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Banking on KC – Kilee Nickels

Banking on KC – Kilee Nickels

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Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Nickel & Suede founder, Kilee Nickels. Welcome, Kilee.

Kilee Nickels:

Thank you so much. I'm so excited to be here.

Kelly Scanlon:

Like so many entrepreneurs you founded Nickel & Suede to satisfy a need for yourself. You couldn't find something that you were looking for so you started out on this journey that eventually became Nickel & Suede. So talk with us about how you formally launched the company and what led up to that.

Kilee Nickels:

Yeah, great question and definitely the beginning of this second launch of my life. I was a stay-at-home mom. I had a fashion blog, I had some [inaudible 00:00:42] and I always loved making things and I have always loved fashion. And so I found myself taking pictures of my outfit every day as fashion bloggers do and needed a pair of earrings. I had a pair that I always wore that was silver and I said, "I'd really like to find a gold pair of these." I'm a creature of habit on some of those accessories, but we had gold leather in the house that we used for other Etsy projects and things. And so I said, "Maybe that leather would give me the same look I'm going for." And so I cut out a pair of earrings out of the gold leather and put hooks on them, just very DIY, just self-sufficient. "Okay, great. I've got the accessory I need."

Kilee Nickels:

And then as I talked it over with friends and wore them throughout the day, it was like, "Wow, these are really different than the earrings that I usually wear. They look the same, but they feel so different." So that was the moment that sparked the, "I think we have something new here." And as I looked around, no one was really doing anything like it in the leather industry and certainly not jewelry. It was meshing these two things and so we said, "I think we can do more of this."

Kilee Nickels:

And every customer that we showed them to, we just did little pop-ups at little vendor events and things and they said, "Yeah, I'll try those." And then once they did it was, "I don't ever want to wear anything else. These are so lightweight. They feel so different than what I normally wear." Or we also had a lot of women who said, "I never wear earrings, but you're telling me these are lightweight. These are good for sensitive ears. I could actually try them." And it took away some of their inhibitions. So trying earrings feeling like it gave them some confidence, they wanted more of them. And so I said, "We have to do more of this." Pretty soon that took over the sales I was ever doing with little Etsy shops and so we said, "This has some potential."

Kelly Scanlon:

So Nickel & Suede is born and now seven years later, you have a national brand with several retail locations. You have a design office, you have a production facility, and your export business is growing too.

Kilee Nickels:

It's a lot, especially when you say it like that. if I'd have told myself back then where we'd be now, I'd say, "Well, how? How on earth?" And Kelly and I were just talking about like, "Well, you've just start figuring things out." And that's exactly what my husband and I did. He left his job and joined me and we started in the basement and then we figured out how to make as many earrings as we could and we'd sold them all. And so then just continuing to figure it out as we grew. So the first retail shop was something we had to learn and we figured it out and it was successful, so we added another and another and same with moving out of our basement into another facility and then we outgrew that. And so we had to figure out how to get into a bigger one, so it's definitely been a lot of small steps that have added up to pretty quick changes for us.

Kelly Scanlon:

It's not going unrecognized. Ink, I don't remember the exact rankings, but you've landed on Ink's top companies list for several years now. Right?

Kilee Nickels:

Yeah, that was really exciting and a fun stamp of approval or, "Wow okay. We do have something here." The first year we landed on Ink was, I want to say 2018, and we were 127 out of 5,000 and when we opened it, my husband was just like "What?? He couldn't even process it. We were hoping for 4,242 so a good, really exciting boost to continuing what we were doing. And then the next year we were in the five hundreds and it just felt like, "Okay, no wonder we're so tired."

Kelly Scanlon:

Exactly, exactly. But what an affirmation, a confirmation of taking that leap and deciding that you're going to go all-in with this jewelry. Why do you think that Nickel & Suede has developed such a cult following? And I'm using that word loosely because you have rabid fans, you really do, so why do you think about that dynamic? How has it been created?

Kilee Nickels:

Yeah, it's a great question. Sometimes one that I still am asking myself and trying to figure out. It's such an honor. We do have so many loyal customers that many have been with us from the beginning and the collections of Nickel & Suede that these women own and are so proud of is just astounding. It's 50 pairs of earrings, 100 of earrings, and that's not just one person. So, I think really early on we found that women were calling our earrings life-changing and it was, "How could earrings be life-changing?" But really it changes how you wear jewelry. It's a whole nother category of jewelry. It does add this confidence element when you wear a big pair of earrings that are comfortable. They were getting compliments on them and so it really felt like the earrings became a symbol of something that made them feel more confident, made them feel more bold.

