When my partner and I launched our global swimwear brand, Kulani Kinis, I didn’t think I’d be trading in my nine-to-five for 24/7 of what started as an escapist side hustle — all within six months.
Today, Kulani Kinis is still a bootstrapped business, but we’re on track to hit $1.5 to 2 million in annual revenue by June 2018. Our constantly growing list of customers include ASOS, Forever 21, and ModCloth, just to name a few.
Growing the brand and shifting from my 7-year career as a psychologist to become a full-time entrepreneur has been nothing but an enriching experience. In my book, the best way to get started is to be prepared — here are my top tips on how to do just that.
1. There’s always a demand for solutions — find your own fix
Before starting Kulani Kinis, my days, nights, weekends, and holidays were dedicated to providing therapy for patients struggling with severe mental illnesses. As I was starting to feel the pressure taking its toll, I scheduled a vacation to Hawaii with my fiancé, Alex.
To my surprise, finding stylish and reasonably priced swimwear was next to impossible. That’s why I decided to create my own line of affordable, high-quality bikinis.
My partner Alex and I spent some time to analyse and see what we could buy and where we needed to sell at. We worked out the business could be profitable from day one; we just had to source our product and find customers who needed the same fix I did.
2. Discover opportunities in unlikely places and people
We started selling our swimwear primarily on a direct-to-consumer basis via Shopify. Offering quality and value for money earned us $200,000 within the first six months. Good photography was also instrumental in capturing the youthful aesthetic of our brand — presumably one of the reasons we acquired our early adopters and around 45,000 followers on Instagram just within our first year.
I knew we could reach even more people, but it would be difficult thing to do on social media as it was growing more saturated with brands by the minute. We needed to try something different.
In 2016, we joined a three-day tradeshow where we set up a booth next to a seasoned exhibitor called Tan. On the second day, he gestured at a group of people and whispered the greatest tip-off, “Stay sharp, those three people coming around are with Forever 21.”
That’s when the brand really took off. We would go on to build key partnerships with some the world’s biggest fashion retailers including ModCloth, Nasty Gal, and most recently ASOS — but our first key partnership was with Forever 21.
We learned one of our first lessons in that trade-show: You never know who you’re talking to or when a make-or-break deal is scheduled. Make sure you’re always polite, conscious and confident of your brand’s value, and armed with an irresistible elevator pitch.
3. Remember: Design matters
We attracted our buyers in a few ways — great design on the swimwear itself and all the bells and whistles of a traditional swim label. We had professionally made swing tags, packaging, sizing and care labels, barcodes, and look books.
What we didn’t tell them at that stage was the “professional” trimmings were all designed by us using the bootstrapped entrepreneur’s best kept secret – the free design tool, Canva!
4. Base your decisions on hard numbers and a solid strategy
So many new business just want to tackle online opportunities because they see it as the future of marketing. But exhibiting at relevant tradeshows was a significant contributing factor to establishing our relationships with the likes of ASOS and Forever 21. These partners are always looking for something different from what established commercial brands offer. And often, people like myself start labels because they can’t find the designs they like in any of the big commercial brands. The matchmaking potentials are rife. Trade-shows could be significant to boosting your brand exposure so new customers can find you.
When they do find you and you’re at the stage of negotiating deals, remember that retail is all about figures and hitting targets. In swimwear, for example, you can find a good price for your B2B customers by stocking together certain pieces. You need to understand what motivates your buyer — often its meeting KPIs and budgets. Make sure you know your numbers and can swiftly explain to someone how your brand is the key to helping their business become more profitable.
It seems counter-intuitive but a lot of our competitors in the swim space can be quite inflexible in that regard. In our case, we offer exclusive collections to our different retailers so they don’t need to compete as much with each other.
5. Treat constant communication and authenticity as powerful tools
Keeping in touch with all your partners isn’t easy. At one point we were on the verge of losing Forever 21 because our main contact resigned unexpectedly and we had no one to turn to. Without delay we jumped on a plane, rushed to Forever 21’s headquarters in LA, and we wouldn’t leave until someone came to see us. Persistence pays off and you need to show you want to make it.
Success didn’t happen for us straight away. It took over 12 months of regular contact with ASOS, starting from the moment they sat down with us, before they even placed their first order. Our view is that you need to treat your business partners with the same high regard and attention as you would any mutually respectful personal relationship. Don’t look at every decision with dollar signs as the key driver — make sure it’s what works best for both you and your partner.
6. Understand your core competency and never let it go
Lastly, you must offer a unique selling proposition and hold onto it as your core competency. If you want somebody to take a chance on whatever product or service you offer — what sets you apart from others? In a sea of swimwear, it’s our price point and our designs.
We empathised with our customers and offered them something affordable and stylish, with amazing quality. It’s a set of standards that resonate with both our partners and end-buyers up to this day.
Danielle Atkins is the founder of Kulani Kinis, an Australian-owned swimwear company that is experiencing tremendous success internationally.