We spoke with Micki Krimmel, founder of activewear startup, Superfit Hero, about founding a fashion startup in Los Angeles, her experience with Kickstarter, Olympic sponsorship, and being featured on Project Runway: Fashion Startup.
Micki Krimmel is a serial entrepreneur and internationally competitive athlete. She is the founder of Superfit Hero, a size inclusive line of premium activewear for women. She can be followed at @mickipedia.
Tell us about Superfit Hero.
Superfit Hero is a size-inclusive line of premium activewear. Most major activewear brands, like Adidas, Nike, or Lululemon, will stop at a size 12. It can be really challenging to find above that even though the average American woman now wears between a 16 and 18. Superfit Hero is not a plus sized brand, rather, we want to appeal to athletes of all sizes and to respect them as athletes.
I saw that Superfit Hero sponsored an athlete for the Rio Olympic games.
Part of the mission of the brand is to make fitness and sport more inclusive and body positive. What I do is find really inspiring athletes that may not fit the typical version of what you think an athlete might look like and I’ll sponsor and interview them. Videos are published about once a month and they’ve received millions of views now. Most recently I sponsored Sarah Robles, who won a bronze medal at the Rio Olympics in weightlifting. She won the first American medal in weightlifting in 16 years. She is phenomenal. She’s a very mission driven athlete, she’s Mormon and is very public about her beliefs in life. She wants to use her platform to help women and girls see that anyone can be an athlete, that we should love our bodies and be kinder to ourselves. It was difficult for her to get a ton of interest from other sponsors because she is a woman in a sport that doesn’t get a lot of attention and she doesn’t look like your typical fitness model. She’s awesome and has started to build a great following on social media so it was a great fit. Her mission fell right in line with what we do.
How did your experience in roller derby shape the design, development and marketing of your products.
Roller derby was everything in terms of starting this business. In 2014 I was leading a startup project inside of another company and we could tell that it was starting to come to an end. I started to think about what to do next. Because of my experience with roller derby, I knew I wanted my next business to be in fitness. Fitness has the potential to help women discover confidence and leadership skills, but so far women have been sold fitness as just a tool for losing weight. I was really frustrated with that message and wanted to do something to counteract it. After some research I found the opportunity with performance clothing. It was definitely inspired by my experience in roller derby, and on my own team. I sponsor my own team of course, and our athletes wear size small through 2XL. Roller derby is a very diverse sport with people from all different athletic backgrounds participating and doing really well. I knew what an athlete looks like is different from what we were being sold through traditional marketing. I wanted to highlight that and share a more positive message about fitness. Also, in terms of launching the business, my focus was on the roller derby community. Since I play on the number 4 team in the world, I’m pretty visible in that community. I knew that if I posted a Kickstarter campaign, there would be a built-in community that would be eager to support it.
What are the plans to scale beyond roller derby?
Roller derby has a lot of overlap with CrossFit and a lot of us are using CrossFit as our training outside of roller derby practice. So I plan to start advertising with athletes in that community. There’s a point in your workout habit where you realize you need to spend more money on high quality workout clothing. My target market is a woman who has figured that out. I’m not trying to compete with the discount brands or the giant department stores. I can’t make things at that scale to bring the price down that much. I’m making things in LA in a small female-owned factory, and every piece is handmade using the highest quality fabric. The leggings are our primary product and the whole point of it is to make the woman feel confident so that she doesn’t have anything jiggling around, or them being see through. They’re very high quality clothes that have been tested by athletes doing all different kinds of sports. It’s been almost a year since we launched. In that time, we’ve been figuring out how often I can get things produced, how much to charge for them, managing our inventory, and gathering tons of reviews and testimonials. During that time, we have established Superfit Hero as the best active wear brand within the roller derby community. Now I am figuring out how to scale that into other communities. I’m focusing my initial efforts of expansion at CrossFit, weightlifting, and the growing body positive community. You will see that with the athletes I sponsor over the coming months.
What have been the most unexpected challenges in your first year, and what did you learn from them?
It’s definitely about production. I come from a technology background and I have a good sense of branding and content marketing. But the actual production, such as working with factories and getting physical items produced, is so full of challenges. I look around and am amazed at all the physical goods that exist in the world – cars, skyscrapers, houses…how is that possible?! I know how hard it is to make leggings! Part of challenge is an issue of the company’s size. My orders to the factory are $2000-$3000 at a time. For the factory, it is almost the same amount of work for them to do that job as it is to do a $6000 job. So obviously they would prefer the $6000 job. In LA there are plenty of jobs to be had so I’m literally asking them for favors just to get it done which gives me no leverage on price or schedule. I’m hoping that changes and gets easier with a little bit more scale.
I love that you manufacture the clothes locally. Was that decision mission or business driven?
Honestly, I can’t imagine doing it any other way. I’m constantly running back and forth, delivering the fabric or doing the development. I can’t imagine doing it without that hands-on relationship which gives me more control over the product. Also, ideally it allows me to put things out more regularly. I can do smaller orders of different styles more frequently and react to my customers feedback. Instead of an eight-month lead time, I have a three-month lead time. I couldn’t imagine doing an international production at this scale. I wouldn’t be able to make changes if something isn’t quite right.
So you’re really bringing the lean methodology to fashion production.
Totally. I don’t carry a huge amount of inventory. I went through the process of perfecting the superfit. We have a high waist band and a supportive fit that works well across all the sizes. Before the Kickstarter campaign, I went through a very laborious process to get that right. I then applied our signature fit to different styles. We have full length leggings, capris, and shorts that all feature that same fit. I can put out new things by putting out a new color, fabric or print. But it’s all based on that same fit. By working locally, I can see what’s selling and make my plan for the next release based on the feedback I’m getting from customers instead of trying to plan a year in advance.
What has been the biggest difference between running a fashion startup and a technology startup?
When I was planning this business, I thought about what I wanted my life to look like and build a business to support that, rather than have my life support my business. That’s different from the startup world. In that world, everything must scale quickly and be a billion-dollar business. I think that that is an unrealistic expectation which sets most people up for failure from day one. I wanted to build something that didn’t require outside investment, that I could be patient with, and grow with. I’m the only person working full time, even though I have a whole host of people, from designers, production, screen printers etc., that support Superfit Hero. But I don’t have any employees and I don’t need them anytime soon. So it provides me the flexibility I need. Small is ok. My definition of success is very broad, but when you’ve taken on many millions in funding and you don’t have a billion-dollar business, you’re a failure. I came at it asking “why do I want to be a founder”, “what about it supports me”, and “how do I design a business that supports that and not all the madness around what startups have become.” I stopped reading all the tech blogs because all the news would be about raising money. That became what success looked like. It didn’t feel like that was for me. That model makes sense for the investment community. A few companies will have that huge success but for that to work you need a lot of failures too. But behind those failures are real people.
Tell us about your experience on Project Runway.
It’s Project Runway: Fashion Startup on Lifetime. It’s a spinoff from the original Project Runway and is produced by the same team. It’s an investment version, sort of like Shark Tank but for fashion companies. They found me on Kickstarter, which I recommend if you have a community of people that support you. Part of what makes Kickstarter so great is that it’s a testing ground for product, marketing, and messaging. But it also works like it did here. People who are looking for successful products go on Kickstarter to find them. It’s a great place to make an MVP. That’s how they found me. I went out to New York for the show, and my episode airs this Thursday October 27. I’m having a public party at Link n Hops in Atwater village where I will also be hosting a pop up shop. I haven’t seen my episode so I’m a little nervous but it was a great experience and I can’t wait to see it!