Discussing The Big Steps with Joshua Bingaman of HELM Boots
By Jessica T. Brown
Photography by Leslie Hodge
How often have you heard, “fake it till you make it” in new business? Many believe that faking it until you make it is the winning ticket. It’s the cloak of disguise hiding confusion and rejecting doubts. On the contrary, how often have you heard the words ‘humility’ and ‘honesty’ pop up in the same conversation? Or, how “eating crow” can be the redeeming quality of an earnest and eager mind? Sincerity in one’s actions, beliefs, and words can hold just as much weight, if not more, than being fake. Take HELM Boot’s Joshua Bingaman for example.
Born and raised in Oklahoma, Joshua Bingaman saw a golden opportunity in moving to the West Coast towards the end of high school. Bingaman’s move to the Coast was based on a record deal he received at the lively age of seventeen. “I started a heavy rock band when I was sixteen. After we toured, we got some label recognition and I ended up doing a couple of albums”, said Bingaman. At seventeen, he found himself in one of the many organs that pumps creativity and oozes cool throughout California: Los Angeles. From this point on, Bingaman was set on following his dreams, wherever they might lead him.
One day, Bingaman’s brother called him with a “crazy” idea. “‘Hey man, I found a cool space in San Francisco. It’s an old photo studio in the Mission on Twentieth and Valencia. Let’s open a shoe store.’ My brother collected, and kept collecting, sneakers”, said Bingaman. Bingaman was a lover and collector of boots himself. “I had always liked boots. When I started touring, I always wore old hiking and work boots before it was cool. I mean, we're talking about mid to late nineties, so a lot of people kind of mocked me. I found some old hunting boots of my dad's in the garage, some old Irish Setters, and I just started rocking that stuff. Eventually, I started getting into collecting and buying those kind of boots. My brother and I are both a little bit obsessive. We say we get it from our mother; she's kind of has Imelda Marcos Syndrome and has always bought us shoes. Kind of her love language.”
Their hoarding habits and collective obsessions with shoes grew into their first, and only shoe store together, the Subterranean Shoe Room. Neither of them would have imagined how much this would change their lives. At that time, they were just two hopeful young men in an old space in the Mission. Bingaman and his brother started the store, franchised it, and watched it grow into a booming business.
As some might know, working with family is a little more challenging than anyone desires. Even with their success, Bingaman realized that maybe working with his brother wasn’t for the best and that there might be other avenues worth observing. In 2002, newlyweds Bingaman and his wife Sarah moved to Austin with hopes and aspirations of finding a forever home. Through this process, Progress Coffee was born and Bingaman began tending to another successful business venture. Though his days of shoe obsession were not behind him. “About four or five years into the café, I was in Istanbul visiting an Aunt. I had a brother-in-law at the time who was a really good artist and I began to collaborate with him, putting drawings together and everything.
On a separate trip in Israel, I had seen these beautiful people. Women and men, old and young, wearing combat boots. They would be wearing them to go out for dinner and I’d be at a hotel watching them walk through with these big, tall, military boots. I was watching all these people, and I remember thinking, ‘Man those boots are rad.’ I always loved military influence and I thought, ‘How can I take a boot like that and kind of make it meet a dress shoe and a touch of a sneaker?’ After a while, if I ended up running into somebody in shoe making in Istanbul, I decided that I’m going to pitch them these pencil drawings.
From there, I started learning about footwear with our store. The first six style I did were from all kinds of amalgams of a bunch of boot styles. I found this canvas, wanted to run it up the shaft. I found this old kind of French dress shoe. This sheen on this leather. Before I even knew what these things were, it's like, ‘Hey, we have this leather from Holland. We have this sole from Italy, etc.’ The white midsole was kind of my nod to a sneaker that happened when we were trying to glue certain things together. It all kind of fell into place.”
When it comes to designing and creating his boots, Bingaman always wanted a hands-on approach with his material. “To this day, I rarely use computers to create designs. I use tracing paper and colored pencils. If you looked at my design wall, you’d laugh. You'd be like, ‘Are you sure one of your kids didn't do that?’”
Through a progression of ideas and thoughts, HELM Boots was made. Initially, they were sold at an old gas station he and some friends had turned into a coffee roaster. “Once we brought the brand from Istanbul to the US, we had the styles they were selling and Stag picked them up. Eventually, we started a website and it all kind of snowballed.”
