BUSINESS
How I Made It

As sneakers got more expensive, Jason Mark Angsuvarn built an upscale shoe-shining business

Jason Mark Angsuvarn, 37, is founder and president of Jason Markk, a shoe cleaning products company that helps sneaker buffs keep their prized possessions spotless. Angsuvarn’s cleaning foams, brushes and towels are sold in 5,000 stores worldwide, including high-fashion boutiques such as Colette in Paris and Lane Crawford in Hong Kong, and streetwear temples such as Undefeated in Los Angeles. Angsuvarn’s flagship store in Little Tokyo offers a drop-off shoe cleaning service, which has spruced up more than 40,000 pairs of kicks to date. Plans are underway to open two more stores, in London and New York.


Inspired by a dunk

Angsuvarn fell in love with sneakers the moment he saw Michael Jordan, outfitted in his namesake shoes, dunk from the free throw line during the 1988 NBA slam dunk contest. That sparked an obsession that resulted in Angsuvarn amassing a collection of about 400 pairs of Jordans, Nikes, Reeboks, K-Swiss and Fila sneakers. As a DJ, the South Bay native didn’t have a problem finding the cash to buy the shoes he wanted. What flummoxed him was keeping them clean.

Scuff-free

One of the golden rules of sneaker collecting is that your shoes must always look new. An errant scuff can throw a look off. But Angsuvarn didn’t trust the cleaning products on the mass market, which often discolored his shoes. So he experimented at home with dishwashing soap, warm water and OxiClean. He once bleached laces only to find the chemicals disintegrated the fabric. “I was thinking, ‘There’s got to be a better way to do this,’” Angsuvarn said. “I’m mixing household cleaning products to clean my shoes, but these products were meant to clean sinks, tubs and dishes. They’re not meant to clean the delicate material of shoes.”

Finding a market

Angsuvarn guessed he wasn’t the only one frustrated. So he talked to workers at sneaker shops and collectors lining up outside stores for sneaker releases. He discovered many were using household products, even toothpaste, to clean their shoes. It was now obvious to Angsuvarn, who was working an entry-level job at a Santa Monica ad agency at the time, that there was an untapped market for a cleaning product aimed specifically at fellow sneaker aficionados. “If you’re into sneakers, you can’t just walk out of the house in beat-up shoes,” Angsuvarn said. “They’ve got to be fresh.”

Jason Mark Angsuvarn of Jason Markk sits on the "JM Throne," a shoe shine chair on display at the company's flagship store in Little Tokyo.
Jason Mark Angsuvarn of Jason Markk sits on the "JM Throne," a shoe shine chair on display at the company's flagship store in Little Tokyo. Kirk McKoy /Los Angels Times

“If you’re into sneakers, you can’t just walk out of the house in beat-up shoes. They’ve got to be fresh.”

Jason Mark Angsuvarn

Winning formula

After raising $25,000 from family, Angsuvarn contracted a chemist to formulate a nonabrasive cleaning solution that was gentle enough for suede but tough enough for rubber soles. It took nearly a year, but Angsuvarn knew he had the right formula when the product won over his equally sneaker-obsessed cousin during a trial. “That was my focus group — my cousin,” Angsuvarn said.

Learning to sell

Inspired by the simplicity of a brand like Paul Smith, Angsuvarn named his company after his first and middle names. He added an extra “k” so that it would be easier to surface on a Google search. Angsuvarn prepared for his launch by quitting his ad agency job and working for his younger brother, whose job at a kitchen cutlery company involved door-to-door sales. “I sold $30,000 worth of knives” in three months, Angsuvarn said. “It was a lot of cold calls and referrals. It taught me the ABCs of sales.”

Caught by surprise

All that sales planning didn’t matter when Jason Markk launched in 2007. Angsuvarn’s product wound up commanding so much buzz on streetwear sites such as Hypebeast and Freshness Mag that Jason Markk became an overnight sensation. Orders poured in, but Angsuvarn’s site was nothing more than a logo and an email address. “I answered the emails with a different name because I didn’t want them to know it was a one-man show.”

Making a statement

Angsuvarn seized on his quick popularity by targeting coveted stores such as Huf in San Francisco and Nort in New York before it closed to help build his brand cachet. He sold his cleaning kits — which included the solution, brushes and a towel — for $25 — about five times the price of ordinary cleaning products. “I wanted to make noise,” Angsuvarn said. “Who is this guy selling shoe cleaner for $25? Who … does he think he is?”

Quickly humbled

When the financial crisis arrived the following year, orders slowed dramatically. Angsuvarn struggled to put gas in his car, further saddling his strained credit cards. He had no choice but to take a part-time job at a Trader Joe’s in Long Beach. “I’m stocking shelves with cans and answering customer service emails from my phone when one of the guys I was working with was like, ‘Hey bro, are you Jason Markk?’ ” Angsuvarn said. “I told him, ‘Just don’t tell anyone, man. It’s just temporary.’ And it was.”

Bouncing back

To bring business back, Angsuvarn pared down his signature cleaning kit by offering a smaller package for $15. He scrapped plans for an $80 marble shoehorn (“That was stupid,” he admits) and introduced cleaning wipes and a repellent for liquids and stains.

Social media coup

Angsuvarn had just come out of a Jay-Z and Kanye West concert when he dropped bacon, mustard and onions from a street hot dog on his Air Jordan 3s, staining his beloved shoes. The next day, he documented the cleaning process on Instagram, inspiring a wave of before-and-after shots that has helped Jason Markk earn 215,000 followers on the app. Company sales tripled after the hot dog episode.

Novel success

Angsuvarn initially wanted to open a store to throw parties and attract more people to his brand. He included a drop-off cleaning service on a whim, only because he had the extra space. But the novelty turned out to be wildly popular, drawing people from around the world. The drop-off service takes three days but can be expedited at an additional cost. A basic cleaning starts at $14; the most meticulous cleaning costs $75. “I had no idea it would grow into what it has,” Angsuvarn said.

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