Seth Berger attended Perm's Wharton School with hopes that it would prepare him for an earnest business pursuit. His main pursuit, outside his studies, was basketball, which he had played in high school and enjoyed at Penn in daily pickup games. But after he graduated in 1993, his basketball jones was as intense as ever. So while his classmates negotiated jobs on Wall Street, Berger, now 31, joined with two friends and launched And 1, a basketball apparel company. Borrowing from one Visa to pay another and "making tons of mistakes," Berger earned a whopping $1,813 in the company's first year. Reluctant, however, to give up the job for one that wouldn't allow them to play hoops every day at lunch, Berger and his sole mates soldiered on, adding shoes to their line in 1996. Three years later their company is fast emerging as a PTP-er in the $7.5 billion-a-year athletic shoe industry and will do more than $100 million in sales this year.
And 1, based in Rosemont, Pa., has succeeded by departing from conventional wisdom at every turn. A cardinal rule of the sneaker industry is that shoes be marketed more for fashion than performance. And 1, though, asserts that it wants only serious basketball players buying its shoes, which feature extra cushioning for shock absorption and high-abrasion rubber outsoles. The company offers designs for specific positions—for example, the lightweight Inside Out Mid, with additional lateral support, is meant for someone playing guard. "If you don't have game," says Berger, flatly, "you'd look silly wearing And 1."
Further, while sluggish performance of late has led the sneaker industry to cut costs by axing athlete endorsement deals, And 1 has nine NBA players under contract, including New York Knicks guard-cum-coach-throttler Latrell Sprewell. Eight others, including Sacramento Kings star Chris Webber, wear the shoes for free.
Most controversial is the company's unabashed embrace of trash talking. At a time when the public has a low threshold for athletes' boorishness, And 1 shirts are festooned with lines such as TURN ON THE DISPOSAL, YOUR GAME'S GARBAGE. One shirt asks, YOU LIKE THAT MOVE? SO DOES YOUR GIRL. Is this really appropriate for a company that caters largely to kids and young athletes? "Absolutely," says Berger. "Trash talk is a crucial element of basketball, part of what makes it great and gives it flavor."
Clearly, And 1 is doing something right. The company expects to sell more than one million pairs of shoes this year, most priced between $65 and $85.
With an established brand, flourishing sales and currency with the consumers, And 1 is an ideal candidate for an acquisition. "If I were a company like K-Swiss or New Balance that had the infrastructure but had never found a way to get into basketball, I'd be salivating," says John Horan, publisher of the Sporting Goods Intelligence newsletter. For the moment Berger and his partners say they have no plans to either succumb to a buyout or go public. "Sure, we'd be loaded," he says. "But we couldn't possibly be having as much fun as we're having now."