In the world of fashion, the conversation around inclusivity has been steadily gaining momentum, yet one demographic often finds itself overlooked - people with disabilities. Enter Saba Kamaras, the pioneering entrepreneur behind an adaptive fashion brand that's breaking new ground. In an eye-opening and insightful dialogue, Chris Choi sits down for an extensive conversation with this dynamic entrepreneur. Kamaras shares the unique challenges and successes she has experienced in her journey, addressing a multitude of topics that range from her growth strategies to her dedication to serving the disability community. This is not just a tale of resilience, innovation, and the transformative power of fashion but also offers an in-depth look into the struggles and rewards of running a small business in a niche market. The following is a transcription of their conversation, highlighting the steps and strategies that Kamaras has implemented to cultivate her business's substantial growth.
Chris: Hi, Saba! It's a pleasure to meet you. I'm Chris.
Saba: Hi, Chris! How are you doing?
Chris: I'm doing well, thank you. How about yourself? I appreciate you taking the time to join the call.
Saba: Thank you so much for having me. I'm doing great.
Chris: That's great to hear, Saba. I'm glad you're doing well. Before we dive into the questions, I'd love to learn a bit more about you and what motivated you to start Spoonie Threads. The concept is truly inspiring, and I'm excited to hear your journey as an entrepreneur. How has your path evolved over time?
Saba: Sure. My background is in fashion design. I worked as a designer for Women's Ready to Wear in New York City for about eight years, and then I was really looking to make a bit of a career shift. I didn't feel like I was designing anything very purposeful, and so I was in the process of applying to business school to get my masters. During that time, my niece was born with a terminal form of muscular dystrophy called Walker Warburg Syndrome. She had to have a G tube put into her abdomen when she was just a few days old, and that opened my eyes to how cumbersome it was to have to open up her onesie and undress her every time my brother and sister-in-law needed to give her food or medication or water.
That was the first thing that opened my eyes to the world of adaptive fashion. While I was in Austin, one of my classes was a new venture creation class, and I was working on this idea of an adaptive clothing line when I got connected with Dr. Sanchez. She had already started a company under a different name that was doing this. They had adaptive onesies for babies, as well as a variety of other adaptive products. They were looking for someone that had experience with business and fashion design and production. It was a really great fit. So, I joined their team in 2018, but we had to shut down the company at the end of 2020 due to COVID reasons. We restarted and rebranded in 2021 under the name "Spoonie Threads."
We still have a lot of the same products, but we're really shifting towards designing products that can look very mainstream but still provide a wide range of functions. We want to produce garments and accessories that can be used by multiple users. For example, even if a belt was inspired by someone who needs to carry an insulin pump, it can also be used to carry your phone, an EpiPen, or even dog treats if you don't want to carry a bag with you. So, that's the background of Spoonie threads and where we hope to continue heading.
Chris: Got it. I understand what you mean. And just curious, what specific marketing tactics have been most effective in reaching your target audience since you launched the product?
Saba: Marketing has definitely been a challenge. Traditional marketing segments based on age, gender, or geography, and disability spans all of those things. Facebook doesn't have a category for wheelchair users. They don't segment people like that.
Chris: Right. That's understandable. It must have been difficult to navigate traditional digital marketing techniques.
Saba: It's been challenging to use traditional digital marketing techniques. We've also had a lot of trouble because algorithms on Google and Facebook flag our products incorrectly as violating their ad policies because they think we're selling a drug product, which we're not. We're selling a garment, a piece of fabric. But because we describe how this can support your ostomy pouch or your feeding tube, they think, oh no, this is not allowed. It's been consistent across a lot of adaptive brands and it's quite a big problem. A lot of people are looking for these kinds of products, and they can't find them because the algorithms of these large marketing platforms haven't considered the disability community and the chronic illness community when designing these algorithms. We've had better success with marketing specific keywords and a lot of organic marketing.
We've been reaching out to people who are vocal about sharing their journey with diabetes or as a wheelchair user. A lot of times with disability, if you don't have a disability yourself or you don't have someone close to you, it's not something that's really on your radar. You don't consider the challenges that they do. So it's great for us to partner with these people, share our products with them, get their feedback, and use user-generated content and organic marketing. It has really helped us improve our products and sales.
