buttering” of resources. This is because that’s the least costly thing to do from a social capital point of view, but it is almost always the wrong choice. Also note that if you prioritize and make the wrong call, you will course correct and get on the right track in a few iterations. That’s way better than advancing at everything by a tiny amount, month after month.

FN: What are some critical areas that managers should be focusing on, to make sure that they are agile and adaptable in the face of current uncertainty?

AA: Retailers have a lot of catching up to do, in terms of organizational nimbleness. One key insight is to track iteration speeds. At known tech companies, a new employee can make a change in production in their first week, which then reaches billions of users. What’s that time for your company? If it’s three months, I’ve got bad news for you. The magic part is that someone else who’s got an iteration time of one month isn’t just doing things three times faster than you: Those who can run faster uncover new insights that accelerate them further, so they are, in reality, 10-20 times faster.

Also, start small. Keep teams to a maximum of five to eight people and give them decision-making power. My favorite learning from doing this a long time is that a project that is complex from the get-go never works. You will have to scrap it all and start over, so don’t be in that situation. Any large successful project evolved from an extremely well-functioning simple thing. Start extremely simple and small, test run your internal processes with that. Scale as it works.

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As technology is utilized across the footwear supply chain, companies have to learn how to approach their software like a tech company.
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FN: Footwear has not traditionally been so tech-oriented. How should brands and retailers approach the software side of their business, in order to get the most out of it?

AA: Software eats the world and will continue to do so. It doesn’t matter if you’re a footwear brand or an ice cream brand — being good at software, using smooth and easy-to-use tools, drawing key analytics and insights effortlessly, these are all key to growing businesses. I think brands and retailers should treat this part as a key strategic of their success. If you have been measuring, then doing more of what works is usually the way to go. It is harder than it sounds; you will get defocused if you’re not careful. Stick to the plan, until you change the plan. If you haven’t been measuring, start measuring.

FN: Are there any tech buzz products that you think are truly worth the hype, that brands should be aware of?

AA: In footwear, I’m mighty excited about what we can do on our mobile phones, both by way of measuring our bodies but also augmented reality. I think that’s an underappreciated area at the moment that brands are not invested in enough. Any brand who has a strong presence there is going to win.

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