Interview with Stuart Davis, co-founder of Dubs Universe

Meet Stuart Davis, co-founder of Dubs Universe, a new sustainable footwear brand on a mission to make and sell children’s shoes differently, in a planet-friendly way, so that busy parents don’t have to compromise between style, fit and sustainability.

What’s your career background?

I have spent most of my career in the advertising industry as a creative producer, most recently at M&C Saatchi where I held the position of Creative Operations Director.

As a creative producer, I worked with brands such as Adidas, Coke, Airbnb, producing all types of content from TV adverts, press adverts to those annoying advert banners that appear on websites.

Towards the latter stages of my career, I oversaw production departments and helped agencies and brands navigate the complex world of creative production from an operations POV.

When did you get the idea for Dubs?

Dubs was inspired by my bonkers, supercharged little girl and her crazy fast-growing feet and the fact that I lost my job during the first lockdown in the pandemic.

As a new-ish Dad at the time, I was gutted when Leila’s feet were too big for her brand-new shoes…that…she’d only worn twice and were now destined for the bin. (I resorted to turning them into flower pots!)

I quickly found out that 2 million shoes are thrown into landfill a week in the UK alone and children’s shoes play a major part in this problem.

So, with Leila’s outgrown shoes surrounding me and no experience in the shoe industry, I asked myself “how do I make the immortal sneaker?”

Mercifully Leila was still napping at lunchtime, so I used these 37 minutes to research, learn, re-learn and speak to everyone and anyone that had knowledge in shoemaking and sustainability.

Eventually, The Dubs Universe was born and my mission to design the most stylish, exciting but sustainable shoe had begun!  I want to educate kids that wearing stylish, planet-shoes can be seen as a badge of honour.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

Hard damn work.

We are a start up in every sense. Money is near non-existent, and I’m still working full time to get this shindig fully scalable.

In the beginning, I would research smaller brands, look into their social feeds and branding, give them a call and ask if they would be interested in a skill-swap. I’d look to improve their social strategy / brand tone of voice and in return, they would help / give advice on how to make shoes, or what contacts / factories I should speak to.

After a while and a steep learning curve, I knew what type of design we wanted and what type of materials I wanted to use.

Our shoes are made from the super plant, sugarcane and recycled plastic bottles, and designed with their ‘end of life’ in mind. And, that appealed to Innovate UK. So much so, we won a grant from the ‘creative and innovation fund’ which allowed us to prototype our designs. After A LOT of wear testing, we had a product that was ready to manufacture. But of course, we had no money again.

However, what we did have was experience in developing and running creative campaigns, so we decided to launch Dubs through the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter. This was a month-long campaign in which we managed to pre-sell enough sneakers to order the first batch. 

What’s your USP?

Our USP is sustainability, comfort, style, fun and parent practicality.

Dubs are designed for kids, by the coolest kids we know (with help of course from the most talented kids’ footwear technicians!) 

We’re a shoe brand with design, technology, fun and sustainability at its heart. We only use renewable, bio-based materials such as sugarcane and recycled plastic bottles, and use efficient manufacturing techniques such as 3D knitting that minimise waste and resources needed.

And above all, the shoe is super durable and withstands wear and tear from the most energetic of kids! They are easy to slip on, easy to clean and super fun!

Sustainable brands often lack premium design and style. We always maintain a high standard of design integrity and develop iconic styles that are not usually associated with children’s shoes. 

When it comes to recycling shoes there are only limited options available. With Dubs, all outgrown shoes can be sent to the shoe charity, Sal’s Shoes who’ll make sure they go to kids that need them the most. 

Who’s your target audience?

Mums and dads!

The way people shop for kid’s clothing is changing. There has been a global collective shift towards more consumption-conscious shopping with parents being the most vocal and pro-active.

Our audience is parents and also friends/family of parents with children aged 1-8. Particularly those who are looking to shop more ethically. 

How do you spread the word about what you do?

We are mostly an online company but are stocked in a few hand-picked independent stores.

As we are a start-up, spending money on expensive ads on Facebook and Instagram isn’t really an option for us. So, we rely heavily on word of mouth. Luckily, we have a growing and very loyal fanbase who are always up for sharing the Dubs love.

We try to get out and about in the summer and have pop-up stands at as many school fairs as possible. Also we are members of the BFA (British Footwear Association) who are great at helping small start-ups get access to trade shows.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

It sounds like a cliché, but money. Starting Dubs from scratch has been expensive. I’m still working full time, trying to grow Dubs in the evenings, and trying to be a good Dad and husband too.

Not to mention how expensive being “sustainable” is! I could make a shoe, off-the-shelf for $5, but that’s not what we are about. We want to try and change the “wear and throw-away” attitude towards kids shoes.

And the shoe industry is very set in its ways making it difficult to make changes, especially as a new brand that factories / manufacturers have never heard of and are ordering only tiny quantities. Things could be done so much quicker and easier!

And your proudest moment so far?

Launching Dubs.

When I told people what I was doing…. “Starting a sneaker brand”, people were like “sure”! There were raised eyebrows, my chat was dismissed and some people were damn right rude about it. But I loved that – it was the fuel I needed.

I rejected a few job offers and I said “no” to interviews so that I could concentrate on Dubs. There were times I got real cold feet wondering “what on earth am I doing”. Some real moments of doubt crept into my mind, but I knew that if I didn’t give this a go, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.

And, when we finally reached that Kickstarter target, and when I posted on LinkedIn “I’ve done it, I’ve launched my own brand” – that was a pretty proud moment.

Why is work so important to you?

I love it. That feeling of creating something that is mine. A product that people LOVE, that I built from nothing. One that has the potential to do some good and help to educate kids about their relationship with stuff they buy / own – it’s pretty easy to feel empowered by this.

Who inspires you?

My sister (she’s heavily disabled; became very ill when she was 3 and I was 4). Despite what she has been through, she is constantly smiling. She keeps me grounded and real.

What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

1) Ask questions. Lots of them. Always

Don’t be shy to ask questions, even if you think it’s a silly question. Be so thirsty for knowledge.

2) Get a rock

Find someone to lean on, to chat to, or something you can refer to that can help keep you focused. Working on a start-up can be a very lonely place and sometimes you need someone who can listen to you moan. It can be a friend, a family member, a mentor…even a book / podcast. But someone who can listen to you, and importantly, be honest with you.

3) Don’t be so harsh on yourself

Make time for you. Don’t spend every waking spare second on this. It’s too easy to fall into a hole. Take a step back. Take a day off, a week off. Make sure your brain is rested and you stay motivated otherwise you’ll begin to resent your project.

Find out more about Dubs Universe.