A boring pair of boots led Amy to an “aha” moment and the creation of Kuhfs. Each unique design is produced in small-batch quantity and allows women to show off their sense of style and personality.
Tell us a little about your background…
I am 44 years old, married for 19 years to a wonderful man. My husband, David, is Vice President of Sales for ConAgra foods and for the past 12 years I have chosen to stay at home to raise our boys: Jack, 13, and Matthew, 11. We live in Mt. Prospect, Illinois, a northwest suburb of Chicago.
Before we had children, I was a Physical Therapist Assistant for many years. I worked in a nursing home rehabilitating the elderly population, working with them after strokes, hip/knee surgery, a general decline in health, etc. I loved my job, but wanted to earn more money and have more control over my future so I decided to go into medical sales. I was successful and enjoyed the freedom and increased income that a sales job offered. What I liked about sales was the fact that the harder you worked, the more return you got. It was up to me; it felt like my own mini business.
While I was a stay-at-home mom, I did try my hand at my own business based on a new concept in the food industry called a meal assembly kitchen. This was a commercial kitchen that was set up with stations/carts so customers could come in and prepare 12 meals in about an hour or so. We’d create the menu each month and have all the ingredients on hand. Customers would follow the recipes to make the meals, then take them home for easy prepared dinners. My mom, sister, and I named our meal assembly kitchen Entrees By You and worked at that business for almost five years, but it was an epic failure and never turned a profit. Still, I learned a lot about running a business, which would be valuable for my next act.
When did you start to think about making a change in midlife?
I have always had the entrepreneurial bug. I love creating, design, and fashion. After the failure of my meal assembly business, however, I was not looking to start something new. But an “aha” moment led me to my next act.
It was late winter and I was tired of my standard black fashion boots. I had worn them for two to three seasons already, but I was not in a financial position to afford another pair of $250 boots. I thought, “I wish there was something I could put on my boots that would change their look.” I searched online and did not find anything to meet my needs. One day, the idea to wrap one of my scarves around the top of my boot came to me. The boot looked completely different! I loved it. Now I just had to create the product.
I drew out my first prototype. The original design was just for boots, so I spent time researching boots—how wide the openings are, how long the shaft is, what styles are popular. I knew from the beginning that I wanted one size fits most; I did not want women to have to measure their calves to see what size to order. I played around with the length and width until I had a size that would work on most boots, then I borrowed my mom’s sewing machine and started to sew the pieces together. I quickly decided each cuff had to have three critical components: fashion fabric for design, interfacing for stability, and broadcloth for a nice finished look on the back.
I struggled the most with figuring out how to make the closure adjustable; I tried snaps, Velcro, elastic, buttons. I finally settled on a sturdy, bobby pin. (I added my logo onto the cuff last year in the form of a tag so people would know they were purchasing an original, if and when my idea got copied.)
Eight months later, with a good working prototype in hand, I started to wear my boot “cuffs” around town and made some for my friends. Before I knew it, people were commenting on how cute my boots were and were amazed when I took the “cuffs” off the boots: “What a great idea! How cute is that! I want a pair!” I decided to start selling my products at a small church craft fair to see if anyone besides my friends would have the same reaction. They did!
What is your next act?
I am the founder and owner of Kuhfs, a design accessory meant to be worn on your boots, jeans, leggings, workout pants, and capris. I have 19 designs on offer right now and would like to keep it around that number; too many products can get hard to keep track of and expensive to produce. I only produce about 100 of each Kuhfs design; once they are sold out, they are gone. I want to make sure my customers have a unique experience wearing their Kuhfs and showing off their personal style. I do not want my customers showing up to an event or party and three other people have the same Kuhfs on! I would describe my line as classic, upscale and fun.
I am running and growing my accessory company one day at a time. I am connecting with my audience, building brand and product awareness, as well as working on additional products to add to the Kuhfs brand. I love my job, despite the challenges of running my own business.
My favorite part is designing new Kuhfs. The inspiration for my designs comes from sourcing fabric; I could spend hours browsing through the fabric warehouses. I do not go in looking for a specific color, pattern, or idea; I just see what catches my eye. Then I think about how that fabric will fit into my line, who would wear it, where they would wear it, and if this fabric will be easy to incorporate and pair with someone’s existing wardrobe. Is it preppy, classic, bold, fun, elegant? My patterns have not really changed that much over time. I stay true to my taste, what I like, and what I think my customers will like.
