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Feelgoodz: Unbridled Passion in a Laid-Back Market

Kyle Berner's eco-friendly flip-flops are creating sustainable growth in Thailand, the country that inspired them.
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Four years ago, 29-year-old Kyle Berner threw some essentials in a backpack and boarded a plane to Thailand in search of adventure. He spent a year living like the locals while teaching English in a rural village. But unbeknownst to him, he was laying the foundation for Feelgoodz LLC, an “environmentally conscious” flip-flop brand that he hopes will become a vehicle for creating positive social change. When he returned to the U.S., he resolved to find a way to give back.

A year later, he found himself in back in Thailand for a friend's wedding, and while strolling though a bustling market, one of his flip-flops snapped. In need of a new pair, he stumbled on a display of "curiously comfortable" all-natural rubber flops, and a light-bulb went off. He tracked down the supplier and learned that Thailand happens to be a leading global exporter of natural rubber and can produce superior rubber products at reasonable prices. Selling the flip-flops in the U.S., he figured, would not only introduce a quality product, but also support the Thai rubber industry.

Through a combination of investment from friends and family, a savvy business partner, line of credit, a few grants and some loans, Feelgoodz was born. Since the New Orleans-based company launched in 2008, its annual revenues have grown to $175,000 and its list of outlets have expanded to include 120 Whole Foods locations and more than 50 independent U.S. retailers. Here are a few lessons he has learned the past two years:

Embrace Uncertainty
"As I stepped off the bus on my teaching assignment, chills ran down my spine. I spoke no Thai and had no idea how I was going to communicate with my students," Berner says. He dove right in, embraced the unknown -- and the awkward moments -- and had the time of his life.

Berner encourages other aspiring entrepreneurs to take a similar plunge. Uncertainty is one of life's constants, he says, "If you can manage to thrive in it, you'll be able to handle anything."

Dream Big
Berner's dream is for Feelgoodz to become a major “conscious lifestyle” brand. His big dream forces him to remain open to new ideas. "If you go with your gut, have a deep passion for what you are doing, a vision to take you there and possess the tenacity to overcome, then sky's the limit," he says.

Look for New Avenues of Opportunity
In most places, flip-flops are a seasonal product, but hopes of becoming a market leader means Berner is always thinking about new lines such as yoga mats, portable electronics cases, and even rubber flooring to keep his business thriving during the off-season. "All business ideas have constraints and challenges to confront," he says. "Having the ability to constantly push forward -- with your eyes open -- forces you to embrace new avenues of opportunity."

Build Strong Relationships Before You Need Them
When the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico in April, countless businesses in the region suffered, including Feelgoodz. "The spill prevented a shipment of flops coming from Thailand from reaching the port here in New Orleans," Berner says. Sales opportunities during peak flip-flop season were lost, along with an estimated $100,000.

Berner had cultivated relationships with both lenders and clients which proved to be invaluable. "Without supportive partners, I would have been dead in the water," he says.

Use 'Judo' on Rivals
Feelgoodz is working to tap into the booming, multibillion-dollar healthy-lifestyles and sustainability market, a crowded space. “Use your competitors' size and strength against them and be where they're not,” he says. You won't find Feelgoodz in surf shops or active-lifestyle boutiques because such retailers are already saturated with other brands. Instead, Berner focuses on health-food stores and green retailers. He is seeking to build awareness -- and a client base -- without being overshadowed by established competitors. For new brands trying to establish themselves in popular markets, it can be critical to establish this kind of breathing room.

Pay It Forward
Social components are key aspects of Berner's business. "If it were just about the money, I wouldn't get out of bed in the morning," he says. If you turn your customers into "everyday philanthropists, you'll know you are making a real impact."

He encourages other aspiring entrepreneurs to "stay fluid, keep moving, and indulge your adventurous itch." You never know when the "eureka moment" will hit.