Fort Collins entrepreneur Suzanne Akin had a promising company with a killer product line of handmade active wear for the stylish snowboarding set. Then, her home burnt to the ground in a suspected arson.
Call it the pivot that no startup plans for: Personal tragedy.
In this case, it was an early morning, three-alarm fire at the Penny Flats condominiums in Old Town Fort Collins Oct. 24 that displaced Akin and 20 of her neighbors and caused $10 million in damages.
Just four months later, Akin has picked up the pieces of her life—stronger, wiser and more resilient. And Akinz, her startup featuring handcrafted men’s and women’s active apparel tees, hoodies, hats and accessories, is moving forward too.
Tekhne: So tell me a little bit about what you’re doing and how long you’ve been in business?
Suzanne Akin: Akinz is a casual clothing line that is geared to the active sports industry. I make everything myself, for the most part. It was a hobby for awhile that I put down and picked back up. I registered it as a business in Colorado and started focusing on it about two years ago.
Tekhne: Nice. What led you into active wear?
Akin: I went to school for fashion design in Texas. I thought I was going to do high-end couture. It just didn’t seem to fit after I graduated. I moved back to Houston and really got into wakeboarding there. That got me thinking I can design things for the stuff I like to do. Then, I moved to Colorado and started snowboarding, cycling and all that kind of stuff.
Tekhne: A lot of people when they’re thinking about starting a business worry a lot about ‘How do I fund this? How do I get enough money to buy product and do the wonderful things that I want to do?’ Do you have any advice?
Akin: Yeah, don’t do what I did! I did it the hard way. I started really small since it was a hobby. I paid for my first batch of t-shirts and grew it from there. That worked when I was a hobby but then as I became a business I kept trying to self-fund as I was growing. I’ve made enough money to pay myself back here and there. But I need to take the next step so I really need a loan. But I have balances on all of my credit cards and that kind of thing. I actually just went to a loan class through Be Local. They told me if you have an asset to levy in the beginning always start with a loan instead of trying to self-fund.
Tekhne: Where do you think you’re going to go from here? What’s your vision for the company?
Akin: My main goal was making this my job which it now is. So I reached that one. I want it to be a viable, steady, safe business with enough accounts and shops across the states to fund us and have some room to play around and try some new things.
Tekhne: It sounds like you’re doing some e-commerce and some product in stores? How did you figure out that that was the balance that would work for you?
Akin: I started having my own online shop and I still make the majority of my sales from that. It gets to a point where if you want to be noticed and get awareness of it across the country you really have to be in stores for people to see it. I started to transition into retail this past year. Next, I’ll be hiring some sales reps in the next few months.
Tekhne: That’s exciting. You’ve got adorable stuff but it’s a really crowded market. How do you stand out?
Akin: Right now I’ve been standing out in the snowboarding industry through my beanies. They’re all handmade by myself and that’s definitely a marketing point. But I’m trying to decide what the long-term niche is because I can’t make all the beanies myself forever.
Tekhne: How long does it take to make a beanie?
Akin: I make so many of them some I can make in 30 minutes.
Tekhne: Wow! You’re a machine!
Akin: Speed fingers! I just flip on Netflix and go to work.
Tekhne: There you go! Being in this space, what’s your take on Etsy.com and sites like that? Is it a blessing or a curse for you?
Akin: A little bit of both. Sites like that have increased the awareness and appreciation for handmade items. But there’s also an increase of do-it-yourselfers. I have a lot of people see what I make and they think ‘Ooh. I can make that’ instead of buying it.
Tekhne: Oh, hell! You’re already dealing with counterfeiters?
Akin: Ha! Yeah, I am!
Tekhne: So you’re in business for yourself, you’re doing well and people really love your product but when you’re dealing with a personal crisis, like the fire, how do you stay focused when you say ‘I’ve got to pump out 20 beanies today and my house just burned down’?
Akin: To be honest, it was really hard. Akinz took a fairly large hit because it was hard to make myself work. Especially the few weeks right after it. But as far as the beanies, honestly for awhile, that’s all I was doing because I didn’t want to think about the all the business stuff. Actually, I kept up with making beanies. But I stopped being proactive in my marketing and I did things as I had to. Recently, I snapped out of it and realized I’ve got to get myself in shape and back on track.
Tekhne: Knitting as therapy?
Akin: Yeah. Really.
Tekhne: Do you have any advice for women entrepreneurs before they make the leap?
Akin: You need to think about how much time you’re going to dedicate to your business. Make sure you’re willing to put in the hours and that you want to put in the hours. If it becomes too much of a drain then it’s not worth it. I also think it’s important to get yourself organized and know exactly what you want to accomplish with your business. It’s really easy to get sidetracked and suddenly be doing something that’s completely different than your original goal.
Tekhne: That brings up a really good point because somebody who’s passionate about the creative side also has a business to run and it may not necessarily be your best skill. How did you figure that out?
Akin: It’s been a little hard. That’s why I’m looking at a loan so I can hire some staff to help me with the daily operations. I want to get back to focusing on design work.