Mbiyimoh Ghogomu remembers the moment he fell in love with his first pair of sneakers in the eighth grade. Growing up, he says "frugality was a virtue" in his household. "I was not rocking heat on feet for most of my childhood," he explains. On a mission for new basketball shoes, he found a brand new pair of Adidas T-Mac IIs, and his entry into sneaker culture was sealed.
Like Ghogomu, his childhood friends Tony Malveaux and Darren Smith each had their own awakening into the sartorial fascination of sneakers. The self-proclaimed sneakerheads founded Tradeblock in 2020, a new sneaker trading platform that provides collectors with a secure way to collect and trade shoes. After a successful beta, the Houston-based startup has recently launched a new mobile app available for iOS and Android users.
Malveaux, co-founder and director of authentication, started growing his sneaker collection during his job at Footlocker and currently owns nearly 40 pairs.
"My first paycheck came the same day that the Foamposites dropped in the electrolime colorway and let's just say my check wasn't too much bigger than the retail price," says Malveaux.
The former retail employee was using the ESPN Trade Machine in 2009, a website that lets you play the role of a team manager by creating different trade scenarios for players, when the idea for Tradeblock came to him. Malveaux shared his idea with best friend Smith, co-founder and COO, and the two held it in their back pocket for a decade.
"An entrepreneur to his very core, D was slanging Pokemon and Yu-Gi-Oh cards all the way back in elementary school," says Ghogomu of Smith. "After spending a few years in the dark cubicles of corporate America following his college graduation, he realized that he would never be truly happy or fulfilled unless he was building his own thing," he says.
Smith eventually escaped those dark cubicles and approached Malveaux about making Tradeblock a reality. The two started an Instagram and began a cross-country trip, visiting every sneaker event they could to research the needs of the marketplace. To cover the cost of travel, they sold off the majority of the impressive sneaker collection they'd built over the years and sometimes slept in their car to avoid extra expenses.
That year, the two also brought in their high school friend Ghogomu as a co-founder and CEO.
Tradeblock's three co-founders have known each other since childhood. Photo via tradeblock.us
Tradeblock started with the three founders playing the middleman in trades through Instagram direct messages, and it soon grew into a fully functional web platform.
Kicks as currency
Sneaker collecting is no small expense, due in part to the enormous resale market. According to GQ, the coveted 2020 Dior x Air Jordan 1 sneakers retailed at $2,000 but skyrocketed to $10,103 at resale value. Even moderately priced items like the $140 Nike SB Dunk High "Reverse Skunk," a 4/20-themed release with a limited 420 pairs available, have a resale price of $4,500.
High demand and exclusivity have created a barrier to access. Some opportunists have even purchased online bots to scour websites for sneaker releases so they can make bulk purchases and resell the rest at premium costs.
"Besides the fact that nobody had taken on trading, which was already a known behavior in the sneaker community, we saw the exorbitant prices that sneakers were starting to sell at in the resell market," says Ghogomu. "We realized that a ton of true blue sneakerheads, people who were in the game for the love of kicks more than anything, were basically getting priced out of every shoe they wanted," he explains.
By providing a platform for sneaker collectors to trade shoes in their collection, the founders "could provide another outlet for them to acquire the shoes they wanted without having to spend next month's rent check," says Ghogomu.
The app allows you to explore other user collections, follow collectors to keep track of their newly added shoes, and create your own closet featuring your collection. "I think the biggest social aspect of our app today is the fact that sneakerheads can actually curate a unique profile and persona for themselves on Tradeblock, and then they can explore other sneakerheads' collections," says Ghogomu.
When wanting to pursue a trade, Tradeblock allows you to manage your offers from an inbox, review trade status, and review your trade history. Users can also negotiate monetary payment if a trade isn't quite equal with shoes alone.
Once a trade takes place, authentication is a priority.
"The market for fake sneakers is itself a billion-dollar market. If you're trying to acquire a shoe that's worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars, you need to be absolutely certain that what you're getting is the real thing," says Ghogomu.
To ensure customers are getting authentic sneakers, Tradeblock has a "two-factor authentication" where every shoe goes through a physical and digital inspection.
More than a throwback
Sneaker collecting dates back to the late 1970s, coinciding with the surge in popularity of the National Basketball League and the hip hop movement of New York City.
The first-ever Air Jordans were created in 1984 and worn exclusively by former NBA star Michael Jordan, and released to the public in 1985. Just last year, Jordan's original pair sold for a record $560,000 in a Sotheby's auction, according to Reuters.
Music heavily influenced a profusion of sneakerheads. Run-DMC released the popular song "My Adidas" in 1986, which stayed on top of the Billboard music charts for 16 weeks. The trend carried into the aughts, with the rapper Nelly debuting his 2000 hit "Air Force Ones."
The shoe style has even succeeded in permeating internet culture, with a slew of memes and influencers arriving to meet the moment.
"Damn Daniel," a viral video from 2016, has solidified its place in the ever-evolving online vault of cultural moments. The video which shows then-high schooler Daniel Lara's shoe collection led him to become one of TIME's "30 Most Influential People on the Internet" that year.
Sneakerheads have since found a community using online communication platforms like Instagram, Discord, and Facebook.
"We also noticed that sneakerheads were spending a ton of time on social media platforms showing off their kicks, exploring other people's collections, and just generally looking to connect with people who shared their passion for shoes," explains Ghogomu. "We thought that if we could capture that social energy in a platform that also facilitated trading, we could create something truly revolutionary for the culture," he says.
The most popular sneaker reviewers on YouTube have grown communities of hundreds of thousands of followers, earning a living off their connoisseurship. "Shoe-tubers are an integral part of the sneaker culture today. In many ways, they're like the sherpas of the sneaker world," says Ghogomu.
The growing social authority of sneakerheads has also helped fuel Tradeblock's launch. The company has seen success in driving awareness by creating an online community and building relationships with influential YouTubers.
Existing online sellers from eBay to Poshmark have provided a way for users to sell and buy items, but the process is transactional. Understanding the passionate community of collectors, Ghogomu says they wanted to "build not just a product, but a company and brand that genuinely put the people first and harkened back to the days when being a sneakerhead was just as much about the community as it was about the kicks in your closet."
Growing a community
Tradeblock currently has more than 23,000 collectors in its database, a number that is steadily increasing by the day. "What has really blown me away is just how supportive people have been from [the] jump," says Ghogomu.
The app currently has thousands of shoes in its database, including rare releases like the Nike Dunk Lobster collection and the Art Basel Jordan 1.
"We've even got a few pairs of the original Jordan 1s in the Chicago colorway from 1985… but you'll have to come correct if you want to trade for those," jokes Ghogomu.
Through the roadblocks that come with building a startup, Tradeblock users have been loyal.
"I genuinely couldn't count the number of times we've heard people say things like, 'I want to see y'all win,' but we never get tired of it," he continues.
"When you're trying to build something unlike anything else that exists in the world, it's easy to let doubt creep in. Any entrepreneur who says they've never asked themselves the question, 'Is this really possible or are we insane?' is lying to you," says Ghogomu. "I think that as people of color, those internal barriers are even higher because we have so few examples to look to in terms of seeing people who look like us building massively successful businesses," he continues.
As the company grows, the co-founders hope to strengthen the bonds of the sneaker community — a common factor that has strengthened their own friendship.
"When most people think about sneaker culture, they think about the shoes. When we think about sneaker culture, we think about the people," says Ghogomu.