Local sneaker cleaning service cleans up in startup contest

Rashad Sanders is the founder of Sudsy Soles, which just won $50,000 in an Activation Capital startup competition. (Photos courtesy of Activation Capital)

A local sneaker restoration startup has taken the next step up from its usual mode of bootstrapping.

Sudsy Soles and founder Rashad Sanders recently earned $50,000 after winning Richmond-based Activation Capital’s first-ever minority-led startup development program.

“I’ve been at it trying to build something for a long time. It definitely feels good (to win),” said Sanders, 32.

Sudsy Soles, soon to be rebranded as Drip Fixx, was established seven months ago. It began as a WordPress site that matched a customer’s worn-down sneakers with vendors able to rehabilitate them. Restorers individually price their services and pay the company a 20 percent commission on the fee.

In return, a client’s sneakers undergo a transformation, which Sanders described as part science and part art. Excessive yellowing is undone using UV radiation, he said, while colors are painted back to their original hues. Creases can be smoothed over, soles re-glued and oxidation removed.

Sanders came up with the concept during the pandemic, picking up on the fact that many of his friends were frequently searching to have their sneakers cleaned. He reached out to a number of restorers nationwide and offered to be their middleman.

Though he declined to share the initial investment, it was completely self-funded. He added: “It was a lot of sweat equity and cash.”

Bringing a shoe back to life not only restores a sense of confidence, Sanders said, but can restore its market value as well.

“Some of these sneakers you can resell for more, later down the line,” he said. “We had a guy here who had an old pair of (Nike) Rasheed Wallaces made back in 2009. We restored them, he was able to get almost $600 for them.”

A North Carolina native, Sanders studied supply chain and logistics in college and said he was attracted to startups.

“I’ve always been interested in building something. As a kid, I wanted to be an inventor,” he said.

After working for a few nascent companies in New York and Boston, a career switch landed Sanders at Snagajob in Richmond in 2020. He now works for Jobble, a digital job platform, while operating Sudsy Soles as a side gig for the time being.

Participants in Activation Capital’s startup program.

Sanders was one of 75 entrepreneurs accepted into the eight-week program, which was a collaboration between Activation Capital and Atlanta’s Opportunity Hub. The two organizations developed the pilot program with an aim of uplifting minority-run businesses, particularly in the tech sector.

“It was less than 1 percent of (people of color) participating in the tech entrepreneurship community here, despite being represented in such high numbers in the region,” Activation Capital’s President and CEO Chandra Briggman said.

The 75 participants were given business-related workshops and presentations to better their entrepreneurial skills and understanding. The program served as a networking opportunity for the participants and connected them with resources.

Toward the end, 10 were selected for a further round of training and pitch development. There, they competed for a final investment by pitching their venture to a panel of judges.

“All the finalists were strong and have great potential,” Briggman said. “(Sanders) had not only the entrepreneurial IQ to build it but he was onto an idea that could gain some traction.”

Sanders now plans to use the $50,000 to improve his company’s digital presence, focusing on creating an enhanced website.

A fresh website, he hopes, will help attract a larger clientele and vendor base, the business’s most immediate need. Restorers are vetted before they have a space on the site.

Activation Capital as well as the undisclosed source of the $50,000 will take an undisclosed ownership stake in Sanders’ company. The stake’s amount is under negotiation and the investment’s transfer is pending. Briggman said Activation Capital plans to continue working with Sanders, as well as the other finalists.

“This is not a game for us. We are really trying to invest in the human capital here and in the region,” she said. “We want to bring those folks together and introduce them to resources, so that they can continue to build out companies.”

Sanders envisions his venture as surpassing its focus on shoes and becoming a center of luxury goods repairs. The rebrand to Drip Fixx is part of that strategy, as Sanders aims to help customers restore products such as watches and handbags.

Meanwhile, Activation Capital is pondering a second round for its minority business program. Briggman said the hope is to bring the lessons learned in the first round and apply them to other underrepresented populations, such as women entrepreneurs or rural-based startups.

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