Sisters Sally Anne Sherry and Áine Boyle launched Kahm Sustainable Swimwear in May this year, selling swim suits made from old carpets, fishing nets and nylon scraps. Sally Anne talks to ThinkBusiness about the importance of being sustainable, staying rooted in Donegal and keeping the customer at the heart of all they do.
What led you to start the company?
Swimming has always been a big part of our lives. Áine and I both swam competitively as children and still do a lot of sea and pool swimming. We were in lockdown together at the start of this year.
Áine had recently come back from Australia and I was in Donegal with the family for Christmas and ended up staying for six weeks. We were trying to think of a business idea.
“The challenge was making sure that we had enough funding available to prepay everything before we made any money from sales”
Swimwear was something we were confident we knew about – what fits well, wears well, what disintegrates with chlorine or seawater. ]Áine had been living in Byron Bay the previous year where there is a big focus on sustainability. She wanted to look at sustainable recycled material swimwear because no one else in Ireland was doing it.
What makes your company different?
We partnered with an Italian company Aquafil which owns ECONYL® regenerated nylon, the material our suits are made from. They take old fishing nets, carpets and nylon scraps and regenerate it into a lovely material that is perfect for swimwear.
Because we’re from Donegal and we love the coast, a big part of our business is to show the beauty of Donegal in all our promotional material and use Donegal companies and suppliers as much as possible.
“We make sure that when we’re launching new styles that we cater for all different shapes and sizes and make sure that comes across in all our marketing materials”
The sustainability element of the swimwear and being based on the coast in Donegal are what make us unique.
What challenges did you meet and how did you overcome them?
In a lot of businesses, you can get credit from a bank or supplier. In this business everything had to be funded upfront and it took some time to figure that out. We couldn’t pay for the manufacturing or the material in installments.
“The business wouldn’t exist only for the pandemic because it gave us the opportunity to sit down and plan and brainstorm our business idea”
The challenge was making sure that we had enough funding available to prepay everything before we made any money from sales. So far, we are funding the company ourselves but if we want to go to the next level, we need investment.
Another challenge was because we don’t have a retail background, we weren’t sure about sizes and cuts of styles like knowing what styles suit different body shapes. We’re getting much better at it having been through a few rounds of sales. We make sure that when we’re launching new styles that we cater for all different shapes and sizes and make sure that comes across in all our marketing materials.
The biggest challenge was going from the idea to the online market and connecting that with the likes of Instagram, Facebook and Twitter.
How was the business affected by the pandemic and how did you adjust?
The business wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for the pandemic because it gave us the opportunity to sit down and plan and brainstorm our business idea.
Because sea swimming became so popular during the pandemic, we launched into an exciting market.
“While you would expect people to be wearing wetsuits this time of year, they’re going into the cold water in swimsuits. The shock of the cold water is part of the appeal. It’s a reset button for people”
So many people were getting out into the sea. While you would expect people to be wearing wetsuits this time of year, they’re going into the cold water in swimsuits. The shock of the cold water is part of the appeal. It’s a reset button for people.
What supports did you receive and how could they be improved?
We are applying for the Trading Online Voucher from the Local Enterprise Office for our website and Áine is doing an online course with Údarás na Gaeltachta on social media and engaging with customers online.
“I do a lot of networking in my day job working as a solicitor and I’m secretary of the Donegal Dublin Business Network, so I have a good business network and Áine has a good network in sea swimming circles. So between us, we cover the needs of the business”
Apart from that, we engaged with the media contacts we had and used friends and relatives to connect with people. The growth has been organic so far.
I do a lot of networking in my day job working as a solicitor and I’m secretary of the Donegal Dublin Business Network, so I have a good business network and Áine has a good network in sea swimming circles. So between us, we cover the needs of the business.
I have plenty of experience in the business side of things, coming from a business background. But in terms of how to increase online sales and the retail side of the business, we could really use some mentoring. There are lots of programmes like AMBITION programme, which focuses on early-stage female entrepreneurs and AwakenHub for women founders that we hope to take part in next year.
What lessons did you learn and what would you pass on to others?
There are months of preparation involved before you sell your first item. You must be really flexible from that moment onwards because you’ll only start to understand what people want, what works and what doesn’t from selling and pivot your business as soon as you can see where the success is going to come from.
“There are lots of programmes like AMBITION programme, which focuses on early-stage female entrepreneurs and AwakenHub for women founders that we hope to take part in next year”
You should have a good circle of friends and advisers that can keep you right at the beginning. Don’t put your head in the sand and do it your way or no way. Listen to the people who know what they’re doing. Learn from people in the same industry and don’t be afraid to copy something they’re doing right.
Be authentic, genuine and honest about what works and what doesn’t and don’t sell something just because people are asking for it if you can see it is not going to suit them. This will negatively impact your brand and lead to lots of work dealing with refunds and returns. Figure out what works and do it well and do it right. Be careful with your brand and always be mindful that you’re representing it.
What are your plans for the future?
We are the first sustainable swimwear brand in Ireland. We want to be the first and the best and to keep that position in the market. Our aim right now is to be the number one choice for sustainable swimwear for customers in Ireland. If we succeed at that and we feel we’re ready to grow to international markets, we’ll look at that then.
We want to continue to deliver good quality swimmer that people want to wear. We’ve been very careful with our brand and customers. Customer trust is very important. We want our brand to continue to grow but in a strong way. We may look at other garments made from sustainable material next year. We want to make sure that when we do move to the next stage, that we’re really trusted brand.