What happened to the Space Jam generation? What became of the kids who grew up watching Michael Jordan deliver one of the most exhilarating sports careers in history, and living a little bit of it by wearing the same sneakers Jordan wore?
We know what happened to one of them, at least. Josh Luber founded StockX, the world’s first sneaker-focused tech startup.
Intertwined with Josh Luber’s story is the story of a generation of kids who grew up worshipping sports stars and the kicks that became just as much a part of their legacy as their on-court achievements. This is the story of StockX and the rise of the Sneakerhead.
In short, StockX is a stock market for sneakers. The StockX website functions as a stock exchange or auction block on which users can bid on and sell sneakers. Shoes that are in demand will receive multiple bids, driving up their price. Once a buyer’s bid is approved by the seller, the seller then ships the shoes directly to StockX. StockX team members then inspect the shoe for damage and authenticity. The latter check is especially vital, given the proliferation of fake sneakers in the aftermarket footwear scene.
Essentially, StockX is a way to bring order to the underground world of sneaker resales, a subculture previously limited to eBay and Instagram direct messages. This is an increasingly big deal – StockX data indicates that sneaker reselling is a billion-dollar market.
StockX is Luber’s brainchild, a fusion of his vocation and avocation. Luber has been a sneakerhead for 28 years, and still has the Adidas Torsions he wore in middle school.
“I have the exact same story as every other 38-year-old sneakerhead, which is that I grew up playing basketball when Jordan played, so I always wanted to be Michael Jordan,” Luber said.
Luber’s other passion is entrepreneurship. While he was getting his law degree and MBA from Emory University, Luber started a series of startups – including a company that provided an early iteration of the “Geek Squad” idea of home computer repair. Another Luber-founded startup that sold software for restaurants to manage serving staff even secured venture capital funding. That company was pursuing growth plans before the economy took a nosedive in 2008.
Ironically, the 2008 stock market crash and ensuing financial crisis brought down Luber’s last company and set him on the path to creating his own stock market. But before Luber began to pursue that dream, he took a job at IBM, working on data analytics and consulting. He was familiar with data work, but not at the scale IBM was working at when he arrived there. “I never thought I would be at IBM,” said Luber. “I had to very quickly become an expert on big data.”
Little did he know that expertise would come in handy. “I’d never worked with sneakers in any format,” Luber said. “None of my startups had anything to do with sneakers, I’ve never worked for any sneaker companies, it’s always been a personal passion. I’ve almost intentionally separated business and pleasure.”
Luber was at IBM in the first few years of the 2010s, which was the dawn of big data in the way most people know it now – massive number-crunching operations designed to figure out what consumers want to buy and how to market those products. Once Luber started working with IBM marketers, he realized there was a wealth of data at hand that could give him a fuller picture of the subculture he’d spent his life enjoying.
“While I was at IBM, the way we think about marketing with data today was just coming in vogue – the fact that we can predict someone’s purchases before they’re even gonna do it,” Luber said. “I was working on a marketing project with IBM executives and there was this innovative data marketing work going on. That was the a-ha moment when I decided to go out and apply analytic data skills to the sneaker data I could find. It was all curiosity-driven.”
StockX, like other tech startups, has the same basic departments – development, business, and operations. His team includes Chief Operating Officer Greg Schwartz, who handles many of StockX’s business functions, and former Complex editor Nick Engvall as head of content.
The day-to-day operation of the company is largely unlike any other startup, though.
For example, a day in the life of a StockX ops team member involves unloading hundreds – and sometimes thousands – of sneakers from a daily shipment, inspecting and authenticating each individual shoe, and negotiating the logistics of reshipping those shoes to their rightful purchasers.
Sneaker studies are an art, not a science, and Luber views the training process as more of an apprenticeship than a traditional onboarding.
“You can’t really hire authenticators,” Luber said. “They’re grown. We take the knowledge base that we’ve developed and teach other people how to come in. The only way to do that is by doing it together. Every shoe is usually getting at least two pairs of eyes on it – the authenticator and usually someone who’s training them, or vice versa, or someone overseeing them. It’s about the team talking about it as the shoes come through to say ‘this is real, this is what I’m looking for, this is fake, this is off-color.’”
It’s vitally important that Luber’s team gets these steps right, as sneakerheads are a group fiercely focused on credibility and authenticity. In the sneakerhead community, wearing fake shoes, providing poor customer service, or just generally being “sketchy” can be a death sentence to one’s coolness and trustworthiness.
In many ways, Luber is living the best possible adult life of a kid who grew up idolizing Michael Jordan and bingeing on Space Jam and sneaker culture. Eminem is an investor in his company, and he gets to work closely with some of the NBA’s biggest stars.
He, and thousands of other people of his generation grew up with sneaker culture but also matured with the trends that would converge with StockX. Trends like the rise of online shopping, which has always been a part of this generation’s consumption habits, were integral to the conditions that led to the founding of StockX. In fact, the rise of eBay as a major e-commerce portal led sneakerheads to use it as their marketplace for shoe sales. eBay enabled Luber to access his first troves of sneaker data, as he pored through publicly available eBay data on sneaker auctions in his off hours at IBM.
That generation also developed the startup trend of casual workplace dress. StockX takes it to an entirely different level. StockX employees wear what their teenaged selves might wear to, “dress for the job you want.” Each team member shows up to work rocking a unique pair of kicks, a sneaker arms race chronicled on @StockXcarpet, an Instagram account separate from the main @StockX feed. For them, success isn’t a corner office and neatly pressed suits, but the freedom to express oneself through fashion while fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Luber’s vision for the road ahead goes far beyond sneakers. Luber sees the StockX platform as a way to sell any kind of consumer product. A natural next step would be other fanatic collectibles, like comic books or handbags. But even that’s not the end goal. Luber wants to disrupt the giants of the e-commerce world.
“Anything that’s not already a pure commodity like toilet paper and anything that’s not a unique one-of-a-kind item like a work of art, you could potentially buy with the same market-pricing construct and connect buyers and sellers in the same way,” Luber said. “Think of when a retailer wants to liquidate an item. Instead of putting everything 40 percent off, you can have the market dictate how much you need to discount as you slowly move prices down to sell off inventory.
There’s a big, big idea here, and it’s not about how you beat the Instagram sneaker sellers. It’s about how you beat Amazon.”
If Luber does beat Amazon, it will be because the stars and trends aligned. He was a kid from a generation that spent childhood looking for the next cool sneaker. He grew up to ride the wave of how technology changed the way people interacted with the products they love, and in that wave, found his calling.