By Mya Linden | Stories from the Storefront
Stories From the Storefront turns the spotlight on the bold, passionate small business owners who put the work in and never stop chasing the dream.
Ulrich Conrad Simpson of UBI-IND Mi Cocina knows the strength, durability and versatility of denim. That’s why he created the Mi Cocina collection, bringing a timeless look with modern function into the kitchen and dining room. Follow UBI-IND on Facebook and Instagram.
Mya Linden: Tell me about your business.
Owner, Ulrich Simpson: I started producing premium denim jeans in 1999. I had been working at Tommy Hilfiger for about six + years and decided to start a jeans business made here in the U.S. Then five years ago, my wife and I had a baby girl named Gabriella. During one of those sleep-deprived nights of parenting, my wife cornered me in the kitchen and said, “Look, I don’t do mornings, and I don’t do breakfast, so can you manage mornings and I’ll manage nights. I’ll put her to bed, read her a book, the whole thing. You manage breakfast and getting us out the door, to school, to work, and I’ll take care of the rest later.” I thought, that’s not a bad deal considering I already wake up at 4:30, so I started spending a lot more time in the kitchen cooking and prepping meals for the family. I soon realized cooking wasn’t a delicate task, and of course, being sleep deprived, I kept burning myself. I thought to myself, “This doesn’t make any sense. Why hasn’t anyone figured this out? Isn’t this a big enough industry?” Everyone’s cooking and none of the products in the market are functional unless you purchase a BBQ glove, which always seems to be a bit awkward looking. So that was my AHA moment…I wanted a functional product that looked great in the home while entertaining guests, but also could withstand a weekend of camping up the California coast. The beauty of denim is the more you wash it, the softer it gets. The dirtier things get, the better the product looks. What other fabric do you know of can withstand constant abuse and still look so good? What started as a shakedown by my wife has now landed the brand in over 110 stores across the U.S. — everywhere from the Guggenheim Museum to gardening stores and small boutique mom and pop shops.
What’s been the most unexpected part of starting and running your business?
When you work for a larger company, there are a lot of things you take for granted, like FedEx bills, office supplies, transportation, etc. When you have a small business, you’ve got to keep your eyes on all of these expenses, or it will blow up in your face. Now that I have my own business, cash flow is a significant stress. I could go on and on since it’s a constant juggle. The bigger you get, the more different issues and problems to have to solve. When we started, we made 50 or 100 pieces, so a mistake wasn’t devastating, but when you’re making 2000 to 5000 pieces and you or someone on your team makes a mistake, it’s enormous. It’s your business. You’ve got to be on top of everything. I do pretty much a little bit of everything, so not much sleep gets done.
What do you love most about running your own business?
I get a lot out of the problem-solving aspect. Every day is a new challenge. For every door that gets closed, I am determined to open a new one with a nonconventional approach. A great example is this fantastic bookstore in the bay where we are selling very well in. It’s not necessarily the place you would look for placemats and napkins, but I said to the owner. “We have the same customer.” Let’s try working in your books with our product. If something doesn’t sell, I’ll take it back for something else that will sell for you. She hesitated at first but then let me re-merchandise her store with our products and now she’s one of our top-selling shops.
I’m a calculated risk-taker and have always been keen on our brand not becoming a me-too brand. It’s more about taking an idea and seeing it to its full potential. I love the feeling of that. We’ve created a lifestyle kitchen brand, which is funny to me, coming from my past apparel brand experience. When I’m solving a problem, I look at it in terms of, what is the issue? How can we resolve this? And then, how can we grow our business? I’m at a point with our product where I don’t have any competitors in our space doing what we do as a collection, but I’m sure they will come. When that happens, innovation and planning will be on my side.
What is your favorite part about being your boss?
I guess driving the bus. Each day is as crazy and hectic as the next, but like surfing, it’s not about how hard you paddle or in this case, how hard you work; it’s about putting yourself in the position, making the right moves, and staying on the wave. Whether the ride was long or short, be stoked. Try it again. One of the things that I always say is, “If you want something done, find a busy person because you don’t have time.” I never have time for anything, but you have to make time to get sh*t done. Sometimes, there’s not enough time in the day. You have to put energy and time into everything. It’s like a relationship — the more time you put in, the better the result.
What is the most stressful or challenging thing about starting your own business?
Aside from the financial, I would say that creating a rhythm and a consistency can a bit of a challenge when you don’t have a blueprint in front of you. I’ve been fortunate enough to be part of the creative process for several apparel brands in the past that I could put this expertise into effect. That’s been one of the critical things that I think a lot of people sometimes don’t get. You need to analyze the business and study the market to design product that reaches the masses but is also unique and different. Product. Product. Product.
How has your business evolved since you started?
