Kulani Kinis: Making a splash in a competitive market

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Why hot new Australian swimwear brand Kulani Kinis is a testament to the power of bootstrapping your business.

It’s that magic moment all entrepreneurs dream of: when a passionate notion becomes a solid idea and a successful business. For Dani Atkins, it all began around a trip to Hawaii.

Dani’s annual pilgrimage to the country of picture-perfect beaches and swaying palm trees wasn’t so much a holiday as an escape from a high-pressure role as a psychologist working with severely ill mental health patients. And as happens in many of these stories, it was something relatively small and mundane that started Dani on her Kulani Kinis journey: she’d ordered a bikini online and had a severe case of sticker shock when it arrived. “It was almost US$100 for this one triangle top,” she said, “I thought surely this could be done at a lower cost.”

The realization that she could make the sort of stylish, high-quality bikinis she was looking for, and make them cheaper and better, was Dani’s lightbulb moment. Before too long, Dani and her partner Alex Babich were running their own million-dollar two-person bikini company from their garage in Sydney, Australia.

Opposites attract business

Well, that’s the overly simplified version of the Kulani Kinis tale. The reality wasn’t quite so fairytale-smooth. Alex freely admits that he didn’t immediately embrace Dani’s vision: “You know when Dani turned to me I was like – she wants to sell bikinis online? Oh my God, that’s the worst idea.” Luckily, Dani’s unstoppable optimism won out. But it’s the two very different personalities of the Kulani Kinis owners that may well be the secret sauce behind the brands’ success.

Dani is a people person through and through: “I guess in terms of understanding people and empathizing with customers, that’s something that my psychology background has added. I have a lot of empathy and that’s why we get a lot of customers who come back to us. I hold the customer at the heart of the business because without the customer there is no business.”

In contrast, Alex is naturally more of a numbers guy: “I was in accountancy. I did tax, high net worth stuff. I guess I was customer facing too but from a different angle. But it’s been really helpful from a business perspective.”

So, armed with well-honed interpersonal skills and some serious financial chops, Dani and Alex set off to take on the mighty swimwear market ….

A minnow in a big ocean

The global swimwear market is estimated to be worth US$23bn a year and it’s dominated by big name brands like American Apparel and Speedo. To get a toe-hold in this category, a fresh-off-the-blocks brand like Kulani Kinis either needs a boatload of cash or an outsize portion of luck. While the dollars were in short supply, fortune was about to flash them a winning smile.

Bikini brands live and die by their Instagram feeds and Kulani Kinis got it right from Day One. Their bright, breezy aesthetic and high-end photography hit the sweet spot with their audience and rapidly gained them a large number of followers.

Not having the budget to launch at the biggest US swimwear show turned out to be a blessing in disguise too. Their Aussie can-do attitude (and unique accents) helped them stand out a mile at the smaller LA shows they showed up at.

Some retail heavy hitters were also quick to pick up on the buzz around the brand. An early partnership with Forever 21 put them on the world map and desirable alliances with ModCloth and ASOS were to follow.

Most impressively, they managed to achieve it all without taking a single penny in outside funding.

Bootstrapping, Kulani Kinis style

Right from the start, going it alone financially wasn’t just an option for Dani and Alex – it was the only route they were willing to consider. As Alex puts it, “We often say no one will ever care about us as much. And Dani will always care about the customer and I think when you bring in outside money and stuff, she has to start thinking about a shareholder. It kind of destroys Dani’s best skills and what she likes doing.”

As a result, the Kulani Kinis story offers up some great lessons in how to take the path marked ‘lean and mean’.

Focus, focus, focus seems to be the first take-out. Dani advises people to “offer a unique selling proposition and hold onto it as your core competency. In a sea of swimwear, it’s our price point and our vibrant designs.”

Then a lot of it comes down to not spending a single cent unless you absolutely have to. Despite its global reach, Kulani Kinis HQ is still Dani and Alex’s garage and the employee list still only has five names on it at most.

They’ve also been remarkably savvy about their marketing budget: “For example, if our photo shoot needs props, we’ll look at what we can exchange that isn’t money. We’ll happily give them swimwear and then do a shout-out on social media or something.”

Watch Kulani Kinis' video

Visit Kulani Kinis website: kulanikinis.com