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Jul 08, 2015

At Work With Aaron Firestein

Steven: Long story short or short story long, what's the timeline on how you got to where you are now?

Aaron: We've been around since 2011, so about four years now. It kind of all started when I would draw on canvas shoes in college. Then, through word of mouth or on Facebook I had people start asking me to make shoes for them. After graduating college in 2008, I bought a one-way ticket to Argentina because I really wanted to learn Spanish and figure out what I wanted to do with my life. While volunteering for an organization that worked with street kids in the slums, I met my then future business partner, Raaja, who I sold a pair of hand-designed shoes to. After meeting, we went our separate ways for a while. He was traveling around the world and I stayed in Argentina for a couple years working as a freelance photographer. On the side, I was still making drawing on shoes and even had a Facebook page with a couple thousand fans (laughs). A couple of years after that chance encounter he reached out to see if I'd be interested in turning the small-scale hobby I had into a real company. I said "let's do it" and we began putting the wheels in motion.

S: Was the page called Bucketfeet?

A: Yep, in fact it's always been called Bucketfeet. It's funny because when I teamed up with Raaja and decided to turn this into a business, we thought we'd change the name, but decided to just keep it. It came from a silly nickname I had in college. Some friends thought it'd be funny to call me "Bucket", because they had been out and were pretty drunk and then for some reason it stuck. I hated it at first, but then started to embrace it. When I first made my FB page I needed a name, so I thought about how to integrate "Bucket" into the name. I thought about something like feet or kicks and thought about 'Bucket Kicks' or like 'Kick the Bucket' which was just a little too morbid (laughs). So then I landed on Bucket Feet and still to this day the best compliment I get is that whether or not people like it, they always remember it.

S: How do artists get their designs featured on a pair of shoes?

A: Right now we have a network of 20k artists that we source from.

S: Wow, how are you able to keep track of all that?

A: It's an open platform on our site so anyone can go in and submit designs. Then we have an internal team that filters through and selects the designs that we then turn into shoes. So not all 20k artist have shoes, but that's around how many artists have raised their hands and said "I want to be a part of this". It runs the gamut of graffiti artists, graphic designers, textile designers, fine artists, doodlers – you name it. I'm usually the first filter on what does or doesn't get produced. Then from there it goes through even more and more eyeballs that narrow it down even further. It's a long process from concept to product; it takes a lot of work.

S: That does sound like a lot of work, how does that fit that into your workweek?

A: Well I like to think of our company culture as a nice mix of flexibility and discipline. As long as you're getting your stuff done, no one's going to really be babysitting you. As for me, and a lot of other people here, I travel a lot. I correspond with a lot of artists that I have strong relationships with still. I also spend a lot of time scouting for new artists.

S: What's your day-to-day look like with so much work?

A: I travel a lot for work so between traveling around and working from the office while I am in town, it's a lot of corresponding with artists and maintaining those relationships. I spend a lot of time scouring the Internet looking for unique artists that we really want to work with. I also spend a lot of time working pretty closely with our marketing team so that when we're sending out emails to our consumers or artists, we're always using the right tone. We also just opened our new Studio in Bucktown (1647 N. Damen) that we're really excited about. It's a combination retail store/gallery space so we'll be able to host different events throughout the year.

S: Do you plan on hosting private events there where people can rent the place out and draw on shoes?

A: Yeah we've had a lot of fun throwing a few of those events in the past. We recently threw one at Havas. We've also been contacted by Children's Hospitals for kids based events.

S: I love that you're still staying true to the root of why Bucketfeet exists in the first place.

A: Of course! One of my favorite parts of hosting some of those events is watching people, no matter their age or whether they consider themselves an artist, having a good time. It's all about having fun and being as creative as you want to be. That 's why we truly do believe that 'Art is For Everyone'.

S: So now you guys have a few Studios around town and your office is over here in the West Loop, but what's your favorite place to hang around the city?

A: That's always a funny question because I'm usually the last person you'd suspect would, but I live in the Gold Coast. Being from California, I've always wanted to be close to the water. Even though I don't spend too much time at the beach, it's always nice to feel like I can get away from where I work and like to go out. Soho House is always a good fallback option if there isn't much going on because you can normally run into someone you know. Plus it's close to the office. When I do go out, I'm usually spending my time around Wicker Park, Bucktown, Logan Square. My lease is up at the end of the year, so I'm sure I'll make my way back to some of those neighborhoods I really love at some point soon.

S: How long have you lived in Chicago?

A: I've been here for about four years now and I love it.

S: After four years, what does Chicago mean to you?

A: It's really grown on me since I've been here. Obviously the winters are tough and you don't really get used to them. A lot of why we decided to base the company here has a lot to do with the personal connections we have, the affordability, and because no one is really doing what we're doing here.

S: What would your biggest competition be then?

A: We definitely pay attention to what the usual suspects in footwear are doing. We also like to make sure we're keeping an eye on other companies that work with artists. It's extremely important that we work as hard as possible to become a company artists aspire to work with because they feel like their voice is being heard and the products that are being released are things they can be proud of. We're only four years into it so we know we still have a lot of growing to do.

S: Side note, how does the warm weather play into the seasonal success of Bucketfeet? Because I distinctly remember hanging out with you in the middle of February when we had that insane blizzard, and you were walking in three feet of snow in Bucketfeet.

A: Yeah that's a funny story because I ended up walking home that night. It was pretty miserable, trust me. That being said, when the weather gets bad, we tend to shift our resources to the warmer climates and our online presence. We're also working on a few designs that will be geared towards the colder months this coming fall that we're really excited about.

S: So you're wearing Stock, what got you into it?

A: Well Jim and Jason are a couple of the guys I've known longest in Chicago actually. We met through mutual friends when they were running a company called Left of Trend. They were always super supportive about what we were doing, so we really got along. We're a pretty small bunch, but the Chicago maker scene has a lot of pride and it's awesome to be a part of it.