Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price spoke with Kenai Sports, LLC Co-Founder Charles Bogoian about his unique clothing startup that focuses on sustainability.
PRICE: You said you always had an entrepreneurial drive. How and when did you and Kenai Sports Co-Founder Phil Tepfer decide to start a company?
BOGOIAN: Phil and I met at Babson College. We thought starting a business when we graduated would be the right time because we would have less obligations, we could figure things out as we went along, and it was a good time to take a chance. The next part was finding the opportunity.
I always had an interest in supply chain management and operations. Phil was more interested in marketing, sales, and branding. Phil’s major passion at the time was sailing and he saw a need for transitional apparel—meaning clothing that would be functional on and off the boat.
Around 2007, while we were still at Babson, Phil asked me if I wanted to join a new venture making specific performance-based clothing that will be good in a variety of different mediums. From there, we started Sail Proud Apparel.
The company launched through a student incubator. We didn’t come in with any knowledge about clothing or the fashion industry. We hit the ground running, going to boat shows and trade shows. We were figuring out how to source products, piecing the idea together, and learning how to start a business.
PRICE: When did you come up with the concept for Kenai Sports?
BOGOIAN: Phil and I spent a couple years working on Sail Proud Apparel. There was nothing sustainable about it, it was just our first entrance into clothing in general. The business was doing relatively well—part of the momentum was that we were a student business, so people would throw us a bone here and there. We’d do well at regattas and trade shows, but we knew if we wanted to be serious about the business we needed to find something that was sustainable, dramatically different, and provided value in the industry. That’s where we came up the concept for Kenai Sports.
February 2012 was the official start of the company. It stemmed from the realization that sustainability is one of the worst parts about the garment industry—and thinking we could really make a difference in terms of both the process and the product.
PRICE: Let’s talk about sustainability. You’re essentially making clothing out of trash.
BOGOIAN: We were trying to figure out what we could do as a clothing company that would set us apart and we found out the upholstery industry was using recycled content in their fabric for years. So we decided to take that application and put it into our industry.
We took some fabric samples to a cut and sew factory in Fall River, MA to find out if they could make a functional T-shirt out of the fabric. It was a smash hit. The next step was figuring out how we would effectively sell the products, market them, and identify the best customers for them.
PRICE: So when did the trash part come in?
BOGOIAN: Around 2009, we discovered The Story of Stuff Project , which talks about how everything we do is consumed and discarded with no thought as to what happens afterward. That kind of motivated us to come up with a change.
Research about the garment industry showed that in the United States alone more than 21,000,000,000 lbs. of textile waste goes to landfills every year. The worst part about that is that from clothing trash, 85% ends up in a landfill and 95% of those clothes can be recycled or reused in one way or another. Landfills and the earth in general are a finite resource, so we figured: Why not try to create a business that can save that landfill space?
PRICE: That raises the question of where you getting the materials?
BOGOIAN: Kenai Sports works with municipal recycling facilities that handle large quantities of plastic waste. We can “upcycle” that plastic waste into recycled polyethylene terephthalate (rPET) fiber, which has similar performance characteristics of virgin polyester for the end user.
PRICE: Let’s talk about the Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) Institute for Technology & Business Development (ITBD) incubator and how you became involved with that.
BOGOIAN: When we first started, we were working out of Phil’s garage in West Haven, CT. After a couple of years of bootstrapping, we realized we needed to legitimize ourselves, and have some sort of office presence where we could hold meetings beyond a home office.
A lot of the incubators in Connecticut we found were tech- or healthcare-focused. What we like about the CCSU ITBD Incubator is that it is mixed-use. The incubator accepts all different kinds of businesses. It’s not really concerned about the business industry you’re in, but more focused on your prospects for success, and providing resources to assist you along the way. We’re very excited that we were able to get into this program. It’s been great so far just serving as our initial incubator space and allowing us to grow our business.
PRICE: Are there any additional Connecticut resources that are helping you aside from the ITBD incubator?
BOGOIAN: Yes. We connected with Hartford Young Professionals and Entrepreneurs (HYPE) a couple of years ago. In December 2011, we received a HYPE Award for Best New Business. At that time, we were LiveProud Sportswear; it was the very beginning of our focus on sustainable products and operations.
reSET has also been a great resource for us. We met with advisors, talked to executives, and discussed business ideas. We’ve attended some of reSET’s entrepreneurial mixer events, too, which we enjoy. In October 2012, Kenai Sports won reSET’s Connecticut Innovations Technology Trailblazer Award.
In terms of recognition, Kenai Sports also received a Business Champions Award for Outstanding Achievement in Sustainability from the Hartford Business Journal in June 2013.
PRICE: Your commitment to sustainability and social entrepreneurship is evident—do you receive a lot of support through Connecticut’s entrepreneurial ecosystem?
BOGOIAN: Social entrepreneurship is becoming more of a hub in Connecticut. It’s probably like this in any entrepreneurial ecosystem—you can be in completely different industries but you’re facing similar problems, just bouncing ideas off other. Sometimes having someone from a completely different industry come in with their perspective is really helpful because you can get bogged down in your day-to-day.
PRICE: As far as marketing, how are you getting your name out?
BOGOIAN: Most schools in the country have some sort of sustainability policy. They are looking to make their campus and operations greener—and they never thought they could do it through their clothing.
We reached out to Division II and Division III athletic programs and told them: Not only can you have this really cool way to generate press about sustainability, you can also get better customization and a better fit. Division II and III schools are still solid ways for us to spread the word about Kenai Sports and what we are doing. The big thing for colleges is having the right logo colors. Some of the larger companies have a set list of colors, but we can really customize.
PRICE: How are you connecting with these schools?
BOGOIAN: The most effective way was developing a relationship with Babson and then having their athletic director mention us to other schools. They all talk to each other.
Also, when President Obama was first in office, there was a climate initiative change for many colleges in the United States. Through Second Nature, 300 schools made an actual commitment to becoming green. We located a master list of the schools that made this commitment and then informed their athletic departments about our sustainable clothing.
PRICE: Smart. Aside from schools, what other industries do you work with?
BOGOIAN: Recently, state government contract work has become the largest part of our business. The desired products are the same (uniforms, jackets, polos, vests, etc.) and we've seen sustainable purchasing become a core component in the decision-making process for some agencies. In addition to satisfying the sustainability requirements, Kenai Sports also brings a high level of customization options and performance quality.
PRICE: Any advice for other startups?
BOGOIAN: I would say focus on the value you’re bringing to market. When decided to do Kenai Sports full-time, we knew we needed to provide something sustainable and something that was different in customers’ minds. Focusing on cost 100% is just a race to the bottom that you can’t win. You have to develop a business plan that will be sustainably competitive.
Also, aspiring entrepreneurs also can’t be afraid to fail. Even after you’ve thoroughly researched the opportunity and come up with a seemingly viable solution, creating “something from nothing” is a daunting task. Failing along the way is part of the process, but learning from those failures is one of the best ways to develop your startup.