Alumni Story: Jesse Tran — Soft shoes, hard lessons
17 Sep 2021 - Tommi Byman
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Rens, a company that makes sneakers out of coffee waste, is one of the most celebrated Finnish startups in recent years. The two founders of the company have both been selected to Forbes Europe 30 under 30 in the Social Entrepreneurship category and have been looked up to by most of the Finnish startup scene. In the past year, however, not all publicity has been good publicity. We talked with one of the founders, AVP alumnus Jesse Tran, about building a successful company, but also about making mistakes and learning from them.
Jesse was born in Vietnam and moved to Finland in 2012, when he was 19 years old, to start at Aalto University. His first stop was the Mikkeli campus, which offers a Bachelor’s Program in International Business. “I believe it was one of the only English research-university (yliopisto) programs at the time. We had a very diverse, very tight group. I felt very lucky to be there,” Jesse says. After graduating in 2015 he applied for a Master’s Program at Aalto University School of Business and moved to Helsinki. Around that time, he also got his first job in Finland, at DealDash, and heard about AVP. “For me, that opened a new world of entrepreneurship in Finland,” he says.
Even before he moved to Helsinki, Jesse was interested in technology startups, so when he read about AVP’s Aalto Fellows course he couldn’t believe it was real. “It sounded like a dream! I was so happy when I got in,” he says. During the course, Jesse got to learn from a diverse group of teachers, entrepreneurs, and VCs he had never imagined meeting, let alone talking with. One of the most memorable lessons for him was a storytelling workshop with Bruce Oreck, whose very American attitude towards self-promotion was in stark contrast with the more conservative ‘let’s not make a big deal out of ourselves’ -culture of Finland and Vietnam. Besides Aalto Fellows, Jesse took part in many AVP events, such as talks by Ilkka Paananen and Miki Kuusi. “Those events inspired and taught me a lot. I wouldn’t have chosen this path without them,” Jesse says. “I pretty much spent my Master’s in the AVP corner. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”
I wouldn’t have chosen this path without AVP.
Already the same year, Jesse took all that he had learned at AVP and launched his first startup, FactoryFinder: an online platform for apparel manufacturing. The platform helped European brands and designers to find, connect, and work directly with ethical and high-quality manufacturers in Vietnam and China. They entered and won Summer of Startups (now Kiuas Accelerator) in 2016, but the company didn’t quite take off. Jesse, however, doesn’t see Factory Finder as a failure, but as a stepping stone. There, he not only got to try out his skills in practice but also met his future co-founder of Rens, Son Chu.
Co-founders Jesse Tran and Son Chu are two sneakerheads who wanted to make something both sustainable and sexy.
Jesse knew he wanted to create something together with Son, and so they started to look for problems to solve. Fashion being close to their hearts, they noticed that there were clothing brands that were cool and brands that were sustainable — but never both. Sustainable brands seemed to be inherently boring, and this is what Jesse and Son set out to change with Rens. “We wanted to do something edgy, sexy, aimed for the younger generations, but still sustainable. We wanted to show that caring for the environment is cool,” Jesse says.
We wanted to show that caring for the environment is cool.
The duo’s background in FactoryFinder helped them scout for suitable factories and facilities around the world. During their search, they also came across used coffee grounds as a material for the shoes. Looking at the founders’ backgrounds, the idea for using coffee seems only natural: Vietnam produces a large part of the world’s coffee, and Finns seem to drink most of it. They combined the used coffee grounds with recycled plastic and great design, and the world’s first coffee sneaker was born. The shoe was an immediate success: The first Rens model became the all-time most successful Fashion Crowdfunding Campaign in the Nordics and the all-time most funded Kickstarter campaign in Finland.
Now, their second model, Nomad, is live on Kickstarter, but their plans don’t stop there. “Our goal is to become the leading global brand in sustainable fashion,” Jesse says. That may sound ambitious for a small Finnish startup, but ambition is one thing the Rens team doesn’t lack.
Rens’ new model, Nomad, is currently on Kickstarter.
While the future looks bright and no one can deny Rens has already made history, they have made mistakes as well. In spring 2021, the company was hiring a new employee. After letting a certain person know they had been selected for the position, Rens later withdrew the decision, causing more than minor inconvenience to that person. When asked about the incident, Jesse — who has been smiling and laughing most of the interview — goes very serious. “I’m glad we can talk about this. There’s been enough hype and success stories, we should talk about failure too,” he says.
Rens has already discussed the incident thoroughly with the parties involved, and Jesse can’t disclose in detail what exactly happened. He does, however, tell that he was involved in the process and made a decision without the necessary knowledge and competence: “It was my mistake, and I take full responsibility.” Jesse explains that as a founder, he felt the need to be involved in every decision, even if he wasn’t the best person to make the call. “Young founders are often put on a pedestal and talked about like they can do it all. That puts a lot of pressure on you, and it’s easy to feel like you need to be involved in everything to live up to that pressure,” he says.
Founding a company is easy, but growing is difficult, and I learned that the hard way.
What Jesse learned from the incident, is to let go and trust his team. “We’ve hired people for a reason, I don’t need to be part of everything anymore. Founding a company is easy, but growing is difficult, and I learned that the hard way,” he says. Now, Rens’ HR process is in a totally different place than last spring. They have a dedicated HR department — in which Jesse is still involved but not alone — and they’ve streamlined the hiring process and made it as transparent as possible.
At AVP, we preach that an entrepreneurial mindset is also useful for people who are not founders, and Jesse agrees. “I’d be confident to say that most people at Rens think like entrepreneurs, they’re forward-thinking and make their own decisions,” he says. One key element of an entrepreneurial mindset is taking responsibility, but as Jesse learned, you also need to know where your strengths lie; sometimes the responsible action is to delegate a decision to someone else who’s better equipped to make it. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned is that leadership isn’t management. At some point, you need to get rid of that early startup mentality. Surround yourself with talented people, let them excel in their craft — and most importantly, trust them.”
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