15 Jul 2022

The Right Step: Q+A With Rakoh Founder Raphael Kohlberg (MBA 2018)


by Hensley Carrasco

Raphael Kohlberg poses in front of a car full of orders and samples.
Photo courtesy Raphael Kohlberg.

Raphael Kohlberg’s (MBA 2018) search for the perfect shoe has been one of trial and error. He often found himself at a crossroads between comfort and elegance—where one fit in one setting, it didn’t in another. A fancy restaurant and trekking shoes? Not the best combination. Dress shoes on a trail? Probably not.

That trial and error led him to create his own shoe company, and so Rakoh was born. We caught up with Raphael to learn more about how HBS helped him on his journey, see behind the scenes at the production of the shoes in Italy, and more.

Where did the name Rakoh come from?
Rakoh is a word I made up a long time ago and have used online as a username on different websites. I took the first two letters from my first name and the first three letters of my last name and created Rakoh. When I launched my brand, it felt so natural to call it Rakoh, I didn’t think twice about it.

Raphael at the factory in Italy.
Photo courtesy Raphael Kohlberg.

What makes Rakoh shoes different than other leather shoes?
Rakoh approaches product design like a performance product, not just an aesthetic product. The parameters I focus on are comfort, craftsmanship, and effortless style. The process involves many cycles of prototyping, testing (hours of wearing and miles of walking)—basically iterating on repeat until the outcome is just right.

Making a luxury shoe that is stylish and also extremely comfortable is a difficult process that requires customization—including custom last, which is the foot-shaped mold, and custom insoles—and a lot of searching for the best materials and suppliers. These materials and suppliers are not found on Google, so it requires an immense amount of research, relationship building, overcoming language barriers, requesting samples, and becoming best friends with your DHL courier.

Many leather shoes are beautiful, but they require a long break-in period. I don’t use materials that require breaking in. Rakoh shoes are designed to be comfortable from the very first wear. In my experience, a shoe that requires breaking in is never truly comfortable, it’s just less uncomfortable.

Learning about different leathers.
Photo courtesy Raphael Kohlberg.

Why did you decide on the Chelsea boot as your shoe design?
I spent years of my childhood living in a small agricultural town in Israel. Everyone wore Blundstone Chelsea boots. I fell in love with the style, their versatile look, the ease of slipping a pair on or off. I wanted to take what I love about Chelsea boots and make my dream version; stylish, laid back, lightweight, and super comfortable.

Who are some of your fashion/style role models?
My mom has always been my style role model. Besides having impeccable taste, her style is timeless. She embodies what I love most about fashion: classic items that will always be stylish. A great denim jacket, white button-down shirt, Chelsea boots…these staples can be dressed up or down and always look good. And when they are well made, they will last for the long haul.

Where do you see Rakoh in five years?
The dream is to have my own research and development lab. A place to test materials and construction methods. The goal is to reduce the barrier to experimenting.

What HBS resources have helped you throughout your entrepreneurial journey?
The summer between the Required Curriculum (RC) and Elective Curriculum (EC) years, I took advantage of The Rock Center Summer Fellowship, whose funding made it possible to be the first MBA intern at Outdoor Voices, an apparel startup. My internship validated that I absolutely love working in fashion and in a startup environment; and perhaps more critically, gave me the confidence that I could try my hand at launching my own fashion startup.

In my EC year I took pretty much every class related to startups and entrepreneurship. So many of the lessons learned still bounce around my head today and fundamentally influenced how I’ve approached Rakoh.

What has been the hardest part of starting a company?
The self-doubt. There are periods when you feel like you’re going backward. You start to wonder why you have any right to succeed in this crowded and competitive environment, full of talented and smart people.

What has been the most rewarding part of starting a company?
I get giddy when I learn more about the technical aspects of making shoes. I’ve spent time inside factories, at every step of the manufacturing process, countless conversations about production, and I’m still learning so much. Every time I visit a factory, I learn something new.

The other side that is so rewarding is when customers love the product. One customer, John, bought a pair, wore them for a day, and loved them so much that he wrote an amazing review and ordered another pair! It’s the feeling that someone sees you and truly appreciates what you’re doing.

Raphael and his shoes.
Photo courtesy Raphael Kohlberg.

What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Ask questions. Ask for help. Be patient. Build good habits that are good for your mental health (exercise, eat well, sleep well, see friends and family, etc.).

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