In honour of International Women’s Day we bring you insights from one of Toronto’s most innovative female entrepreneurs, Joanna Griffiths. As the founder and creator of Knix and Knixteen, Griffiths not only has redefined the intimate apparel market, she has used her underwear empire to help other women feel more comfortable and confident in their own skin. We caught up with the business mogul to learn about her experience as a successful female entrepreneur.
You have taken an unconventional approach to almost everything you have done in your career. What is the best business decision you have ever made?
The decision to move away from wholesale (selling our products through other people’s stores) and to be 100% e-commerce focused (only selling through or own websites knix.ca and knixteen.ca) was a big one. I spent the first three years of Knix pounding the pavement at trade shows, trekking across the country doing trunk shows, and meeting with retail buyers. We got to about 700 retail doors, but I realized that we could be selling so much more if we owned the relationship with our end consumers. As a brand we were very much at the forefront of inclusivity, we have offered size 0–22 since day one. Our marketing was sending out one message, but our retailer partners weren’t interested in carrying our size range. I remember there was one week that we received multiple complaints from customers who had driven to several stores in their hometown looking to buy our product, only to be turned away because the retail partner didn’t carry their size. We had a serious lack of brand alignment. So we made the difficult decision to pull out of wholesale. It was scary at first, saying no to orders and no revenue. Especially when after years of hard work some pretty great retailers wanted to work with us. There were nights when I wasn’t sure if we had made the right the call, and for two years, all I did was say no. But in the end it all paid off. We’ve been able to grow our team from 3 to 50 people, and grow our revenue by over 2000%.
Was it a daunting decision to leave behind a career in media and go into business for yourself?
I had a lot of positive support from my partner and family but don’t get me wrong, I was terrified. I had spent the first eight years of my career working towards one goal. Even the decision to do an MBA was very much with the focus to lead a media company someday, but along the way I fell in love with Knix. Through my research and in speaking with hundreds of women, I really believed that there was an opportunity for me to have an impact — and not just in a sell lots of products way — but in a way that could positively affect the way women feel about themselves. In all honesty that became my obsession. I talked about Knix constantly. It was the only thing that I was thinking. It got to point where my dad and now husband had a bit of an intervention. They basically were like “Look. If you don’t do this, you are always going to ask yourself what if. And you aren’t that kind of person. So give it a go. You’re smart, you work hard, you will figure it out.” Having the support of the people around me made the choice a lot easier.
In the past you have spoken about the power of goal setting; how has this affected your career?
I live for goals. I think it’s very important to be intentional about your life and the things you want to accomplish. You might not always hit them — which is 100% OK — but at least you have taken a proactive approach to your life. I’m also a big fan of breaking goals down into small manageable pieces, and then moving the “goal post” as I go. That is in part how I’ve built Knix. If I set out from day one and said I wanted Knix to be the company it is today, the entire thing would have felt way too big, and way too scary for me to even fathom. So I broke it down. Every few months or year or so I move the goal post forward.
Today, I set goals across all aspects of my life — business, health, personal, relationships etc. Some of them are small…like having dinner with friends one night a month. And some are big, like doubling sales at Knix. In every case though, I am taking a proactive approach to what I want my life to be.
What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered in your professional life? Were you able to overcome it?
The biggest challenge that I have encountered in my professional life is my own self-doubt and being afraid that I didn’t have what it took. Fear can be a crippling thing and I’ve seen firsthand how it can hold you back. You’re afraid that you won’t be a good leaders, so you only hire people more junior than yourself versus surrounding yourself with people who are smarter and can help make you better. In terms of overcoming it, it’s something that I have had to work on every single day but I really am a believer that if you change your mindset, you can change your life.
As a successful entrepreneur many women look up to you as a role model. What woman inspires you and why?
This is going to sound very cheesy but it is honestly true, it’s our customers. A few years back I got the advice to have Knix be a mission led company. I wasn’t great at advocating for myself, and so my mentor suggested that I focus on Knix’s mission, so that I never felt like I was fighting for myself but rather for something so much bigger than me. It made the hard days a lot easier.
As a result we have put our customers at the epicentre of everything we do, they are our models, spokespersons, wear testers, our source for new product ideas etc. Every day they tell us how Knix is having a positive impact on their lives, or in some cases, they care so much about us as a brand that they share how they think we can be better. There is nothing more motivating than that.
While there has been some progress in addressing gender inequality, many believe we still have a long way to go. What do you think is the most significant barrier to female leadership?
I think this is something that is just going to take a lot of time, and a very proactive approach from companies everywhere. One thing that stands out to me is simply recognizing that men and women approach problems and advocate for themselves differently. There are studies that have been done that women can be more conservative and risk adverse. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t ambitious or can’t lead (quite the opposite!) but it can mean that we present differently in interviews or pitch meetings.
I certainly experienced this when it’s come to raising money for Knix and I know a lot of female founders have as well. Women typically ask for less money and are more realistic (less bullish) in the goals that they set for them and their companies. They are also more likely to succeed. In numerous pitch meetings I’ve been told that Knix sounds like a great “lifestyle business” or the category is too “niche”…this was especially true in the early days. Often times it would make me laugh. At the time we were selling leak proof underwear. A product that had the potential to help every woman that menstruates and the 1 in 3 women that can leak a little when they laugh, sneeze, or do a jumping jack. We’re talking a huge portion of the population…but the market felt “niche”.
Your products are all about helping women feel comfortable and confident. What can other companies do to embrace this sentiment?
I think it starts with giving your customer a voice. Who is she? What is her life like? What does she like? What does she need? What does she want? It starts with giving her a voice and then being sure that through the decisions you make, you are recognizing and listening to that voice. A second thing, is making sure that you are representing your customers in your marketing. That could mean from an age perspective (brands love to pretend that women cease to exist at the age of 40), an ethnicity perspective or a size perspective. By being inclusive in your marketing it makes your customer feel recognized and heard — that is an incredible place to start.
What advice do you have for the next generation of entrepreneurs?
My advice for the next generation of entrepreneurs is pretty simple. Make something that people, and ideally a large group of people need. Starting your own business is hard, but it becomes so much easier when you are creating things or offering a service that people actually need. Knix started with leak proof underwear, the concept wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t flashy, but it was NEEDED.
On a lighter note, we heard through the grapevine your former career in the music industry was inspired by the timeless tracks of the Backstreet Boys. Today, what artists would we find on your Spotify playlists?
Oh my goodness, yes this is true. I spent more years that I would like to admit being obsessed with Nick Carter from the backstreet boys. Wanting to meet him was one of the first goals I ever set.
Right now I am listening to a lot of low key soothing tracks. I am expecting my first baby in the beginning of April and I am really into playing soothing tracks in the evening …Landslide by Fleetwood Mac, Eric Clapton, Otis Redding etc. Oh and I am a podcast fanatic….especially as I am gearing up to launch our own podcast on the topic of Fertility in April. I’ve been listening to a lot of different ones to get a feel for the format. Hands down though my favourite is still NPR’s How I Built This.