Refresh PGH

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Pittsburgh natives Sean Devine and Baldwin Dawkins don’t like the term “sneakerhead.” They prefer terms like “collector,” “enthusiast,” or “connoisseur.” Whatever you call them, you have to admit they have a real passion for sneakers. The two friends have always been into rare, collectible, sought-after sneakers -- shoes like Air Jordans, Air Force Ones, and other street-savvy styles inspired by basketball and hip-hop culture. And they are not alone; sneaker culture has boomed over the last few years, and collectors pride themselves on rocking both the latest-and-greatest models as well as old-school throwbacks and original, vintage kicks. But how could Sean and Baldwin turn their passion into a profitable business?

Opening a full-fledged brick-and-mortar sneaker shop was a costly endeavor, so rather than diving in head first, the pair decided first to dip their toes into the water by offering sneaker cleaning, restoration, and customization services out of their home-based workshop. The sorts of shoes that they work with are most desirable when in pristine, out-of-the-box condition, a difficult thing to maintain when walking through city streets. What’s more, the rarer the shoe, the more desirable it is. By offering customization services, Refresh gives their customers the most unique shoes they can get – pair one of one. Sean and Baldwin saw an opportunity here: these sneakers aren’t cheap, and restoration and customization allow customers to get the most bang for their sneaker-buying buck. Having tried other restoration services, they were disappointed and realized, “We can do this better ourselves.” And so they did.

Challenges

After operating out of the home for a couple years, Sean and Baldwin built an enormous following on social media thanks to their excellent service and expertise in the sneaker community. The pair enjoyed enough success to open their own brick-and-mortar store in Pittsburgh’s up-and-coming Garfield neighborhood, focusing primarily on consignment sales. But the margins on consignment sales were slim, and the company needed working capital to be able to purchase more of their own inventory. They also needed help shifting their strategy to fit their new location. They visited the University of Pittsburgh Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for assistance.

Assistance by the Pitt SBDC and Bridgeway Capital

When Sean and Baldwin came to the Pitt SBDC, they weren’t quite sure what they needed; they only knew that they wanted to grow. The SBDC helped them to identify several key focus areas, and determined that a small business loan would help the pair boost inventory levels, acquire more high-demand items, and provide much-needed working capital. The SBDC sought outside financing from Bridgeway Capital, a nonprofit, community-oriented lender.

Impact and Results

Because their shop was located in an underserved neighborhood, the SBDC was able to work with Bridgeway to get Refresh PGH qualified for a special Urban Entrepreneurship Loan. This minimized the hoops Refresh would have to jump through, while at the same time providing a “proving ground” for the young company to demonstrate its creditworthiness. The company’s loan application was approved just in time for a sneaker convention, which allowed them to acquire special inventory for the holiday selling season. Next, the SBDC focused on strategic planning, identifying ways for the company to boost its sales and profitability. The company enjoys its best margins on cleaning, customization, and restoration services. The SBDC helped them realize this and execute new sales tactics, such as sneaker “maintenance packages,” “extended warranties,” gift cards, and bundling products and services together, to push those services. The SBDC also identified ways for them to boost their profile in the community, with increased signage, store-hosted events, and community involvement initiatives. With greater focus and clear objectives, the company is enjoying rising sales and healthy growth, and it continues to work with the Pitt SBDC for strategic planning and general business counsel. They’ve even performed sneaker customizations for players on the Pittsburgh Steelers. It’s no wonder so many people want to be in their shoes!