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Meet The Inventors: Kristi Soomer of Encircled On How To Go From Idea To Store Shelf

An Interview With Tyler Gallagher

Don’t listen to the naysayers. You need to become an expert at blocking out the white noise of those who don’t believe in what you’re doing. I left a corporate career where I was earning a great salary, and was at the top of my game. I could’ve ‘had it all’ but I wanted more, and I wanted it to be aligned with my personal values and make a positive impact on the world. You need to be passionate about the product you’re launching, otherwise you’ll be vulnerable to get knocked off your game by someone’s opinion.

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kristi Soomer, Founder of Encircled.

Encircled is a slow fashion brand that does it all. Founded by Kristi Soomer, Encircled is one of the few apparel brands that is a Certified B. Corp, which puts the planet and people before profits. To give you some perspective, there are only 9 apparel brands in Canada that are Certified. B Corps, and only 4 of these are female-founded/majority female owned B.Corps.

Encircled’s factories are in Toronto, and they are OEKO-TEX(R) 100 Certified, meaning that no harmful substances are used to make their clothing, just sustainably sourced, ultra-soft fabrics, and a whole lot of love. They are also super transparent about each of their fabrics, which are posted online here.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

My backstory starts in Toronto, Ontario, Canada where I was born and raised. I have one older brother who

I looked up to growing up, so to be like him, I immersed myself into every sport imaginable, giving up figure skating for hockey, and playing competitive soccer, tennis, and volleyball throughout my early years.

I’ve also always had a keen interest in business that started in high school, inspired by my Economics teacher and fuelled by my first job at a fine food store (that would qualify as a ‘start-up’ today) where I learned so much about processes, systems, and identifying better ways of working. I was passionate about the outdoors, environment, and protecting animals. When I was 11, I declared myself as a vegetarian and would never wear leather — it was not as ‘vogue’ as it is now. I ended up following a path studying business at Western University, and getting an MBA from Queen’s University, but always felt the pull to learn back into my values, no matter what career I was in.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My life is my message — Ghandi

How you live your life is a reflection of who you are and what you stand for. This is something I think about daily and is intrinsically linked to my values and actions.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

When I was first started Encircled, I had no entrepreneurial role models. I come from a family of professionals who worked in the same jobs their entire career. So, I felt like I was a little lost building my business. Through watching a meditation by the life coach, Gabrielle Bernstein, I discovered Marie Forleo.

She’s a business coach with an online program called B-School, which teaches entrepreneurs basic digital marketing skills. Although I had a lot of education, I had never built a business in the online space. Her program, and mostly — the community — helped me get over the initial few setbacks and launch Encircled.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

I dreamt up my first product idea, The Chrysalis Cardi, while packing for a last-minute yoga retreat. I was working full-time as a management consultant, who travelled weekly via planes and had recently been put ‘on the bench’, meaning, I had no clients assigned so I could take time off. When I was packing for this trip to Costa Rica, my suitcase broke, and I had to shove everything into a much smaller bag at the very last minute. It led to me questioning why I was packing so much stuff, and why I didn’t have more versatile pieces. I was inspired by a circle scarf I had that allegedly you could wear 35+ ways. However, when I tried to put together the various styles it looked sloppy, the fabric was see-through, and was completely unflattering. I thought — there had to be a better way, so I designed my version of that — the 8-in-1 Chrysalis Cardi, a multiway dress, scarf, cardigan, tunic and more that uses hidden snaps to transform into different styles.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

I struggled initially getting my product to market because I had no experience in the industry, so I was basically, starting at zero. What helped me the most was finding that online community, educating myself in the industry through watching webinars, reading books and joining industry associations, and also by finding freelancers who could help me get off the ground. The product development process for my first design took almost 9 months before it was physically in my hands! It was a labour of love for sure, and I dealt with a lot of “no’s” from factories who didn’t want to make it. Luckily, I stumbled upon a few key supporters in the industry, and I’m also generally very persistent.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

This is so relatable. When I dreamt up the idea for the Chrysalis Cardi, I immediately thought, “Someone must’ve thought of this before.” So, I went on google and just started researching every keyword I could brainstorm. This was a good starting point because you get a general sense of what’s out there but it’s important to note that if you do this, and find a similar idea, that doesn’t mean you can’t proceed. There are many ways to execute a product, from choosing different materials, production processes to different market positionings. I was lucky that no one had thought of my exact idea. There were a few similar products out there but none had the functionality, sustainable lux fabric and ethical production that I was focusing on.

