Interview with Laine Sou Weinberg – Co-Founder and Designer of KOKOON

Interview with Laine Sou WeinbergTell us a little bit about KOKOON and how it got started.

KOKOON is a contemporary fashion label aimed at servicing the needs of women living a busy, modern lifestyle. Our tag line is ‘boutique without borders’, and that’s exactly what we are. We offer more than 500 styles each year, mostly limited editions, and the selection is constantly changing due to items selling out and new styles being added. We are proudly designed and manufactured in the USA, always in small batches, never mass-produced.

I started designing and selling on consignment to local stores when I was in college. My husband and business partner, Richard, was my boyfriend back then and he took my first 7-piece sample line on a cross-country road trip, knocking on boutique doors, and came back a week later with our first wholesale orders. We started our little company, KOKOON, and soon had orders with large retailers and catalogs such as Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue, Macy’s, Bloomies by Mail, Fred Segal…and also built up a boutique base of over 1400 doors.

The way we came about selling directly to women instead of retailers is that when 9/11 happened, all our orders cancelled. We were left with a warehouse of cancelled merchandise, so a couple of our girlfriends came and took boxes of clothes and started selling them off to girlfriends. Then they started arranging coffee get-togethers and cocktail parties around selling the clothes.

After about 9 months, they sold everything we had, but said they were still getting phone calls from women who wanted to have those “parties”. We tried a few shows where women could place orders for our wholesale line. They were very successful, those first shows were all over $3000. We realized that private trunk shows could be a great way to reach our target market, but we had a lot to learn and we were out of money, so we set out to develop the concept slowly until we could do it really well (which took us several years) and then we phased out our wholesale business. It’s really the best business decision we ever made.

KOKOON offers a home-based business opportunity for women – tell us more about this.

Our opportunity is for women who truly love fashion. Our Representatives are like boutique owners, offering an ever-changing selection of styles to their clients through appointments and private pop-up shops… what we consider a modern version of the home trunk show. There are no formal ‘Presentations’ just trying on clothes in a very laid-back setting. After a nominal fee for the starting supplies, our Representatives have virtually no residual expenses. They don’t purchase samples or inventory, or pay shipping or credit card processing fees. We are not an MLM company, although we have a 1 tier override for successful referrals. Commissions range from 20 to 27 percent, plus extras like contests and travel incentives. With only 75 Representatives nationwide, there is tremendous growth potential for the right candidates.

We offer the most amazing Hostess Benefits of any company, and we also have a much appreciated client reward program each half-year.

What are the startup costs for becoming a stylist, and what does it include?

We offer several levels of involvement:

Sales Representatives invest $500 and receive approximately $800 worth of starting supplies including 2 racks, their business cards, custom hostess cards, and about $640 worth of Core Collection pieces.

Associate Representatives invest $250 and receive about $400 worth of starting supplies including 2 racks, their business cards, custom hostess cards, and $240 worth of Core Collection pieces.

For the gun shy, we also offer a ‘Guest Rep’ option that makes it easy to try out the opportunity. A candidate can basically rent a mini set of samples for $50 and sell for 3 to 7 days. If she sells at least $1000, the rental fee is credited back. She earns 15% commission on her sales, plus earns hostess credits. A sponsor Representative helps set up her invitations and enters her orders. It’s a great way to try out KOKOON!

What has been the most difficult lesson you have learned as an entrepreneur?

I was raised to be very modest, and it has been a hard lesson that no matter how good your product, or how good your business practices, you still have to promote yourself and your company. I have found it hard to toot my own horn, as they say.

What advice would you give direct sales consultants on how to build a great business?

No one wants to be ‘sold’ something. If you love what you are representing and give women the opportunity to benefit from what you believe in, I believe great sales naturally follow. More than any other type of selling, direct sales should come from a place of authenticity, or else it just doesn’t feel right.

How would you rate your success? 

That’s a great question. I don’t think I rate success the same way as maybe other direct sales companies would. Most direct sales companies base their success around recruiting and how many sellers they have. Since KOKOON takes the risk of lending out very large sample sets to our Reps, and we incur all the residual costs involved, our success can only be measured by how successful our Representatives are. If they aren’t making money, we’re losing money. It’s a true partnership.

On a personal level, when our business was designing and wholesaling to retailers, we worked crazy hours…80 hours a week, evenings, weekends, holidays…time away from our kids. We worked ourselves ragged and it wasn’t fulfilling. I would design 6 months of product to have it edited down to 4 styles by store buyers. So now, being able to have women see everything I design, and being able to work with enthusiastic women every day, hear feedback directly from our Representatives and clients, and actually have time to enjoy life…I feel like I’ve won the lottery!

How do you manage all of your personal and business activities? 

I have an amazing business partner in my husband, and we have an incredibly loyal and talented staff at our headquarters in Minneapolis. I’m involved in the sales and marketing of the company, but when it’s time for me to design a new season, everyone just picks up the pieces and leaves me alone to get the season done.

Since we switched to a direct sales business model, we actually have time for a social life, which involves golf, tennis, hiking, entertaining, and hanging out with our lovely kids and friends.

What was your first paying job?

Babysitting for 50c per hour… I made flyers and gave them to all the younger kids on the school bus. And a roller-skating waitress at a drive-in. I was fired on the second day because I couldn’t roller-skate.

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