In 2014, Baltimore native Will Rienhoff left a steady job at a tech start-up in Thailand for a new chapter and a bit of adventure as an entrepreneur.
Rienhoff was in Bangkok for his job and in his spare time wandered the city, discovering a booming and impressive factory district. Noting the high-quality goods that some of the factories were able to produce, he began to fantasize about starting a company of his own.
The class of 2004 Gilman grad tested the waters by going to textile markets and factories and asking questions. He eventually began buying different materials, getting them printed, and figuring out how to make a go of the business. “I learned a ton during this period by trial and error,” he says.
When he moved back to Baltimore in 2016 FROATS was on the forefront of his mind. After a few months back here, “I decided to really go for it and actively pursue it,” he says.
Fully committed to opening his business, he realized his dream. With the help of a few friends in China, he has switched production there. This summer with the completion of the brand’s retail website, FROATS Shoes was unveiled online and is now open for business.
Less than a year into the company, FROATS’ small but cohesive line of brightly colored boat shoes has Rienhoff, a self-described “jack of all trades” fully engaged and doing it all, with enthusiasm. He shared with us the thrills and challenges of starting his line of shoes from the FROATS’ headquarters in Mt. Vernon.
Can you tell me the story of when and how FROATS came about? How did you end up in contact with factories in China?
I was working in a cloud services start-up company and was fully immersed in the start-up culture and all the hands-on work that goes with it. Meanwhile, given my location in that part of the world, there is so much capable production and so many people making things that I was really interested in somehow getting involved with the resources around me. I’ve always had an interest in shoes and this, coupled with inspiration from other e-commerce, direct-to-consumer brands, helped me make this decision. I felt that shoes were an area in men’s casual attire that needed a boost, excitement, and some more fun! FROATS, which stands for “fresh boat shoes” began to take shape.
What did you do before starting a business? Is your background a creative one or a business-oriented one?
I worked for a large supply chain and logistics company based in Philadelphia before moving overseas for the second time. I then worked for a huge Thai conglomerate to help develop improved supply chain capabilities within the company. During that first year, my boss asked me if I wanted the opportunity to join a subsidiary start-up they were launching and that’s when I moved into the tech arena. I was thrilled to get that exposure. I was a project manager during our build out, and I also designed our customer experience as we brought customers onto our platform.
My work background is definitely not super creative, but I think being overseas and working for someone who pushed me to think outside of the box, to get my hands dirty, and not to be afraid to make mistakes, helped me think independently and creatively.
What is your specialty at the business now? How much do you do yourself? Designs, surface pattern, web design, everything? Do you have partnerships or investors? Employees?
Currently, I’m the jack of all trades executing on everything that needs to get done for FROATS. I do outsource some of the technical design work, but for the most part, I’m trying to juggle everything at once. I’m acutely aware that this is not sustainable, so I’m actively looking for the right people in specific areas to come aboard and join me.
How hard was it to teach yourself to source materials, design tech packs, and speak the language of factories and production?
Finding my way in the sourcing world was an adventure that started out as a hobby, so I considered it fun in the beginning. I lived in Thailand in total for almost four years, and I worked hard to be able to communicate and understand to the best of my abilities the country in which I lived. My Thai language skills were good enough that I was able to explore off the beaten path industrial areas and markets. And when I did run into a complete roadblock, I had a great group of local friends that I could reach out to for help.
However, ultimately I’ve gone to China for sourcing, and my Mandarin is non-existent outside of hello and thank you. Undoubtedly, speaking Mandarin would be a huge advantage; however, I’ve found that it hasn’t held me back too much. I also have several very close friends working in China, so I’ve visited many times during my years in Thailand, and I’ve become comfortable and accustomed to traveling within the country.
Any visual inspirations for the line? Has your vision for the look of the shoes remained the same or evolved over the course of having them produced?
I like bright colors, and I think that is definitely represented in my first production run. I’ve always had an affinity for warm weather, and these shoes and patterns are in line with that. My vision has remained consistent throughout the process, but there are definitely some product ideas and concepts that I’ve scrapped.
I noticed the MD flag theme in one of your patterns. Do you consider yourself first and foremost a Maryland business?
I definitely think of FROATS as a proud Baltimore-bred company. I love Baltimore and I love our state. I was born and raised in Baltimore, and if I can build a company here and be in a position to do good, then I’d be thrilled. I think there is so much [positivity] in the city that doesn’t make it to the front page, and I think Baltimore needs as many people championing it as possible.
