Insights from Joe Foster dinner

December 20, 2022
Business Growth

The story of how Joe Foster and his brother founded and built iconic fashion brand Reebok is one that all founders can find inspiring.

It doesn’t matter whether you run a SaaS platform, a content publishing business or if you are also in the business of selling branded clothing on a global scale, there are some pertinent tips and insights in Joe’s story.

His book, Shoe Maker: The untold story of the British Family Firm that Became a Global Brand is definitely on the Helm recommended reading list. Actually, such a list doesn’t exist, but we’ve just decided to create one for members next year. Watch this space.

But back to the Reebok story. Helm is a community for like-minded founders of scale-up businesses and we were delighted, to host Joe last month at a small, private dinner for members.

It was one of the highlights of our events calendar and, as expected, the members who were able to make it (it was first-come-first-served and sold out pretty quickly) loved what they heard from Joe. Everyone there left with so many lessons and insights from his story. Here are just a couple as a taster:

1. He created demand by focusing on product and getting reviews

It was on his sixth attempt at cracking the US market – his humility is such he's happy to talk about the mistakes he made along the way – that he realised it was going to take something massive to get demand to the level he needed. It wasn’t going to come from the consumers alone. Demand hadn’t materialised on previous pushes into the US. Runner's World was the definitive publication in the industry at that time and when it gave a pair of Reeboks a 5-star review, it created enormous interest. That became the blueprint for future products.

They set out to create shoes that would achieve a Runner's World 5-star rating. Designing shoes and submitting them for review became something of an obsession, submitting several pairs at a time to Runner's World, culminating in three pairs getting a 5-star rating in the same issue. This created massive demand from the major retailers and distributors and Reebok finally cracked the US.

The lesson here, and even more so in an age obsessed with ratings and rankings, is focus on creating demand via product quality and top reviews. It makes market entry easier.

2. He targeted influencers (as we call them today)

If he didn’t call them influencers, Joe always made sure top athletes were given Reeboks to wear at big track and field events. Aside from targeting the top athletes, which seems obvious today, Reebok also targeted coaches at college teams, sending them free samples, which then resulted in big orders. By calling the top 100 teams, and sending them samples, they ended up getting orders from over 50% of the teams.

The lesson here is that you don’t only go after the top influencers in your category, but look to reach the market through targeting micro-influencers as well (the coaches).

It was a real pleasure to host Joe and everyone in the room got a huge amount from the session. There are some things you can learn from books, but there are other things that you can only really pick up when you hear it first hand from the founder’s mouth.

In 2023 Helm will be hosting a regular series of special guest founder dinners, with guests including Archie Norman, John Stapleton and David Gardner.

As well as sharing insights with fellow founders, Joe is also playing his part in boosting the next generation of entrepreneurs. He is chair of education charity LetsLocalise, which aims to build supportive communities around schools. A huge part of their work involves tapping into community goodwill to support vulnerable students. This short video by innovation guru, John Bessant, explains the impact created and why Joe considers LetsLocalise to be the social innovation of the era.


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