Bootstrapping 101: how to scale a brand sustainably
Every ecommerce brand has a different growth playbook depending on the path they take, whether that’s taking on venture capital or scaling sustainably by reinvesting revenue.
Sabah Shoes, a New York-based footwear brand, chose the second path: organic growth and thoughtful scaling that allowed their team to stay in control and make their own decisions.
In our third installment of this series, we sat down with Mickey Ashmore, Founder and CEO of Sabah, to dive into his growth playbook for bootstrapped, founder-controlled brands. We cover:
- How to translate authentic offline experiences onto ecommerce platforms
- Highbeam’s tactical approach to hiring and growing talent internally
- Why Mickey decided to turn down venture to scale sustainably
"None of us at Sabah had MBAs or pedigrees in retail or shoes. We weren’t reporting CACs to VCs. The passion of the process was what made us happy."
How to translate authentic IRL experiences onto ecommerce
Sabah's new web presence coincided with an extended road tour of live events — roughly 25–40 annual pop-ups between 2017 and 2019, from Raleigh to Atlanta to Philly and more.
The team would rent houses or large hotel rooms and host pop-up hangouts that felt more like family reunions. Mickey would sell pairs from his backpack and suitcase full of shoes.
But the true highlight was always loyal Sabah buyers driving sizable distances to attend, introduce themselves as long-time lovers of the brand, and share a drink.
To preserve this unique offline experience, Mickey knew early on that everything the brand does online must reflect the real human interaction that customers cherished. For instance:
- Sabah’s online content only amplifies the live action happening in stores, at pop-ups, etc.
- That content is shot on iPhones to feel like a friend’s Instagram, not a curated brand
- All marketing depicts the team, friends, users, etc. — no models or staged shoots
As Mikey describes it: “You are what you repeatedly do. At Sabah we market who we are by sharing what we do. We’re basically marketing the reality of it all.”
"We do a ton of traveling and pop-ups — so we do cool things in real life and just share them digitally. The end goal isn’t running a highly curated brand identity."
Why Sabah formalized company values post-pandemic
Once the pandemic arrived in 2020, the Sabah team, like most omnichannel brands, found themselves doubling down on DTC strategy out of necessity.
To recuperate the loss of their main growth engine of traveling pop-ups, they:
- Invested in paid ads
- Sharpened their email plays
- Began leveraging Instagram for acquisitions and conversions
- And even brought on an agency to assist with strategy
It all paid off. After leaning heavily into digital for the first time, they ended the year with the same sales counts as 2019 — but entirely through DTC.
Build internally for external success
The pandemic also brought one reality into sharp focus for Mickey. In his own words: "Oh shit. There's a global pandemic, and we have at least 100 people from HQ to Turkey to El Paso."
With that, he shifted priorities toward the internal nature of the brand. As CEO, he had to ensure every aspect of the brand from the inside out was secure and healthy — namely the people.
This meant formalizing an informal company culture, by:
- Bringing on a people-first retail director
- Upgrading all employees to receive solid benefits
- Formalizing a profit share throughout the whole business
For Mickey personally, this also meant working through what it means to be a reliable leader and meeting with each and every team member more frequently.
It provided him a new lease on life and the business, he explains, because Sabah had grown into something far larger than the dream that he had envisioned as its founder.
"We’d grown and grown for so long. I realized how critical it was to ensure every internal person felt seen and taken care of throughout that scaling process."
Three reasons why Sabah avoided venture capital
Throughout Sabah’s growth trajectory, there was one key factor that enabled these decisions: The brand had taken no money from VCs or major investors.
Mickey highlights three fundamental choices the team made for the business that led to its success — and could’ve gone differently had they been obligated to deliver on metrics.
1. Building for longevity
At the very start of Sabah, Mickey was invited to an influencer dinner as a “C-level shoe celebrity,” in his words, for Rémy Martin, a 400-year-old, multi-generational French alcohol brand.
While there, he met the latest Martin descendant to spearhead the company and was blown away by how the business remained in the family’s hands – literally for centuries.
From there, Mickey resolved to build Sabah for the long haul, and the team began framing growth efforts as a long-term marathon, not a rapid spring to the finish.
2. Highlighting LTV, not new acquisitions
As Mickey explains, the goal has always been to build a community of high-LTV customers, making sure to avoid sky-high acquisition rates with equally high turnover.
In his experience, it makes for a far richer brand-buyer relationship. Like most DTC founders, says Mickey, “Nothing makes me happier than when our customers come back.”
He highlights one couple he sold to in Paris five years ago. To this day, the pair shops at every Sabah store, sends an annual Christmas card, and puts their kids and grandkids in Sabahs.
3. Build to (not) sell
Mickey has long been resistant to the concept of building a consumer brand to sell it. For him, a goal of an eventual sale sacrifices the desire to create a company for the joy of the process.
Of course, he's not opposed to selling Sabah for the right price down the line. But Mickey emphasizes the value of the work's intent — or its product and byproduct. In Sabah's case:
- The core intent is producing an incredible pair of leather shoes to sell to folks in a positive in-store environment (or an easily accessible website)
- The byproduct of that is loyal customers who love the brand and return to shop again
Defining that difference has been powerful for the company in cultivating a team-wide mindset and approach, as well as strategizing on short-term benchmarks and longer-term endgames.
"Our reason for building this has never been to sell Sabah for a profit. It’s about the joy of creating the best possible product and a memorable sales experience."
How to build an advisor network that drives real value
Overall, Mickey highlights the importance of having a support network of knowledgeable, trustworthy colleagues and advisors to turn to while building any business.
This is especially true for the Sabah team, he elaborates, given that none of their early members had MBAs — or any solidified experience in retail, ecommerce, or the footwear industry.
With all of this, Mickey has two recommendations for every founder and/or CEO:
- Rely on your team — Even if you’re the final decision maker, talking through things or coming to decisions as a committee can be powerful.
- Borrow from people — In the end, building your advisor network comes down to borrowing tidbits of advice and best practices from everyone.
Even the random individuals who don't stick around in your circle for long can wind up sharing an influential tip or trick that carries you for years.
Ultimately, Mickey’s informal advisory board is just a combination of expert forces, including:
- A brand owner who provided Mickey with inspiration and best practices early on
- A Head of Creative who’s run global productions and provides creative advice
- A fellow CEO with years of learnings to pass on over weekly phone calls
"You simply look up to people. See whose life and work you admire, learn what they’ve done, maybe get to know them, and try to borrow from their paths."