From the beginning, community and collectivism were the foremost factors for HELM Boots. “At first it was a roller coaster of, ‘This is selling. This isn't. I was going back to Istanbul again and again and again. There was so much happening at once, outside of the coffee shop that I was running, and the roaster that had started. There were so many attributes to creating HELM Boots.”, said Bingaman.
In 2005, the entrepreneurial side of Austin was exploding. “James Moody and a couple of guys and were like, ‘Hey, let's put a website together for you.” Moody had just started Guerilla Suit, a creative agency and design studio, with Kevin Whitley. “Elaine Garza was there, who had started her own full-service PR firm, Giant Noise. We were all starting to do this at the same time. It was this consolidation of power players of Austin that really helped me get moving. Everybody that has helped me with all of this didn't have to do any of that. Why did everybody come to my coffee roaster (aside the fact that Aaron Franklin, of Franklin Barbeque, used the parking lot for his trailer)? How and why did everybody come to bat and support us? At that time, Jen, Joseph and Terry were beginning their own NY-style pizza restaurant, Home Slice. All those people, to this day will ask, ‘How can I help you, help me, help you? Financially. City code wise. Relationship wise. Who do you need to know that I might know?’
Those people who were starting, or already had their own local creative businesses were there, and are still successful in Austin. They are successful because they got it. They were building something here that was more like a metropolis or more oriented towards something that was more European, bringing something to Austin that wasn't here yet. Not in terms of like, ‘Let's San Francisco, let's invade Austin, or New York, etc.’ It was more like, ‘Hey, let's bring something here that we think people who already live here, or are coming here, will understand.’
It’s still crazy to think about. Even now, it's still like that. In Austin, gradually, you find and begin to know people. This town is, surprisingly, still small. There are these forerunners here and I don't know how I became one. I just moved here from San Francisco and thought, ‘I'm going to start a coffee shop in this little dilapidated warehouse on the East Side.’ It grew from that because there were people in Austin with the same mindset. Take Liz Lambert for example. Liz bought this old ghetto hotel. Moody with Mohawk. Aaron with his trailer.”, said Bingaman. It’s no secret that Austin is known for being a start-up center. With that, Austin is also known for being community oriented, open-minded, and a friendly forward-thinking city. It comes to no surprise that Bingaman was able to truly find this network of creative thinkers here.
From selling shoes out of a coffee roaster to selling products all over the world, you could definitely say that HELM has seen a progression in their business. Bingaman has committed to keeping everything “old school” and continues to work out of Austin with input on everything. “We repair. We re-sole. I touch most everything. I talk about everything. I process everything.”, said Bingaman.
Bingaman’s story may lead you to ask whether his was a case of good timing, optimism, or perseverance. How about all of the above? “Everything I’ve done that I’ve started, I figured out by myself. Straight, cold, and off the bat”, said Bingaman. Starting your own business comes with making a lot of decisions and a lot of mistakes. For Bingaman's route, he knew that he had to make a lot of those mistakes himself, even if they were going to hurt. “If I could've had somebody tell me, ‘Don't do these ten things’, I might of still needed to do some of them for the process. I can run into a wall till my head is cracked open. I’ll put a helmet on and then keep running into it. If somebody would've told me what some of the pains were going to be, or some of the pitfalls and speed bumps of owning a business, I think that would have been super helpful. Even so, I don't think anybody could've talked me out of it, but they could've told me where they failed and that would've helped me.” This balance between learning from mistakes and accepting advice from others is a growing pain of owning a business. Bingaman has seen this in the progression of not only HELM Boots, but each business venture that he has worked with.
You could “fake it till you make it”. You could go all out and rush for the finish line, whatever that means to you. You could also go knock on doors and make those phone calls. Connect with your community. Ask those questions that might seem silly or embarrassing. Embrace the unknown, the unsure, the uncomfortable. Somebody's going to answer. Somebody is going to listen. You can do anything you want. Right now is a good time as any to start following your dreams.
For more information on HELM Boots, go to helmboots.com, follow them on social with the @helmboots handle, and visit their flagship store on East 11th St. “We're not here to take over the shoe market. Our goal is not to grow too big or too fast. Our goal is to become a brand that is familiar. We don't want this to be a flash in the pan. We want to make this stick around.”