Why did you choose this next act?
At the time, I really didn’t have any other ideas or passions I was following. I was happy at home raising my two boys. I did not have any intention of launching a fashion brand. I came up with a great idea and chose to turn it into reality because I was passionate about it and it was a great outlet for my creative energy. I took it one step at a time.
How did you turn a prototype into a business?
I had no experience in the fashion industry and I had no idea how I was going to get my product from idea to reality. I had to start from scratch with zero experience, but I did not let that deter me.
I had to figure out a lot of things: how to hire a sewing contractor, get a pattern made, source fabric, build a website, market a new product, engage on social media—all on my own. Google is my best friend. When I started Kuhfs I didn’t even know how to sew: I Googled “how to sew a straight hem.” I was willing to ask questions, connect with people in the industry, and learn from them.
I decided early on that I was going to let Kuhfs grow organically. I took a year to test the market and attend a few small selling events, working on Kuhfs part time. Then, I was able to enlist the help of a marketing firm,Thinker Ventures. I had won an entrepreneurial contest they had in May 2013, to help launch new products and I received $5,000 worth of their services. They helped me come up with a name; the unusual spelling was chosen so that it would stand out and give the product an upscale feel. Together, we developed a brand identity, a new website, a promotion strategy, and marketing materials. After three months of their help, I was ready to set out on my own. They gave me a great kick-start to launch in the right direction. In August 2014, I officially launched Kuhfs and started working full time.
How is Kuhfs doing?
I am still in the investment stage of building my business. I am not selling a scarf or something that people are familiar with, so a lot of my budget goes to building brand and product awareness through social media, advertising, and marketing; this includes Facebook ads, promoted Pins on Pinterest, paid sponsored posts from bloggers, ads through Google Adwords, etc. I have had a steady growth in sales from month to month. The majority of my sales are at in-person selling events, not over my website. Attending trade shows and sales events gives me the opportunity to connect with new customers and introduce the brand to new audiences.
I decided on my price once I had all of the costs factored into the product and what I thought was a fair mark-up for me. I target middle to upper income women with my product so I priced it at what I thought they (and I) would be willing to pay. Kuhfs are made in America so my prices are a bit higher for the quality of work and the craftsmanship that goes into producing the product. Just last month, I decided not to pursue retail; by selling directly to consumers, eliminating the markup required to sell at wholesale, I was able to lower my prices. I think Kuhfs being priced at $32-$38 is fair and affordable to my market.
This spring, I introduced the new application of Kuhfs for jeans, leggings and workout pants, which was practically a relaunch. This helped me eliminate the seasonality of my product but required more investment in educating the public: new photography, an updated website, and new marketing materials. I anticipate Kuhfs will be profitable by the end of 2015.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My family and friends have been, and still are, extremely supportive. My friends were the first people to test the Kuhfs prototypes and work at the craft fairs with me. They encouraged me to keep going and were proud of every little success and they were there for me when things didn’t go my way. My husband has been nothing but supportive, not only financially, but emotionally as well. A lot of the events that I attend are at night and on the weekends, so that means I am away from home a lot. It is a sacrifice, but we are working it out together and he is extremely proud of me and what I have accomplished so far.
My boys (Jack, 13 and Matthew, 11) have helped in every aspect of the business, from production to shipping to social media. They are a pre-teen and a teenager so it is hard to impress them, but they are very proud.
What challenges have you encountered?
I encountered many challenges along the way as I learned this business from the ground up. My biggest challenge was trying to find someone to manufacture my product. I made countless calls to manufacturers, trying to get someone to take a chance on a newbie who only wanted 100 pieces made at a time. I had no idea how to get my product from my prototype to a manufactured piece. A small sewing contractor, Rosario, took me under her wing and showed me the ropes. I still use her to this day and am thankful she took the time to teach me what I needed to be successful.
Another challenge I faced was fear and self doubt: What if I fail? What if I succeed? I had a lot of insecurity coming from a stay-at-home mom to entering the fashion world. It took me a long time to really believe in myself, as well as trust my instincts, my creative vision, and my abilities. I told myself, “Do one thing each day that scares you.” It doesn’t have to be a huge, monumental act, just something that you didn’t think you could do—calling another boutique to see if they would like to carry my line, reaching out to bloggers to review my product, or writing a press release. I had to face those fears in order to gain the confidence in my abilities.
