Top advice for Entrepreneurs building fashion swimwear brands in 2021 with MIKOH's Oleema Miller

Updated: Oct 13

Today we’re learning from a swimwear entrepreneur about how she’s built her brand and what she attributes the success to, Oleema Miller.

MIKOH is the bikini brainchild of Oleema and Kalani Miller, the California born & bred sister duo.

The sisters were raised as a family of creatives and surfers inspiring their authentic love for the ocean. Founded in 2009, MIKOH was conceptualized from the simple idea of the lack of fashion forward, modern swimwear in the industry and the passion for all things surrounding travel, surf, and beach culture.

Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!

Oleema. Hi, welcome to the Female Startup Club podcast. Thanks for having me. I'm so excited to be here and I'm so jealous of you being in Hawaii by the beach, living the life that I dream of living right now. How's your day going so far? Well, it's early here at seven a.m. So got up, luckily I kind of already always get up early. I somewhat believe in the rise with the sun kind of attitude. So so far so good and it's going to be a beautiful day.

00:03:36Edit I love that attitude when you're someone that lives on the beach. But I hate that attitude when you're someone that lives in London because in London nothing's open in the mornings. Like it's not a city that is awake at that time. Like things just start to pick up at like nine a.m. And it's so against like my natural kind of sink when I live in Australia. Oh God, in Australia. Yeah, everything is happening at like five a.m. Yeah. Wake up, get a coffee, go swim. I know that's what I like, Hawaii is a bit sleepy. I'm from California. So you know, California is on the 05:36 a.m. Coffee shops are open, you know the Pilates studios, our openness and that. But hawaii definitely is a little sleepier. So we're lucky if our local coffee shops open at seven, sometimes they just open at nine. They feel like it. So oh my gosh, I love that for them though, that's great. I know they're just living living the good life, living the good life. How do you like to introduce yourself and kind of give your elevator pitch of what you do.

00:04:40 So I mean it's definitely kind of evolved over the years but we, so my sister and I Kalani, we started Nico back, our first collection was in 2010. Um but started working on it when I was still a junior in high school. So now officially I'd say that I am the co founder and creative director and designer. So that's kind of always been my take or really why we started or how we started Miko was, I'm definitely more of, I started out as more of the creative side, but it's definitely, I feel like these days you have, especially as a woman, you have to be well rounded. And one thing that I didn't realize that I was doing was actually taking on also the business end as well because I feel like really actually the business and design actually goes so hand in hand and it's such a, it's so much more mathematical and calculated and you know, it's not just dreaming up things that you want and that are going to be perfect.

00:05:42 It's also looking at it from a very business angle as well, totally looking at the data of what's worked in the past, what's going to be industry data, that kind of thing. Exactly. to go back to when you started the brand in circa 2009, which is oh my God, such a long time ago, by the way, we can't believe it. Well what was getting you interested in starting a brand in the first place and why swimwear? So I come from a family of six, well four kids, my mom and dad um and we grew up in a little beach town in southern Orange County in California called SAn company and we literally grew up across the street from the beach and our dads like full, he was a full surf hippie growing up, he grew up in L. A. And with ditch school and go surf Malibu and Zuma and he definitely passed on that same, there was such a big part of who he was growing up and still who he is now. And so surfing beach culture was just something that that just was a part of our everyday life And so we grew up surfing and at the beach and we actually served for roxy for about 10 years.

00:06:51 So from the age of wow that's so cool. I don't so we really truly grew up in the surf industry and so I feel like one of the biggest takeaways from that is I didn't realize how much I was soaking up the environment that we grew up in. So we grew up, you know from the age of, I was nine was only nine years old and we literally grew up going to trade shows and photo shoots and going into the office and going to shareholders meetings and I didn't know it at the time but like I said I was just soaking it all in. So I definitely in high school I was a bit of, I loved, I loved learning but I hated school like with a deep passion, like a very deep passion and I just knew I had some teachers that I loved, I had some that were absolutely horrible and that in high school was when I started traveling a lot for roxy and for surfing and so I missed quite a bit of school and I think at that point once I kind of saw the world and saw that there's so much more to our bubble in Orange County or even that of California or even that of the United States, I just knew I wanted something so big for myself and I've definitely been a very independent child since I was little and I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be my own boss and I feel like that's really where it stemmed from, was that I knew that I wanted to build something for myself and for my current family and also future family instead of building something for somebody else.

