Meet the Founders
BY ANN BINLOT • 08.09.2020
Sidra Qasim and Waqas Ali started Atoms armed with ambition, curiosity, and a passion for making shoes. Despite coming from modest, traditionally conservative upbringings, that drive took them from Okara, Pakistan, to the closest big city—Lahore, to Silicon Valley, and then to Brooklyn, where Atoms is currently based. Their desire to create the best everyday shoe came to fruition in the form of the Atoms Model 000, which features an ultra soft midsole that cushions your every move, an odor-fighting copper thread insole, and shoe laces that only need to be tied once. But just who are the minds behind Atoms? We sat down with Sidra and Waqas to ask about how they met, when they realized that the internet was their path to something bigger, and what they have planned for the future of Atoms.
How did you meet?
Sidra: He was taking English classes from my sister. So that’s how we connected and then he left my town to Lahore and all that and we lost that connection. He got in touch with my brother, who told me he could make résumés. My sister wanted to apply for a job, so she needed a résumé. I immediately remembered him. So I reached out to him over a call, and then that's how we started talking again.
Why were you so fascinated by the internet?
Waqas: I realized the potential of the internet—as a consumer, I could search anything and if you think about that, that’s pretty incredible. It felt very different from everything else that was going on. I first got interested in why people use this and how people use that. The internet felt like a new technology that a lot of people around the world are using and we were not, so I was like, Oh, we could use this and we could do cool stuff with it.
How did you realize that shoemaking is your path and that there was something for you beyond Pakistan?
Sidra: Never! Something like this happens by looking at what’s next, which is small steps. I don’t know if it was particularly shoes at the start, but we always had a love for high quality products, so when we started interacting with the shoes, we always talked about how we can make shoes more high quality, especially when your whole body lands on them, it’s not just support, but it also takes care of your foot, your movement, your whole body weight—all that. There was so much more to learn on the shoes part, that’s why we started digging deep into that, and then the journey led us to one thing and then another.
What obstacles did you face in order to get to Y Combinator?
Waqas: We did certain things that helped us get there and beyond. The first obstacle was we actually first applied into Y Combinator in 2012 when everything was just an idea, and our English was not good. We had never spoken in front of a camera or with anyone in English that much before and here you have to explain all your business ideas, and then we had nothing. So this was a little bit naive, but it also helped us.
Sidra: Language was a barrier, background was a barrier, no money, no right education—all of those things. We were incredibly lucky.
How did you go from selling handcrafted leather sandals at Markhor to starting Atoms?
Sidra: On a trip back to Pakistan, I noticed that people in Pakistan, and before that, young people in San Francisco, and then Italy, were wearing sneakers and I said, ‘Waqas we are in the wrong business,’ I know we love our products and everything, but you know, we have to look at what is the future of shoes and what people want.
Waqas: We moved to California and we realized that people were buying our [Markhor] dress shoes. They were not using them as their everyday shoes. They were wearing them for special occasions or a more formal event. For their everyday life, they were leaning more towards sneakers and casual shoes. We were continuously questioning what changes we can make or what else we can do that people would want to wear every day and can we actually make a shoe that people want to wear every day.
What was it like when you first moved to the San Francisco Bay Area?
Sidra: We moved to Mountain View first.
Waqas: Yeah, for Y Combinator, we moved to Mountain View. This was our first time living in the USA. I came a couple of months before Sidra arrived because her visa got delayed. This was also a month after we got married. So in March we got married, and on April 24 I was on a plane to the US, so there was a lot going on.
Sidra: Yeah, in Mountain View when we came here, we felt a lot of pressure being in a place where everyone is a high achiever, and then not speaking English well, and not knowing so many people. You don’t have your friends, family, so at one point we felt very lonely. The reason why we moved from Mountain View to San Francisco was because we wanted to see people and a lot more young people were there. In Mountain View there were a lot of families, so either they were working throughout the day in their offices or on weekends, they were out of town, so we hardly saw anyone. The biggest culture shock happened when we moved from Mountain View to Haight Street in San Francisco with all the hippies.
Waqas: The biggest culture shock was also feeling how alone you are in a way. No one in our families had been in the US before.
Why did you feel that you needed to relocate Atoms from Silicon Valley to New York?
Waqas: Even when we were young, we both were interested in storytelling and other forms of art, which, honestly we did not have that much exposure to growing up. In San Francisco we were spending a lot of time going to museums. We were members of some museums. We would spend a lot of time in Golden Gate Park, going to the Conservatory of Flowers, that was our spot for reading. We realized that when we started working on Atoms, we wanted to make it a little more personal. We want to make the best shoes for everyday, but we also want to share what our interests are, and our interest in art, design, and creativity in general, and New York City is the place to be. We would meet people and they would be like, Oh, you guys should be in New York, you would love Brooklyn. We were like, Okay, we’ve never lived in New York. Even when we were in Pakistan, we were fascinated by New York. I thought that even if I could live in New York City once in my life for a year, I would be a waiter to do that.
Sidra: You know Humans of New York? That website actually created a lot of fascination. We were not able to see this kind of dressing anywhere else.
Waqas: Yeah because he was featuring interesting people and their stories and their connection to the city. We were getting comfortable in San Francisco.
What inspires you?
