The best events don’t always start with a business plan. Often, they start with a spark. Someone has a passion they want to share, and a great idea about how to share it. They’re moved to bring people together around a vision, so they make it happen — even with no event planning experience. Here’s an interview with one of the founders of SneakerCon, whose love for sneaker culture led to a global event business.
When Alan Vinogradov, his brother Barris, and an unexpected partner Yu-Ming Wu, launched the first SneakerCon in 2009, it was to find and hook up with people who were as obsessed with sneakers as they were. They just knew there was a hidden community out there who would go crazy for the chance to buy, sell, and swap rare pairs and more.
Today, SneakerCon has brought the underground sneaker culture to the mainstream, reaching nearly 70,000 attendees at 13 domestic and international shows per year. Last year, their New York event was held at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center hosted 19,000 people.
But SneakerCon wasn’t always “the greatest sneaker show on Earth.” Learn how Vinogradov grew it into the success it is today — and why he thinks his greatest success is still ahead of him.
What first sparked the idea or inspired you to launch your event?
Vinogradov: It all began with a trip to Tokyo, Japan in 2003. My brother and I visited boutique shoe stores that put a lot of care into the shoes they were selling. One of those stores was A Bathing Ape, who made a shoe called the Bapesta. I bought a pair of the shoes and, on a whim, decided to put them for sale on eBay — they sold instantly.
Over the next four to five years, we traveled to Japan over 30 times, buying and selling “Bapes” online. This led us to throw our first event in 2006, called Soled Out NYC. We didn’t know what we were doing — but it was a success.
Then, in 2008, SneakerNews.com posted one of the items we were selling and didn’t give us any photo credit. I sent an angry note, asking them why they ripped off my images, and got a reply from Yu-Ming Wu from SneakerNews.com. He said he was sorry, explained that he was a one-man team, but that he updated the site to give us credit. That’s when I realized his email signature had his office address — and it was literally two blocks from ours. So I hit him up saying we should link up.
It was during that meeting with Yu-Ming that I told him about Soled Out NYC and how we’d love to do more and get him involved. Yu-Ming said, “That’s a dope idea. We should do it. I own the SneakerCon.Com domain name. Let’s get started.”
When did you know your event would be a success?
Vinogradov: A few months after meeting Yu-Ming, we did our first SneakerCon — and it sold out. That said, we never thought about becoming successful as our main goal. Our passion for sneakers is so deep and ingrained that even if we still operated on the scale of that first event in 2009, we’d still be doing it.
We never had the goal to reach a certain milestone –we cared first and foremost about building the sneaker community.
Was there a moment you had to take the leap and go all in on your event?
Vinogradov: Right now. We have to double down and go all in. Sneaker culture is growing, so there is competition and commercialization. The secondary sneaker market has become a full-fledged business and a lot of companies are investing a lot of money trying to carve out their space.
So we’re doing a lot more events and creating a bunch of different experiences through partnerships and technology. We want to continue growing and stay real to the culture. For SneakerCon, it’s important that we remain a legitimate part of this community.
What was your first big failure and what did you learn from it?
Vinogradov: We didn’t grow SneakerCon outside of New York soon enough. For four years, all our energy was focused on growing that event. It wasn’t until we went to DC that we realized our biggest failure was not going there sooner to build our brand.
We learned that we needed to start hitting up other markets around the country and focus more on building a community and culture that spans cities.
Now you’ll find us in Berlin at a 1,000-person event a week before our huge event for 20,000 people. For me, it doesn’t matter if it’s for 100 people or one million people – it’s all about building a community.
What’s your advice for someone just starting out in the events industry?
Vinogradov: If you’re truly passionate, just jump in. Don’t think about the risks. You’ll never know if you’ll be successful if you don’t try, especially in the events business.
The most important thing is to be aggressive and move forward. I wish we would have grown to other markets and expanded the business sooner.
Don’t let the moment pass. Follow your passion.
Vinogradova often wonders where SneakerCon would be today had they taken more risks sooner. If you, too, have a passion to share with others — don’t wait.
Whether you enjoy collecting rare products or discussing an odd interest with people online, this is your opportunity to start a brand new type of in-person event in your area.
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