00:08:30 I knew I had the drive and the passion and the commitment to make something beautiful and obviously growing up literally in a swimsuit on the beach surfing and with everyone around me also in that industry, it was just such a natural progression to go from working in it too, then starting our own, wow, that's amazing what a, what a cool, you know, upbringing to be able to be experiencing those things at such a young age and get this kind of visibility across. I don't know something that so many people in the world would never have gotten to experience at such a young age and to have that kind of perspective of, oh I see what's out there and I want more for myself from that. Thinking about, you know, when you guys decided to launch this business together, what were the early steps to actually bringing it to life in terms of finding the manufacturer, investing money into it, getting it ready for a launch? What was that first beginning time like? Um it was full of a lot of questions, a lot of phone calls, a lot of figuring it out, funnily enough, like I said, I was still in high school at the time and my sister was at um U.

00:09:43 C. University of California, santa Barbara Ucsb. She was studying business communications and I remember when I had that light bulb moment go off, uh oh this is what I want to do, I want to start a swimwear line. And I remember the phone call calling my sister and going, hey I have this good idea, do you want to start a bikini company? And she was like, okay, and that was it. And we, we've just gone into everything. So to be honest very blindly, we grew up in an extremely supportive Householding still to this day, my mom and dad, there are number one fans and honestly we went into it with the mentality especially me, it was ignorance was bliss. I think because I didn't have formal training, I hadn't gone to school for design or hadn't hadn't gone to school for business. I didn't have any of you know the, the fear, I didn't have someone saying these are, this is the percentage of the people that actually fail.

00:10:46 I just knew I wanted to as my mom says, I had that carrot dangling, I knew where I wanted to go. I wasn't actually positive how to get there, but I knew I was headed in that direction and honestly what Goddess there was just asking so many questions. I have this, my always bit of advice to people when they're starting a company is to always be humble because when you walk into a room there's always someone that's going to be smarter, more accomplished, more successful and have so much more information on what you're doing than you. And I went into it with, you know, a piece of humble pie and I asked so many questions. So I called all of our friends, anyone that I knew about look books and where to print your lying sheets and would ask all my friends about showrooms. And so it was really just asking kind of the network of people that I knew since I was little, they were like family or family friends or people that I just knew from other people.

00:11:53 So I think it was being, being brave enough and confident enough that I knew I had a good idea, but to also be able to be confident enough to put myself out there and also face rejection. You know, not everybody wants to help you, but I was surprised how many people do you want to see you succeed. So it was truly a cold calling people going, hey, I'm going to start this thing. Do you have a number for a printing place or where to make hang tags? So it's really just reaching out to our network and our manufacturer actually is in bali and we've been with her since day one and her husband is a professional surfer. So it was truly like everyone that we work with is either in the surf industry or works to some degree in it. And I feel like the surf industry and beach culture is actually people think it's this huge thing. It's actually really small and everyone knows everyone. So that was definitely how it came about, was just really leaning on people that I respected and helped a lot, tapping your network and leveraging the people around you to get those 2nd 3rd 4th connections uh line.

00:13:05 Yeah. When did you feel like, you know, it started to gain traction? When did you feel that there was kind of a moment where you were like, oh yeah, we're onto something now. Like it's starting, I can feel that swell. Yeah, it was definitely when our, it was back when the swim issue for Sports Illustrated, that was like the holy Grail of the swim world. It's definitely changed over the years, I will say. But in the beginning if you had a swimsuit in Sports Illustrated, that was like a huge benchmark for uh, you know, a business, and we actually, we had sent suits in and you know, again blindly, we didn't have a show room at the time, we didn't even have a finished website. We didn't have anything. And I was just like, yeah, we're just gonna send samples in because one of my Clowney's best friends had, she had a, she was a publicist and she was like, oh yeah, we just got called one of our line, just got called in for Sports Illustrated give you the address if you want to send stuff.

00:14:06 And I was like, okay. And we literally sent suits in and we got an email, you know, they ask for credit two months and months before the issue came out. And they were like, hey, it's not guaranteed, we're just, you know, calling and credits for suits. And they asked for our information. And I remember because our brother actually has been with us since day one too, he does all of our web design and all of our graphic design as well. And I remember calling Jason and going, I think we have to get the website up, There's a chance we're going to be in Sports Illustrated and him and I were just like, oh my God and pulled it together and the issue came out and her name is julie Henderson, she's an american model and she was wearing our Skyler one piece. So I have that, that exact sample actually framed at my house in California, so that was definitely our first big moment and from there, that's when I knew it was kind of, all systems go at that point because again, that was like the holy grail of the swim world, so from there on, it's just the ball just kept rolling.

