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The Takeoff: Smoove Creations and the power of customizing entrepreneurship at a young age

By Abby Ober
Blue North

What happens when you take a product that everyone already knows about and owns, and customize it to meet or suit individual styles and aesthetics?

If you’re 23-year-old Isaiah Kelly you develop a successful business and inspire entrepreneurs of all ages to pursue their passion.

Kelly is the creator and president of Smoove Creations, the Newport based startup that knows what countless other athletic footwear enthusiasts – “sneakerheads” in shoe circles – do: Sneakers are big business. Well-documented as multi-billion-dollar business, the sneaker industry thrives with endorsements by prominent athletes and celebrities as well as limited releases routinely selling out online in seconds. Cowen Equity Research estimates that the sneaker resale market – an “emerging alternative asset class” – could potentially reach $30 billion by 2030.

There is another part of that market, however, to which Kelly and his eight-person crew cater: Those who desire one-of-a-kind, customized sneakers suited to their own style. Kelly’s story is impressive and shows how a remarkable passion combined with creativity, hard work and the ability to seek out advice can lead to early success.

Kelly got his first taste business ownership by working for his father Dwight, the owner of a landscaping company in LaGrange. Surprisingly, Kelly had no interest in sneakers until he took a summer job at a Shoe Carnival. There, a Nike shoe captivated his attention. “I just fell in love with that shoe,” he says. His passion soon become a purpose.

While seeing how sneakers made people happy piqued Kelly’s interest, it would be a YouTube video that made him think customization could become profitable. After watching someone sell customized sneakers for hundreds of dollars, Kelly became inspired to try customizing shoes himself in 2017. Arriving at Northern Kentucky University (NKU) on an academic scholarship, Kelly’s evolving skills led to people taking notice of his creations, eventually becoming the campus’ top sneaker customizer.

Kelly’s business aspirations really took off, though, once Zac Strobl, head of NKU’s Inkubator business accelerator program at the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, spoke at one of Kelly’s classes. Accepted into the Inkubator program in 2019, Kelly formally incorporated Smoove Creations soon thereafter.

Kelly says he grew up with his parents always telling him he would be an entrepreneur one day, an idea he recalls being vigorously against growing up. “Both my parents would say, ‘This is what we want for you,’ but I would be out there working for my dad for 8-9 hours,” Kelly recalls. “I was like, ‘No, I’m not (ever going to be an entrepreneur). If this is what it is, this isn’t for me – I can’t do it.’”

The key to changing his outlook was simple and something common to all startups: Finding a passion matched by his creativity and shared by every member of his team.

Isaiah Kelley

“Being a custom-run business, it was really difficult to do this all by myself, so I had to get people that kind of shared that vision,” Kelly says, recalling the challenge of growing a business while finishing his bachelor’s degree in computer informatics with a minor in computer science. “(We) at times may be stressed, but we always maintain that sense of ‘let’s make sure that we’re having fun’ as I did this because I had fun (and) because I loved it. Nobody was paying me to do this when I first started – I want people on my team with that same vibe.”

Another aspect important to Smoove Creations’ launch? Networking with and learning from people like those he met in the Inkubator program to make sure he was ready for the long haul.

“That’s where I learned things like how to run a business. I barely knew the difference between revenue and profit,” says Kelly about starting Smoove Creations while still a student. “There were just a lot of things I didn’t know, and I was learning it while I was running my business, making sales and orders.”

Kelly has certainly been making up for lost time. Despite the pandemic, Smoove Creations made about $40,000 in revenue in 2020. He adds Smoove Creations is nearing $30,000 to date in 2021. How? By embracing skills crucial to all entrepreneurs: pitching his product well, generating excitement, and, perhaps most importantly, learning from resources available to start-ups.

Kelly has participated in several college-focused entrepreneur competitions, including the Global Student Entrepreneurship Awards (GSEA) where he took home the top prize in 2019 and 2020 among regional competitors. He achieved another milestone earlier this year when he became the first NKU student to be invited to the prestigious Rice Business Plan Competition.

Now a student in NKU’s MBA program, Kelly continues to develop his business. This April saw Smoove Creations receive a grant from Main Street Ventures, a majority of which went towards the purchase of a new machine to for quicker sneaker customization. These are among the reasons he is now heralded by many as one of the most successful students to date to participate in NKU’s Inkubator program.

Kelly, who also hosts the “The Custom Sneaker Podcast,” feels he’d be further along if he listened to his parents long ago. If you are thinking of starting a business, he suggests finding your passion and studying how to become successful ASAP.

“It’s going to sound super cliché, but that’s because I believe it’s true: Lock in and focus as much as you can on your goal and try to not let anything stop you,” he says. “I’ve seen a lot of people have opportunities come their way, but they just don’t take advantage of them. My goal is to capitalize on any opportunity that I see or that’s presented to me – I’m definitely going to run through that door.”

It probably won’t hurt to have a fresh pair of customized sneakers when you do.

Blue North’s mission to empower startups and small businesses. Any questions are welcomed. Small business owners and entrepreneurs may contact Blue North here. This column by Blue North is a regular feature of the NKyTribune.

See the NKyTribune story about Isaiah Kelly here.

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One Comment

  1. The sneaker business is booming and creative youngsters should take full advantage.

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