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Standard Interviews: Joanna Griffiths, founder of Knix Wear

In four sentences or less, tell us who you are and what you do for a living.

My name is Joanna Griffiths, I’m the Chief Knixpert aka CEO and founder of Knix Wear. We’re a high-tech intimate apparel company based in Toronto.

Give us the elevator pitch for Knix Wear.

We create underwear that takes advantage of high performance fabrics, a great fit and beautiful designs to give women an upgrade over what’s currently available on the market. The idea is that we combine fashion, function and fit without asking our consumers to sacrifice on any of those three.

From what I understand, you started Knix to address a very specific problem women were facing, right?

That initial inspiration came from finding out that one in three women that have given birth suffer light leaks when they laugh, sneeze, cough or excerise. Once we launched, though, I quickly discovered that all women could do with an underwear upgrade.

We recently introduced a new version of our technology called Fresh Fix Air. It’s helps wick away moisture and eradicate odour, and is perfect for the gym or when it’s hot outside. Our plan is to take that technology and roll it out to several different products.

Why do you think the Victoria Secrets of the world have been so slow to start making underwear with more advance fabrics?

In the athletic apparel market high performance fabrics are second nature. You go to Mountain Equipment Co-Op, for example, and their products use a variety of different high performance fabrics.

The intimate apparel world is different.

Until recently, the industry’s sole focus was to make their underwear as sexy as possible. For a brand like Victoria’s Secret, their bread and butter is built upon this very narrow definition of what sexy is. A lot of people don’t like to talk about the things that Knix help address. I also think it would be a challenge for a brand like Victoria Secret to take ownership of the fact that not all women are a 32 DD. We’ve built a brand around that embraces those two things—fashion and function—and, because we’re relatively new, it was a lot easier for us to do that.

Can we take a step back and talk about your background—this is your first entrepreneurial venture, right?

Yeah, I never thought in a million years that I would be doing this. I still wake up somedays and ask myself, “What am I doing?”

My background is in marketing and PR. I was a publicist for several years. I worked for Universal Music, the Toronto International Film Festival and the CBC. Three years ago I went back to school to do my MBA. I always had the idea for Knix in the back of my head, but I never did anything with it until I went back to school. I think a lot of people have that one business idea that they go back all the time, and for me it was what Knix became.

When I went back to school I received a lot of encouragement; people felt like it was a great idea. It also helped so much to be in a safe environment where I could get help and advice.

That said, it was still an ongoing battle to work on the company. I didn’t necessarily even want to do this at times because it’s such a terrifying thing to do, but I was getting such great feedback from the people in my program, as well as other women I would talk to, I felt like I had to pursue it.

I eventually passed the point of no return where the only thing I was thinking and talking about was women’s underwear, and at that moment I knew that I was hooked. I realized that if I didn’t do this I would always regret it.

That said, was there a specific moment when helped push you?

There were two particular moments.

My school had a business venture competition where we would pitch our business ideas and have a chance to win money.

What school was this?

INSEAD, it’s a business school outside of Paris.

It’s one of the most global schools in the world. You have 500 people in your class, and eighty countries are represented in those 500 people. That diversity makes for a great learning environment.

I found that competition put pressure on me to think through my business because I wanted to win so much. In a way, it was a proof of concept for me. I said to myself, “If I can win this competition, then I’ll know that is is something worthwhile.”

I won that competition. At the time, my tagline for Knix was “Don’t pad the problem, knix it.” When they announced that I had won the competition, the whole auditorium shouted the tagline. It was such a surreal and cool moment to have my entire class behind me.

Another moment was when I was doing interviews for a job in France. I got the offer, but was waiting to see if my visa was going to come through. I remember locking myself in a bathroom stall on campus and crying my eyes out because I didn’t want to get the visa. I wanted to do do Knix, but at the same time I was so terrified to admit to myself that was I wanted to do. That’s when I admitted that this is what I wanted.

Did you get the visa?

No, I didn’t. In the end it all worked out.

I think I know the answer to this, but do you think that had you gone to business school in Canada that this would have worked out the same way? Would you still be trying to build Knix?

No, definitely not.

What’s one thing you’ve become better at since starting this business?