00:15:09 That's amazing, wow, so exciting. I think, like, it's interesting those early signals that because obviously it's a hard journey, right? There's lots of ups, there's loads of downs, there's loads of rejections like you said, but there are things that happened early on in the piece that give you a signal that you're onto something special and then that kind of like, makes all the bad stuff worth it totally when you think about, Because obviously, you know, there's like more than 10 years now in this journey that we're talking about and it's hard to cover everything in 30 minutes or 45 minutes. But what would you say since then, are those kind of key, pivotal moments in your story of growth. I mean I'd say one of the biggest things was, and still to this day is being able to be flexible and like my, my acupuncture says in chinese medicine, she says when you're able to sway like the willow tree, that's when you're at your most calm and it's funny in like my personal life, in my personal life, I'm like a really stick branch, but when it comes to business, I just learned to just go with the flow and so there have been a few different moments um I definitely say it were those moments of you know, trying to find showrooms or things not working out or production delays, I can't think there are, there aren't exact moments in time, it was more just the constant, it's not exact moments, it's like a constant thing every single year.

00:16:43 I feel like it's kind of like those growing pains, right, it's just like a kid growing up, you have those, those moments of what am I doing, how am I going to keep going and the key word here and especially obviously hello the pandemic, that has been definitely the biggest hit and we've been fortunate enough, I feel like we are very um go with the flow kind of people cloney and I and our team that even when we've had hard times, I just have so much conviction in what we're doing that there's always a way we have had so Jamie who has worked with us since day one to um she's my ride or die, I love her, I live for Jamie every year. We're so behind on samples every single year we're so behind and every year it always works out so funny. I just firmly believe that you have confidence and conviction behind what you're doing things just have a way of working themselves out and this last year or two years really since obviously all this stuff has been going on in the world.

00:17:51 This has been by far in my entire career and adult life that it's been the most challenging, not just and I'm sure everyone that you're gonna speak to is gonna actually not everyone, there's definitely certain categories that blew up during the pandemic, right? But we have definitely had our fair share of ups and downs. But I think, you know, at the end of the day I look at Miko like it's like my baby and there was absolutely 0% chance that I was going to let anything come in the way of letting my child flourish and grow. And even though it's been 13 years, I still know there's so much more that I want to do and I want to accomplish and I want to see Nico do so despite there being the hardest thing going on in the world that, you know, no one could have ever prepared for. I just sucked it up and just kept going and definitely there were times where our team had very low, you know, not morale, but just very low, like let's just throw in the towel like low energy yeah, yeah, this is, I mean jesus like the amount of changes here in the States, it was every day, you just didn't know what was going to come at you next.

00:19:09 And I feel like again that darting and weaving and despite all this stuff coming at us, like every single day we just didn't know what was gonna happen, but I just knew that we had something so special and our team, our core team that had been with us for over a decade, there was just no way we are going to let something happened to deter us and in all honesty during the pandemic, we actually grew because we just decided we had to evolve with the times and I feel like that was kind of sorry that's what I was starting to get out with the, with the willow tree analogy was that the biggest lesson that I've learned, One of the biggest lessons I've learned with Miko especially again from having a business over a decade is that you have to evolve, you have to evolve. But at the same time the most important thing is to stay true to why you started the company in the first place and to not lose your sense of authenticity and the first purpose and reason why you started the company, I feel like the brands that are trying too hard to evolve.

00:20:12 Too hard to be on trend or to go with the times, that's when you lose your sense of self. So I feel like if you know who you are, you know what you are set out to do, you know who your customer is and you know who they are, what they want, how they want to feel and you are willing to stay true to that, that is where success lies. But obviously in the sense of evolving and going with the flow, it's when the outside world throws things at you that you have no control over instead of trying to stand there like a brick wall that's eventually going to get knocked over, be like water and find find a little ways and the tunnels and the ways that you can swerve through the hard times because we're this year is shown everyone that you don't know what life is gonna throw, you don't know what to expect, but if you're able to stay true to who you are while still being able to evolve, that's where again, that's where successes, I feel like wow, that's such a beautiful analogy, I love that and so agree.

