Kelly Belknap – CEO Interview
When did you know you wanted to start your own company?
I’ve had ideas regarding owning my own business mulling around in my head since I was about 12 years old. Back then, I was really passionate about someday opening up my own musical instrument shop. In college, that idea changed to starting up my own bar/music venue (I had put together a business plan, attended some classes, and even started searching out a spot to lease). After some deliberation after graduating, I decided to start selling different outdoors/travel accessories online (including backpacks), which eventually evolved into the desire to create my own e-commerce brand/products, and I started Adventurist Backpack Co. with my wife Matilda back in 2017.
What was your original idea for this company, and are you still doing that (or did you pivot, if so, what is the new focus and why)?
The original idea was to create a high-quality, fashionable, and affordable backpack for less than $100. We also had planned for a social cause to be an integral part of the company. We are still doing our original idea of selling minimalist backpacks, for a cause. For every backpack sold, we provide 25 meals to families in need across the U.S. (via our partnership with Feeding America). We now sell our backpacks/bags on our website adventuristbackpacks.com as well as through Urban Outfitters and 50+ universities/boutique shops across the country.
How long did it take you to finally take the leap, and what was it that pushed you over the fence?
It took about 3-4 months from after I had started my first online store to figure out exactly what we wanted to do as far as starting our own brand with Adventurist. After the idea came together, it took about a whole year to go from product design, partnering with Feeding America, and setting up a website to the point we were actually able to launch. The tipping point was sometime during the previous online shop when I realized I could design my own product (and have a lot more fun doing it), and get traffic to a website featuring my own brand, instead of other companies’ products.
Who inspired you to pursue your dream, and why do you think they believed in you?
My parents are my role models, and they are why I had enough confidence and motivation to start my own company. They’ve always had my back, and encouraged me to pursue my passions. They even invested $3000 to help Matilda and I get started building Adventurist Backpack Co. Without them, it’s safe to say that I never would have felt comfortable jumping into entrepreneurship.
Who is your favorite mentor and why?
Borrowing from my last answer, both of my parents are my biggest mentors. My mom is an immigrant from Mexico, and has always showed me that hard work, resourcefulness, creativity, and persistence pays off. My dad has helped me a lot with learning about how to manage finances and being frugal when I need to be. They both are always willing to lend a helping hand, or listen to my problems at any time. Secondly, I would just like to mention that books are the second greatest mentor of all time. You can gain knowledge, wisdom, and ideas from the greatest minds of all time, just from picking up a book.
What was the hardest thing about starting your company, and what did you do to make it through the first stage?
The hardest thing was figuring out a plan to get the word out about the company by marketing and advertising without a budget (like zero dollars). Since we spent up the entire $7000 in startup capital we had in manufacturing our first backpack design and setting up a website, we had no money left over for marketing expenses. Because of this, we turned to social media to create our brand image and spread the word. We spent most of our time creating content for our Instagram account @adventuristbackpacks, and were able to grow it pretty quickly throughout the first year or two. This helped produce sales, led to sign-ups for our newsletter, and gave a face/personality to our brand (other than our website). We also focused on reaching out to retail stores to carry our backpacks, and getting our backpacks featured in publications – from Forbes, Outside Magazine, and Conde Nast Traveler, to Men’s Journal, Woman’s Day, Bustle, Mashable, and more. All of these things were completely free to do, and ended up as a great stepping stone to where we are today.
What has been the hardest lesson to learn?
The hardest lesson is realizing that there will always be problems to solve, no matter what. Nothing runs smoothly 100% of the time, and thinking that things will go well year round is a setup for disappointment. You have to take the good with the bad, and take advantage of riding the waves when they come, so you can buckle down and work hard through the hard times. Other than that, I feel that if you really want to make a business succeed, you can. It just takes persistence, finding out what works, saying “yes”, and lots of problem solving.
What has been the most amazing thing you have experience while running this company?
When we started the company, we wanted to help fight food insecurity across the country through sales from our backpacks. We never imagined the amount of support and the awesome community we would gain through the process, but it has been so worth it – and now, we have been able to provide over 150,000 meals to families in need across the country through our partnership with Feeding America. It feels great to be able to get off to such a good start and we feel hopeful and optimistic about continuing to fight food insecurity across the U.S. and making an even bigger difference. Some other noteworthy experiences are being able to team up with dozens of universities around the country (such as UC Berkeley, University of Oregon, University of Arizona, University of Wisconsin, Colorado State University) to fight student food insecurity on college campuses. It’s also been surreal being able to get our backpacks into Urban Outfitters, and creating a UO Exclusive design with them. We feel super excited to have our backpacks in a store I used to shop at when I was a teenager!