Yet another challenge has been managing my time. With my new product introductions, Kuhfs is now a year round accessory so I do not take a break. I am always planning for the upcoming season way in advance. If I want to add something new to the spring 2016 line, I need to select the fabrics now to have it ready for April. It is hard to get used to this advanced calendar and I still struggle with it. I always feel like I am behind but with time I think this advanced planning will get easier.
I keep a strict schedule when the boys are in school: from 9am to 3pm, I am at work. From 3pm on, I am back to mom duty. I have found that if I am trying to help with homework or get dinner ready while also trying to check email or finish a task for work, things get stressful. If I separate the two worlds, everyone is less stressed and the days go smoother. During the summer I have to be more flexible and fluid, moving in and out from work to mom. I try to get the boys to make their plans for the day in advance so I know what they will need from me, but that doesn’t always happen. Making goals for each week helps me stay focused as well. If I know this week I need to get these five things done, I will make the time and let the boys know I am busy from 9am-1pm on this day, so I will not be available to drive them here or there. The summer is definitely harder, but if you stay organized and on task, you get done what needs to be done.
Sometimes I think about asking a partner to join me because it is a lot of work for one person but I have not acted on that as of yet. I do hire out for certain things, like photography—there is no way I would be able to take decent photos of my product. If it is a task that would require a large investment in my time to master (like Google Adwords or designing a website), I will contract that work out.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
Yes, there were many times I wanted to give up. My first order that was manufactured for me was cut and sewn incorrectly because I did not know the correct terminology and the fabric was cut wrong. I felt defeated; there was just too much for me to learn and I didn’t think I could figure it all out myself.
I was also discouraged after the 20th boutique said no to carrying my line and I spent the entire weekend at an event and only sold four pairs of Kuhfs. There can be a lot of frustration starting a new business and you can easily get caught up in a negative thought process and want to quit.
What kept me going was acknowledging what I had already accomplished. Yes, there will be setbacks and things I don’t know, but if I look back from the day I sketched out the first design and compare that to what I have accomplished and where I am today, it gives me the courage and conviction to keep going. I have had to make peace with the fact that being an entrepreneur is going to be full of very high highs and some very low lows but as long as I’m heading in the right direction, I am very proud of myself.
I have learned that I am stronger, smarter, and more creative than I thought; and I’m really good at problem solving. I have learned to trust in myself and my creative abilities.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
My advice would be to follow your dreams, find your passion. Be smart about it, but do not let fear of change or the unknown stop you. Many of us say we would love to do this or that but never act on it because we are afraid: afraid of failing, afraid of succeeding, afraid we don’t know what we are doing, afraid we aren’t smart enough or aren’t talented enough. Don’t let fear be in the driver’s seat.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
If you can, start small like I did. I kind of dipped my toe into the waters first before I took the big leap. Be clear on your vision and dream before you start; define what success looks like for you, not for others. That’s what my husband asked me when I decided to take the leap and turn Kuhfs from a hobby into a business.
At first, I thought that question was kind of weird, and I didn’t understand what he meant. I said to him, “I want to be successful and sell a lot of Kuhfs”; to that he said, “How many? Do you want to sell online or in small boutiques? Do you want Nordstrom’s to carry your line?” He kept probing: “What will make you happy? How do you define success for Kuhfs?” I was so thankful he kept pushing me to answer those questions because it forced me to really sit down and think through what I was going to be happy with. Not what others thought was success for Kuhfs, but what I wanted for Kuhfs.
What resources do you recommend?
Networking: look for meet-ups in your field and networking groups on Facebook and other sites
Advice on launching a fashion brand: Fashion Brain Academy
Business Advice: Female Entrepreneur Association
Website designer – Maya from Social Mediately
Sewing contractor: Rosario with Pecas Tailor (708) 813-0030
Pattern maker: Alisha at email@example.com
Packaging: Boxes from Uline
Labels: W&W associates, Inc
What’s next for you?
I am working on the prototype for Kuhfs on a dress shirt. I have decided to design and produce the button-down shirt and have the cuffs of the shirt be removable. You can then choose to remove the cuff and add a new one to change the look of your shirt.
My goal is to build Kuhfs into a nationally recognized accessory brand. I will continue to grow and learn, reinventing myself along the way.
Contact Amy Olson at firstname.lastname@example.org