In 2014, Opportunity's Manager of Outreach Allison Kooser sat down with Kaelen McCrane, Young Ambassador for Opportunity and founder of acclaimed fashion company The West is Dead. Kaelen shared his personal journey of entrepreneurship - and offered his lessons learned from creating a business from the ground up.
Allison: Kaelen, tell us a little bit about yourself and your business.
Kaelen: The company I started with my business partner Will is called the West is Dead. I started it just over three years ago, and it’s a casual, luxury men’s and women’s collection, and we design, produce, and source everything in Los Angeles. We sell mostly wholesale to boutiques – we’re in about 70 stores and we do a little bit of online business as well.
A: How did you get started in creating The West is Dead?
K: Well it’s a little bit of an interesting or nonconventional start. I had always known I wanted to start a business, but neither Will nor I had any formal fashion background. We actually started up in Montana – we were working at an outfitting company together just outside of Glacier National Park. We became friends, and independently we each left Glacier and had this vision for a clothing line that we wanted to start. We were visiting each other over that winter and started saying, you know, this is something we had both wanted to do, why don’t we just do it together? And we did a whirlwind tour and trial by fire, learning as we went. We knew we wanted to make everything here in the United States. Basically Los Angeles and the Carolinas are the only places where garment-making still exists, so we came to LA and pretty much just started knocking on doors and adding components of the business piece by piece.
A: If fashion and entrepreneurship weren’t your background, what sparked your interest in starting your own fashion company?
K: That is a good question! I had started other smaller businesses when I was younger – in high school I had a garbage collection business, in middle school I had a paintball wholesale business. I think entrepreneurship has a lot to do with identifying opportunities and recognizing those, and then finding the right people to get involved and take advantage of them. The opportunity presented itself to Will and me, and we just thought, this is something we could do, so we jumped in. I always enjoyed clothes, but growing up that wasn’t a very masculine thing to do, so I never really pursued it, but it is something I do really enjoy.
A: What has been one of the most challenging elements of creating a business?
K: Certainly a lot of challenges! One of the most challenging things I think would be finding the right people to involve in business. Manufacturing, specifically for clothing in Los Angeles, is really, really segmented, or fragmented. Even the simplest thing – making a t-shirt for example – there will be 4 to 6 different contractors for just that one garment. Making a pattern, marking, grading, initial sewing, washing – those all might be different people. And so I think the most difficult thing, aside from learning how this whole thing worked, was really finding those right partners who we could work with – those partnerships, that’s probably the most difficult thing.
A: What has been one of the most rewarding or exciting things?
K: Probably very closely related to that! Once you make those relationships, that is extremely rewarding, partly because it takes so long and is so difficult. The other thing I would say is if you see someone in an airport or walking down the street or in a restaurant who you have no connection to, Will has no connection to, wearing West is Dead product, that is a pretty good feeling. You know that that person knew nothing about us, walked into a store, picked out something we made, and decided that was something he wanted to wear. That’s a pretty neat feeling.
A: Are there any moments that stick out when you met someone or saw someone wearing your clothes and you were particularly excited?
K: There’s a cool little street in LA called Abbot Kinney and it’s a good walking street. Just south of Santa Monica – it’s a cool little area. I’ve seen a couple people wearing a couple items down there, and of course no one knows who I am. So I say to people, “Hey man, love that sweatshirt, where’d you get it?” And they’ll say, “Oh I got it at Fred Siegel” or whatever and it’s cool having them tell me our story. And I’ll never tell them, “Oh yeah, that’s my company,” but it’s just kind of cool because anyone who buys something from the West is Dead usually knows a little bit about our story or where we came from, so that’s a neat thing for us, just to know that people pick up on it.
A: Yeah, I think that what is so cool about the West is Dead is that it is so mission-driven. You definitely have a belief system behind the company which reflects itself well on the website. Was that the starting point? Did you know from the beginning that it was going to be an American-made, high-quality brand, or did that come along over time?
