Interview: Kyle Berner of Feelgoodz on risks and flip-flops
In our Risk-taking series, Tulane University and Ashoka U students Katie Smalley and Laura White shed light on the value of risk-taking. By interviewing social innovators about bold steps they’ve taken, they reveal that behavior that appears risky may be the most dependable way to produce innovation, ultimately leading to better solutions to social problems.
Kyle Berner is the founder of Feelgoodz, a company that makes flip-flops out of 100% natural Thai rubber. Feelgoodz’ model is truly triple bottom line – the rubber trees are grown sustainably, the flip-flops are 100% biodegradable, and the farmers are treated fairly. Berner won accolades for his innovative business model, and the bright flip-flops, sold from Hawaii to Japan, have even landed in the aisles of Whole Foods. However, Feelgoodz’ journey to success was dotted with setbacks and obstacles. Here, Berner talks about finding a market for Feelgoodz and trying to push flip-flops in November.
Dowser: Social entrepreneurship inevitably involves some degree of risk-taking. What is the biggest risk that you took with Feelgoodz that paid off?
Berner: The flip-flop market is a crowded space – there are as many as twenty different brands on the market today. So when Feelgoodz was starting out, we had to ask ourselves, ‘Why does the market need another flip-flop brand?’ Although there were so many brands out there, I felt that there was an opening in the natural products market and that the consumers in the market would appreciate what we were trying to do – create an environmentally friendly flip-flop that would also promote social and economic growth in Thailand. This was the biggest risk that Feelgoodz has taken; we gambled that there was a niche for us in providing natural flip-flops, and that the customers served by this niche would respond to our goal of helping Thailand.
What do you think is the biggest risk you took that did not pay off, or at least seemed that way at the time?
Our biggest ‘flop’ that comes to mind happened early in the life of Feelgoodz. We decided to set up a temporary booth at a mall during the biggest sales day of the year – Black Friday. Since so much retail is sold on Black Friday, we thought it would be a great time to sell flip-flops. Unfortunately, we did not think about the fact that it was late November, and that it was cold; people did not want to buy flip-flops at this time of year, and we ended up losing a lot of invested money and time. I think that the biggest lesson learned from this is that haste makes waste. We had to make a decision and we took a risk, but in that process, we did not think things through or get outside opinions.
What do you think is the most important factor in taking intelligent risks in your social enterprise?
The most important thing that I found is to trust your business partner. It is also important that you both have the same vision for the organization, and that you both are passionate about the social problem you are confronting. And it’s helpful for both of you to anticipate and think through the worst things that could happen as a result of the decision you’re making. This way, you can both address how you might handle problems before they arise.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Photo: Courtesy of Kyle Berner