#IMakeaLiving is a series of free, traveling events powered by FreshBooks that focuses on bringing together an eclectic group of small business owners for a lively, candid, and often hilarious, conversation. In light of the series' second year, we're interviewing business-owning designers on how they brought their companies to the next level.
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After coming to the frustrating realization that plus sized women weren't receiving fair treatment in the athletic wear market, Micki Krimmel set out to change state of the industry with her size inclusive performance wear line, Superfit Hero.
Krimmel combined her knowledge gathered from founding previous startups with her passion for fitness—specifically roller derby—to plan Superfit Hero's development in the same spirit as a tech company. Before launching her Kickstarter campaign, she conducted extensive market research and consumer interviews. With the support of the roller derby community combined with her interesting business strategies, Krimmel cleverly figured out how to zero in on a supportive audience she had a deep understanding of—a group who would eventually help crowdfund her campaign to success.
Even after her thorough planning, bringing real product to life has been no easy task for Krimmel. In this interview, the Superfit Hero founder goes into detail about the realities of crowdfunding and bringing your very first product run to life:
Core77: What is Superfit Hero, who is it for and what led you to the decision of starting your own brand?
Micki Krimmel: I originally started in entertainment working for the social change-focused film company, Participant Media. I led their tech initiatives and created social action campaigns back when blogs were new, and it was a very optimistic time focused on how technology was going to democratize media and connect people. From there I worked at an early-on YouTube competitor, which was really my first jump into startups.
The first startup I founded after that was NeighborGoods, which was one of the first sharing economy services. It was a website that connected neighbors to share things like power tools and lawn mowers. It was one of those really great ideas that help kickstart a whole industry, but it never really took off on its own.
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I knew I wanted my next startup to support my passion for fitness. I started researching and quickly discovered that there was a hole in the activewear market where plus size women didn't have access to high quality performance wear. 67% of women are what we call plus size, so actually the majority of women fall into this category. During my research I found that a lot of brands shop by sport online. The categories would be, yoga, weight lifting, crossfit, and then there'd be a separate category just for plus size. From a fashion perspective that didn't make sense.
Fitness and sport have the potential to help women discover their super powers, if you will. They help women develop their confidence and their leadership ability. What we see in fitness marketing is the opposite—it's just about aesthetics. It's about women taking up less space and fitting some hyper sexualized idealized view of what a man thinks your body should look like. I felt like that was undermining the real benefits of fitness, which are self-confidence and strength. So, Superfit Hero is a size inclusive, body positive fitness lifestyle brand that serves women extra small to 4XL.
I actually just retired playing roller derby—my team was number four in the world when I stopped playing a year ago. As far as amateur sports go, we were basically professional athletes aside from not getting paid. It's pretty intense. That experience is what sparked my interest in all this, but it also gave me access to a supportive feminist athletic community that I knew would support me on Kickstarter. The summer of two and a half years ago, we did a really great Kickstarter campaign and raised around $55,000 to do the first production. Then I fulfilled orders and launched the brand online in November of 2015.
"People think of Kickstarter as the beginning and the end, but I didn't at all. Kickstarter for me was the launch of the brand, and it was tied into a marketing strategy that was developed for three years out."
A common point of stress people face once they succeed in getting funded is figuring out next steps. How did you prepare for brand success after a successful campaign?
There's no way to do a successful Kickstarter without treating it as a marketing platform, but I think people just don't think of it as a marketing platform. I very much did. The Kickstarter was a part of the launch of the business. It was a PR play as much as it was a fundraising tool. Don't get me wrong, I needed the money to start the business, but I did all the legwork ahead of time. I already spent my own money to meet with factories and get the fit and test it with people and test it with athletes and make sure it was legit.
I think with most Kickstarter campaigns, people launch them earlier in the process, so they don't have the product ironed out yet—they're not sure which factory they're going to work with, etc. I did that the other way around. I did all the product development and fit testing ahead of time. So I had the patterns, and I had everything ready to go so that as soon as I had the funding from the campaign I could pay the factory and we would have product in house.
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People think of Kickstarter as the beginning and the end, but I didn't at all. Kickstarter for me was the launch of the brand, and it was tied into a marketing strategy that was developed for three years out. So I actually didn't have that problem because I did a lot of preparation. Before I launched the Kickstarter campaign, I prepared for eight months.
This preparation put me in a position where I was ready and able to fulfill two months after the Kickstarter. I obviously used the Kickstarter money to make the products to fulfill Kickstarter orders, but I also used it to stock the online store because I wanted people to have somewhere to go after the campaign. I wanted them to be able to continue to support me. So we launched the website the same week that we did all of the Kickstarter fulfillment, and we started taking orders right away because we had the stock. I was just thinking ahead—I saw Kickstarter for what it is, which is really a great marketing platform.
What was the main challenge of breaking into the fashion industry with no prior experience?
technology industry has a real culture and tradition of sharing knowledge
and making introductions. It's a very social industry with a lot of public
speaking and conferences, and everybody is always sharing and collaborating in
that way. Fashion
doesn't share that culture. People hold their vendors
close, and they don't share that information, and factories don't have
websites. They don't advertise their services. There are a
few factories set up to work with newcomers because they see that as a viable
market, and it is, but those factories aren't necessarily the same ones you want to work with once you're a few years in.