Chris: That's a smart strategy. By collaborating with those who have a strong voice and personal experience in the disability community, you can tap into their network and reach a broader audience. It's great to see how user-generated content has helped improve your products and drive sales.
Saba: Absolutely, it's been a valuable approach for us.
Chris: What's the consistent brand messaging across those organic marketing strategies or creatives?
Saba: The consistent message that we try to put out is adaptive fashion should look like regular fashion. It shouldn't look like a medical garment. You should want to buy this because you think it's cool and because it improves your life, not just because you need it. People don't buy an Ace bandage because they think it looks cool. They buy it because they need it to support something. We want people to buy our support sleeve or supportive waistband because, yes, this will help support their ostomy or feeding tube, but also because they really love the cool, hot pink color.
Chris: That's a powerful message. By emphasizing the fashion-forward aspect of your products, you're challenging the stereotype that adaptive fashion is purely functional. It's important to create designs that customers want to wear, not just out of necessity.
Saba: Yes, exactly.
Chris: Moving on, what were the top three challenges you've experienced as the CEO of the company? How did you overcome them, whether it was related to inventory, cash flow, or other aspects?
Saba: Right, yeah, the biggest challenge was definitely during COVID. We ran into a lot of the supply chain issues that many other companies did. Obviously, it was really hard to remain operational while also keeping our staff safe. We had to adjust schedules a lot to try and make sure that people could still come into the office but not be around other people while they were there. Two of our best selling products use a very similar material to the fabric that is used to produce protective medical gowns. So it became very difficult for us to find that fabric because people were using it for medical gowns. We just had so many delays in our supply chain and people wanted our product and we couldn't fulfill it because we couldn't get the inventory.
One of the other challenges is always finding manufacturing partners. When you're a small company, it's hard to find the balance we used to make. When we first started out, we were making almost everything in house ourselves with a team of seamstresses. And we got to the point where we really couldn't handle that volume, but we're also not at the point where we could order 20,000 units of a color out of Asia. So finding that middle ground is always a challenge.
The third challenge is really the pricing for our customers, because if you're buying one of these products, you're probably dealing with all kinds of insurance claims and medical bills and pharmacy bills. We're really cognizant of the fact that a $36 belt is coming on top of possibly thousands of dollars that these customers are spending for medication and treatments.
We really feel like these are items that we have to price in such a way to make them somewhat accessible. We really value the quality of our products and the fabric and the construction that goes into them, so there's only so much we can cut the cost on our side. But we also do feel like there is a really strong and valid price ceiling for our product. Finding a way to get a profit margin in order to keep the lights on and keep operational, that is always a continuous challenge.
Chris: Got it. I can imagine how those challenges would have impacted your operations. It's impressive that you were able to adapt and overcome them. Supply chain disruptions have been a common issue during the pandemic, and finding the right balance between quality and pricing can be tricky.
Shifting gears, what distribution channels are you currently utilizing? I see that you have a store on Shopify and also wholesale partnerships. Are there any other channels you're exploring?
Saba: Yeah, so we have an Etsy Shop as well that's been up for a while. We sell on Amazon, we sell on Walmart.com as well. We sell to Aerie, the American Eagle brand. We've been working with them for a few years now. And we also sell in a few other ecommerce websites that are specifically disability focused. Patty + Ricky is one of them. She works with a number of designers that all have different adaptive products, and she carries our items. Another company is called the Useless Pancreas and they focus on products for people with diabetes and they carry a number of our items as well.
Chris: That's an impressive range of distribution channels. By diversifying your presence across multiple platforms, you're able to reach a wider customer base. Now, let's talk about the growth of your company. Could you share some insights into your revenue growth? Have you seen significant progress in terms of figures?
Saba: Let me see. I think last year we 6Xed our revenue. The initial company was started back in 2015 and our first website launch was 2016, but then we basically restarted in January of 202. We think of that as our new starting point. We did 6X revenue over the first year (2021), which was great. And we're looking to 3X or 4X revenue this year over last year.
Chris: Wow, that's remarkable growth. Congratulations on that accomplishment. Achieving such substantial revenue growth within a year is a testament to the demand and value of your products. It's exciting to see your trajectory and the potential for further expansion.
