These high schoolers turned a desire to look cool into a business

The faces of Lace-up (from left): Matt Thompson, Rohan Bhatia, Cole Nachman. Their start-up will offer price comparisons on sneakers when it launches in November.

Sixteen-year-old entrepreneurs Rohan Bhatia, Matt Thompson, and Cole Nachman are into some heavy stuff for kids their age. Charmingly, it emanates from a very teenage place - wanting to look cool.

It started with Bhatia getting some spending money last summer from grandparents visiting from India. He went shopping for back-to-school footwear and was instantly frustrated.

"I had a hard time between finding the best-priced and also the shoes that would make me popular in school," said Bhatia, who lives in Lower Gwynedd. "There was nothing to help me find a trendy shoe at a good price."

All he found were retailer sites offering "no way of discerning what would kind of fit in with my friends."

About to start their sophomore year at Wissahickon High School at the time, Bhatia, Thompson, and Nachman spent the rest of that summer creating a business they named Lace-Up. Their plan was to offer online comparative pricing of all shoe retailers and every type of footwear.

That changed this summer after the boys participated in Catapult, a highly competitive and selective incubator for high school entrepreneurs. In addition to New York, where Catapult is based, the incubator brought Lace-Up's founders to Chicago and San Francisco, giving them access to advisers from Google, McKinsey & Co., and Microsoft Reactor, among other business notables - and subjecting them to critiques.

"They were pretty vague and ambiguous about the market they were going after. We saw their focus as too large," said Joshua Caleb Collins, 32, who founded Catapult in November 2013, in part because a younger brother in high school with entrepreneurial strengths was not taken seriously by incubators and university-based start-up centers because of his age.

Lace-Up also lacked unique technical capacity. The algorithm they were creating, "Zappos, Google, Amazon could build something in three weeks to make them irrelevant," Collins said.

So the boys did what entrepreneurs have to be prepared to do: They pivoted. When Laceupshoes.io launches in November, it will offer only pricing comparisons for athleisure footwear (a.k.a. sneakers) for ages 13 to 22.

The goal, Bhatia said, is to present "the trendiest shoes at the lowest prices from the most reliable sites."

Initially, Laceupshoes.io will aggregate athletic footwear that is trending at Amazon, Foot Locker, Finish Line, Zappos, Eastbay, Champs Sports, and Famous Footwear, from which the start-up will collect a commission of 6 percent to 13 percent on each sale made from a redirected Lace-Up visitor.

"We're hoping to get $50,000 in revenue the first year," said Thompson, of Blue Bell, who, like his partners, will be a junior at Wissahickon this year. "As we sell more through these companies, that commission will go up, and we'll have an exponential growth in revenue."

He cited a $50 billion shoe industry, with more than a third of that coming from teens.

"They're sneakerheads, which is a really great sign," said one of Lace-Up's advisers, Rich Sedmak, founder of Schoolyard Ventures, a youth-entrepreneurship program working with middle and high school students in Philadelphia. "Solving a problem that's very relevant to high school kids as high school kids is a very good way to go."

Their challenge now? "How do you get people talking about this?" Sedmak said. And to reach company-sustaining revenues, he said, they will need to capture casual sneaker-wearers, not just the hard-core devotees.

Though untested in the marketplace, Lace-Up was a big hit in August at Demo Day, Catapult's finale event, where incubator participants pitch to nearly two dozen judges to get feedback, new mentors, and sometimes even investors.

Lace-Up won the event's "most investable company" award, which comes with free marketing, branding, and legal help.

"Right now, they do have people interested in investing, so we're helping them set up their corporate structure," said Collins, who attributed Lace-Up's acceptance into Catapult, despite administrators' initial hesitation, to "really strong leadership" and "just really consistent pestering. They were really passionate about the problem they wanted to solve."

The award has Lace-Ups partners "thrilled," Bhatia said.

Saying that 68 percent of Catapult's alumni have gone on to start a second company, Collins said of Lace-Up:

"I'm pumped to see what they do next, and what they do after that and after that."

Of course, graduating high school would be good.

dmastrull@phillynews.com

215-854-2466@dmastrull