My father was an entrepreneur and a complete salesman. He could talk to anyone at any time about anything. But he didn’t believe in school, not the brick and mortar ones but rather the school of life and the ideology of ‘Just go out and do it’…….“Just go make it happen Justin, don’t make excuses,” he would often tell me. He dropped out of high school at 17, waited tables and bartended for 15 years and then decided to have a stab at a Coffee shop franchise in Michigan. I was 10 at the time and being of legal age to now choose which parent I wanted to live with I decided to go have a stab at living with my father. This would be a great learning experience in being my own boss and managing myself. Also what you do to survive. Running a franchise is no walk in the park and at one point he was struggling so much that he was having a hard time paying for the one bedroom motel room that he, my stepmother, myself and my one-year old sister all lived in. And in Michigan they pay 10 cents for every plastic or glass bottle so I would go around collecting garbage bags full of them to get like $5-$8 in order to eat. This was at age 10 and while being none the wiser at the time, instilled a lot of determination in me.
At 11, I was homeschooled but did my schooling at the Coffee shop franchise, where it was my father, my stepmother, myself and one employee. At times, they would leave me all alone to get supplies or run the other stand they had at a college next door and I would run the place all by myself making the coffees and taking money from the clients, handling the cash and putting it all through the till. Crazy as it sounds it gave me a great sense of responsibility, the ability to find solutions/solve problems and doing what it takes to get the job done without needing anyone to hold my hand or look to. I had no one to fall back on when all alone. And there was no time to remember that I was only 11. I had to run that business and help my dad make a success of it. As you can see, my father was the run first, walk later type. Learning from his hardships, I became somewhat the opposite and wanted to have a stab at walking before I even thought about running (at least in some aspects).
That being, I always thought that a successful entrepreneur instead of just jump into the burning pan first entered his industry, learning everything he could, becoming an expert and then after seeing what was lacking from it only then went off to start his own company within that industry. So that was my plan and to execute it I wrote out a very detailed 5 year plan of goals. I wanted to learn every facet of the shoe industry in the hopes to become an expert as I knew that if I was going to enter the high end European shoe market as some young American kid that I had to know my shit and people had to not only trust me but believe that I had credibility and integrity. Competing against brands with over a 100 years history is no walk in the park, let me tell you.
My 5 year plan started with me staying at Nordstrom after Uni for 2 years and learning everything I could about the retail world. Mainly I wanted to know why stores bought the shoes they did for their store, why customers buy the shoes they do and what goes on in the mind of a shoe salesmen, all things that would help me later in life when my brand would be potentially selling in a shop like Nordstrom. After doing this for two years it was my goal to go to Europe and learn bespoke shoemaking from one of the top 5 shoemakers in Europe. My goal was then to spend the next 3 years in Europe learning all that I could about the shoe industry, from handmade bespoke shoes, to shoe design, to last making and shoe production, all in the hopes to understand my future business better.
I want to preface the next bit by saying that I am a believer of the ideology that what exists in your life is something that you created from your thoughts. I.e. what you think about, you bring about. In both negative and positive. Therefore, I have always made affirmations of my goals, desires, wants and often talk about things as if they are already a fact.
So during my time at Nordstrom I would often tell everyone of my grand plans, from the other salesmen (my friends), to the customers to the reps/owners of other shoe brands that would visit. And often if the owner of a shoe brand would come in, I would try to pick their brain in the hopes to get any information that I could. There was one owner of a particular shoe brand at the time who I thought was pretty cool and he seemed to want to be ‘our friend’ (to the salesmen), I once tried to pick his brain specifically, which would become an event that would again set another stone of strength into my path of determination. As some young kid selling shoes I am sure that many people thought that I was nuts and just chatting shit. Little did they know how determined I was and how it was all planned that I would still be selling shoes after getting a degree from what was regarded as one of the best business schools in the nation.
So this shoe designer came one day to the shop for a trunk show. I was making plans to go to lunch with one of our assistant managers who was a very beautiful girl that most men loved to flirt with, of which apparently included this shoe designer. Overhearing us planning our lunch together he pretty much invited himself to come along for which was all too obvious an excuse to be around this girl. I thought at the time that this was great as I would have an opportunity to chat to him, even though I knew that he was just going because he wanted to chat to my friend. But whatever, beggars can’t be choosers.
So we went and I started asking him some questions and telling him that I want to start my own shoe line and whatnot and if he could give me any pointers. As he was trying to be Mr. Cool around my friend, he turns to me and so condescendingly tells me, ‘Justin, you might want to think about another profession as starting a shoe line is really difficult.’ As if I didn’t know that. Thanks. Basically, he was trying to politely (in his way) yet so obviously and rudely tell me that should just stick to being a shoe salesman as according to him I was not cut out for it and wanted to brush me off as smoothly as he thought he could. But that line was just what I needed to fuel the rest of my determination to not only make sure I achieve my goals but also to prove to the discouraging douchebags of the world that they are wrong. And I vowed to never be like that guy when I did make it.
