Brooke Mullen’s ability to pivot with silky smooth ease helped the Lincoln entrepreneur build a bridge to surging revenue in 2020, as well as win best pitch Thursday during a showcase of Pipeline’s latest fellowship class.
“With a lot of our business being direct-to-consumer and actual live events, we had to completely change as all those events got canceled,” said Mullen, founder of Sapahn, a designer and producer of high-quality leather goods and fashion accessories for socially conscious consumers.
Shifting to online-only sales once COVID-19 hit, the company saw momentum throughout months of pandemic, she said, growing by 37 percent.
“We also launched five new product lines … [and] 12 new wholesale accounts — one of them has 20 stores nationwide,” Mullen said during her pitch to judges and the virtual audience for the Pipeline Innovators Daytime Showcase. “More importantly, we grew as a team. I hired my business partner and COO. We have a fractional CMO on our team and two full-time staff.”
Click here to shop Sapahn.
Success comes even as online customers are denied the in-person, olfactory and tactile interactions once-common with Sapahn’s previous pop-up shop-based business model.
“Our customers know quality, and they experience it first through smell,” Mullen said. “They’ll walk into our booth and go, ‘Oh, my gosh, this smells like leather. Like the real deal.’ And as they get closer to experience it and touch it, [they say,] ‘Oh, my God, Brooke, this feels like butter. This is how Coach used to make bags.’”
(The company pivoted much of its business in 2018 to leather goods after an accelerator helped Mullen to realize the vertical accounted for 90 percent of her revenue, she said.)
Kansas City-based Pipeline is a fellowship of high-performing entrepreneurs, now boasting more than 130 members who employ more than 2,700 people in Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska, have raised more than $609 million in outside capital since joining Pipeline and are doing business in more than 85 countries.
But Sapahn — which means “bridge” in Thai — is about more than a trendy accessory that sells, Mullen suggested, noting the business’s emphasis on empowerment and human rights.
“Human rights are ultimately about putting people in a position where they can protect and advance themselves and their interests,” Sapahn’s website details. “If we want to have a positive impact in artisan communities, we have to start with human rights. We have to start with plans, processes and practices that enable everyone in our value chain to take action on their own behalf. Sapahn believes that this kind of human rights based approach is the only way to ensure that our brand is truly artisan friendly and artisan driven.”
Click here to learn more about Sapahn’s origins and the story behind the brand.
Judges for the Pipeline event appreciated Mullen’s transparency about Sapahn’s need to pivot, along with the socially conscious ethos at the company’s heart, said Elizabeth MacBride, an international business journalist and founder of Times of Entrepreneurship who helped judge Thursday’s pitches.
“It was a polished pitch with a good balance between the financials and a focus on the product — and a company geared to this time, when it feels like many of us are very focused on impact and on making the world a better place,” MacBride said when announcing Sapahn as the best pitch winner.
Pipeline’s Innovators Daytime Showcase was the first virtual pitch competition for the elite entrepreneur fellowship program, which annually presents its fellows to the public with a high-caliber demo day.
Among those Kansas City fellows taking the virtual stage to pitch:
- Dominique Davison, PlanIT Impact;
- Kyle Ginavan, OneHQ;
- Bo Lais, Lula;
- Luke Lim, Tile Five LCC;
- A.J. Mellott, Ronawk LLC; and
- Sunti Wathanacharoen, Pulmonaer Analytics.
Pipeline — which serves as a regional network across the Midwest — also draws heavily from Nebraska, as well as picking up entrepreneurs from outside Kansas City in Missouri and Kansas. Among those founders to pitch, in addition to Sapahn’s Mullen:
- Brent Comstock, BCom Solutions, Lincoln;
- Walker Deibel, The Acquisition Lab, St. Louis;
- Jennifer McDonald, Jenny Dawn Cellars, Wichita;
- Hunter Radenslaben, Athlete Nation, Omaha;
- Jeff Smith, Fanbox Subscription Services Inc, Lincoln; and
- Travis Stephens, Direct Pivot Parts, Lincoln.
Pipeline plans to reveal the incoming 2021 fellows Feb. 11 virtual happy hour that is open to the public and celebrates the Pipeline entrepreneurs who pitched Thursday.
Watch the full Pipeline’s Innovators Daytime Showcase below. Check out the 1:20:30 mark for Brooke Mullen’s Sapahn pitch.
This story is possible thanks to support from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a private, nonpartisan foundation that works together with communities in education and entrepreneurship to create uncommon solutions and empower people to shape their futures and be successful.