I am continually looking at new opportunities to evolve our business. I make sure to build a three-layer system into whatever I do. It’s my Good, Better, Best. When I started making jeans, I was concerned about being in all the right shops and getting it on all the cool kids. And now, my customers are sophisticated women between the ages of 45 & 65 years old who love unconventional style. She is the core. My concern is giving her something not only beautiful but also useful and low maintenance, so she comes back to me every season looking for more of what we do. Our products are selectively produced in the U.S., so things do end up costing a little more for the quality that we offer. Where I can be different from others is by constantly evolving and changing so that we can keep offering something fresh. We’re growing, and we’re super happy about it but like every small business, we’re always facing issues that need solving.
What’s the most stressful thing about running your business?
Money. The more you grow, the more you spend. Now, we do about six wholesale shows a year from New York, Las Vegas, to local shows. Each of these show costs anywhere from 8k to 12k to be a part of. It’s a significant investment in a retail landscape that’s currently very volatile. That’s a lot of money and pressure to place on the brand. Thankfully we’re currently working on our online business and looking at a lot of the new technologies out there that can give us an edge in the market.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed or unmotivated, what do you do to get back on track?
Get in the water and surf. When I’m in Los Angeles before I hit the laundering facility, I’ll get up at 5:00 am, make dawn patrol and get to the office by 9 o’clock. It just gives me clarity.
What do you wish was easier about running a business?
If you don’t have thick skin, this isn’t the thing for you. It takes a particular type of personality to run a small business. There have been points where we’re two days away from getting a $10,000 check because we sold X amount, and there might be $35 in my account. And some people will stress out about that. I can’t. I know the money’s coming, so I’ve just got to work on my relationships with our factories, so that they get the money before anyone else gets the money.
What’s your next business goal or milestone, and why is it important to you?
I’m always looking to expand the business and carve out the low hanging fruits. We haven’t even touched the surface. We will get into twill and canvas materials. I’m currently doing a little R&D in it so that we are ready in two years. Our first proof of concept was for the Guggenheim museum store. We made black leather and canvas apron for the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit. I’m looking to build a good team so that I can focus on some of the other things. That’s where I’d like to focus in the future. I’d love to get into the supply business for chef jackets and so forth.
How do you define success?
It depends on where you are on the spectrum. Right now, I’m thrilled that I can pay all my bills and move and grow the business. We’ll get to a place, hopefully soon, where we’re going to be financially viable.
What has been your biggest failure, and how did it set you up for later success?
When I had the jeans brand, I thought, “Oh, if I’m in the top shops and if I get press and I do all of the things that people sort of rave about and I have celebrities wearing my product, it’s going to be [great].” That’s nothing. It’s building the business, getting great partners, and having an open dialogue with my retail stores and the people who buy the brand. That’s more important to me than any of that. That’s cool that celebrities might want to wear it, but I think it’s that customer. I’m having such a fantastic time selling to hardware stores and gardening shops, and I love it because its people using the product. The beauty is that I don’t have to explain to anyone what denim does. This country has such a deep history and love affair with denim.
What’s the one thing you wish you knew when you were starting your business?
I wish I knew it was going to be a bit of a roller coaster. The good thing for me is I’ve evolved. I’ve gone from a pair of jeans to complete kitchen accessories: aprons, table runners, napkins, and so forth. So, every season, we’re evolving, and I’m trying to push technology. It’s exciting, but also you depend on other people, so you’ve got to keep your relationships tight.
What advice would you give to an aspiring business owner?
Build a thick skin. Be on top of everything. Micromanage. Make sure that you listen to your customers. I spent a lot of time at direct-to-retail shows. People give me suggestions, and I listen. I keep my ear to the ground and am always looking to evolve.
What’s been the most worthwhile investment you’ve made in your business?
People. Invest in the right people. That’s priceless.
How do you want customers to feel when they buy one of your products?
There’s this love affair that we have with jeans so when I see people get a product and they’re like, “Oh my God, I use it every day. I love the thing.” I get it. We have lots of customers who come back and buy for their friends. That’s always really amazing to see.
What most excites you about QuickBooks Connect?
Meeting a lot of new people and talking to some of the business owners about how it’s helped. What I wanted to do was find one way of bringing of the operational processes together and QuickBooks has helped us keep track of everything.
What about the future of your business excites you?
Well, growth of course is always the primary goal. We’re still trying to find a better, more sustainable solution for production. How do we use technology to help and not hinder our performance? I think that’s the exciting part of it that is gaining momentum. We live in San Francisco, in the epicenter of technology, so we’re looking to build some great relationships with companies and take it to the future.
How long have you been a QuickBooks customer?
We’ve been using QuickBooks, I think, for the last two or three years. But, in the previous year, we’ve been using it to invoice our customers. Now, our accountants are on top of everything.
Meet author (and Intuit employee) Mya Linden. She recently joined the Brand Experiences & Storytelling team focused on QuickBooks Connect. She enjoys getting to know our Small Business customers and helping them expand their brand. In her free time Mya enjoys traveling and exploring her new home, the Bay Area!