|Kenneth Cole speaking at the GMSC event at Goizueta Business School on Thursday, May 7th.|
Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of hearing THE Kenneth Cole give a keynote to MBA students at Emory's Goizueta Business School (GBS) as part of their Goizueta Marketing Strategy Consultancy (GMSC). I was there as a judge of the group presentations, not as a student.
A little intro to both:
- Kenneth Cole is the founder and designer of Kenneth Cole Productions, Inc. one America’s premier fashion brands today with products spanning shoes, clothing, bags, etc.
- GMSC is a program that allows Emory MBA students work in teams to solve very complex, real problems for some of the world’s top companies.
So I’m going to share the short story about the founding of Cole’s company that highlights some of the creativity and persistence I enjoy so much about entrepreneurship and then some good sound bites from his talk… Sadly, I won’t be able to do his comedic side justice, but maybe you’ll have the pleasure of hearing from him live one day, too. Till then…
The Birth of a Shoe Company…
As any good presentation starts, Kenneth Cole open with a story on how his company was started. A newly minted graduate of EmoryUniversity, Cole wanted to start his own shoe company following in the footsteps (pun not necessarily intended) of his parents who owned El Greco, a shoe manufacturing company.
Cole applied for the “Kenneth Cole Inc.” as he started out – there was no Google to just search company names in the 70’s after all.
He started the company based on shoe designs he had incepted during his stay in Italy, and he knew the massive market and financial opportunity of America. He knew for success, Cole had to make an entrance at Market Week held at the New York City Hilton. However, he didn’t quite have the funds to pull it off.
Much like conferences today, it takes significant investment to grab a vendor booth – hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. However, many of the large brands would set up a secondary space located within blocks of the Hilton to showcase more products. For Cole, that was too much.
Cole was speaking to one of his friends about his predicament, and his friend offered up his 40’ trailer (who doesn’t have a friend with a 40’ tractor trailer?). However, it’d be insane to park a 40’ trailer on a busy NYC street. Cole would have to get a permit for that type of thing…
So Cole called the mayor asking for a permit to park the 40’ trailer on the street next to the Hilton – the show happening in 10 days. The skinny on that conversation: “No.” The mayor told Cole permits were only issued to utility companies and movie filming. So the only logical thing to do now was to ask friends and family for money to buy a booth. Just kidding.
Instead, the next day, Cole changed the name of his company from “Kenneth Cole Inc.” to “Kenneth Cole Productions Inc.” and applied for a permit to film a movie “Birth of a Shoe Company”. The permit was granted, and to top it off, the mayor provided a couple cops on set of the filming.
So what happened at the shoe show? Kenneth Cole sold 40,000 pairs of shoes in 2.5 days (!!!). And to this day, the company’s name is Kenneth Cole Productions Inc.
Tassels, buckles, and more accessories
Kenneth Cole wouldn’t be the creative he is today without some witty, inspiring sound bites, so here are several of my favorite:
- As it relates to resources and problem-solving, usually the most costly solution isn’t the best or the one that “wins”. Instead, the most creative solution pays off the greatest. Case in point: Cole’s request for a filming permit above.
- The difficulty and honor of selling his brand is that he has to earn the right to be chosen. Nobody really needs another pair of shoes.
- Kenneth Cole wants his company to be a vehicle for good citing his company goals intersecting with the needs of the community – its responsibility.
- “Empower others to be change agents and change makers.”
- “Build a platform that responds to change, not be stifled”. This is relevant to creating sustainable company despite rapid changes to fashion and technology today.
- The brand is the greatest point of distinction, but today, everyone is creating their own brand and audiences. Kenneth Cole’s goal is to earn the right and convince everyone to include him in their brands.
- The 4 top life tips:
1. If you can’t change the world, be an accessory.
2. What you stand for almost as important as what you stand in.
3. When in doubt, wear my shoes.
4. Good to be known for your shoes, but better to be known for your soul.
I enjoyed Cole’s speech a lot given how many of his talking points resonated with me as an entrepreneur – namely, points about being creative and the responsibility of a brand to the community. Real glad I got a chance to hear his keynote, and shake the Legend’s hand afterwards. (Now, if only I got a selfie with him… just kidding.)
Mr. Cole, I’ll be picking up a pair of your shoes soon… even if I don’t need them.