Anna and Ran Yona's children grew up barefoot in the countryside close to the Israeli city of Haifa. When the family moved to Germany in 2013, the sturdy shoes commonly worn here were torturous. In no time at all, Anna Yona sewed her offspring soft shoes with particularly thin soles – and discovered a market niche in the process. She and her husband set up the successful company Wildling Shoes, which won the KfW Entrepreneurs' Award 2019 for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia.
Video: Wildling Shoes, winner of the KfW Entrepreneurs' Award 2019 for the state of North Rhine-Westphalia (KfW Group/n-tv). This video is only available in German.
Anna Yona starts most of her working days looking out over the cherry tree in the overgrown garden. The founder of Wildling Shoes works from home and, like her 120 employees, is part of a large virtual family. That the company took on this shape was just as logical as the foundation of the company itself.
When Anna Yona went to Israel as a student, she couldn't know that she would stay for many years. She met her husband Ran in Tel Aviv. Together with the sports therapist, she ran a fitness studio and also worked as a translator. But she missed her family in Germany more and more and Ran could also imagine a life there. The sports studio was sold, the suitcases packed and the couple moved with their three children to Anna's detached family home in the Oberbergisches Land.
From the idea to the market launch
The three children needed their first shoes in autumn. They had, until that point, grown up barefoot. Many studies confirmed what the parents had already observed: children who are frequently barefoot often have a more stable posture and stronger muscles. And their feet develop better because they have so much freedom. Conventional children's shoes didn't convince Anna and Ran. And thus the idea for the start-up was born – they wanted to produce environmentally friendly minimalist shoes.
The start-up consultation helped with the first steps, participation in a regional business plan competition took the concept one step further. At this stage, KfW was recommended to them as a financing partner. An additional crowdfunding campaign not only raised money, it made it possible to develop the brand and the community early on.
KfW Entrepreneurs’ Award
KfW Entrepreneurs’ Award (formerly the GründerChampions) selected the 16 state winners and one national winner for their business ideas in October 2019.Learn more
Customer retention pays off
The early networking efforts paid off when the first crisis hit: 300 pairs had been delivered, 800 were on their way from production in Portugal to Germany when reports of defects started coming in. An adhesive used for the shoes leaked dye when wet. The dye got everywhere, on the shoes, feet and socks. Anna Yona thinks back with horror: “I was totally distraught. We would not have been able to pay our customers back. Then we told them about the problem. It had become clear in the meantime that the dye didn't run any more after two wash cycles.” The vast majority of our customers were very understanding. “We sold the rest of the series online with a 30 per cent discount and there was not a single pair left.”
The hard work with production, the online shop and customer support was a challenge for the couple. Anna Yona would open her laptop once her children were in day care or in school. Ran Yona, who was responsible for product development, had the best ideas when he was jogging in the forest behind the house. Because they were able to work so well themselves at home, it was only logical for the founders to hire employees who were also flexible and could work in from home.
Read more under the image gallery.
A barefoot shoe doesn't have to look like a shoe from a medical supply store. Wildling makes sure that the models go with the latest outfits.
Transparency, flat hierarchies, clear goals
The Yonas met with their first employees on a regular basis. Together they built up structures, tried out processes and defined rules for communication. Flat hierarchies, clear goals and transparency are still characteristics that set Wildling Shoes apart today. “The way we work is wonderfully effective. I learned about innovative methods, but also made a lot of decisions based on gut instincts,” reports Anna Yona. The team meets every six weeks. Because the Yonas know from experience that a screen cannot replace personal contact. In the meantime, the team has grown too large for just one meeting. “We divide the group over two days because our conference house is bursting at the seams,” explains Anna Yona.
The Wildling shoes are produced in Portugal. The working conditions there are fair and there are traditional companies that specialise in handmade shoes. When selecting partners, Anna and Ran Yona attach great importance to compliance with environmental standards.
Economic growth is not their primary goal, they have long seen Wildling as an opportunity to assume responsibility for the environment. The shoes are made entirely of natural materials from sustainable sources and many social and environmental projects are actively supported. Wildling Shoes aims to benefit everyone. We can influence this with the decisions we make. Anna Yona knows that this would not be possible as an employee. This also holds true for her husband, who loves the freedom of how they work. He wouldn't have any ideas in an open-plan office, he admits laughing. There's only one thing he misses in his new home: the ocean. This is why one special piece of luggage always comes along on his travels to their production sites in Portugal – his surfboard.
Published on KfW Stories: 14 November 2019