"The factory that gets you started is not necessarily set up to be the same one to fulfill larger orders down the road."
I originally thought that you find a factory and work with them forever, but it just doesn't really work that way. The factory that gets you started is not necessarily set up to be the same one to fulfill larger orders down the road. My requirements changed pretty quickly, so I also had to shift factories quite a few times. Finding the right people to work with was a huge challenge, and
I'm still solving it. I'm just now switching to a new factory again. I think
this is my sixth factory in three years, but I think that's normal.
did you end up finding the first factory you worked with?
I found the very first one on a service called Maker's Row, and I
definitely recommend them for people just starting out. They're trying to be like the Yelp of
factories, so that when people want to make products, they can go on Maker's
Row and search by product type and send messages and get connected.
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There are thousands and thousands of factories in Los Angeles, and a very, very small percentage of them are on Maker's Row. But the ones that are on Maker's Row are the ones that are really eager to work with newcomers, so that's actually a really great place to start. I found a few vendors on there, and they tend to be more forward-thinking and understand technology.
The challenge when you're new is that you end up paying a lot. In my case, every time I switch factories, I end up paying more. It got to the point where the business wasn't going to make financial sense unless I could bring my production prices down. This was mid last year. At that point, I actually hired someone who does sourcing for larger activewear brands. I hired her as a contractor to help me find the right factory. She's been in the business for 20 years and has all the contacts—you're essentially paying for access to those contacts.
She went through all her contacts and basically found the ones that were interested in a smaller client, and she was able to get me in with a factory that works with much larger activewear brands. They shove me in between their bigger orders as a way to keep their people busy, so it's a really great fit for them. For me, I just have to be a little bit flexible with my timeline working with them, but the quality's great, the price is great, and it's a fully licensed, ethical operation here in Los Angeles.
Do you have any advice when it comes to interacting with factories and telling them exactly what you want?
"By advocating for my customers, I found the confidence to be demanding because I knew what I wanted before I went in there."
I'm really honest about what I know and what I don't know, but I'm also very demanding about what I require. At first, that was a challenging balance for me to strike because I would think, "I don't even know what I'm talking about, and who am I to be so demanding?" But the reality is I do know what I'm talking about because before I went in to meet with any factory, I did a ton of research with my actual customers, and I found out what they needed.
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By advocating for my customers, I found the confidence to be demanding because I knew what I wanted before I went in there. I didn't have all the technical terminology, but I knew how I needed the product to fit, and I knew what problems I was trying to solve. I had to be really strict and then let the professionals fill in the gap.
Did any factories turn you down because of the wide size range you carry?
I was turned down and pushed out of factories not because of the size range but because of my order size. We have this vision of giant factories and thousands of people sewing, and that's actually not how it is. Most factories are like little garage operations with 20 to 40 people working there, and they're used to working for big brands.
Most of the work for a factory is in the setup—getting the patterns right, getting the markers right, and figuring out how to cut the fabric. That amount of work is insane, whether they're doing 500 pieces or 3,000 pieces, so obviously, they're going to opt for the larger job. I've been in business for a couple of years, and I'm still barely making the minimum for the larger factories, but I am making the minimum, so I have more options now.
The factories definitely aren't used to the size range, though. Most brands go from a size small and then they grade from there. I had to be more specific because I didn't want them to just add a half an inch to each size—people don't get taller just because their size is larger. I wanted the rise in the back to grade more to make more room for women that have more in the backside and things like that. Thankfully there wasn't really pushback on this—it was just an instance where I had to be really specific about what I needed.
Your overall goal with Superfit Hero was to design the perfect fitting leggings for athletes of all sizes. How did you approach this very challenging task from a design perspective?
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Visual design is not really my forte, so I hire designers to do that and artists to design the prints. I come from a tech background, so I treated the production for Superfit Hero like a tech product. I conducted a bunch of research and interviews, and I got feedback and learned what people liked and didn't like about a pair of leggings. The idea is that if we're trying to build a fitness company that's all about confidence, then the product has to make athletes feel amazing while they're wearing it.
I went through this whole testing process where I started by pulling bits and pieces from other pairs. "I like this, I don't like that." I found a factory that worked with me on putting a pattern together based on that testing process. Then we created a series of samples in all the size runs. We had athletes test them for yoga, crossfit, roller derby, and we even had a medieval combat trainer wearing them... Running was my key thing, though. I thought that if I could get plus size runners to wear these leggings and have them not droop or fall down then I'd know I was on to something.
What I've been thinking about lately is really locking in on the brand, the vision and the purpose. From the design of the product to how we respond to customer service to which content we post, how we market stuff, how many times we email you—every single decision is driven by the customer, and I'm constantly thinking about how we can respect them even more.
Interested in listening to more start-up stories? #IMakeaLiving Powered by FreshBooks will be hosting their next event on March 28th in Toronto. Learn more and register here, and in the meantime you can listen to the #IMakeaLiving podcast here.