I’ve become really good at asking for help. That was something that I was not good at before.

Is there a reason for that?

Starting a business is a really humbling experience. You quickly realize that you know very little, and that you have to learn a lot in a short amount of time. There’s an overwhelming number of things to do. I had to learn how to admit my weaknesses.

What’s the most challenging part of your job? Conversely, what’s the most rewarding?

I try to answer every phone call and email, as well be active in our live chats. So the most rewarding part is definitely the positive reinforcement I get from customers.

As for the most challenging thing… that changes every day. I think it’s wanting to do a lot and not having the resources to do so.

Did you expect the positive reception you got from the Indiegogo community? 

I mean, I think everyone goes into these campaigns hopeful and optimistic. I don’t think people would do them otherwise.

That said, I didn’t expect the kind of response that we got, especially from the retail standpoint.

When I was making my plans for the company, I was hoping to get our underwear to store shelves in year two or three, not year one. It was amazing to have someone like Bonnie Brooks take a leap of faith on a small, female-run company and bring a niche product to the Bay.

After you get a break like that it’s hard to reroute your expectations.

Outside of work, what do you love to do?

I play in a soccer league with my husband on Sunday nights. I also love hanging out my friends, and, hanging onto my days working at Universal, I still love seeing live music.

Have you found it a challenge to maintain a work-life balance?

I have a super understanding partner who is very supportive of what I’m doing. So that makes things a lot easier.

For the time being, I’m still very jazzed about my business so it’s easy to keep going a million miles a minute.

But I’m definitely mindful of what I want in the near future. I want kids at some point, for sure, and in order for me to be in the position to do that in two years from now, I have had to start making changes today.

Is it tough to have to do that?

It is a tough sort of place to come to, and it totally changes how I look at my business. I have to be a lot more aggressive in growing the business because its needs to get to a certain point before I can step away from it and have a kid. On the one hand, that’s a good thing because it’s forcing me to plan, but, at the same time, it’s terrifying. I still feel like I’m a child and because I have to plan everything out; it’s not a spontaneous or fly by the seat of your pants operation.

But that’s just the reality of the business.

From the outside looking in, it seems like Knix has been very successful in a short amount of time. However, I’m sure you’ve experienced your share of difficult moments. How have you handled those and how do you approach them?

Not very well, to be honest. On the one hand, the company I have today is very different from the one I imagined in my business plan four years ago; it’s almost unrecognizable at times. I hate using this word, but we’ve had to “pivot” so many times. We’ve made so many changes and have tried to adapt quickly.

I try to enjoy the good moments when they happen. I tell my team, “We have to enjoy this now because we might not be here tomorrow.” That’s the best approach, I think.

Some of my best ideas have come from the moments I’ve been discouraged the most.

Do you have an example of that?

Yes, our relationship with the Hudson’s Bay is a great example.

Our Indiegogo campaign wasn’t moving at the pace that I wanted it to, and so I was nervous that we weren’t going to hit our $40,000 goal. I went home one day and directed my sorrows to a bottle of wine. Out of desperation and complete discouragement came the idea to approach a retail store. I didn’t hit rock bottom obviously, but I went to a pretty dark place before admitting that our current strategy wasn’t working and that we had to do something.

What’s next for you personally and professionally?

I’m hiring at the moment, so I’m in the process of building out the great team I already have. I’m also finalizing prototypes for several new products that we’re going to introduce in the next year or so.

Do you have a designer that helps you with the underwear?

I worked with a designer on the first design but I don’t have one currently. I will definitely get one in the future. I currently do a lot of the designs myself and I have an awesome technical pattern maker north of the city that helps my designs to life.

Honestly, though, It’s not rocket science. You take a look at other products and ask yourself, “How could I make this better?”

And make it a bit cute, right?

Yes, you make it a bit cute.

Anyway, we’re also going to be launching a men’s line later this year.

Anything to add?

The one thing I will say is that I don’t think I could have done this anywhere else but Toronto.

Why is that?

In part, I think it’s because of the network of people I have access to, and the fact that I can always ask them for help. Also, if you take the time to look, there are some great resources you can tap in to in Toronto.
____
Igor Bonifacic is the managing editor of Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter.

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