Saba: Yeah, it's going well. And it's great to have all those sales. I think most small businesses, you always have similar challenges with inventory and growing pains and finding the right balance of how much product to produce, how much to spend on marketing, how to make sure that your marketing spend is really supporting your revenue so that you're on the path to profitability. So those are the types of things that we're always trying to consider as we approach our sales goals.
Chris: Absolutely. Lastly, how do you feel about your journey as an entrepreneur? Based on your experience, what keeps you motivated every single day?
Saba: It's really hard… Yeah, it's really difficult. There are so many times where I wish I just worked at a company and could go home and shut my computer off and not have to worry about everything. Because I think you just feel the weight of the company on your shoulders all the time and you feel the responsibility towards your employees and their livelihood. And this company has to succeed, otherwise all of these people lose their jobs.
Chris: I can understand how the weight of running a company can be overwhelming at times. However, the positive impact you're making and the gratitude from your customers must be incredibly rewarding. Your dedication to inclusivity and providing solutions that enhance people's lives is truly inspiring.
Saba: It's a heavy weight, for sure. I have kids, and so taking care of human babies as well as a company baby at the same time is very difficult. And if I could redo it, I don't know if I would have timed things the same way, but everything's clear in hindsight! But I think what keeps me motivated is the feedback from our customers. We get a lot of reviews and a lot of people are really grateful that somebody's actually doing this. Because the disability community has been completely ignored from the majority of the fashion industry, and it still is. There's been this wave of inclusivity that came in the fashion industry and it really focused on looking at different ethnicities and size inclusivity, and there was very little representation for the disability space. People have had to really fight tooth and nail for their rights as people with disabilities. So when they hear that, hey, there's a company that's actually thinking about what you need and what products would make your life easier, they get really excited. And that makes us excited! And it makes me really proud to be able to work on something like this.
Chris: It appears you are tackling the issue effectively.
Saba: It's a really important product. It's a product that's purposeful, it's a product that can make your life better, it can give you back some dignity, it can allow you to express yourself again. And so I feel like it's a really important space that I think deserves a lot more attention.
Chris: Absolutely, I admire your approach. The goal you're pursuing is commendable. Now, moving onto some forward-looking questions. Could you share with us your objective for this year, and perhaps your long-term vision, let's say, for the next five years?
Saba: Our goal for this year is to meet our target of 3X or 4X in revenue year over year. And our five-year goal is to achieve better profitability and to partner with more companies to make adaptive fashion more mainstream.
Chris: I have no doubt that you will. Finally, what advice would you give to someone starting their own business?
Saba: I think it would just be to make sure it's something that you care really deeply about because starting your own business typically means you're in it for the long haul. And it takes five to ten years to really build your business to be successful. And that's a long time to struggle as an entrepreneur. But if it's something that you're really passionate about, you'll feel less burnt out and it'll be easier to slug through the low points.
Chris: That's excellent advice. Passion and dedication are crucial ingredients for entrepreneurial success. Thank you, Saba, for sharing your insights and experiences with us today. I'm excited to share your story with our subscribers.
Saba: Thank you, Chris. It was a pleasure speaking with you. Goodbye!
The conversation with Saba Kamaras sheds light on the criticality of dedication and tenacity in the realm of entrepreneurship. Amid obstacles like supply chain disruptions due to COVID-19, seeking manufacturing partners, and setting prices, Kamaras underscores the essence of staying true to one's vision. Her tactic to maintain a balance between product quality, affordability, and accessibility provides a valuable lesson for emerging entrepreneurs.
Furthermore, Kamaras stresses on the value of catering to a community often sidelined. Her foray into the adaptive fashion sphere has not only created a unique market niche but also infused her work with a profound sense of purpose. Her resolve to bring these products into the mainstream amplifies the potential of businesses that concentrate on inclusivity and accessibility. Additionally, the strong growth trajectory of her company, coupled with her plans for future expansion, showcases the potential dividends of entrepreneurship." emphasizing that dedication and adaptability can create a path to success even in niche markets.
To stay informed about the latest products, initiatives, and developments from Spoonie Threads, we encourage our readers to follow their journey on social media. It's an opportunity not only to support an enterprise striving for inclusivity and accessibility but also to join a community that celebrates diversity. You can follow Spoonie Threads on Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube. By staying connected, you'll be among the first to know about their new collections, upcoming collaborations, and inspiring stories from the adaptive fashion world.