The Best Small Business Advice From the Kozha Numbers' Founders

November 27, 2019
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We know how daunting it can be to start a new business, especially if you’re disrupting an industry or creating an entirely new one. When there is no path to follow, the biggest question is, where do I start? There is so much to do but before you get ahead of yourself, let’s start at the beginning. To kickstart the process (and ease some of those first-time founder nerves) we’re asking successful entrepreneurs to share their story in our new series, From Scratch. But this isn’t your typical day in the life. We’re getting down to the nitty gritty from writing a business plan (or not) to sourcing manufacturers and how much they pay themselves, we’re not holding back. If you want to know how to start a business, you’ve come to the right place.

Unfortunately, many of us are all-too-familiar with burnout. Too often we keep pushing ahead in a job we don’t love because we refuse to come to terms with the fact that our career just doesn’t serve us anymore. Well, we’re calling time’s up on that. Your health and happiness are way more important. Leaving a job that doesn’t fill you up or motivate you is self-care.

For Kozha Numbers’ co-founders, Ilona Gerasimov and Lena Vasilenko, it was through a mutual feeling of dissatisfaction for their current jobs that inspired them to make a change, together. With their backgrounds in accounting, the duo had no prior experience in production or design but they didn’t let this act as a barrier. Instead, they viewed it as an opportunity to grow, to expand upon their knowledge, and embark into uncharted waters. And, needless to say, the payoff was well worth the journey.

Six years later, Gerasimov and Vasilenko partnered up with beauty expert Carina Gonzales and officially launched Kozha Numbers. Holding to their mutual values of quality and regard to detail, the trio turned an admiration of art and architecture into a handbag and beauty brand that epitomizes the art imitates life motto.

I know what you’re thinking—I don’t have the time to start a business from scratch. Well, the Kozha Numbers founders are here with us today to inspire you to think beyond the confines of your busy schedule. And even if that means staying up until 2 a.m. with your business partner after your 9-to-5 hustle (as these creators did), this company is living proof that hard work pays off.


CREATE & CULTIVATE: Did you write a business plan? If yes, was it helpful? If no, what else did you use instead?

KOZHA NUMBERS: “From the beginning we had a very clear visualization of the kind of company we wanted to create. We took an alternate route and had our passion fuel us instead of creating a standard business plan. This process felt more organic to us and to our brand. Create a plan that works for you—that will provide you with direction going forward and the hustle to make it come to life.”

How did you come up with the name? What was the process like?

“We liked the idea of our products being fundamental, like how the first 10 digits 0-9 are fundamental to create any number sequence. We originally were just going to name the brand “THE NUMBERS 0123456789,” but last minute we changed it to KOZHA NUMBERS 0123456789. We went back to the drawing board and came up with KOZHA NUMBERS 0123456789. Kozha felt like a natural fit since it’s meaning in Russian is leather and skin.

“When we came up with the name Kozha at the time we had no plan to also add skincare to our brand. Looking back we like to think it was a sign that KN BEAUTY was meant to be! Naming our brand came very naturally, It’s important to keep your brand in mind and make sure it looks and sounds how you’d like it, but don’t overthink it.”

What were the immediate things you had to take care of to set up the business?

“After settling on a name for our brand we went straight to building a website. When we were first building this foundation for KN we really were learning as we go. As time progressed we set up trademarks and social channels but before all that we wanted to make sure our brand and the product were how we envisioned it to be. It’s important to build a solid foundation for your brand, but don’t let that be daunting. It’s okay to learn as you go.

What research did you do for the brand beforehand? Why would you recommend it?

“We were actually raised by makers. A leather shoe designer, seamstresses, and woodworker! Watching our parents taught us the art of handcrafting and making wearable art with your hands—a skill that is often forgotten or outsourced by a factory. This background is what KN was founded on but a lot of our knowledge came from practicing it ourselves and learning from what didn’t work.

“A good example is when we first wanted to create a brand we were making leather sandals. Although we enjoyed designing shoes this experience led us to designing handbags which was a better fit for us at the time. The best advice is to keep your mind open and absorb all the information you can get your hands on. Listen to TED talks, read books, watch interviews. The information is out there and you don’t have to go to school to learn it.”

How did you find the manufacturer/production facility that you use? Did you have any bad experiences?

