In Conversation with Kristi Soomer of Encircled

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Describe your business in a few words?

We make trendless designs that are comfortable, high-quality, stylish, and sustainable at fair prices. (Check it out here!)

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

I was working as a strategy management consultant, flying weekly to client sites and was constantly frustrated by the lack of versatile, comfortable and stylish clothing that could take me from airplane to boardroom to relaxing at my hotel at night. So, I started by creating a piece that could be worn 8 different ways, so that I could travel lighter, and still be comfy and chic at home or away.

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

I have zero fashion experience, so I’m an unlikely fashion brand CEO. I studied business and economics in university, and went on to do an MBA. I worked for over 10+ years in consumer services, retail, consumer packaged goods and consulting prior to starting Encircled.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

No! I had a cousin when I was growing up that was an entrepreneur, but it at the time was not as glamourized as it is today. I wanted to work in business, and knew fairly late in high school that consulting might be something of interest to me as I loved problem solving and finding ways to improve ways of working.

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

When I first launched Encircled, I embarrassingly had no strategy. I was employed full-time and working 80 hours a week, so I hired a PR agency to pitch my product to the media. It worked to generate sales in the first few months, but as time passed, and as I only had one product, it wasn’t a sustainable strategy. So, a few months after launch, I decided to intensely focus on email marketing, content marketing and social media in order to grow my brand. We were fairly early on in influencer marketing as well which was impactful in getting our first 1000 customers.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

Manufacturing clothing is full of opportunities for errors because there are so many manual steps along the way, and at the end of the day it’s still a handmade, people driven business. A few years after starting Encircled, we had a major manufacturing mistake at the busiest time of year, holiday. Our second design, the Evolve Top, has hidden snaps in the sleeve to allow the sleeves to change length. I’d given the manufacturer a bag of snaps to sew on, not realizing that the snaps were from two different batches of production. So, guess what? They didn’t all snap together. The factory delivered the finished garments, and I had to remove (carefully) over 400 snaps, and hire someone to sew on new ones. It was an expensive mistake, and completely my fault. Now, we have strict processes to check all notions down to tags for every production run to make sure all the parts, fabric and pieces are correct.

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

We’re about to celebrate our 8th year anniversary at Encircled, and my 6th year of quitting my job. Creating a fashion brand who does things differently (we’re basically the antithesis of fast fashion!) is difficult, and being able to build and grow a business, a team and scale to our size throughout all the ups and downs is my biggest accomplishment.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

My go-to question is “What is your ultimate failure? What did you learn from it”. If someone can’t answer that and provide an example of a failure, I’m always worried. We all make mistakes, but what’s important is the learning we take from it. My best hiring tip is to hire on attitude and cultural fit, then skill. You can teach people virtually anything, but correcting a bad attitude or trying to fit someone in your company culture that isn’t a fit, is near impossible

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s been a rollercoaster for sure. I do feel lucky that our specific industry – comfortable, locally-made stylish clothing that’s perfect from work from home is needed right now. However, in the early weeks of the pandemic we saw our sales swing from double digit growth to triple digit decline. All of our local factories shut down save for making PPE. So, we quickly pivoted to serve the community and make non-medical face masks in late March. That project got us through a few difficult months and we almost ran out of inventory in June. However, since then, we’ve been able to grow again, and start producing inventory again. Like I said, rollercoaster!

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

We’re excited to design and develop even more clothing to keep our customers feeling comfortable, stylish and put together. Next year, we’re launching some exciting new products including expanding into a new category, as well continuing to grow our team. In a few years, I’d like to have our own small-run factory in Toronto.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

I struggled a lot early on with whether or not this business model was a good idea. Many people told me that building an ethical fashion brand would never scale, would never be financially profitable and that I’d end up bankrupt. While I didn’t listen to those voices, and went ahead with the business anyway, I did hear those voices for many years in the back of my head. I wish I knew that those people were speaking from a space of fear, not abundance, and that the only opinion that really matters is my own. As long as I believe in the business, that’s all that’s important.

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

I believe in work-life integration. Finding balance is a myth, as demands of business are up and down. My best tips are to create clear starts and ends to your day, to hire before you REALLY need the help, and to not feel guilty taking time out of your day to practice self-care, even if it’s just 10 minutes. As a leader, no one is going to tell you to work less or rest, you have to do that for yourself.

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

I grew up playing competitive sports like ice hockey, soccer, tennis, and volleyball – I literally had no interest in fashion at all until my mid-20s! I can barely sew or sketch, but none of that matters if you’re passionate about what you want to create. You can always figure out the how later.

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

  • Create a list of priorities for the day – what do you want to accomplish each day to feel good at the end of the day? What needs to get done? What can wait?
  • Time block your schedule not just for meetings, but for work time to focus on project work and for self-care like workouts, meditation, walks.
  • Figure out how you work best – some people are more productive in the AM, some in the PM. Tune into that and align your schedule with what works best for you.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

Being an Entreprenista means to me always cheering on other women in leadership roles, and lifting others up through the work that I do.

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