Founder Spotlight: Phoebe Kunitomi
Tell us a bit about your company
okko is a minimalist bodywear brand for women. Our mission is to help women cut the clutter in more ways than one — starting with what they put in their top drawer.
What inspired you to start your business/ what opportunity in the market are you seeking to address?
As a daughter of a Korean mother and a Japanese father, I grew up influenced by Asian minimalist values. My parents taught me to always choose quality over quantity, and not to ground my happiness in material possessions. I continue to aim to integrate this conscious mentality in okko’s design philosophy. That’s why we committed to functional and comfortable undergarments — so women only wear pieces worth owning. Think of us as anti-fast fashion, focused on your base layer.
What are one or two of the biggest wins or most encouraging experiences you’ve had so far?
One big win was very early in our journey. Since we are a consumer product company needing to meet manufacturing minimums, I decided to raise a modest friends-and-family round to fund our initial inventory orders. Before initiating these conversations, I thought that I wasn’t going to be able to raise much. In reality, nearly every person whom I asked to participate in the round said yes. I found this so encouraging because it really showed how important relationships that I worked hard to build in my pre-okko career paid off, in a big way. A second big win is more of an ongoing progression. During our early days, I decided that okko would have two lines of business: DTC and wholesale. The decision to focus on wholesale was more out of necessity for working capital, as retail orders generate bigger chunks of cash more quickly, albeit at lower margins. Today, wholesale is a growth area for our business, one that I am focusing on more in 2021. Our retail partners have over an 80% repeat purchase rate, and they are people with whom I enjoy working. As a business owner, I love to see how staying focused on the strategy does create returns over time.
What have been one or two of the biggest learnings so far?
Always “date” the people who work with you. Of course, I don’t mean in the romantic sense, but I strongly believe in doing a trial period for important people you bring into your business. For example, perhaps you find a great marketing person you want to onboard, I suggest doing a 3-month pilot period with clearly defined goals and milestones. At the end of the pilot, the relationship is great and goals are met, hire her! But, if you can’t work together well, both parties can walk away without any hard feelings. At early-stage companies like okko, people are the most important assets who can make or break the company. Having the right team is critical.
What is an obstacle you anticipate grappling with as you continue to build this venture?
Scaling. Right now, while I do have a small, talented team of part-time resources, the majority of okko’s operations depend on me. If I don’t do the work, it simply won’t get done. My goal is to start to scale the business — in terms of new products, geographies, and top-line sales. But, I’m self-aware enough to realize that I can’t do it on my own. I need to find a core, full-time team with the right skill sets to grow and scale okko, and who aren’t afraid to work through the challenges early-stage companies like ours will face.
What are a surprise or two that you’ve encountered as an entrepreneur?
This big surprise is specific to okko, but wow, I am just shocked at how many women are unhappy with their current undergarments. I consider bras and underwear as essentials, yet until fairly recently, the dominant intimates players simply couldn’t get them right. Seriously, the complaints have ranged from fit to size inclusivity to marketing inclusivity, and so on. It has been extremely fulfilling to be able to authentically speak with our customers to help develop these necessities that make women’s lives easier.