How the founders of Nimble Activewear turned a childhood friendship into a $3 million fashion brand

Nimble Activewear

Co-founders of Nimble Activewear Katia Santilli and Vera Yan (left). Source: Supplied

Friends from the age 14, Katia Santilli and Vera Yan’s careers in finance and merchandising took them all across the world before the two found themselves together again in Sydney, going to the gym and formulating the plan for an activewear brand that would be both fashionable and functional.

After six months of planning, Nimble Activewear was launched in 2013, with Santilli and Yan running the business as a “side hobby” while still working part-time. Four years on, the business now pulls in more than $3 million in revenue annually. The first Nimble bricks-and-mortar store opened in February last year in Bondi Beach, and the team is currently staking out locations for a Melbourne store.

Yan spoke to SmartCompany about the explosion in the athleisure market, and how listening to a bit of early advice could have saved the two founders some trouble.

Katia and I have known each other since we were 14 — we both went to school in Melbourne together. As we grew up our careers took us to different places. I went to Sydney and Katia went to London where she worked for Burberry.

We really went at it, and pursued our careers quite aggressively.

Katia had to return to Australia while she was waiting for her European passport to come through, so she came up to Sydney to stay with me.

We started to go to the gym together, and we realised there was a gap in the market for beautiful but functional activewear. Something consumers would really value.

Back then it was very Lululemon heavy — a lot of block colours that were all one and the same. But people were expressing themselves more, and more and more women were happy to wear activewear outside of just exercise.

It was a six-month process to build our website, source our fabrics, and manufacture our products. It felt just like a side hobby initially, and we both juggled part-time work.

I only quit my job a year ago; we even made our first hire before I left my job. It was only when we did that did it really feel like a business.

We’ve both come from families where our fathers have their own business, but I never grew up thinking I’d be running my own business.

We started online but we moved into a retail location in Bondi Beach in February 2016. We put so much effort into our fabrics and fit so we wanted a physical presence where customers could touch and feel the product.

Online is still a huge platform for us, but store space is so important to bring our brand beyond the screen.

As Melbourne girls, a Melbourne store has always been on the cards, and now the Bondi store is really stable, we have the opportunity to think about launching a second one.

There were so many times in the early days when we thought, “what on earth are we doing?”. We were playing in such a competitive space with competitors with huge financial backing, but we had to keep persevering.

Activewear has blown up in the last five years, and it’s got a real legitimacy now; we were on show at fashion week for the first time this year. We can play with colours a lot more because customers are a lot more receptive now with incorporating them into their active wardrobe.

I think there’s much more competition now, but we’re at the point where competition is good. There are so many players in the athleisure space it’s becoming mainstream, but at the same time, we have to stay true to what we do.

We’ve gotten a lot better at focusing on ourselves.

Launching this week ???????? #staytuned #abstractbamboo #newin ???? @dominicloneragan

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We have three girls who work full-time and a bunch of part-timers. We have a lot of people who work for us just two days a week — consultants who work for other brands too.

That’s great because you get a lot of extra knowledge you wouldn’t get otherwise.

Hiring someone is nerve wracking because for the first time you’re responsible for someone’s livelihood. They depend on you to get paid at the end of the month.

But once we hired them, we realised how much we needed them. Once you find a good person, you don’t want to let them go.

Social media is a big slice of our marketing, but I think it takes a while to know what works and resonates with your audience. It’s all about being authentic, and numbers aren’t what matter.

The minute you have an inkling of an idea, get out there on social media and spread the word. Engage with your audience. You’ll get feedback and you’ll refine your processes and your product.

We made so many mistakes early, usually around buying too many products or going deep on something before having a minimum viable product. We’d spend all this money on a product before we’d tested it in the market, which you should never do.

Plenty of people gave us this advice when we started, but we didn’t listen.

We do have mentors now, which has happened organically through people we’ve connected with who have believed in our product. One’s in the construction space and another is in the health and wellness space, so this gives us different facets to look at other aspects of our business.

We do have a couple of international stockists and we ship internationally ourselves. Asia is definitely a strong market. I’m not sure if it’s the proximity, but the Asian market works.

Shipping internationally can be a bit daunting with the different duties and freight options, so if you’re not sure, just ask a question.

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