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

I had to become my own role model. I know this sounds trite, but with a lack of family support for my crazy design idea, and most of my friends and network not being entrepreneurs, I was on my own. I learned to bounce back from failures, and rejection. I learned to make mistakes but learn from them. I think these are key attributes all entrepreneurs need to develop to be resilient throughout their entrepreneurial journey.

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

So, when I first had the idea of the Chrysalis Cardi, I knew I had to figure out how to get it made. I reached out to an industry association in Toronto called the Toronto Fashion Incubator and joined their membership.

Through it, I got access to lists of suppliers, workshops, and their resume database. I was able through a stroke of luck to reach out to a freelance designer who wasn’t working anymore but introduced me to another designer who helped me with my first few designs. She was incredibly pivotal in helping me figure out the technical details of how to execute a garment from the tech pack, to creating the pattern, sourcing fabric, and finding and vetting manufacturers.

Encircled has always been 100% made in Toronto, Canada which was a difficult supply chain to stand up. I found that aspect of it the hardest as there was a lack of low volume factories that were interested in my product. Once I was able to find a factory that loved the idea, I had to find and source the fabric. I bought my very first fabric order from a supplier who’s our #1 supplier to this day. Once all the fabric, notions, and patterns were at the factory, the design was sewed, and I prepared to do my first delivery. In Canada, it’s very hard to patent fashion designs so instead I trademarked our names and assets. I also hired a PR firm who was critical to getting those initial early online sales. On launch day, I had a handful of sales (mainly from my friends and family), but a few weeks in, I got my first sale from a stranger — it was very exciting!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Manufacturing can be the source of many mistakes as the fashion industry is largely handmade, so there is a ton of opportunity for miscommunication or for someone to do something wrong. I don’t know if it was funny (at the time) but early on, I designed a pair of leggings, and the factory accidentally made them out of the wrong fabric. They had both fabrics in stock, and chose the wrong one. They also applied a heat transfer with the wrong content information (the content information matched the other fabric) so they were completely unsalable. I recall that I cried. It was a hugely expensive mistake! However, I was able to pivot, and get the factory to remove the waistbands, re-sew new waistbands, make new heat transfers, and develop a new legging out of new fabric, and ultimately sell them at full price. Talk about a pivot!

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

In March 2013, we sold $128 in merchandise, and it was to a friend of mine (she paid cash, didn’t even transact on our website). At that moment, I felt like my business was a bad idea and that it’d never be a success. I kept chugging forward and really focused on developing unique travel content to support my customers with getting the most out of their Encircled designs. Fast forward almost a year later, and we were in the Globe and Mail gift guide. At the time, I was traveling for work in NYC and my phone blew up with orders. We had more orders in one day than we’d had in 6 months. I don’t know if that was “the day” we made it per se, but that was the day where I knew we just needed more people to know about what we were doing. My best advice is to stick with it. That PR hit was a long lead (meaning it was pitched in JULY!). Good things take time.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1.There is no such thing as a perfectly sustainable product. I started Encircled with a dream of building a sustainable fashion brand (before this was even talked about in the industry). I’ve run into so many challenges of finding notions and fabrics that check all the boxes on sustainability while delivering a beautiful hand-feel, drape and washing experience. I’ve learned there’s always a bit of compromise needed because it’s better to create a garment that lasts, that a customer will wear often than a 100% hemp shirt that’s too itchy to wear for more than a minute.

2. Manufacturing works on its own timeline. I come from a background in retail and CPG industries, where everything works like clockwork. In fashion, there are a lot more variables due to the handmade nature of the business. Most of the work done to create a garment is still done by hand, no matter where you are in the world. So, if a sewing team member gets sick, the whole timeline can be thrown off. I’ve learned to roll with the punches and to adapt quickly to ever changing timelines, and to always build in a buffer.

