Originally posted by Awesome Inc., May 7, 2014
Over the past half decade Idea State U has helped over 100 startups get off the ground. Some have gone on to thrive thanks to the guidance and funding provided by the contest. This article features the success story of Kyle O’Donnell, a graduate of Western Kentucky University’s MBA program and a winner of Idea State U’s 2013 competition. After deciding against the idea for an ‘underwear-renting’ business, he went on to start an organic clothing line, won his division at Idea State U, and subsequently became one of Idea State U’s greatest success stories. In this interview, he shares his new idea, his story, what life is like as an entrepreneur, and how he decided to make undergarments instead of rent them.
Only Footprints sells socks. What makes your product stand out and what’s the bigger idea behind it?
Well, the major difference is organic and eco-friendly. For example, this past week you may have gone to the grocery store and noticed that they have organic certified food. Well, you can also certify other crops organic, like cotton. So I buy organic cotton wholesale and then try to communicate to people buying organic foods…that I also have this product that meets your values and preferences.
As far as the feel goes, it’s very similar, but since it’s a premium product…I pay for processing steps like ring spinning the yarn and combing the yarn to make it exceptionally soft, that someone like Fruit of the Loom or Hanes will not. They’ll use a cheaper process called open-end spinning. So, in addition to being eco-friendly, I also try to pay for the premium processing so that it has the best softness.
But when I’m at the farmers market I don’t try to explain to people the difference between ring spinning and open-end spinning, I just say “Would you like to feel this?” and then they touch it and their eyes light up and they say “Wow! That’s a really soft sock!”
How did you get the idea and did it go through any changes?
My seed idea was to model a company called Interface Carpet. They don’t sell you the carpet, they lease you the carpet. So, interface owns the carpet, but it’s in carpet squares, so if anything ever breaks or if you spill on it, they’ll just replace that carpet square instead of replacing the whole carpet. And so I thought what if we were to take this same leasing model and apply it to utilitarian garments like your undershirt, your underwear, or your socks. But as I was telling my friends about it they said, “That’s stupid. I would never do that. I would never buy those.” So I changed my idea and branched out into organics and my friends that buy organic food were like “Yeah, I would totally buy some organic clothes.” So it changed my initial idea but that change was important because it came from feedback from my initial customers.
How did you end up building your business in Kentucky?
My undergraduate degree was in textile technology at NCSU, but I came to Kentucky because of Western Kentucky University. When I was looking at MBA programs I liked the sustainability electives at WKU…And then, because of Idea State U, I decided to stay here.
How did Idea State U help launch your business?
I submitted the business plan to the competition at the graduate level here at our school. By working at the school level with the faculty I was able to refine the idea and take it from an idea to something real. So Idea State U really helped me put the legs on the idea, really made the idea come alive, as opposed to just thinking about it intellectually and not really implementing it.
Where do you feel you’d be without Idea State U?
If I didn’t win the prize money for Idea State U I wouldn’t have started my business because the capital cost was too high. I did have some savings, but not enough savings to buy this big industrial knitting machine.
Idea State U changed my life. If I didn’t win, I would have just been applying for jobs like everyone else and I would just be in some office somewhere doing excel or data analysis. And I still do work with excel and data analysis but it’s my own work and work for organic causes and I’m really passionate about it.
What’s the best part of being an entrepreneur?
This is my sole source of income and I live and breathe by doing this. It’s very exciting. Every time you get an online order it’s just like your first online order (my first was on December 5, 2013). And I hope always that I can make it and ship it out on the same day. It’s very exciting.
I think the best thing about being an entrepreneur is the freedom to set your own schedule. So, for instance, in school you just have to deal with whatever you’ve been given but here at work, the post office doesn’t pick up until 7pm, so I often work late into the evenings, but then I don’t come into work until 10am, because it doesn’t matter if I make an order at 8am or at 2pm.
A lot of people see you winning all this money and making it as an entrepreneur and think “Oh, he’s got success! I could never do that.” But we both know that even really successful entrepreneurs make mistakes and things don’t always go perfectly. What has been your biggest mistake or failure thus far?
I think my biggest mistake or failure was relying too heavily on Amazon to drive my sales. Over half of my purchases come from Amazon, so I thought “I’ll just get an Amazon seller account, put my stuff up on Amazon, and the orders will be rolling in. And that did NOT happen at all. And so I really had to reposition myself to both sell through other online channels like ebay, Etsy, and my stand-alone store and sell at the farmers markets. When I presented at Idea State U I just talked about online orders, but it turns out that selling at farmers markets and festivals here in Kentucky have accounted for about 40% of my sales.
What advice would you say to college students that were going through the same process, thinking about applying to Idea State U, etc.?
I think the biggest piece of advice I could offer to someone thinking to do this is to really think about how you’re going to get consumers to think about your product and evaluate your product when they are making a buying decision. Like, I’m right next to a Big Lots. There are customers that go in there and just buy Big Lots things, and my products will never get in front of them. So, how can you find these customers when they have a willingness to buy and can they choose your product over substitute products.
Also, I think to overcome these difficulties, don’t look at what you’re doing now, look at month to month. What did I improve? How can I continue to improve? So look at that first derivative and say “how much am I improving?” and “how can I keep improving?”
By: Luke Murray, Awesome Inc.