By Liz Brody
No one knows exactly when Sidra Qasim was born. Her mother’s best guess is three or four days before a famous 1986 cricket match in which Pakistan defeated India by one wicket. So as a harbinger of how she would define her life, Qasim chose her own birthday.
As one of six siblings growing up outside of the small city of Okara, Pakistan, next to farms of mustard leaves, oranges, and mangos, she always asked why things couldn’t be different. Why, for starters, were millions of girls like her expected to stay home, raise a family, and have their lives dictated by the men around them?
Qasim kept asking why, again and again, until she finally met her own expectations. What did that look like? Her company, called Atoms and cofounded with her husband Waqas Ali, brought in $12 million a year by selling sneakers, with a 13,000-square-foot warehouse in Brooklyn as its HQ—which has its own art gallery, and massive windows out of which, one warm afternoon, she would look out across the East River, to Manhattan’s skyline and beyond.
Not on the day she was born—nor the day she chose—would the conservative Muslim community around her have imagined how far she would go, and how little she’d let her mind drift to her small hometown half a world away. “It’s hard,” she says, “to come back.”
Qasim doesn’t know why she grew up challenging everything; it wasn’t like her family encouraged it. But her questions took on a particular urgency when she was 17, and her mother invited a matchmaker over to their home.
After protesting, eventually, Qasim pinned her dupattas to cover her head, and agreed to see the guest—who judged and interrogated her. Could she cook? Did she know how to stitch? Qasim knew she was supposed to keep her eyes down, “but I was so angry I looked straight into her eyes. I told her I wasn’t ready.” The matchmaker replied, “Every woman says that, but they fall in love with their husband when they get married.” That visit was the first of many matchmaking attempts, which infuriated young Qasim—so much so that her mother, Shamshad Akhtar, speaking from Pakistan through a translator, recalls that after one long drive to meet a prospective groom’s family, “Sidra said, ‘You can take me all around the world. I’m just not getting married.'”
At 18, Qasim started hanging out with a student she met at her aunt’s house, where he’d come for tutoring. The second of four brothers, he was 17 and had flunked a grade after moving from a tiny village to Okara, which he found way more fascinating than school—it had malls, restaurants, and the first church he’d ever seen. “He was telling me about these things that I had not experienced—because, in order for me to roam in the city, I needed to go with my brother, mother, father, or a group for a specific purpose,” Qasim says with a slow burn at the absurdity of the inequity. The two discussed women’s empowerment and all kinds of other issues. Romance was out of the question; they were from different castes that didn’t intermarry. And yet that student, Waqas Ali, would become her husband.
Ali barely got into a college in Lahore, a much bigger city, and he scrounged every last rupee for tuition, the first in his family to go. There, he thrived in physics. But doubts crept into his thoughts: I’m just a village boy. Even if I graduate, I’m not going to make it. I’m not good enough. His fears tortured him. “I would think about committing suicide every week, because my parents had sacrificed so much for me to be there,” he says. “And then someone told me about the Internet and that—”
Qasim steps in, “Saved your life.”
Ali started spending hours in the computer lab learning everything he could about the digital world. By the beginning of 2010, he had an idea for a startup to help companies sell their products online. He reached out to Qasim, who had just gotten a degree in economics. Would she join him? Despite their castes, he had romantic notions—but he knew it wasn’t the right time to enter that market.
“Sidra is very practical,” he mutters, suddenly shy at the memory.
“Which I am still now,” she says with a firm smile.
After a month of wearing them down, Qasim finally had her parents let her move to Lahore, and Ali dropped out of college. They had no computer and no experience actually doing what they were selling. Even worse, they’d miscalculated their ability to reach their target market. “People who were having success in internet businesses were, like, super-rich,” says Ali. And they didn’t know anyone who fits that profile. In hopes of attracting potential clients, they threw a big event with 70,000 rupees (about $800) that Ali’s mother had given them to buy a laptop.
“No one came who could be our potential client,” Ali says. “We lost the 70,000 rupees. Sidra and I had fights. The event was a failure.” Their families made them come home.
They were miserable. But just as everything seemed hopeless, they got shocking news: They won a grant—for $10,000. “We had forgotten that we even applied,” Qasim says.
The whole thing had happened by chance. When they were first searching for clients, they’d met a group of impressive leather craftsmen who weren’t interested in their services. So Ali and Qasim came up with another idea, as they grasped for any business opportunity: What if, they’d proposed, they set up an online leather shoe business, and then had the craftsmen manufacture the products? These craftsmen said yes, and when Qasim and Ali heard about a Google program for startups in Pakistan, they applied with the concept for the shoe company.
Now that they had the money to get started, they couldn’t get back to Lahore fast enough. They plunged into learning every last detail about the leather shoe trade—from e-commerce to inspecting rawhide for scars to engraving customized messages on soles. And as they worked together on the company they eventually called Markhor, Qasim’s affection for Ali grew into something more.