K: That was something we developed from the very beginning. Because we both started in Montana, that was something that was so central to Will and me. Even the name The West is Dead is taken from a Charles Russell poem. Charles Russell was kind of a cowboy, a poet, an artist who lived in the 19th century. And the line specifically is, “The west is dead my friend, you may lose a sweetheart, but you’ll never forget her.” So it’s about paying homage to the things of the past, taking pride in what you do, and making a product and standing behind it. So we incorporated this whole Montana belief system into the brand. Charles Russell’s signature at the bottom of every painting was a buffalo skull, so we decided we wanted to do something to keep that starting point in mind. So we work with an organization called the Inter-Tribal Buffalo Council, which is a group of 57 Native American nations. They are repopulating native lands with American buffalo as a sustainable economic stimulus and also as a culturally significant animal. We wanted to do something to keep our roots in mind.
A: That’s great. Who or what people/mentors/advice proved valuable to you along the way? Did you have anyone or anything guiding you through the process, or was it more “throw stuff out and see what sticks”?
K: We did get a lot of advice from people. The best piece of advice that we didn’t take was probably to work in a field, even if it’s for a very short period of time, before you start a business in it. It seems pretty simple, but there is just so much we could have avoided. For example, no one knew how far out the selling season is in advance of when traditional shifts in the season occur, and how that whole process is formalized. Knowing that could have saved us a lot of headaches. We have certainly had a lot of mentors along the way.
A: Do you have advice that you would give an entrepreneur now, having learned what you have learned? Either someone in fashion or someone starting their own venture in general?
K: Yeah! The cliché answer is “go do it.” Which is not really true, obviously. But at the same time, I think that I’ve really benefited from starting the West is Dead when I was so young. I didn’t have very much experience starting and so that was something I had to deal with, but at the same time, the experience that you get from entrepreneurship in any form in any industry, the amount and variety of experience that you acquire is invaluable. So I would say that if you’re in a position where you can afford to take the risk – professionally, financially – I would absolutely recommend it, even for the learning experience. I just feel so much more prepared for the next thing 10 years from now, 15 years from now. This foundation that entrepreneurship has given me has been really, really great.
A: Obviously you believe in entrepreneurship. What are your thoughts on entrepreneurship globally? We know you support Opportunity International because you are on our webcast, but why do you support entrepreneurs all over the world? What drew your interest to entrepreneurship broadly speaking, globally speaking?
K: Entrepreneurship is attractive to me and so many others as it’s sort of a wild card of the employment industry. In the US it’s the creative outlet to allow individuals the opportunity to express themselves and take risks on their own. It’s really an empowering thing here in the US and the western world. We are blessed to have all the opportunities we have and the career opportunities that exist outside of entrepreneurship. I think the important thing about entrepreneurship in the developing world is that it creates jobs, it’s not an alternative to getting a job. For me, I started my business because I wanted to do this instead of getting hired by someone else, which was an option that existed. For many people that’s not an option that exists. Opportunity International is in the business of empowering people, and empowering them in a way that is going to create industry, create businesses, and create jobs for other people. The sustainable model is something that is so powerful and an easy thing to get behind. For me, I understood entrepreneurship, and Opportunity was just taking all the best resources and providing them to people in the developing world – it’s very cool. It’s easy for me to stand behind.
A: How did you first get involved with Opportunity? How did you find out about us?
K: I got involved just over 2 years ago, but my parents had been involved for a while, so by proxy I was involved. I had been to a Governors meeting before and was able to hear client stories and initiatives, resources and programs – it was exciting to hear. It’s so much more than microfinance. Before that, my grandmother had been involved raising money by selling poinsettias around Christmas time. She got my parents involved, who got my sister and me involved. Jenny [my sister] and I went down to Colombia a little over two years ago and I’ve been personally involved since then.
A: Do you want to share a little bit about your experiences in Colombia?
K: Colombia is a beautiful country and I already had a grasp of what Opportunity does and how the system works. The thing that left the biggest impression on me was getting to meet the clients and staff. Most of the loan officers were previously clients who then decided to work for Opportunity. It’s a community of people working together. The loan officers know everyone in the town. To be in the Trust Group meetings and hear the vendors talking about the problems they faced was such a neat thing. Their businesses might seem simple – they might be selling ice – but they are so creative in their ways because they have so little. They have to find creative ways to work together and market, and it’s really exciting and invigorating. Coming back from the trip, I felt excited about my business. It was so cool to see people so passionate about what they are doing.