Sidra: So many things. You can’t put a limit on that. A normal human being can inspire you by the way they talk about their story or what you know about their journey. We are super interested in art and design and that really inspires us when you look at someone’s world, it is really inspiring to see how they thought about that. We love some songs, and their music videos, and we discuss how a person can think about that moment. These days, there are movements going on, like how we can live in a better society, how we have to give back, but in a way that’s more sustainable, instead of you do it once, and that’s it. Good products inspire us a lot. Good photography inspires us. Good food inspires us. My list goes on and on.
Waqas: What inspires is when someone puts their heart into something—that is the core of it. The other form of this is when someone does a very courageous thing. I’m very inspired by Sidra because I have had—not the front row seat, I was on the seat with her, and I see how much courage it took to do so many things. That inspired me a lot. It’s inspiring to see how women in our families and in our country now look up to Sidra. We see activism, we look at people like AOC, we look at the Colin Kaepernicks. We look at people who are standing out, like John Lewis. That’s inspiring.
Sidra: Some of our team members too. They have amazing stories.
Waqas: Yeah when they put their heart into it, that’s inspiring and interesting—an interesting and out-of-the-norm beginning or story or history or future that is inspiring. Nature inspires us a lot too. We are from smaller towns, and we love looking at long horizons where nothing is there. That is inspiring.
What are the most important lessons that you’ve learned so far?
Waqas: One is that the focus is extremely important. That is something I need to relearn over and over again.
Sidra: It’s super important to surround yourself with the right people. We don’t understand the importance of it, and sometimes we lose context and sight of it. Even people with whom you agree or disagree, but they add or subtract from you.
Waqas: Being able to do something. Something we have recently learned from the Atoms mask project is, when we design Atoms shoes, we were particularly thinking about some of our close friends. We were not only thinking about our close friends, we’re thinking about their everyday and their needs in the shoes, like we were thinking very much about individual people, and designing around that. That’s what helped us design our amazing shoes. When the mask project happened, we did not have one person we were designing for. We were designing for society. We were designing for the community. That is something very interesting that never happened before.
Sidra: Yeah, now the product angle is very different.
Waqas: We are seeing both the importance of timing and how you need to consider the need as much as you want to consider your own choice that you make shoes, but okay, you make shoes, but do people need those shoes and what you can do about that? So, that is a big lesson. I feel like you should ask this question: What have you learned from each other? That would be a good question.
Okay, what have you learned from each other?
Sidra: One of the things is the things not to do. [laughing] Just kidding. I have developed attention to detail because of him. Now I think I’m better than him. [laughing] I learned this from him because if I look back, I was like okay if I miss 10 or 20 percent of it, it’s okay. It’s very important to know what is important for you, and you have to be very clear. But there are things that you should not compromise.
Waqas: When you start a project in a certain way. You are sure if it’s going to happen or not. Many times in life you will think about doing things. Muhammad Ali said, “The fight is won or lost far away from witnesses—behind the lines, in the gym, and out there on the road, long before I dance under those lights...” I learned that the attitude at the start of the project, the understanding of It’s gonna be hard and that's fine, I'm gonna get my hands dirty and I'm going to give it time and I'm going to not give up and not quit makes it very clear that this is going to happen. I have been and I have seen a lot of people stuck in when they are like at the start and it can take months and years to just be in that stage. So what I learned from Sidra is now when some of the stuff that I do, I know that this will see light of the day and this will not see light of day. A lot of the time the answer is the courage, and I think I need to learn more courage from Sidra and how to incorporate that into my daily life. That is something I’m continuously learning. I learned from her how to make a good paratha [a South Asian flatbread].
Sidra: Most men in Pakistan don’t know how to make that.
Waqas: Like 99 percent of men in Pakistan don’t know how to make that.
Sidra: Yeah, they only know how to eat it.
Waqas: Now I make a better paratha than her.
What are your plans for the future of Atoms?
Sidra: I always think about when people interact with our product, it inspires them. When you interact with Apple products from the start to end, you always think about, Oh my god, how did they get here? How did they think about this? Today I was actually talking to one of our patent lawyers and I was telling him some of the ideas we are working on for our packaging and all that. He said, ‘Sidra, I’m gonna tell you, I have never met with someone, like with a company or executive who thought about this process from end to end like that—from a customer, from supply chain, and all that from a product perspective.’ It felt really good because that’s what I want to achieve.
Waqas: The ultimate desire is to build Atoms into a company that matters. Most companies you see in the world, if they disappear, it does not matter. Someone else is making something that you need. We are continuously asking this question: How we can build a company that matters? It’s not just being able to make great product, but how we can do it over and over again and how we can do better and better.
Sidra: What you mentioned earlier, making something which can add value to society, the way we have launched the mask project—this is that project where I will always feel proud that Atoms was able to do this, getting the product out so fast, making it high quality and continuing to improve that it’s not like 90 percent of people already like that product, so stop there. No, you should be achieving the highest bar possible.
Waqas: We are honestly both optimistic and a little bit scared to some extent at how we are going to do it. Now we are learning from more people. We are learning from our customers, we are learning from the global events that are happening, and also learning from our past things that we could do well and things we could not do well. There is this new normal where every business is thinking about how they can add more diversity, how they can become more sustainable, which is fine and which is good. The way we are thinking is what is beyond that— where you become not just a company, but you really champion those values and do the right thing—even if no one knows it.
Sidra: The interesting part is people who are actually working on those things every day, they don’t see that change happening. Keeping your ideas and thought in the middle and then working towards that and seeing the impact of it in a few years, that’s where the real things happen.