Thanks to some fantastic promotion in major publications like The New York Times and Vogue magazine, people in the US are becoming more familiar with the popular Croatian Startas sneakers.
Created by Croatia’s oldest shoe manufacturer, Borovo in Vukovar, in the mid 1970s, Startas made their US debut in 2015, almost forty years after its inception, thanks to Robert and Michelle Grgurev – two American siblings with Croatian heritage.
We caught up with Robert to find out all about bringing and building up a brand from Croatia in the US.
How did you get the idea to bring Startas to the US?
There were a few of factors that led us to the brand. Foremost, Michelle and I had always hoped to work on a business that put us in closer contact with Croatia.
It may sound contrived, but we sincerely felt that we needed to give back to the community in Croatia, and we felt a business that meant real jobs for people, while also portraying the country as something more than a travel destination, was the right way to go.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the tourism industry has been incredibly positive and lucrative, but I also knew that Croatia was much more than that, and that there were skills and craft that were being underappreciated.
I had been interested in Startas for a few of years prior to us getting involved. When the brand resumed production, I was really excited to see fresh and exciting designs, and had wanted to buy a pair for myself (but could never find my size!).
My wife who works in fashion retail, was actually the one who had encouraged me to contact Borovo after she purchased a pair of Boromina sandals on a trip to Croatia in 2014.
We were both really impressed with the investment in design and new styles, and I became convinced there would be an opportunity for them in the States. So, I decided to reach out to Borovo to see if they’d be open to us representing them.
What did you have to go though to get the distribution rights from Borovo? Was it difficult?
It was a leap of faith on both sides. From Borovo’s perspective it was a challenge, because neither of us had footwear experience per se.
I had a strong background in brand management and had worked for several multi-national companies, and knew that I could create a compelling story for the US market with Startas.
Michelle had contacts in the PR world and an operations background, so combined we were able to present our marketing and distribution plan to the Chairman and convince him and the board that we’d be responsible representatives of the brand and Borovo.
From our perspective, we also had to trust that Borovo would support us in what we needed, and that they would have the resources and patience to break into a market this large and competitive.
It’s been a collaborative learning process for both sides, but we think it’s worked out well for both of us up to this point.
How was it breaking into the tough US market?
Hard! It’s challenging every day. We are still a very small business, but we are making gains every day, both in brand awareness and distribution. The biggest challenge is being relevant to our customers.
Your designs may sell one season, but then you have to follow it up immediately with something interesting a few months later. It’s a challenge that never ends.
And, for a small business without the resources of a global brand like Converse or Keds we have to fight harder and be more creative to succeed.
What marketing strategies did you use?
Well, we had to essentially create a brand in the US, almost from scratch, so I used my classical marketing background and had to first establish all the basics: product, promotion, pricing, placement in order to support a marketing strategy.
Brand awareness and consumer education was our #1 goal. Startas’ unique story and quality is something that other brands don’t have, and it’s our most important selling point to consumers.
Additionally, since we’re so small, the marketing and sales strategies needed to be incredibly complementary and efficient to maximize our resources and reach.
So, while our marketing strategy focused on building awareness primarily via PR, social, and digital display tactics, which Michelle has executed incredibly well, we spent a lot of time an energy targeting, and working with, the right retail partners who could help support that strategy.
Brand awareness through distribution had been key for us. For example, one of our best accounts, Modcloth, supported our business through their own CRM outreach and social feeds.
They helped educate their consumers about our brand from a visual/styling standpoint, with a reach that we could never have achieved alone.
Officially five, including my sister and myself. Unofficially, we have a lot of friends and family who have been tremendously supportive. It takes a village to raise a brand!
How are they selling in the US?
Well, thankfully. Being very targeted in who we’ve sold our shoes to has helped ensure that we’re focusing on the right consumer.
Our main retail partners are the right fit for our brand at the moment. Our intention is to continue to grow the business in a very measured way, and not to overextend the brand with customers that don’t get who or what we are.
Are they only available online?
Actually no! In fact, the majority of our business is wholesale, via other retailers. You can find our shoes at larger retailers such as Anthropologie and Modcloth, and many smaller independent shops.
Our website has most of the styles that we import into the US, but is especially good for harder to find styles, because we typically introduce more limited edition prints online only.
We also always carry the “basics”, i.e. the navy, white, and black solid styles, which are styles that will often sell out with our retailers, and which we always retain more inventory on.
Who are mainly buying them?
The large majority of our consumers are female. It’s no surprise really, considering many of our styles feature bold and unique prints. Female consumers, on average, tend to buy into the casual sneaker category more and with greater frequency than male consumers.
Also, women’s fashion media has been much more supportive of the brand than their men’s counterparts, so our business naturally grew into a more female-focused target.
You have had some good endorsement from some big publications (Vogue, NYT) how did that come about?
One word: relationships. Michelle leads the way when it comes to PR outreach, and she has been able to personally build relationships with many fashion editors over the past eighteen months.
First, we simply don’t have the resources to hire a big PR firm, and honestly even if we had the resources my experience with PR has taught me that those firms would have never done our business justice, because of our size and because we require a real personal pitch.
Having to constantly reach out ourselves has had a great effect, because there is sincerity in doing so, which editors notice and respect. Michelle and I, because of our connection to Croatia, and our passion for the brand, are able to convey our passion and represent our brand better than any agency ever could.
What are the plans for the future? Will you source any other products from Croatia?
Our plan is to continue to focus on Startas. We are always working on new designs and experimenting with incorporating new fabrics. Our business still has a lot of upside with the brand.
We are testing the waters with some of Borovo’s other brands, such as Boromina, and have received some very encouraging responses to that line as well. With regards to other Croatian products, we can never say never.
However, if we do broaden our assortment, I would say that it would likely be in the apparel/accessories categories, as we have developed relationships with buyers and media of these categories.
(photo credits: Startas)