A: What are some of your plans for the future? You mentioned that the West is Dead is a young company – you’re only a couple years old. Do you have next steps in mind?
K: We’ve talked about doing retail concept shops, moving online. That’s the immediate game plan. For me, my passion is starting businesses. If I had my way, I’d like to grow the West is Dead to a point that would allow me to start another little business. That’s something that I’m passionate about. For me, that would be my long term goal – start a little business, then start another little business. You have to be involved in everything; it’s all important and fast-paced. That’s where I’d like to be.
A: That is awesome. It sounds very similar to our clients – starting a business, and then starting another little business. Since you have that serial entrepreneur mindset, where do you come up with your ideas for businesses? What inspires you to say, “This could work”?
K: An important skill for an entrepreneur is learning how to identify those opportunities. If you’re coming up with a completely new concept, knowing how the market exists now and knowing how you could fill a gap is key. There shouldn’t be any egos. If someone is doing something well, learn from them. Then think, where is another market where this could work?
A: One of the hardest things that you mentioned is finding the right partners. Do you have any lessons of trial and error that you can share? Similarly, you said recognizing the people to get involved is one of the most important things. Do you have any tips or lessons there? –Christine, webinar listener
K: It’s not that profound, but we got screwed, for lack of a better word, by a couple of our suppliers. Looking back on it, you know when you meet someone whether you can trust them or not. One sewing contractor of ours – time and again there were little things that weren’t truthful. Little red flags. If you have a bad feeling about someone, most likely, those reservations are founded. Always have a backup. Don’t be in a position where you’re entirely reliant on other people. There is a certain aspect with any small business that you are reliant on suppliers, but when you can, have backups. Because as we all know, things can and will go wrong.
A: Is there a motto or quote that sticks out as representative as what you live by?
K: I love quotes. I also have a terrible memory. My family has a cabin in Montana where we spent the summers growing up. There is a plaque there with a quote that says, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it’s dressed in overalls and looks like work.” That always spoke to me – so much of business is learning to recognize opportunity. You have to be willing to put in the work, and keep putting in the work, to make it successful. Very rarely do you feel like everything is going perfectly. You need a constant willingness to work harder than your competition, to put in as much effort as it takes.
A: How does having a charitable partner add value to your business? –Andrew, webinar listener
K: It adds value in a couple ways. First, it gives direction and adds depth to the brand. We can share with our customers something that we’re passionate about. It allows them to connect with us personally. They are a part of it by purchasing something that we produce. Also, we get access to their networks as well. The ITBC helps promote us as well. With any charitable organization, you get added depth to your branding, and you can access the network of that organization as well.
A: How did you find your mentors?
K: My father is certainly a mentor for me – he is an entrepreneur and shared a lot of wisdom. As we moved forward, it was important to acknowledge that we were green, that we didn’t know everything. That gives other people with more experience the chance to offer their expertise, their mentorship. We’ve added a lot of mentors since we started – and it’s always been about not pretending that we know more than we do. Being willing to offer that up freely opens the door for people to offer advice to you.
A: What has been a highlight of being a part of the Young Ambassadors community?
K: Being a part of YAO has opened doors to meet different types of people – like minded, always interesting, often entrepreneurs. My co-chair, Kirsty, and I have a small chapter here in LA. If you try to tell your friends how impactful an experience in the developing world is, it doesn’t translate as well as someone telling their own story of overcoming poverty. Being able to share those stories has been a highlight.
A: Are motivational quotes the main things that keep you positive? Are there other things that keep you positive? –Christine, webinar listener
K: In our business, the time between the mountains and the valleys is very short. Things come in big wins and losses. One of the biggest things for me has been putting things in perspective. I recognize all the blessings that I do have and how the West is Dead has brought me to where I am now. Looking at my blessings and challenges compared to, say, an entrepreneur in the developing world – the things that they are facing are so much more important, so much more drastic than any supplier issue that I’m having. Putting things in a broader perspective has helped me stay positive and stay grounded.