They shared Markhor’s progress and their visions for the future on Twitter, as Ali endlessly scanned the platform for interesting people—VCs and founders, immigrants from Pakistan and India with startups in the United States—and joined their conversations, often getting followed back.
In search of capital for an initial production run, they connected with whatever startup programs they could find. The pair even applied to a three-month program at Y Combinator in the United States, the exclusive Silicon Valley accelerator known for launching blockbusters like Airbnb and DoorDash. Around 10,000 companies vie for a place in each program, and the acceptance rate is about 2 percent—lower than Harvard’s. It was hardly surprising when they didn’t get in.
Instead, the two zeroed in on Kickstarter. The platform didn’t allow people to launch projects from Pakistan, so they decided to register the company in the United States, and in February 2014, Ali borrowed $3,500 and boarded his first plane. Several of his Twitter contacts agreed to make introductions in America, and by the time he returned, he’d raised $30,000 from two investors.
With some of that money, he and Qasim went to work on the Kickstarter campaign. And on Sept. 22, 2014, at 8 p.m. Pakistan Standard Time, the two held their breath and hit the “launch” button. To their utter amazement, they raised $107,286. On a roll, they blew off her father’s strong objections and got married on March 8—International Women’s Day—and applied to Y Combinator again.
This time, Ali and Qasim got in. They could barely speak English.
The couple arrived in Mountain View for YC’s summer session in 2015. For three months, they mingled with Harvard and Stanford graduates launching buzzy tech startups while the two wrestled with rawhide and supply chain headaches. At night, they submersed themselves in English, watching American movies with subtitles and listening to startup podcasts. “Honestly, how I knew they were awake was whether the audio was on,” says Antoine McGrath, who later became their housemate. “It was 24/7.”
Neither Ali nor Qasim could believe they’d have made it this far. They finally seemed on the verge of being on their way.
Until, once again, they weren’t.
The more they looked around—and down—the more they noticed that, in America, and especially in Silicon Valley, people weren’t wearing leather shoes, not even to work. Their target customers actually wore sneakers. Even in Pakistan, where business attire does mean dress shoes, Markhor wasn’t selling; it was too expensive and people weren’t used to buying that kind of thing online. Once again, they’d made the mistake of not researching their market. The consequences sunk in on the final Demo Day, when of the 60 or 70 YC people who had bought Markhor shoes, only a couple wore them.
But Ali and Qasim realized they’d missed something even bigger. To get as far as they had, they’d taken whatever path was available—even if it led them slightly astray. It was time they charted their own direction. So they sat down together in their rented apartment, and Qasim asked her husband: “We can go home and start again, but we are here. We are part of an important opportunity. What is that?”
Ali typed the question into a Google doc titled “Project K2,” named after a mountain straddling the Pakistan-China border that is the hardest in the world to climb. Then they kept writing other questions to ask themselves: Why are you in the shoe business? If you want to make shoes, why not go work for Nike? Is this the thing we want to do for the rest of our lives?
Every day, they went to Golden Gate Park with a pile of books and case studies about companies, founders, and products, and sat there reading, mining for answers. They’d discuss their thoughts, and write their insights in notebooks, which Ali would type into the document. “Many times, we were coming up with new questions,” says Qasim. Why do we need another sneaker company when there are so many already? What else could our brand be?
Slowly, their mission emerged: It wasn’t so much that shoes drove them; it was instead the idea of taking something people use every day and perfecting it. A shoe was a great place to start, because it has so many aspects that can be innovated. If they could get it right, they could possibly one day expand to other essentials. They’d also learned from Markhor that they were infatuated with quality and detail in a way others weren’t. That would always differentiate them.
By asking themselves so many questions, they came to a conclusion, clear as it was painful: To do this, they would once again have to scrap everything and start anew. But this time, they would know their market sole to soul, and they would have their new road map.
Recharged, they ran around to shoe stores pretending to be students learning about the sneaker industry, trying to find out what people liked to wear every day. They interviewed men and women on the street, snapping photos of how their feet moved as they walked, stood, and sat. They decided that incredible comfort and perfect fit would be their selling points, which meant, for one, making their sneakers in quarter sizes—a unique feature. They called the new company Atoms to reflect that they would go to an atomic level for quality—right down to the oval eyelets that ensure the custom laces stay flat.
It took some time to talk a factory into accommodating their exacting needs, but they found one in South Korea. As soon as their first sample arrived, they held another event—it was informal, at their place—inviting everyone they’d met through YC for Pakistani food and free size 10.5 Atoms. This one worked. The right people came—and they spread the love on Twitter and Instagram.
The couple had also realized, through Project K2, that they wanted to create their brand around the urban artsy community. They were inspired by companies built with intention: Nike’s first focus on running; Patagonia’s environmental ideals. “If we are to build a global sneaker brand and are allocating a big part of our life to it, it has to be about our interests,” says Ali, who also writes poetry while Qasim is a painter. “Creativity, art, music, inspiring storytelling has to be a theme.”