3. Don’t be afraid to charge what your product is worth. It’s become very trendy to launch a direct to consumer product, and offer to ‘cut out the middleman’ (the retailer usually) to offer savings to the consumer. The challenge with this is if you’re also investing in sustainability, a high-quality product and an ethical supply chain, you’re also adding costs. So, the expectation that your product ‘should’ and ‘can’ be cheaper for this reason versus others doesn’t make financial sense. Early on, I priced my product too low for fear of someone saying it’s not worthy of it. As the brand has evolved, we’ve had to increase our prices significantly due to our ethical supply chain, minimum wage laws, sustainable commitments to knitting more fabric locally. It still makes me nervous, but I have to remember that many brands out there that are more well known, use cheaper fabrics and poor-quality construction and still charge significantly more than us. At the end of the day brand matters, but that takes time to build.

4. Hire slowly and intentionally but hire sooner than you think. If you need to hire someone desperately to help you in your business — whether it’s to ship an overflow of orders, or deal with the build-up of customer emails, it’s likely that you’ve hired too late. Early on, I waited almost 6 months after quitting my full-time job to be in Encircled to hire someone which meant I was doing everything myself! Growing early on, as a bootstrapped business, I wish I took the risk to hire someone sooner as I think it would’ve propelled our growth even faster.

5. Don’t listen to the naysayers. You need to become an expert at blocking out the white noise of those who don’t believe in what you’re doing. I left a corporate career where I was earning a great salary, and was at the top of my game. I could’ve ‘had it all’ but I wanted more, and I wanted it to be aligned with my personal values and make a positive impact on the world. You need to be passionate about the product you’re launching, otherwise you’ll be vulnerable to get knocked off your game by someone’s opinion. When I first started, an investment associate of a famous Shark Tank “Shark” told me that he loved my product idea but I should make it overseas, and switch the fabric to a cheaper, non-sustainable product and put it on the shopping network and I would be ‘a millionaire’. As tempting as that sounded, it was more important for me to build a business that aligned with my ethics, and I knew that there was a better way to do business in a way that felt good for me too.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Research the product and the industry. Start reaching out to your network to see who has knowledge about this product and absorb every course, podcast and workshop you can find about the topic. Break down the steps to launch the product into small steps.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

If you have the funding to hire someone like this, I don’t think it’s a bad idea. I never really went this route though I did engage with a few technical freelancers early on. However, I learned the most about developing the product myself from the ground up. It helped make me a better, scrappier entrepreneur in the end, and now I feel like I can do anything!

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

I started Encircled by bootstrapping it with my savings. Three years in, we took on a small angel investment, and that’s the only fundraising we’ve done ever since. We’re cash flow positive but have big expansion plans which may require additional investment in the future. I say do what works best for you and the plans you have for the business. There are pros and cons to each approach that need to be carefully considered.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Through business. Encircled is proudly a certified B corporation which means we’ve committed in our corporate charter to use business as a force for good. This means every decision we make we consider the human and environmental impact, such as from the fabric we use, to how we design our product to where we make it. We’re on a mission to make the harmful fast fashion industry obsolete by showing customers that they don’t have to compromise when it comes to their wardrobes.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Although we’re a 100% locally made brand, I strongly advocate for better working conditions abroad for the garment industry. There are several industry associations, most notably, Fashion Revolution and the Clean Clothes Campaign that do excellent work on building awareness around the fact that there is still an immense amount of forced labour, human rights abuse, and exploitation in the fashion industry. This issue has not gone away but fashion brands have become incredibly savvy at hiding it. I’d love to see this end and for all garment workers globally to be paid at least a living wage.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

There are so many entrepreneurs that I look up to, but I’ll name one that I’ve never met, and I think is just a total rockstar! Eileen Fisher. She’s the founder/CEO of an ethical fashion brand and a pioneer in the industry. I have a dream that one day her company will acquire Encircled. I admire everything she does to make the fashion industry a better, cleaner, more humane industry.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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