A Chat with August’s Profile, Kassie Rempel, founder and owner of SimplySoles
© Profile of Success, Catalog Success magazine, August 2007
Interview by Gail Kalinoski
Catalog Success: When was the catalog established?
Kassie Rempel: The first catalog was mailed in September 2004. It took about a year to educate myself enough to feel comfortable putting something in the mail. The first catalog was 36 pages and now they are always 36 pages. I started with two catalogs a year, one for fall and one for spring.
It has since grown. In fact, this upcoming fall, we will have four drops this season. We are working our way to eight drops a year. Right now we do three drops a season. Fall will be the first with four drops.
CS: What is your primary merchandise?
KR: Designer women’s shoes. We have slowly begun to add accessories. This season we added baby shoes, which has been phenomenally successful. We slowly started to add handbags and they have been a phenomenal success as well.
CS: How did the company/catalog get started?
KR: With the generosity of strangers. I had two catalogers who educated and inspired me: Terri Alpert with Uno Alla Volta and Andrew Newsome with Wisteria. I sent Andrew a letter complimenting his catalog and asking for advice on how to start my own. He sent back a three-page letter that served as my blueprint. To this day, I use the same printer and list broker that he originally suggested I contact. I’ve never met him, but I know SimplySoles would not exist without him. Terri, on the other hand, has been an ongoing mentor in every sense of the word. She has opened up her business to me to help me learn the types of financials I should be running, and obstacles I’ll probably face. She’s a sounding board, a coach, and a cheerleader and is a large reason for our success.
CS: You are a CPA and specialized in personal financial planning before starting SimplySoles? What made you decide to change careers?
KR: In 2000, I started my own financial planning business and was working with five affluent families. In 2002, one family asked me to work with them full time and help the spouse set up and run an exercise studio and day spa in the D.C. area.
In 2003, I was transitioning out of running her business and was looking for an opportunity to pursue my own. The topic was always shoes. I was thinking of opening retail space. There was no shoe boutique in the area. A few clothing stores that opened only carried a few lines. Opening a shoe store was my first inclination but where do you find a place in D.C. that has parking, that has foot traffic and affordable rent?
I decided that I was doing more shopping personally through catalogs and via the Internet. I decided that if that’s where I see myself doing most of my shopping, why don’t I create something that I see myself shopping from.
CS: What was your biggest initial challenge?
KR: Educating myself about the industry. My background is accounting, so I was comfortable preparing the business plan and pro formas. And given my passion for shoes, the merchandising was a cinch. Educating myself about printers, paper, mailing lists, postal rates etc., was my challenge. I didn’t realize when I set out to start a catalog, just how many hats I would need to wear. When I say I started a catalog, most people’s response is that it’s so much easier and cheaper than opening a bricks and mortar store. I think all of us in the business would beg to differ.
CS: How did you overcome that challenge?
KR: I surrounded myself with people who were willing to give me time and teach me the ropes. Both my printer, Kaye Sutterer with RR Donnelly, and list broker, Tom Jordan with Jordan Direct, have provided me with invaluable counseling and assistance. I look at each relationship as a partnership, with my suppliers and wholesalers.
CS: What is your biggest current business challenge?
KR: Deciding just how big I want to grow the company. I am in the process of deciding if I should open a bricks and mortar store here in the D.C. area to serve our local customers. Many request one, but I’m not sure if it’s really in the best interest or the right direction of the company. I would need to find retail space that has a storefront for our local customers but that has enough square footage to operate all the catalog operations.
I’m also contemplating bringing in investors. If I want to add new titles, which I think makes sense, I will probably need to find partners or investors. Determining how to find the “right” one (assuming such a thing exists) will be a challenge.
There is obvious room for growth within the complementary accessories. I can make (accessories) their own catalog or I can add more pages. Those are two very tangible options that I need to explore further. It’s a challenge because of course you have the postal increase. By default we’re all incurring additional expense so I want to be very diligent and deliberate about the growth strategy.
CS: How do you plan to resolve the growth challenge?
KR:Financially, I can’t do everything at once. I’m proud that we are breaking even after just three years in the business, but capital is limited. In three to six months, I’ll decide the next steps for the business after I review the performance of our spring circulation and the expected impact of the postal rate increases.
CS: What about the catalog business appealed to you?
KR: The opportunity. I wanted to build a company, not a store. When I started SimplySoles, the catalog standard was to place as many products on a page to maximize profits. I loved the idea of offering the customers something fresh, a streamlined accessory collection with just one product per page. I always wanted to do something with shoes and felt that there was an opportunity within the catalog industry. I find it a very fascinating and challenging industry to be a part of right now. I do love the diversity of the responsibilities of owning a catalog. You’re not doing the same thing every day. There’s always a new focus. I never know how my day is going to shape up. I’m a consummate multi-tasker so it is perfectly suited for my personality.
CS: Are you enjoying your new career?
Rempel: Immensely. Like everyone else in the industry, I’m concerned about the new postal rate increases and how that will affect an up and coming catalog like SimplySoles, but that doesn’t scare me away from wanting to remain a part of the industry.
With family wealth planning it was always very dynamic and changing. I was always looking at cause and effect and so I felt there’s a lot of similarities there. It gave me an incredible confidence that in the area of finance I was extremely confident because I was entering an area where I was such a novice. It did help to give me confidence so I could go ahead and say I might not understand paper or list brokering or mailing. But I know how to look at financials.
CS: What are the two or three most fulfilling things about the catalog business that you never got before as a CFO or CPA?
KR: Interacting with customers. I really enjoy that component of retailing. I love the national outreach that a catalog offers – versus being geographically specific. I also humbly confess I am proud to be an entrepreneur, something that being a CPA has certainly contributed to but is more personally fulfilling at the end of the day.
CS: What would you say are the keys to your success?
KR: Doing something that I’m passionate about. It keeps the enthusiasm and energy levels high. Our customer service is also a key component. Our customers see us as their personal shoe shoppers and value the carefully edited shoe selections that we offer and the service we provide.
CS: Have you had any mentors?
KR: Yes. Terri Alpert of Uno Alla Volta, as I previously noted, and Steve Kessler has also been a great supporter and counselor as well. He has over 25 years in the catalog business. He saw an article about SimplySoles and offered me his expertise. He drove from St. Louis to meet with me to help a young and upcoming new title. I have to say that without the generosity of otherwise strangers, I would not have been able to survive.
CS: What do you do to keep things more fun at the company?
KR: I think the personalities of the people I’ve hired as employees keep things fun. These are people who are great at connecting with other people, so we all have fun working together. I confess that we also only have women who share my passion for shoes on staff. Not intentional, but intuitive, women seem to be most interested applicants in working for a company selling women’s shoes.
CS: What are your hobbies?
KR: Playing with my 1-year-old, eating (I’m pregnant with my second child) and dancing.