I tell these backdrop stories of my life as I think that all of us have points in life where something or someone discouraged us and we have two ways to take it: believe them or prove them wrong. Only you can make that decision but it is important to know that NO ONE can tell you what you are capable of in this world, only you can prove that to yourself. Choose to prove the naysayers wrong and use their fuel to strengthen your cause.
So a year after college and into my 2 years of retail I met someone that would change my life, literally. He was a young guy from Italy whose father was the connection between Nordstrom and the Italian shoe factories that would make their house brand shoes. He was apparently just hanging out for the Summer as a job experience type role. He was young like me and was a really nice guy. So I would chat with him and tell him of my aspirations as I always did to anyone that was willing to listen.
A few months before this though, I was reading a magazine called Menswear (that no longer exists but was the best ever) and saw this very large article of a Florentine bespoke shoemaker named Stefano Bemer. I read every word of that article and was enamored by the beauty of the shoes. So much so that I kept the magazine and would look at it constantly telling myself that after my stint at Nordstrom that I would get an apprenticeship with a guy like that and learn how to make shoes just as beautiful as his.
So one day I am talking to this young Italian guy and ask him if he had heard of Stefano Bemer? He chuckled and said, ‘Actually I know him quite well as him and my father are good friends.’ It was like liquid gold coming out of his mouth. A few months ago I am reading about this Bemer guy and shortly after I meet someone who is two degrees of separation from him. If that is not the power of creation from my thoughts, then I don’t know what is. Naturally, I had to take advantage of this miracle so asked him if he thought that his father could get a meeting for me with this guy in the hopes to acquire an apprenticeship. He told me, ‘Not a problem, when I am back in Italy, I will ask my father to do so and I am sure that Stefano will give you an audience.’ I said great and then I waited.
In the meanwhile, I went to take a shoemaking course (cemented shoes) in Bremerton, Washington. I wanted to get some experience in so that I could get acquainted with that world. What I ended up making was really poor, in quality and construction but it was a good first step into the world and taught me some basic knowledge. A couple of months passed and my Italian friend made good on his promise, emailing me saying that his father had spoken with Stefano and he had agreed to meet me. This was October 2007 and I planned a trip to Florence for March the following year, 2008. I would be 24 at that time of that meeting.
March came around and I flew to Italy to meet Stefano and take a tour around Marche and visit many shoe factories, including Santoni’s (which was beyond impressive). It was such an amazing trip, my first time in Italy, with great hosts and the beginning of my life in the high end shoe industry. I brought�with me this pair of shoes that I had made with me to show Stefano, not so much for the greatness of them but to show him my dedication. My future was riding on this ‘interview.’ The reality of it though was that my friends’ father put a really good word in for me beforehand and I think that it was pretty much a done deal thanks to him. That being, when Stefano looked at that ugly shoe that I made, I could see that he was unimpressed. But he said, ‘it looks like what my first pair of shoes did.’ And he told me that he would take me on as an apprentice and that I could start whenever I wanted. Again, that was March 2008.
The funny thing is that while I prefaced this part of the story with trying to be different than my father, in reality, I was just like him, constantly trying to fly before even knowing what walking was. To this day, I rarely ever have a Plan B as I believe that giving yourself one means that subconsciously you doubt your Plan A which means you really don’t believe in it. This is my flying: never having a Plan B and making sure that my Plan A works no matter what. And funny enough I pretty much always find a way to make it work some way or another. At least so far!
That being, I had to make a quick plan on how to move to Italy not to mention the fact that I didn’t even realize that American’s needed Visas to move somewhere else (never thought about leaving the US prior to that so my knowledge of international relocation was zero). I asked Stefano about getting a Visa and he said, ‘don’t worry we will get it when you get here.’ That statement ended up causing me a lot of stress in the long run. But I put it out of my mind thinking that he would take care of it so just needed to figure out how to get there and make that happen. I knew that I was not going to be paid at first so the first thing that I needed was money.
I decided that I would stay through the Summer in Seattle working the two sales for Nordstrom and then go at some point in the Autumn. That way I could try and save up some money as I knew that I would be making none for quite a while. The only problem that I did not foresee was the fact that I dumped around $6000 on my crappy car trying to keep it running in that last year (up to the point in which I left, consistently wicking away at my savings). Huge waste of time and money! So, I knew that I would not have what I needed to maintain at least one year of zero earnings so had to do something drastic. As this was a one way trip in my head, I decided that I would cash out my 401K at 24 years old and take whatever hit they imposed (40% taxes if I remember correctly).
I did just that giving me around $5000, booked my tickets for October 19th 2008, and started packing up my life old life in America. I left 70% of my belongings in storage at my fathers and sent 30% of it to Italy to an apartment that I managed to find online. I had roughly $9,000 in cash and a credit card limit of $6000 (remember that in this time, the Euro was strong against the dollar, around 1.5, so you can calculate how many Euros that is). I knew 3 people in all of Italy, the son and father friends of mine and Stefano. And I did not know a lick of Italian besides Ciao. And so I left the US, never to look back and there my future began and along with it the very chaotic rollercoaster ride that I would now call ‘My time in Europe.’