Feeling is believing, said Kilee Nickels, the fashion inspiration behind Nickel & Suede.
“You may not remember you’re wearing our earrings until someone compliments you,” she said of the light-weight, leather statement accessories that earned the business she co-founded a top spot on Inc. 5000’s 2018 fastest-growing companies list.
Based in Liberty, the company boasted $4.1 million in revenue with its handmade goods, according to the Inc. 5000 report. It’s a testament to the high-quality of Nickel & Suede’s first-to-market take on a classic accessory, said husband and co-founder Soren Nickels.
“We originally thought there could be a challenge with people who are used to jewelry being expensive, cold, hard, sparkly,” he said. “We can get the sparkly, but cold, hard and heavy? No. We’ll have to convince them that’s not necessary. And we’ve had no problem doing it.”
Having emerged from the Nickels’ home basement to a 900-square-foot store and 4,000-square-foot production (to be followed by a new 15,000-square-foot space with another retail store), the company is on its way to what Kilee envisions as success, she said.
“It’s difficult to be in the habit of work hard, work hard, work hard — to be pushing with everything to achieve this — and then stop to look back at everything we’ve done, to celebrate,” she said. “That’s probably a struggle for any entrepreneur: to recognize that it feels good, but you can’t stop now.”
‘If you’re wearing them …’
Nickel & Suede’s growth has been person to person to person — built on a foundation of positive word of mouth — said Soren, a former certified public accountant who left his previous profession to launch the business with his wife in 2014.
“We had immediate adoption by anyone who experienced the product. If they could just feel it — comfortable, light-weight, and exactly the right look,” he said. “There was nothing out there like it, which is why I said to my previous company, ‘Listen, I have a better thing going here.’ We recognized we had a first-to-market situation and we needed to go. It was a way bigger opportunity.”
Nickel & Suede at Thinking Bigger’s Big Breakfast
Hear more about Kilee Nickels and Nickel & Suede’s startup journey 7:30 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 13, at the Carriage Club during Thinking Bigger’s Big Breakfast panel conversation. Click here to learn more or RSVP.
The journey began even earlier, when Kilee — then a stay-at-home mom — opened etsy shops to sell various handmade kids products, she said. Eventually, she started blogging to support sales, and realized her love for sharing her own style and influence.
A last-minute wardrobe addition during a photo shoot for the blog became the catalyst for Nickel & Suede, Kilee detailed.
“I had some statement earrings that were silver teardrops, metal and large,” she said, noting the uncomfortable weight. “I wanted some gold ones for another outfit, and we already had some gold leather laying around. So I thought, ’That could work!’ I traced the earrings, put them on with some hooks, and was like, ‘This feels so much better. They look the same as my silver earrings, but are so much lighter.’ It was a win-win, and as I told my friends about it, I realized this was our next big idea.”
The husband-and-wife duo quickly searched etsy and other sites to see who might be making similar products, Kilee said.
“It was just this boho, hippie, niche market. Just like craft fair-style earrings where you find them with turquoise beads and feathers on rawhide,” she said. “No one was doing earrings that looked like metal, but felt like leather.”
Marketing through the blog, her ability to influence consumers became even more clear, Soren said.
“We learned they were much more interested in her, than in a lot of the products initially,” he said. “She started feeding that appetite — from people who trusted what she said about what she wore, about mothering, about life.”
“I was really honest, so there was an immediate buy-in on whatever I was interested in or liking at the time,” Kilee added. “People were like, ‘If you’re wearing them, I’ll try to wear them.’ It was a great big test group. That allowed us to brand ourselves, get a website going, and self-fund.”
Growth hasn’t been without hiccups — or imitators, the Nickels said.
“If you’re not the leader in whatever you’re doing, then no one would be copying you,” he said. “We’re on the leading edge, and that comes with it’s own challenges.”
The ceiling for Nickel & Suede is non-existent, Soren added, noting the company’s strategy is to explore further expansion of online, retail and wholesale operations.
“We can go as high as we want,” he said of the already nationally known brand. “It’s only been limited by our ability to produce and distribute.”
New production space has been a blessing, said Kilee, noting the business’ decision keep manufacturing in Liberty in order to apply strict quality control has been double-edged.
“Anybody can make leather earrings at a cheap quality,” she said. “But to make them really well, you have to keep pushing the limits — and that has slowed growth because we’re constantly trying to maintain our own expectations for the products.”
The Nickels’ relationship allows them to better walk the business tightrope, they said, but with five boys under 10 years old, home and office challenges tend to crossover.
“We both have demands at work and at home that we can’t shift to the other person, or that we can’t do alone,” Soren said. “Sometimes she might say, ‘I need you to go talk to my employees in marketing and help me out because I’m here holding a crying baby.’ Other times, she might be at a photo shoot, and I’m home with all five kids.”
“You need to work 24/7 as a growing business, and we can because we’re doing it together,” Kilee added. “We balance each other as far as skill sets, but there are times when you’re married and working together that you have to really acknowledge the emotions, and say, ‘Oh, we’re people too.’ … If there’s a way to do this in the most stressful way possible, we’ve really excelled there. I’ve been pregnant twice, had two babies since we started the company. We just really swung hard at all the tough things.”
Kansas City has proven the perfect place to grow Nickel & Suede, she said, noting some surprise. When the two returned to her hometown from Seattle to raise their children, Kilee didn’t realize things had changed in the City of Fountains, she said.
“I never wanted to move back here after high school. I didn’t think Kansas City was growing. It wasn’t exciting,” she said.
Now, however, energy is everywhere, Kilee and Soren agreed.
“People are interested with the momentum, the excitement, the motivation, the risk taking — that resonates with people,” he said.
“But in most other cities, that ship has sailed,” Kilee said. “Nobody cares about your little business. They’re a dime a dozen.”
Customers and supporters have taken emotional ownership of Nickel & Suede, Soren said.
“They feel proud that we’ve grown and it’s a hometown story that has caught on with people at just the right time,” he said.