When Apple debuted the iPhone in 2007, the phone had no 3G, and only 8GBs worth of storage. One year later, it doubled its storage and added GPS. One year after that, it swapped in a faster processor and an improved camera. The point is, the iPhone grew incrementally, a few upgrades at a time.
A similar model lies at the core of Atoms. The New York-based sneaker brand launched in 2019 and shot into the spotlight in 2021, after Humans of New York ran a story on Sidra Qasim, who cofounded Atoms with her husband, Waqas Ali. For three years, the company only sold one model on the site: a $129 “everyday shoe” that’s unisex, available in quarter sizes, and an ever-changing roster of colors. With every production batch that followed, however, Atoms kept listening to its customers and improving that one model with small tweaks like the length of the laces or the shape of the heel notch.
Now, Atoms is launching a second model, with more built-in support and a completely reinvented sole. It’s an opportunity for the founders to continue improving their products on the “atomic level,” as they say—and a welcome alternative to the frequent product drop model that fast fashion was built on.
Atoms isn’t the first to start small and iterate on a single product. When Moleskine launched in 1997, it only sold one kind of notebook. For over seven years, Away Luggage has been riffing on its signature carry-on—so versatile that People magazine dubbed it “the little black dress of luggage.” And it wasn’t until 2021, after almost 20 years, that Crocs broke with tradition and fundamentally altered the silhouette of its infamous clogs. Allbirds also launched with just one product—the Wool Runners—though it has since billowed into a billion-dollar company that sells sandals, flats, hiking shoes, and even slippers.
In the case of Atoms, however, the concept is rooted in the founders’ background. It all started with a shoe leather company back in Pakistan, where Qasim and Ali grew up and met. While looking for business ideas, the pair encountered a group of craftsmen making shoes in a tiny workshop, and convinced them they could sell them on the internet. (Ali built the website; Sidra learned the craft and focused on production.) Then in 2015, they were accepted into Y Combinator, which helped launch behemoths like Airbnb and Dropbox. When they moved to San Francisco, they were surprised to see the sheer variety of milk and yogurt brands at the supermarket. “The kinds of shops I was going to [in Pakistan] only had one kind of yogurt,” says Ali. “We found our life was so simple because of having fewer choices,” says Qasim.
In the years that followed, the duo struggled to make a business case for leather dress shoes in the U.S. After countless interviews with shoe store managers and potential customers, they noticed a gap in the market for everyday shoes that were both comfortable and stylish. In 2019, they launched Atoms with Model 000.
The first pair came with elastic laces (meaning you only have to tie them once) and circular cut-outs at the bottom of the shoe that helped reduce the weight by 20%. In the next production batch, they decreased the height of the heel. Then the sole was made slip-resistant. Then they refined the lace tips so they don’t bend as much. Then they reduced the length of the shoelaces. “We are forcing ourselves to never compromise on the quality of the product,” says Ali. “When your whole business depends on one product, you have to make to make sure it’s really, really good.”
There are many benefits to this kind of approach. Small-batch manufacturing helps them ensure better quality control. And fewer models mean fewer SKUs, which keeps inventory costs down and helps streamline their supply chain. But as Ali says: “Customers in the U.S. are trained to look for choices.” That’s where colors come in.
When Model 000 first launched, it was only available in three colors: black, white, and black and white. Soon after, Atoms started launching different colors every 45 to 60 days. (Customers would preorder, so it was never a burden on the inventory.) From navy blue and neon yellow to crimson red, Model 000 has been available in a total of 19 colors, including limited editions like a bitcoin-themed shoe (it sold for $129 in 2021 and is now only available on eBay for up to $600.)
The idea, says Ali, is to treat the “shoe as a canvas,” but also to build trust and keep customers coming back for new colors. “Whenever we do limited-edition colors, our customers pay attention,” he says. To date, Atoms has raised $12.1 million, though it has only sold around 100,000 pairs of shoes, highlighting a common problem among DTC brands that start small and find it hard to scale. Still, Ali says the brand gets most of its business through word of mouth and 30% of customers are repeats. (In 2020, Atoms retooled their entire production facility to create masks during the shortage; they sold half a million masks and donated 400,000.)
Now, Atoms is launching its first new model in four years. The new shoe, which costs $159, boasts a hidden tongue loop that prevents the tongue from scrunching up when you put on the shoe. While previous eyelets were made of recycled brass, the new eyelets are made of recycled polyester, meaning the entire shoe can be recycled more easily because it’s all made of the same material.
The biggest change, however—and one that required the team to create an entirely new shoe—lies in the sole. Model 000 has a standard rubber outsole, a midsole, and a copper insole. (Individual copper soles do exist, but they’re rarely integrated into the shoe.) Meanwhile, Model 001 has removable insoles with an even higher amount of copper, which takes care of stinky smells, and a more rigid outsole that’s shaped like a cup. Made of Atoms’ proprietary foam material, the cup provides higher support, including for people whose feet roll inwards.
Arguably, many of these upgrades (sole aside) could have found their way into Model 000 as well, but the team is staying true to their ethos of improving one product at a time. “We want to have all our focus on Model 001,” says Qasim, suggesting that Model 000 will take a backseat. “Our philosophy is that with every production batch, if we can improve something, we should do that.”