“We have been fortunate enough to produce all of our products in house which has provided us with many benefits throughout the years. When you oversee the manufacturing yourself you’re able to be more involved in the design process and ensure all products are being produced ethically and are the highest quality possible. When we first started KN we had to work with what we had by handcrafting the bags ourselves with the resources we could get our hands-on.

“As we grew we invested everything back into the company and were able to accumulate more materials, machines, studio space, and skilled employees to help with the manufacturing. With KN Beauty we also keep our manufacturing locally in Portland by only producing our products in small batches. This method we’ve found is a lot more sustainable and allows us to maintain the highest quality product that is always fresh. Nothing goes to waste since we oversee production and are so involved in every step.

“We truly love being involved in every aspect of KN and having the creative freedom to create products in-house. This method does take time and patience but the result is always worth it.”

Did you self-fund the company? Did you raise seed money or initial investment money? Why/Why not?

“We are completely self-funded. We were raised on the principle that if you can’t afford it, you shouldn’t buy it and in many ways, this method has really helped us grow. We also loved the idea of being solely responsible for the success of KN and didn’t want to give up any creative freedom which can happen when you bring on investors. Investors can be a great tool but when it comes down to it, your drive and hard work are the most important.”

How much did you pay yourself? How did you know what to pay yourself?

“When we first started KN we all had full-time jobs and were putting everything we could into the brand. For the first two years, we put everything we made back into the business, and only recently we have been paying ourselves. Building that foundation is so important and you will thank yourself later.”

How big is your team now? What has the hiring process like? Did you have hiring experience?

“We are currently operating with a team of seven that is responsible for everything including the design, marketing, and manufacturing process. When we hire we’re looking beyond the resume and are really looking for a great character. Although skills are important, what really stands out is if a person is a problem solver and someone who has the drive and motivation. Especially on a small team like this, we wear many hats and being able to come to work with a can-do attitude is very important. None of us had prior hiring experience, so we’ve definitely had to learn as we go. You have to trust your gut instinct and hire the people that you believe in.”

Did you hire an accountant? Who helped you with the financial decisions and set up?

“In the beginning, we did not have an accountant and had to figure things out for ourselves. It’s important to know your strengths and weaknesses and ask for help when necessary. An accountant isn’t absolutely necessary in the beginning and there are many options out there for managing finances. Quickbooks is a great resource and there are so many other resources out there that you can educate yourself with.”

What has been the biggest learning curve during the process of establishing a business?

“The biggest learning curve for us has been finding efficient ways to put our brand out there. Not everything works, and the industry is constantly changing so it is key to keep trying things and re-adjusting until something works for you. Also, keeping an open mind and continuing to absorb information that you could implement into your business.”

How did you get retailers to start stocking your product? Were you told no? How did you handle that rejection? What advice can you share?

“In the beginning, it was difficult to land retailers. We noticed a big shift when we focused more on our imagery and getting our vision out into the world. Once we were able to convey our brand identity people started to catch on and retailers came to us. Buyers are looking for brands that are unique and have a clear brand vision. Once you start focusing on this, people will notice. We have also faced rejection many times like every brand. Rejection is just part of the industry and it’s more common than not. Rejection isn’t failure it’s an opportunity to learn and adjust.”

Do you have a business coach or mentor?

“Our business mentors were really our parents. They taught us so much about hard work and how to handcraft beautiful products. We also indulged in a lot of books, podcasts, and interviews.”

How did you promote your company? How did you get people to know who you are and create buzz?

“Since the beginning, we always believed in the power of great imagery that can tell a story about the brand. KN represents a lifestyle and portraying that in our campaigns has been a big part of our success. We partner with photographers we feel understand our vision and we make it come to life through our campaigns. We also believe that when you create a truly unique product that you believe in and pair it with imagery that represents the message you’re trying to convey it essentially sells itself. We had no prior marketing skills before KN besides instinct.”

What is one thing you didn’t do in the setup process, that ended up being crucial to the business and would advise others to do asap?

“Do your homework and really think hard about what you truly need to push your business forward. Don’t ignore things like trademarking, and don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

For those who haven’t started a business (or are about to) what advice do you have?

“Create a clear vision and a purpose for what you are doing.”

Anything else to add?

“You’re going to have so many setbacks and sometimes it’ll feel like nothing is working. You must hold onto what you believe and adjust as you go because if they can do it so can YOU!”

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