Kilee Nickels:

And then as people also knew my story where I did come from being a stay-at-home mom to now CEO of a company. I blogged and I have talked openly quite a bit of the stretching and the out of the comfort zone and the feeling all along. And so I think they're able to see themselves a little bit in me and hope that if she can do it, I can do it. And that's really been my focus and part of our brand values is just that empowering feeling of, Look, if I can do it, you can do it." And so I have a podcast called With Kilee Nickels. I feature women that I just want our listeners to see, "Look what she did, look what she did, look what she did." And you can do what you are meant to do too.

Kelly Scanlon:

Besides creating jewelry, you're committed to building community. You talked a little bit about your blog. I know you have a huge Instagram following, but why is creating community so important to you? And what do you focus on in particular?

Kilee Nickels:

Community has been really important from the beginning. Having a blog, I started a blog in 2012 and the relationships I created with my readers was really so important, especially for then launching Nickel & Suede, was just to have this group of women that supported and trusted me and that I wanted to give back to constantly. And so as we've continued to grow the brand, we've continued to try to pour into that. We have a Facebook group that has almost 9,000 women in it and these women are the most encouraging, supportive, just empowering friends. It's just the coolest community where we challenge each other. We try to encourage everyone to be their best and show up for each other. So seeing that in just the small group, but then also in our stores. We do pop-ups and we have local founders or other local businesses come in and wanting to help. If we have a storefront that we can help them come have a presence in and try to see some more success, then we want to do that.

Kelly Scanlon:

Giving them that platform, that additional exposure.

Kilee Nickels:

Yeah, really just sharing what I've learned on my podcast so that we can help lift other people up. So it's all about that giving back and inspiring others to be who they want to be.

Kelly Scanlon:

Absolutely, and you also have an earing series where you give back to causes. Talk to us about that.

Kilee Nickels:

Yeah, we were able to launch one of our most popular selling styles last year and it's our black sweetheart and wanting to really do something during a lot of the civil rights movements and discussions last year and say, "What can we do that's authentic to us that also shows support to so many different people?" And so we've launched this earring and it's been one of our best sellers we give. We donated, I think, $32,000. We've sold so many to four different organizations that are really supportive of people of color, and then also women and girls and that's just been really encouraging and fun to see.

Kelly Scanlon:

We hear more and more about customers wanting to patronize brands with a community conscience much like Nickel & Suede, which is an extension of you obviously as the owner. So what are your thoughts on that?

Kilee Nickels:

It's definitely been the movement I think of shopping and how people spend their dollars over the last few years and I think it's even escalated faster through COVID and through just all these chances where we reevaluate how we spend money and time. And I think customers are holding brands to a lot higher standard than they used to probably similar to influencers where it's like you have influence, you have values, use them. And so I think people are looking to brands to do something with their influence, so we definitely want to play our part there and so we're really proud that we were made in the USA. We've tried to keep our production here in Kansas City. We want to provide local jobs and we want to support those other local businesses that come into our stores and then figuring out how can we can support our customers, because I do think it's a personal relationship with a customer, with a brand if the brand can have the heart and the story and the values that align with them.

Kelly Scanlon:

Every entrepreneur has influence, whether it's within the walls of their business where they're influencing associates, employees, whether it's with their customers, the greater community, all entrepreneurs have influence. When did you realize as an entrepreneur that you had influence?

Kilee Nickels:

I'm probably a little bit of a unique entrepreneur in that I've lived the influencer life for a long time by having such a social media is my business. I remember when I was starting my blog years ago and it was just putting things out there into the world. I'm just talking about stuff and really feeling like I started to have influence in this relationship when I would get emails from readers who said, "Oh my goodness, this resonated so much. You shared your story and that gave me courage to do this too." Or the constant question of, "Where did you buy that? Where did you get that? How can I be like that?" And feeling so honored by that. One of our sons has a cleft pallet and so just sharing his story and resources with people and getting those emails and messages saying, "I feel like I have hope now."

Kilee Nickels:

And so I know that's on the style side and the blogging side, but keeping that alive is so important to me because I do feel like it reflects on our business and who is behind the business, it's me, it's my values and I'm constantly motivated by pouring into other people and inspiring them. As a business owner, learning the ropes and then being like, "Okay, how can I use what I learned to teach somebody else who maybe is starting in the same spot of I don't know anything." It's an honor.

