What's in a Comunity? - Part 1
Truth. Cycling is a great people connector. I've always loved this aspect about riding a bike. The fact that such a simple machine can bring so many people together who inherently may never have met otherwise is amazing. I've made lifelong friends with perfect strangers from halfway around the world all because we rode bikes together. And considering Rivet is located in the greater Los Angeles area it is no wonder we have such a diverse and inspiring cast of characters who share our passion for two wheels. Many of these people we find riding our bikes with on a weekly basis come from a vast array of professions - from lawyers to artists, CEO's to chefs, tech entrepreneurs to photographers, teachers to advertisers, all with a story to tell. It's no understatement in saying LA's cycling community boasts a truly deep bench when it comes to the variety of people we run into. So after countless group rides it dawned on me, why don't we produce a mini blog series exploring a few of these LA based characters. Let's take a look into their everyday lives, their 9 to 5, the lives we don't see when we're hauling butt at 30mph down PCH. After all this is Rivet's home and don't the people we weekend-warrior with make up our cycling terroir as much as the twisting Malibu canyon roads do?
One such cyclist is Sean Scott, co-founder of LA based shoe company Comunity (yes the one "m" is purposeful). I first met Sean at one of my cycling events, the Rivet Raid. He had just attended our second gravel grinder held in the coastal Santa Monica Mountains. His legs and arms were covered in dust and sweat, caked on almost like mud from a spa treatment. Fatigue was written all over his body from the 70 miles of traversed dirt and tarmac but he had a mile wide grin on his face as he reveled with other event goers. I noticed Sean had slipped out of his rigid cycling shoes and into a pair of comfy, supple, suede kicks, almost sneaker like, but much classier. These looked like the kind of shoes that are comfortable enough to wear all day but chic enough to strut out to dinner with. I remarked "those are cool!" and Sean replied, "oh thanks, these come from the shoe company I founded." And that's when we got to talking. A couple weeks later I sat down with Sean and his business partner/co-founder Ryan Gumienny (Shannon Scott, Sean's wife and also co-founder wasn't present a the time) at Comunity's showroom in downtown LA, or DTLA as it's more colloquially known. DTLA is one of those places that reminds me of New York's Meatpacking district some 10 -15 years ago. Giant derelict industrial warehouses bearing the scars from decades of neglect, only to be resurrected into one of the city's most trending neighborhood's complete with art galleries, third wave coffee shops, hip eateries and stylish hotels. There's even a new Soho House slated to open in early 2019. The Comunity store itself is effortlessly relaxed - a cross of California cool meets boho-chic with its kilim rugs and tanned faded leather couches, coupled with touches of Scandinavian practicality in its blond wood shelving and easily reconfigurable work spaces. My eyes were immediately drawn to one corner of the shop. A booth dubbed the Comunity Cobbler. It's a mini workshop of sorts complete with all the tools, tanned leather, threading and foot molds. Everything you'd need to hand craft your shoes right there and it's flat out cool looking!
Settling into my seat I decided to get straight to the point and ask Sean why? Why start a shoe company and what makes you different from the rest? As Sean started to speak he began to give me a background story on his professional life. Turns out all three partners at Comunity share decades of combined shoe industry experience ranging from cult leisure brands like Tom's, Deckers, and Sanuk to mainstream behemoth Asics. Despite prestigious job titles and comfortable employment all three felt a longing to do just a little bit more. To be more socially responsible. Sure brands like Toms were well known for their 1 for 1 program and giving trips. But they wanted to not just give back, but give back locally. As Sean put it, "It's great to give back to the global community but we saw a lot of people right here on our own streets we also wanted to help and connect with." And with that premise, the idea that connecting, contributing and giving back to the local community would be just as important as profits, Comunity was born. Of course it's always easier said than done. The first item on their new company's to-do list was to source homegrown talent. If your company's ethos is to help build the local community well then naturally that includes finding local, skilled craftsmen. People right here in LA with the same experience and skill set as those making shoes in China. Talking to Ryan, it turns out this was no easy feat. Ryan began to explain the troubles. "It's well known, China has snapped up manufacturing jobs from the US for decades. In fact these jobs have been out of the US now for so long, that China has not only replaced our skill set with their own, but have vastly built upon it. So the challenge doesn't simply lie in finding the few artisans that remain, but to find skilled shoemakers who are also up to date on present day shoe construction methods." Ryan continued to add that this was definitely a trial an error period for the company as they bounced from one craftsman to the next before finding someone with enough expertise and passion. With the local skilled labor eventually secured there was obviously always going to be the next hurdle; the all important wage-gap. How does Comunity manufacture shoes in the heart of Los Angeles and pay a fair wage all the while keeping prices competitive? After all, without profits you have no company and without the company you have no ability to contribute to your local community. Sean ceded, "it's a very real concern. It's not uncommon for people to think our price point being an average of $160/shoe is a bit too high. But we really can't go any lower." I for one found the fact that people balked at the slightly higher price surprising. In a day and age when people spend thousands of dollars on a handbag, surely one wouldn't shutter at a pair of handmade, genuine leather, supremely comfortable yet stylish shoes. In fact you can't even find a pair of "made in Vietnam" Nike's for under $100, let alone ones that have quality leather.
Despite these initial hurdles though Comunity has continued to shine (in fact they recently celebrated their first birthday). They persistently spread their notion that a business can stand for more than just profits; that businesses have a responsibility to be catalysts for positive change. And this isn't just lip service or the mantra d'jour but practiced throughout as seen by such initiatives as their Giving Partners, where they donate $10 of every shoe purchase to one of 3 local non-profits of your choice. Or by their giant event space at the Comunity showroom which they host charity events free of charge. And then there's their hiring of local craftsmen to build their product, thereby contributing to the local job base. Every decision and thought on how to proceed as a business is governed by their ability to reach out and impact their local community. In the days of a hyper globalized, Amazon Prime fueled, often impersonal world it's refreshing to see people like those at Comunity taking a stand. Sure the days of your local bakery and butcher may be long forgotten and replaced by a Costco where the self-help books are sold next to the Alaskan king crab, which is sold next to the toilet paper, but it's nice to see a small reversion from today's homogenization back to a locally focused, more personal way of doing business. Perhaps this is why we've seen a resurgence in the local farmers market or organic products? People are looking for transparency, and a connection to the products they buy. They want to be more educated about where their goods are coming from or what's been put into them. We don't want to fade through life like nameless specters carrying out impersonal transactions. We crave authentic interaction and that's what Comunity strives to tap into; to bring perhaps small but meaningful human encounters that help empower a community.
For more information, or to get your hands on a pair of cool handcrafted Comunity kicks head to their website.