When promising Portland-based shoe startup BALA, which makes high-performance shoes for nurses, first teamed up with Ebi Porbeni, a nurse/social media influencer who has amassed over a million devoted Instagram followers on his @nurselifern channel, it seemed like a match made in marketing heaven.
The company, which was started by two former Nike employees, Brian Lockard and John Eberle, had a smart idea, without too much competition in the market. Their idea, which grew out of an entrepreneurship course that Eberle had taught at the University of Oregon’s sports product management program, was to design a shoe expressly for nurses, who spend up to 12 hours per day standing. to-consumer, now publicly traded, a fashion scrub company that has gone viral for its departure from the standard Kelly green jumpsuit vibe, just for the shoes.
To develop their frontline, known as Twelves in honor of those long shifts, Lockard and Eberle say they canvassed hundreds of nurses, to see if they felt well served by their existing options, which were most often running or Swedish shoes. stylish clogs, such as those often sported by chefs.
“We were trying to show nurses the respect they deserve by treating them like professional athletes are treated,” Lockard said. This meant developing a shoe that included a fluid-resistant outer layer (as all sorts of bodily fluids are likely to splash on a nurse’s feet during daily rounds), an inner bootie for comfort, rigid arch support to accommodate standing in one place for long periods of time and a flexible basketball sole for the inevitable sprints down a hallway when a patient is in need.
Caprice Neely, a shoe design veteran with experience at Nike, Under Armor and Adidas, came on board as co-founder and designed the prototype. Lockard and Eberle exploited contacts to find manufacturing facilities and source materials.
That’s where Porbeni came in. Born in Nigeria and raised in Chicago, Porbeni had worked as a nurse at UCLA before moving into travel nursing, according to his LinkedIn. Her Instagram account began as a collection of nurse-friendly memes, a collective place to let off steam and find the – often dark – humor in a profession that sees far more than its fair share of grief. Porbeni engaged with her followers in her Instagram Stories, through a popular podcast, and through live Q&A; Sweatshirts emblazoned with his signature sayings like “A&Ox1” (short for alert and oriented, in healthcare parlance) sold out quickly.
The account has become an intimate and free digital gathering space for the nursing community around the world, says Zach Smith, a trained nurse turned tech startup entrepreneur who founded Nurse Grid, a Portland-based nurse scheduling app and came to early to BALA to help with marketing. Smith’s wife was a fan of Porbeni and encouraged recruiting him as the company’s public face; Smith says they hit it off right away and became very close friends.
“Ebi felt like a gatekeeper to the nursing community, like she wasn’t going to be taken advantage of, like she has been in the past,” Smith said. “He had exactly the vibe I imagined. He was so real and he had a massive following. Case in point: Smith says that when Porbeni launched a survey to his followers about what they were looking for in a shoe, 30,000 responses poured in, giving BALA valuable insight into everything from shoe sizes, favorite colors, what frequency the target market bought shoes, prices and more.
Instead of buying digital ads, Smith says, he and Porbeni suggested more viral marketing, with Porbeni demonstrating BALA on his social media, as well as a cheeky ad featuring a nurse in a mad dash for access coveted equipment. for bladder scans before any of his colleagues.
The strategy paid off. A pre-sale of the shoes brought in more than 7,000 million-dollar orders, providing both needed capital and a calling card for future investors, Smith says. Lockard recalls fulfilling the first set of orders in December 2020; the company’s warehouse in Tigard was understaffed, so BALA employees stepped in to pack and ship orders. The nurses later told the company they received their shoes the same day they received their COVID shots, he said.
By spring 2021, however, relations had become strained. Often, social media influencers get paid per swipe, based on how many of their followers act on their recommendations, click and buy. Porbeni was different, Smith says: He traded stocks in the company, with bonus percentage points coming once sales reached a certain level.
Smith says Porbeni was driving sales and demanding more compensation and that Lockard, in particular, was skeptical and resistant. For his part, Lockard said the two parties “were unable to reach an agreement that would both satisfy its compensation demands and allow BALA to fairly compensate our full-time employees and manage the business.”
Eventually, Porbeni stopped promoting the shoes through her feeds, and there was an immediate downturn in sales, Smith says. To top it off, Porbeni was suffering from a rare form of leukemia and was getting sicker and sicker, awaiting a decision from his insurance company to cover a second round of treatment.
In June 2021, Porbeni, Smith and Neely had had enough. All three left Bala, but said almost nothing publicly at the time about the decision. The company lost Instagram followers, by the thousands.
About a month later, Porbeni died at the age of 33.
Within weeks, Neely paid tribute to him on Instagram, saying he had been “so full of energy and amazing ideas”, then adding the following pointed remarks: “One thing Ebi couldn’t achieve in his short life was to receive the proper recognition, thanks and appreciation for what he did to build and support BALA…His promotion of BALA generated nearly 100% of presale sales and, by my estimate, the vast majority of sales thereafter.He legitimized the brand for nurses.
“He meant so much to a ton of people, with everything he did to advocate for better care for nurses,” Smith said. “And this shoe was as good as it was thanks to polls, meetings, wear testers, publicity – all the nurses in the Ebi community, working for free. All of that left the company , because of Brian.
Lockard and Eberle acknowledge that after the departures, which they say are not unusual for start-ups finding their feet, sales dropped dramatically. But sales have since rebounded, they say, as BALA has established new partnerships and plans to expand its products, including shoes for other healthcare professionals, slip-on styling and shoes for wider feet too.
Currently, their shoes are primarily available through their website; they want to expand to other online marketplaces and eventually open a physical store as well. (One day, they said, they may consider making shoes designed specifically for other professionals who spend a good part of their day on their feet: think teachers, servers, etc.)
Investments also continued to flow; they recently closed a third round of funding which included an investment from the locally renowned Portland Seed Fund. And, Lockard says, they’re expanding their philanthropic efforts, including partnering with the Oregon Center for Nursing to help fund wellness support programs for nurses impacted by the pandemic.
Still, some of the scars from Porbeni’s exit linger. While the shoes receive largely positive online reviews from nurses, on social media Porbeni followers often respond to BALA’s social media posts with emoticons of plants in her honor – the favorite pastime de Porbeni on Sunday was to tend to his plants – a way of telling the company that they haven’t forgotten the imbroglio.
“Starting a business is so different from any training I’ve had,” Eberle said during a recent interview at BALA’s Slabtown coworking space. “We are learning every day. We have so many opportunities in front of us, and our challenge is always to focus the team, to focus the best ideas and to make sure that we always balance them against the needs of healthcare professionals.