Would you buy a pair of sneakers if they got you backstage at your favorite band’s concerts? Or a cheesesteak every time your team scored a touchdown?
Stephanie Howard and Bennett Collen think you might.
The unlikely duo — Howard, a veteran shoe designer for Nike, New Balance, and Reebok, and Collen, a blockchain entrepreneur and Boston College adjunct professor — teamed up last year to launch Endstate, a Boston startup that sells more than just sneakers.
What Endstate really sells is NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, which it releases periodically in limited amounts. Customers buy an NFT, specify their shoe size, and within weeks receive a real pair of sneakers.
The shoes come with a wide variety of perks and access to in-real-life experiences. (I wasn’t kidding about the cheesesteak thing.)
During NFT.NYC in June, Howard and Collen met me at a cafe days after they raised a $5.5 million seed round from investors, including Archetype Ventures, Accomplice, and Castle Island Ventures.
The cofounders arrived in matching sneakers, which looked like normal shoes until Collen tapped his smartphone near the laces. A 3D rendering of his shoes popped up on his screen, along with the word “authentic” in green.
By doing that, Collen verified that his kicks were one of the 50 pairs manufactured for Endstate’s first sneaker drop. The company embeds a chip into the tongue of every sneaker, which is linked to its corresponding NFT.
Why is this important? For Endstate, NFTs represent much more than digital art. The startup operates in the “utility NFT” space, meaning digital assets come with certain rights and privileges for owners, much like a contract or membership.
It’s a key development in the industry, since the market for NFTs as digital artwork has largely collapsed.
Nic Carter, a partner at Castle Island Ventures, wrote in a recent blog post that several “tech-savvy luxury brands” likely thought about selling NFTs last year that didn’t come with a physical good or utility component.
“Now that the hype has cooled,” he wrote, “these brands will start to realize that the real innovation is not exploiting fans by selling them overpriced JPEGs with dubious utility, but by twinning merchandise with a persistent digital property.”
Indeed, Endstate’s goal is to partner with artists, athletes, and entrepreneurs on NFT sneaker drops, and then connect those digital assets to physical goods and real experiences and rewards.
The firm is currently selling $250 sneakers in collaboration with DeVonta Smith, a Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver. Sneaker owners can attend an event hosted by Smith in Philly, as well as an exclusive game watch party. (Because of the chip in the shoe, “the sneaker is the ticket,” Howard said.)
The perks will keep coming all season — after his first touchdown, and for every run over a certain number of yards, NFT holders will receive a gift card for a free cheesesteak.
“It’s fun, but it’s showing how NFTs unlock this other world, beyond the physical sneaker,” Howard said.
Though Howard couldn’t share specifics, she said Endstate is in conversations with musicians, creators, and a well-known brand in sneakers and streetwear.
Endstate is also selling limited-edition sneakers for this year’s Boston College “Red Bandana” game next month, in honor of Welles Remy Crowther, an alum who died after saving at least a dozen people during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City.
The company’s cofounders both have experience on the cutting edge of innovation.
For Howard, it’s with sneakers. She joined New Balance out of college and was the Boston-based firm’s youngest employee when she designed the New Balance 850s in 1996, a groundbreaking shoe that the company re-released in 2019. (It was the first pair where the “N” logo didn’t appear on the side of the shoe.)
Howard went to Reebok before becoming a design director at Nike. For the past decade, she’s consulted on innovation for brands like Timberland, Vans, and Converse.
Collen, a BC alum, brings cachet from the tech world. In 2014, he founded Cognate, a company that was trying to verify and enforce trademark rights on the blockchain. “Trying to sell that to lawyers in 2016, 2017, was an uphill battle,” he said.
GoDaddy, the Internet domain registrar and website hosting company, bought Cognate in 2018.
Collen teaches blockchain and cryptocurrency at BC and wanted to start another blockchain business during the pandemic. He met Howard after attending a webinar on sneakers and law, on which she was a panelist.
Collen and Howard believe that in the not-too-far future, everything that is important to consumers in the real world — sneakers, apparel, accessories — will be replicated digitally. (That’s what they believe is the “end state” of product ownership.)
“This bottle of water is not going to have a digital counterpart, but something that has value or meaning to me, I’ll want a digital counterpart for,” Collen said. “We want to be at the forefront of that.”