Kelly Scanlon:

What is the hardest lesson that you think you've had to learn as an entrepreneur?

Kilee Nickels:

I think probably what failing looks like and being willing to do it. I'm such a perfectionist and I want to look like I know what I'm doing. I want to be somebody that can teach and inspire and pour into people and so feeling like I'm in a season of life where I don't know and what do I do with that? How do I sit with that? I worked really hard as a blogger and as an influencer to learn things and to put myself out there and feeling like I had figured some things out. And then as a business owner, I just had to start over again like, "Wow, okay managing people, didn't have to do this as a blogger or a stay-at-home mom." These are people. How do I fail when I'm dealing with people? And how do I acknowledge that and talk about it and figure it out? So, I think the people side of having a business has been a huge learning and what I don't take lightly, but also still so much to learn.

Kelly Scanlon:

Absolutely, you left Kansas City for awhile and you moved to Seattle, but then you returned back here to Kansas City, which is your hometown. What attracted you back here? And why have you kept your business here even as it's gained a national reputation?

Kilee Nickels:

My perspective on Kansas City and staying in Kansas City, of course has evolved over my life. I remember as a teenager, Kansas City wasn't nearly as cool. And I thought, "I'm just going to leave and I'm going to go do something big." And I had all these big dreams, but as I matured a little bit, I realized Kansas City has so much opportunity. And, of course, my family lives here, which I value so highly now that I have kids. After our second baby, I was like, "Get me back to my family. I want that support system and I want to be in a place where I know things."

Kilee Nickels:

And so we have five boys. We love living here in the Midwest. I think Kansas City has, like I said, so much potential and opportunity. And then having a business here, it's just been an immense, I guess you would say support systems still, but so many resources, people are so willing to help. I feel like it's not as crowded of a space yet and so there's just a lot of opportunity. It's centrally positioned. It's perfect for shipping all over the country. I don't see a reason to leave. We love it here.

Kelly Scanlon:

We're glad that you're here and obviously a lot of other people are recognizing what you're doing here. Recently, you were named as one of the Business Journal's women who mean business for 2021, so congratulations on that. That is not an easy thing to accomplish. So given where you are now and the values, the philosophies you have, if time, money, resources were not an issue, where do you see yourself, Kilee Nickels, in 10 years?

Kilee Nickels:

That's a good question. We think about sometimes you're supposed to plan for exiting the business or someday for all your dreams come true and sometimes like, "I know I'm living my dreams right now. I would never not want to be running my business." And part of that's just because I love the impact that we get to make. And so I think if there was no restraints that I would be that we found a way in an avenue to really have a give back that we can participate in more than just the day-to-day.

Kilee Nickels:

So we worked with a company called Days for Girls, an organization, and they provide menstrual supplies to girls in need all over the world. And so I think finding a cause like that or creating our own where it's like, "I can go make a difference, inspire, touch, share my story, and also lift girls or kids and people out of poverty and out of tough situation." And I think that would be a really fulfilling way to say, "Look how all of our talk about empowerment and optimism has translated into really making a difference on the ground for people." I don't quite know what that's going to look like yet, but I'm really excited to find out.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, I have no doubt you will find out and we'll be hearing more from Kilee Nickels. Kylie, thank you so much for being on the show today. We're glad that you're here in Kansas City and doing the work that you do and that you're having fun and have a successful brand to boot. Thanks so much.

Kilee Nickels:

Yeah, thanks again.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Kilee Nickels for being our guest on this episode of Banking on KC. It's always exciting to watch a local entrepreneur, like Kilee Nickels, make something from nothing to turn an idea into a business that is thriving nationally and is now growing internationally too. It's even more rewarding to witness that entrepreneur use her influence to empower others, to be successful. Not only does Kilee strive to inspire confidence in the women who wear her jewelry, she strives to empower other women business owners by creating special lines of jewelry to raise funds for organizations dedicated to supporting Bi POC communities.

Joe Close:

In addition, she hosts give back events at Nickel & Suede locations and she opens her retail stores for pop-up events that showcase other local female founders to give them more exposure. As an entrepreneur, Kilee has recognized her power to influence and to use it to empower and create community. We all have the power to influence. How are you using yours to make a difference? Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you Kansas City. Country Club Bank, member FDIC.