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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.
Atkins’ 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 $100 for this one triangle top,” she says, “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.
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...
The global swimwear market is estimated to be worth US$23bn per year, and it’s dominated by big name brands like Seafolly 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 went to.
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.
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.”
But one of the key things they’d share with any bootstrapped enterprise is the importance of treating each and every customer like gold dust. As Dani says, “Word of mouth, that’s what I worry about most. Swim wear is a product people buy when they’re going on a vacation or they’ve got a purpose to use it for. And I hate disappointing them.”
And there’s one partnership in particular that’s helped them stay true to that aim ….
Once their alliance with Forever 21 kicked in, sales went through the roof: “Within a week it was 100 orders in five days.” Needing to ramp up their delivery service pronto, they reached out to DHL. By using DHL Express as their international shipping service, the brand appeared to be a much larger enterprise, which then helped them secure more business leads. Apply for a DHL Express account now.
As far as Dani and Alex were concerned this was a tipping point: “I know this sounds really corny but DHL kind of changed our lives in terms of being able to compete with some of the big players in the world.”
It transformed their turnaround times: “We can now send a parcel to a girl in LA and it’s there the next morning. It’s incredible.”
It also enabled them to neatly sidestep any disappointment: “They’re obviously going somewhere and they’re awaiting that day. But – worst case scenario – if you find out what hotel they’re going to, we ship the new one there. So we get around it.”
DHL also helped them avoid a situation that could potentially have taken their whole business down ….
The test of any bootstrapped business is how it copes when things go spectacularly wrong, because, as Team Kulani Kinis testify, “Every week won’t be a good week.”
Dani and Alex’s moment of reckoning came when they were in the process of shipping a big order to a major retailer.
Alarm bells were ringing before the shipment even left the ground: “We’d heard some press that they weren’t doing that well, they were filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. For us as a small business, making thousands of dollars of swimwear, we were asking should we send this order? And they were either not answering or saying ‘yeah, everything is normal – don’t worry about it’.“
Then, once the collection was in the air, news came through that would send a chill down any small business’ spine: “Their lawyers reached out and said any product that you’ve sent, you’ve lost essentially and will not be paid for.”
There was a lot of money at stake but “we were actually really lucky because we called DHL, they stopped the shipment in LA and redirected it to another address.” They even managed to pluck a good future learning from the jaws of this disaster: “Trust your intuition.”
With bikinis flying off the rails as orders stream in from Forever 21 and their new partner ASOS, Kulani Kinis can confidently set themselves some pretty ambitious targets and their revenue goal for the next five years is $10m: “That’s something more concrete.”
Success even seems to put them in a bit of a dilemma. Though as dilemmas go, it’s not a bad one to be in: “When you have a good product, it’s really hard not to grow. We’re not sure if we want to take over the world and be the next big thing, we kind of just want to have a good balance.”
So while they struggle to find the perfect spot on the work/life continuum, Dani reveals one very clear future goal for the business: “I would say we’d love to evolve from our garage. I love that we get to work from home, it’s amazing. But I think that’s the next step for us.”
If they can make waves in the swimwear market from such humble beginnings, it shouldn’t be long before they get their wish.