With all the negative press over foreign factories in the last decade, and the worry that cheap labor may come at the cost of fair treatment of workers, what made you decide to keep production in factories in Asia, rather than produce domestically? Is it difficult to monitor the factories you use, and make sure they hold themselves up to American standards?
I took a hard look at manufacturing here in the States. I reached out to a couple of private label, small batch producers, but I was unable to get in the door. Even if I were to get in the door, I don’t know how I would be able to make it work financially. Shoes are difficult to make and experienced shoemakers are needed in combination with state-of-the-art machinery. Currently, it doesn’t really exist here in a way that is affordable to my market. If this were to change, I’d be incredibly excited.
With that said, I’m sourcing out of China and I think China’s factories are no longer the bargain people think they are. Other countries are much cheaper to operate out of. From a production standpoint, China has incredible scale and capability. Their infrastructure and their industries are all very developed and efficient. I’ve made two sourcing trips in the past year and have seen the shoes on the line and have walked the factory specifically to make sure that I was comfortable with the environment and that my standards were met.
Is working long distance with a producer difficult in any other way? Do you visit the factories for quality monitoring?
The time zone obviously presents challenges as do the cultural differences, but I think keeping it simple with communication helps greatly as does having patience and knowing that there will be issues no matter what. I receive iterations of samples in the mail and we work through the iterations until it’s correct. It is a long, but imperative process if you want the product to turn out well. I will then take a trip based on significant milestones like signing off on a final order. It’s important to note that I also use a group based in the U.S. that has a track record of working with factories to ensure quality standards are met. I don’t have to do this, but it adds a layer of accountability that I think is important to have.
What made you go to Bangkok? What had you been doing before going abroad?
I [taught] English for a year in Bangkok from 2009 to 2010. I graduated college in 2008 at the start of the financial crisis and I had no idea what I wanted to do. A buddy and I bought one-way tickets to Bangkok to teach English in early 2009 as a way to expand our horizons and do something out of the ordinary. Ultimately that experience was the first step in this whole journey.
What does a typical day look like at FROATS headquarters? Is this your full-time job?
It’s a bit hectic right now. I fulfill orders and ship them out. I’m constantly looking for inspiration and ideas on the digital marketing front. I’m putting up content on social media and seeing what sticks. I’m talking to people about pop-up opportunities. I wear my FROATS every day and run around Baltimore with a pocket full of business cards. I am three steps in twenty directions and I’m just trying to get FROATS out there.
In the FROATS’ ‘about’ section, you use the phrase “getting after it” multiple times. Can you describe what that entails? Who is your customer?
“Getting after it” is our way of saying, “Seize the Day” and don’t waste it! Life is short so make the most of it and have some fun along the way. Our official FROATS motto is: “Cut loose and chase the goose!” This means let your hair down and turn up the volume on life just a little bit.
We see our customers as anyone who appreciates a classic, casual shoe but wants to crank it up a notch with unique and fun patterns. We also see our customers as people who care about quality and comfort. Therefore, we have created a shoe that is extremely comfortable with soft leather and a best-in-class insole. FROATS are undoubtedly much more comfortable than your average boat shoe.
Where can one purchase FROATS in Baltimore? Are you exclusively online? Any plans for a retail shop?
Currently, we are only online at froats.com and that’s the best way to get a pair. However, I’m looking at pop-up opportunities and events as well. As soon as those are locked in, I’ll be sure to make that information available to our mailing list subscribers as well on our social channels on Instagram and Facebook.
What’s next for FROATS, and for Will Rienhoff?
We just launched one month ago and it is late in the season, so we will continue to hone our marketing and look for exposure. We’ll explore warmer climates when it gets cold here, but ultimately I’m hoping to be a well-oiled machine by next spring.
The next immediate move for FROATS and for me is to build a small team. Part of trying to build something is to know what you’re good at and what you are not so good at. Rather than putz around and waste time in areas that aren’t my strengths, I think bringing the right people on board is hugely important and that’s what I’m going to do.
Froats will give away a pair of boat shoes at the Baltimore Fishbowl Guide to Baltimore Independent Schools Launch Party on Thursday, September 28 at 68 Village Square, the Village of Cross Keys, 5100 Falls Road. The event is also a fundraiser for Outward Bound, which conducts leadership programs for students in both the public and private schools. To purchase a ticket, click here.