One day in October 2018, Qasim and Ali got an email from Alexis Ohanian, the Reddit cofounder and VC. He was flying into San Francisco that night around 11 p.m. and wanted to come straight to their place. He had previously met the couple at YC and bought the leather shoes, and was now hearing the buzz about their pivot. “I fondly remembered how obsessed they were with quality,” he says, “and sneakers are more the vibe than dress shoes for most of us tech execs.”
When he showed up at the house they shared with four others, they led him to the basement, where they’d set up a little sample shoe try-on area. He was so exhausted that he just lay on their couch and talked for about an hour and a half. They wanted him to test Atoms, but didn’t have any for his 14.5–size feet yet—so they handed him a pair to take home to his wife, Serena Williams.
When arguably the greatest tennis player of all time gave the shoes her thumbs up, Ohanian became the lead investor in Atoms’ Series A, which raised $8.1 million. Day One Ventures’ Masha Bucher, who also invested in the round, having gotten to know Qasim and Ali, says, “Atoms’ secret sauce is them being such good partners in all dimensions.” She was particularly impressed by how powerfully they operated as a couple both at work and home—the respect with which they spoke to each other, the way they deftly navigated egos, and how they carefully thought through decisions together.
That year, 2019, the two moved to New York to build their brand within the city’s art scene, and they officially launched Atoms with Model 000.
It is the first warm day of April, and Qasim is rooting around the stacks of shoe boxes in Atoms’ warehouse, which she and Ali lease on an enormous floor in the sprawling Brooklyn Navy Yard, the former building site of WWII warships that is now a haute manufacturing hub. She’s dressed in a diaphanous white blouse. But her hands are cold. “I had to fire someone,” she explains. “It always gives me severe anxiety.”
For her and Ali, it’s a space that, not so long ago, could have only appeared in their dreams. Massive windows ring the area. To one side is an art gallery, separated by a wall fashioned out of shoe boxes—some of which are open to reveal Atoms’ sleek, colorful sneakers, studding the structure like gemstones. But as the firing reminds Qasim, even this new dream is laced with its own set of challenges.
“Every time I do it,” she says, more to herself than anyone, “I think about how they are going to tell their family, how their day will be with no job, some crazy story goes through in my mind. And I have to keep bringing myself back. Like, Hey Sidra, if someone is not successful, it’s not good for them or the company. And the sooner you fire them, the better.”
Ali has his own demons, too. The self-doubt that plagued him in college still overtakes him at times, sweating through his demeanor in a way that he fears employees, investors, and even customers notice. But he has made headway. “Now I fight the doubts by reading stories of other people who have gone through these things,” he says, pointing to a small shelf of books. Just glancing at the titles—Zero to One, In the Company of Giants—will often spring him from a negative spiral.
Their perfectionism can also undermine them. “I think it borderlines a problem,” says the former housemate, Antoine McGrath, who became Atoms’ head of operations. (“This is a rocketship I just couldn’t miss,” he says.) In one instance, Ali’s insistence on fixing a barely perceptible wrinkle delayed the launch of their first model by three to four months, which cost them revenue. It’s a double-edged sword, says Qasim: You want to hit the market with the best possible product, but you also need to get something out for customer feedback because “maybe people are looking for something else and your assumption is wrong. Also, a launch gives you motivation. When you delay, you lose that momentum in your head. That’s just as important as the revenue.” Learning from that experience, they launched their second model this June—on time.
They’ve become more nimble in other ways, too. When the pandemic arrived, Atoms quickly started selling masks that have been spotted on Brad Pitt and Colin Kaepernick. They’ve also dropped a few collabs, including an edition made with artist Aerosyn-Lex Meštrovi, who has exhibited at the MoMA and the White House—and now in Atoms’ gallery. That shoe came out of their new, work-in-progress initiative, AAG (Urdu for “FIRE”), which seeks to build a community through inviting artists to hold exhibits, concerts, poetry readings, and NFT releases in their gallery.
In the midst of all this, they had a little girl named Aliff, who just turned one. Meanwhile, Qasim’s family in Pakistan has also been changed by Atoms. Her younger sister ended up starting her own business in reproductive health products. Her mother, Akhtar, has become a headmistress of a school, where she opened a computer lab for all older students. “If I could go back,” Akhtar says, as Ali translates, “I would really let my daughters be themselves and support them so they could follow what they want to do with their lives.”
Akhtar says she had ambition, too, as a girl, maybe to be a doctor or pilot, but that was so radically out of the question that she channeled it into teaching and becoming the first woman in Okara to drive a car. Today, she has high hopes for her granddaughter Aliff. “Her mother and father broke out of the cage in Pakistan to do things their own way without support from us,” Akhtar says through Ali, whose voice cracks with emotion as he translates. “I’m confident she will do great in life.”
The big challenge for Atoms these days is growing its own family. In its way, hiring has been as hard as firing. Then there’s inflation and, as ever, supply chain issues to deal with. But in their endless quest for the perfect everyday sneaker, Qasim and Ali have learned how to find their way forward. “Every time we are stuck, we just go back and read our original Google doc from the YC days,” she says. “We know what we have to do: Just ask the right questions.”
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