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00:22:25 It's a good segue into talking about marketing and you said that you know during the pandemic you're able to grow, can you kind of talk a little bit about how you are able to grow and what you're doing that's working for you in your industry at the moment. Yeah, so we obviously when we first started Miko we started out as a swimmer line um a swimmer company and predominantly we did that, we got into cover up. So 2010, it was just swim because I didn't even know how to produce clothing at the time. And um and then the following year we came up with their first range of cover ups, very, very beachy cover ups, caftans, little rompers and that kind of thing. And over the course of the last decade plus we have now segued into ready to wear. So at last, I'd say the last three years has kind of been a push into that category. But this last year in particular and this new collection that's going to come out actually, when's it come out November six I believe is our 2020 exciting God, what year is it?

00:23:32 2,022 line is coming out. Oh my God, so cute. You're gonna love it. And um, it's all our ready to wear category has really blown up. And so definitely during the pandemic, whatever you wanna call it. Um that's when we just had to look at, especially me because I'm very fortunate that my relationship with everyone that's in the company, just truly, they just have their trust in me. And obviously that's a very heavy burden at times to know that everyone relies on me, but the freedom that it allows me is like I am beyond grateful for that, that I'm able to kind of see see my vision and execute it and have my team around me helped me do so. And so when that all happened, I just knew I was like, okay, what are we doing? People aren't wearing swimsuits at home, they're just not, maybe they are in a few places that people are able to, you know, go to the pool or layout on their rooftops or go to the beach.

00:24:36 So we basically just had to completely do a quick and go, all right, we're just going to market all of our clothing, all of our lounge where all of our hoodies and our sweats and our track suits and all of our really comfortable pieces. We're gonna photograph those. We're going to highlight people being at home. We're going to highlight the reasons why our pieces are comfortable. So it's really just, you know, changing our marketing and changing our strategy and showing, you know, this is how you can wear it and this is why it's comfortable and it's machine washable and you can wear it and feel a little bit more pulled together than your, You know, daddy sweat pants from 10 years ago. And I think that, but also from a much deeper a deeper perspective. It wasn't just about the clothing. I think we also definitely took the time to highlight Huq Lonnie and I were and to show that we, this is our story, were the founders were the core, you know, these are our core values, this is who we are, this is who Miko is, this is our team.

00:25:44 And I feel like it was such a time to really connect with our audience from not just a product standpoint, but also as an authenticity like this is who we are. We're a small business. We, you know, yes, we've done this for, you know, a number of years, but we're still a small family and I think taking that time where there was a lot of noise obviously in the world, but also finding those quiet moments to have like a genuine connection with our consumer and to look at them is not just people buying our products, but almost like a family of, of women, a little tribe of, of women that, you know, it was, it was like a network of people coming together for a common thing to see to see and to feel like there was a bright light amongst a lot of darkness and to feel like there was a community of people that had a common interest or you know, aspirational, whatever it may be we did, you know, we didn't put a sour dough recipe up or anything like that.

00:26:47 I didn't even make a thing of sour notes, but I think just being like this is our home, this is how this is what our day to day is. I feel like that's where you know, the magic happens and being a real person and not just trying to shove product down people's throats, but instead being like this is why I love it and we'd love for, you know, we'd love for you to also have this be a part of your life, but if not we're happy to have you be a part of our community. So I feel like it was such a special time to yet soften the lights quiet the noise and just be people or just people, it doesn't matter at any, any time of day or at any point in life how successful you are at the end of the day. We're all just women and everyone's just trying to succeed and keep their heads up and be resilient. So if at any point cloney myself, our team or brand the women involved could inspire or kind of again be a bright light in someone's darkness.

00:27:48 That's all we really set out to do, wow gosh, I love that. It's true. It was like I got, I look back on those last these last couple of months, this last year or two and it was horrible in so many ways. But I think in a lot of ways it was also beautiful because it forced us to all evolve and also re evaluate like what's important and totally it's not just about perspective. Yeah, total change of perspective and it's not just consumerism and I think we just get so caught up in the go go go and the, what's it called? I can't think of the term but like the, you know, the mentality that You have to work 24/7 to succeed, that's not it, the hustle and a grind. Yeah, it's just not, it it's like I'm fortunate and blessed that you know, we were able to come out of all of that, you know, I feel like so much better because like they say our generation hasn't had a lot of crap, like we've been very fortunate all of us and our generation have had it pretty good.

