Do Their Sneakers Take You Higher?
Meet the Goldston twins of Athletic Propulsion Labs, whose sneakers were banned by the NBA but are now being embraced by the style crowd.
If Messrs Adam and Ryan Goldston, the 28-year-old co-founders of Athletic Propulsion Labs, were superheroes, their gamma-radiation moment/origin story would have happened at their parents’ home in Sherman Oaks, California. The year was 2009, and APL’s first batch of samples featuring the company’s patented Load ‘N Launch technology had been delivered to their mum and dad’s garage (their office was too small to hold the boxes). The twin brothers had started the company in their dorm room at the University of Southern California with the idea of creating a sneaker that would allow basketball players to jump higher. They had been at it for two years. The technical tests were done. Now it was time for the rubber to hit… well, something.
The Goldston family kitchen had been the scene of many boyhood athletic contests – in particular the rafters where the future college basketball players measured how high they had been able to jump as they were growing up. There were four levels of rafters and the highest the brothers had ever reached was the third one. Adam laced up a pair of his regular sneakers, and “he cleared the first and second rung,” remembers Ryan. “He then went to the garage and grabbed a sample pair of APLs and cleared the second, third and hit the fourth rung. Our father who had worked in the footwear business was standing there freaking out; our mum was like ‘why are there more marks on my kitchen wall?’”
Since that eureka moment, the Goldston brothers have built APL into an edgy, insider brand in a marketplace dominated by multi-national sneaker companies. The company is still very small – roughly 10 full-time employees. Beyond creating basketball and running sneakers for high-performance athletes, last winter they introduced a line of work-out clothes and athletic-inspired streetwear that combine performance with fashion. Rather than selling their product through traditional channels such as sporting goods stores, they sell through more elite outlets such as MR PORTER, NET‑A‑PORTER, their own website and a handful of high-end department stores. As a result, you’re just as likely to spot a pair of APL sneakers on a Vogue editor as you are on musician Mr Chris Brown.
In hindsight, this rarefied niche they currently occupy seems a natural by-product of growing up with a dad in the business and playing competitive sports at a high level. Some of their earliest memories involve sneakers. Their father, Mr Mark Goldston, was the chief marketing officer at Reebok during the era when the company introduced the Pump sneaker. He was the president and chief operating officer of L.A. Gear when that company was developing L.A. Gear Lights (remember the sneakers that would light up with every step?). He brought a demo pair home one night when the boys were small. They put them on, ran into the bathroom where they jumped up and down hoping to catch a reflected glimpse of the heel lights in the full-length mirror behind them. “We came out of the bathroom and said, ‘Great sneakers, but the lights should be on the sides so you can see them’,” remembers Adam. “I remember our dad calling the factory and seeing if that was possible.”
As boys, their favourite part of visiting their father at work was looking at the prototypes that were being developed by the research and development teams. The idea for their APL’s game-changing technology didn’t come from labs, though; it from came from super balls – those hyper-bouncy balls that boys love to ricochet around a room. “We were trying to figure out how to slice open a super ball and attach it to the bottom of a sneaker,” explains Ryan. “We loved springs in general. And so much of innovation in the business had been focused on the heel of the sneaker, so we decided to focus on the forefront.” In simplistic terms, the way their Load ‘N Launch system works is that a launch pad housed inside a cavity compresses (the “load” phase) and then releases (the “launch” phase) as an athlete exerts force on the front of the foot. It’s like having a tiny trampoline beneath the balls of your feet.
While the brothers played together on USC’s varsity basketball and football (American) teams, they chose different academic paths. Ryan graduated from USC’s Marshall School of Business. Adam majored in sociology. Together they come up with the company’s galvanising slogans such as Stop Dreaming, Jump Higher. Despite graduating in 2009 with a killer product and a two-month-old company, it wasn’t until a year out of school that they received the biggest marketing coup any fledgling brand could hope for.
Getting sneakers on the feet of any professional basketball player is a major coup for any brand, yet the Goldstons knew they could not compete with the marketing muscle of Nike, Jordan Brand and adidas. Still, at the beginning of the 2010-2011 NBA season, nearly one third of the league’s incoming freshman players wanted to wear their products, but first they needed approval from the NBA. “Then in October 2010, Ryan and I were sitting in our office, and we received an email from Mr Stu Jackson [the NBA’s executive vice president, basketball operations] and it informed us that our Concept 1 basketball sneaker had been banned based on the rule prohibiting ‘undue competitive advantage’,” remembers Adam. “We were like OMG. The wording from the NBA could not have been better – undue competitive advantage.” They reached out to Mr Larry Winokur, the co-founder and co-chief executive officer of B|W|R Public Relations whom Ryan had taken a class from at USC, to help with a press release which went out at 7am on 19 October. They didn’t have a marketing budget, but thanks to the NBA ban, they received global press coverage.
Having convinced sneaker aficionados of their ability to make a basketball player jump higher and runners to shorten their times, they are turning their attention to other sports (can Load ‘N Launch help golfers drive the ball further?) and other audience segments – namely fashion apparel. On a recent trip to New York, the brothers spent time with CFDA chief executive officer Mr Steven Kolb to discuss how they are expanding as a brand that blends athletic and fashion in a unique way. Now if they could only invent a sneaker that helps designers start their fashion shows on time.