Tomorrow, March 21, marks what we call “Day Zero” at Kitsbow Cycling Apparel.
Of course those of you following us closely… you know by now that we really got started on Thursday March 19 last year, when we ordered plastic overnight express to make prototypes the next day. But we call March 21 our Day 0.
Because just 48 hours after prototyping, on Saturday, March 21, 2020 we moved into full-scale production of FDA-authorized plastic face shields.
The design team also made prototype fabric face masks that day and I showed them on my personal Facebook page. By that evening, we had orders for 2,000+ of each (face shields and face masks).
The next day, the Internet exploded with orders for 20,000 more.
In less than 72 hours we were in the PPE business, with a product line of several styles and a backlog of orders… that would quickly grow to 46,000 units before the first week was up. I’ve never experienced that kind of demand in my 40 years in business.
In the course of the next 364 days we would make and ship more than 200,000 masks and shields. All made here in Old Fort, NC and mostly made from materials sourced here in the U.S.
But today’s look back at an incredible 365 days at Kitsbow isn’t really about numbers.
Today is about recognizing the people.
And how they have fundamentally changed Kitsbow forever. Launching us into the future that two years ago we could only dream about.
Today our dream of a vibrant apparel business has come true, as the Pandemic has forced our hardy band of entrepreneurs to not only embrace growth, but cope with our business running at 10x our previous size.
Getting about a hundred things right, all at once, in parallel. Sure we’ve stubbed our toes, even stumbled a couple of times. Some of our customers have had to wait weeks for masks, and months for our famous Icon wool flannel shirts.
But today is about celebrating an incredible year when our team more than doubled in size… in about a week. And grew in expertise, passion, commitment and above all, capability.
A year ago, with orders for the first 46,000 units in our hands in just a few crazy days (and more likely on the way) we had a big problem: how do we make it all?
Part of the answer was inherent in our brand new factory in Old Fort. Most of you already know that we had moved in (from California) just 5 months earlier, on October 1, 2019. From bare walls and unfinished floor, we built and equipped a new factory in just 90 days, celebrating with a ribbon-cutting ceremony for 300 friends on December 13. The new factory was key.
On Tuesday, March 24 (Day 4 of PPE) we simply shrink-wrapped all of the apparel work in progress, pushed into a corner, and re-configured the entire floor to make face shields and sew face masks. We could do this because our factory was (and is) completely configurable, with every machine on rolling casters and overhead connections to power and compressed air.
Our factory was designed for quick changeovers for different types of apparel, but we of course had never contemplated such a rapid change, and for every machine. But the factory was as flexible as intended… and in 4 hours (!) we were ready to go.
But the vital component of the answer to the question of How was…
Turbulence exposes weaknesses, but also allows for strengths to shine. When times get tough, people show their true colors. Focus is always challenging, but under stress many can’t do it. The Kitsbow team did.
Our design team scrambled to finalize the design and specification for each of the new products, make prototypes, and test them. Research the science of filtering and FDA approval.
And this team would soon be collaborating with experts at Wake Forest Baptist Health for a second line of face masks. In apparel, this usually takes months. This team did it in days.
Our procurement team worked long hours, every day, to locate the few items we didn’t already own (such as HEPA filters) from across the nation, battling supply chains that were overwhelmed, and sometimes completely shut down.
The supply chain battle was so difficult, we would be invited to testify in Congress about our experience in July.
Our distribution team went from shipping 30–50 orders a day to sometimes 500 (or more). An increase of more than 10x.
And we started driving to medical professionals and first responders to deliver their PPE (many would come to Old Fort to pick it up, a steady stream of emergency vehicles). There were sometimes tears of gratitude.
The manufacturing community in Western North Carolina (WNC) came together and we divided up the work.
Even individuals volunteered to help, and restaurants (themselves shut down) such as Foothills Meats and Fresh Pizza brought lunch to our hard-working crew, as did Sierra Nevada. And the orders kept pouring in…
The stakes were high for those on the frontlines, and although many have forgotten by now, basic medical PPE wasn’t available for many medical professionals, especially small clinics beyond the umbrella of hospital systems. We knew we could help, so we made the tough decision to make consumers wait. Even my 80 year old mom had to wait months for her first Kitsbow mask.
It was crazy hard, confusing, rewarding, and emotional.
I have often reflected that these people will be telling their grandchildren about this: how they helped during the 2020 Pandemic. They didn’t shelter at home… they came into work, every day. They helped the helpers.
And there was an unbelievably positive silver lining to all of this:
On Day 0 of PPE, we had 27 employees (and 2 of those lived full-time in California). In the first week of PPE we hired 30 more people to assemble face shields and sew masks. We doubled overnight. Then we needed more help shipping. Answering the phone. Everything needed to scale up, and fast.
As our visibility grew, we would get inquiries from skilled sewers and people who had “retired” from sewing, offering to help sew. And they did. As Mr. Rogers said, Look for the Helpers.
That’s really How We Did It.
And many of those Helpers now make up a big portion of the expert sewers that make our apparel today.
The photos you see are (most of) the Kitsbow team members that joined to Help, and are here today, leading our future.
We’re still making PPE (and we will as long as there is demand) but it is clear that Kitsbow’s success today is due in part to the amazing people that joined us during the hard times.
The dream? We are 60 total today (and still hiring) and more than a year ahead of our original business plan. We eased back into making apparel about 6 months ago, and our future is bright because of the skills of the people who came to help… and stayed.
In fact all of the trainers and leaders on our production floor today… joined us during the Pandemic.
I like to say that when you buy our gear, whether PPE or clothes, you’re not only getting premium quality, you’re directly employing 60 people in Old Fort and Western North Carolina. Instead of funding jobs (and profits) in Vietnam and China.
And buying Kitsbow is also a wonderful thank you to all of these Helpers.
In a completely unexpected way, the Pandemic supercharged our transition bringing jobs back to America.
The crisis gave us the opportunity to serve, and at the same time equipped us for our future. It shaped who we are today and will forever be part of Kitsbow as we continue to grow.
What a year. Thank you to all that helped Kitsbow, and especially to all that stayed to continue the adventure. Thank you to all that buy Kitsbow, whether PPE or apparel.
This mattered, and you matter.