What is the weirdest thing you have experienced while running this company, and how did you react to it?
One morning, Matilda and I woke up to an email from the event coordinator from Google, who wanted to place an order for a few thousand backpacks, and have us be a part of their International Women’s Day Conferences in 2019 – she had read about us in an article, and needed gifts for all of that years attendees and figured she would reach out to us first to see if we were interested in teaming up. We absolutely did not expect to have a company like Google partnering up and ordering from us in our second year in business, and immediately said yes. To date, it is still our largest single order and was a huge learning experience for us.
What is the best decision you’ve ever made while running this company?
The best decision we’ve made is to start a company that is based online, and in which we can do the necessary work from anywhere in the world. Being able to work while traveling is a huge positive aspect for us (especially since my wife/co-founder Matilda is from Sweden and we spend a few months there each year). Having an e-commerce brand allows us to create our schedules exactly how we want, and allows so much flexibility. Not having to sit in morning traffic, or head to an office is seriously priceless, and I would for sure recommend starting a business where you have almost complete control over your work/life.
What is the biggest mistake you made while running this company, and why do you think it happened?
A big mistake we made when we first started Adventurist was biting off more than we could chew. Right before the first holiday season, we got into a few different gift guides in Woman’s Day Magazine, Forbes, and Mashable, which ended up selling us out of our only backpack design about 3-4 weeks before the holiday season was over. We figured we could work with our manufacturer to get an expedited shipment of backpacks ready in time to supply the rest of the season’s orders, but due to delays we weren’t able to, and had hundreds of orders where we had to email customers and explain that their backpack wouldn’t be shipped out in time to arrive for the holidays. It was extremely stressful, and taught us to always plan ahead. We haven’t let that happen since, and luckily in this particular scenario, most people were extremely understanding and kept their orders instead of cancelling (we threw in a free gift for each delayed order to try to ameliorate the problem and any dissatisfaction).
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected your company?
The pandemic has definitely shifted our objectives drastically. Normally, we would have certain times during the year where we would be contacting retail store/universities/events in order to sell our backpacks, but due to the pandemic, almost all of these things have been postponed or cancelled. A lot of stores have reduced ordering capacity or are completely closed down, and because of this we’ve had to shift our focus onto the things that we have completely in our control, which basically comes down to selling on our own website. It actually was a blessing in disguise because we’ve been able to figure out how to keep the company running smoothly from just e-commerce orders, which will be especially helpful as soon as things re-open and we’re able to start bringing in revenue from other sources, such as wholesale/retail orders and events as well. It’s taught us to diversify revenue streams, because you never know when one will dry up. If you have sales coming in from different directions you can make it through any tough times and hopefully come out stronger from it.
What keeps you passionate about your company?
We built Adventurist Backpack Co. around our interests in life. We love to travel, spend time outdoors, and we’re also very passionate about giving back. Because Adventurist is the culmination of all of these things, it provides us with work we find meaningful, and that we’re constantly excited and passionate about working on. Matilda and I also love that running Adventurist allows us to be creative – whether it be product design, creating email newsletters, or taking photos to share on social media. Lastly, working together as a married team is a big motivator – we get to share our dreams and goals, and work toward them together, while always motivating each other. We’re always there to remind each other (even in the bad moments) why it is we are doing what we’re doing, and to keep on pressing forward to reach the ultimate goals of ending food insecurity across the country and building a household name brand.
What daily routine have you developed to help you take care of your mind, body, and soul?
I’ve started doing several things that have turned into habits since launching Adventurist Backpack Co. Firstly, I run 10km at least 5 days each week, which helps me have time to process ideas, thoughts, and de-stress from any problems. I’ve also started writing creatively – I find that with Adventurist there is a lot of technical/descriptive writing that I have to do, and writing about other topics/genres helps improve my writing capabilities, as well as gives me a good outlet for creativity. Lastly, I try to read for at least 30 minutes when I wake up each morning. It gives me a chance to get my brain working, and also learn new things at the beginning of each day.
What one thing would you like people to take away from this interview?
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On the podcast, Sean talks with entrepreneurs about the reality of their struggle to succeed, as well as answering questions from the community, and sharing nuggets of wisdom from his own life.
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Sean is an entrepreneur, investor, and advisor based in SE Asia for over 12 years. He is passionate about Psychology and helping others improve themselves.