00:28:59 So I feel like, you know the saying it's not about getting knocked down, it's like how you get up, it's how you just keep going. And I learned that it's okay to be gentle with yourself and I'm still working on it. Trust me, I am my own worst critic and I am super hard on myself, but I think I've, I've learned that it's okay to have horrible days. It's okay to cry, trust me, I'm a crier cry a lot, but it's just about resiliency and like, like I said, the carrot, it's about knowing where you want to go and having those bad days, but just picking yourself back up and keep going And for you with that carrot, like what is your vision? Because obviously you've been in the business for 13 years. Um we, we didn't talk too much about the financial side of things, but did you bootstrap or have you funded the business? And what's kind of like the goal? Like are you working towards maybe selling one day or your Or are you like, Hey, this is a lifestyle business that we're going to have for the next 20 years we're going to keep doing this? What's your kind of like direction with that carrot?

00:30:02 Do you know what's funny is it keeps it honestly keeps changing. I when we first started, I was like there's absolutely no way I would ever sell like this is my life and then you know midway through when I was I was kind of burnt out, I was like you know this would be good, like let's just give it another 353 to 5 years, like really give it a good go and hopefully sell. And then honestly now that I'm into my thirties, I'm like, you know what, I live such a good life, like I love, I love what I do, I'm so passionate about it and even though it's been 13 years, it honestly feels like it's the first year and there's so many more things that I want to accomplish that. Yes, obviously from potentially a financial standpoint selling would be this great thing and being able to you know have a more quiet life for whatever it may be, but honestly I love what I do, I can't imagine not having complete, you know, being completely immersed in the business.

00:31:06 I know there's obviously a million options to selling and staying on and this and that, but I've kind of learned from again, growing up in the industry and watching a lot of my friends sell their companies to then a few years later by it back. Oh my God, no. Yeah, few a few of my friends have done that and or I've seen the other side of it of selling and being miserable because they've had to stay on and hit certain numbers for, you know, the people that bought the business, I just don't know at this point in time to be honest, I don't know if I could sell because I love, like I said, there's so many more things that I want to accomplish and I feel like I do sometimes Jamie and a few of the girls in the office would say that I don't have a healthy balance of life and work because I like live and breathe what I do. But honestly, I feel like because this is really the only career that I know it's just part of my everyday life. Like I was just on a quote vacation and I was working the whole time, but it's so I, I feel like because I don't look at it as work, I look at it as just a part of my everyday life.

00:32:13 It's not like I have to sit, I'm fortunate, I don't have to sit on a computer all day and analyze numbers. It's just being available to our team and I like it. I mean I love what I do. So yeah, I don't see, I don't see a, a point where I want to sell. I just, I do see growing the business continuing to evolve and grow and grow our ready to wear a category and obviously just become more sustainable. That's definitely something that we have definitely made a big push for this last year with launching our first eco line and moving forward predominantly, all the swim will be all from recycled fabrics. Like I feel like there's just so many more things that I want to accomplish. That's awesome. Yeah. That I'm like, what I'm not gonna sell, I still want to do all this stuff I'm like in my head like we're talking about, I'm 32. I literally feel like I'm still like 20. Yeah, but my body doesn't tell me every time I do something I'm like, oh my back hurts. I know what is this time when we've come into our lives and I'm always like taking somewhere and I'm like, what the heck?

00:33:16 I don't know. I don't know. It's, it's literally wild though, like my body definitely feels like it's getting older, but my mind, I'm like, what I'm not an adult yet, I don't know, I honestly Cluny and I laughed sometimes because I don't the amount of things in our business that we have just, you know, the whole mentality of fake it till you make it. I'm like, I literally think to myself sometimes I'm like, am I allowed to actually own a business because because it feels so weird because like honestly, I still don't know what I'm doing every day. I just know who I wanna be, what kind of person I want to be, what kind of brand I want to create, what kind of women I want to reach. And I feel like when you stick to that, you don't really need to know what you're doing, you just need to know who you are and what kind of person you want to be. And it just works out. It just does sticking to the North Star, well, having a north Star for one, and then making your decisions based on whether that's either towards it or not towards it, totally agree.