No Suit and Tie forThese Power Executives
Entrepreneur. What immediately comes to mind? For most people it conjures an image of someone who is creative and inventive. Someone who takes an idea and moves forward in such a way that ultimately sets them apart. Whether it’s with a product or a process, it results in a thought like, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Now double that entrepreneur if you will and the outcome is explosive. Nikki Carlson and Kailynn Bowling are the proof. With a passion to help women, the duo collaborated to fill a need they saw as untapped. That need turned into a highly successful product and led them into expanded businesses; most currently as the founders of ChicExecs – a national public relations firm specializing in branding and marketing. Risen met with these dynamic risk-takers to talk about their early days, strategies and faith, and discovered their candidness to share their methods with others.
Interviewed exclusively for Risen Magazine in San Marcos, California
Risen Magazine: The two of you were introduced by a mutual friend a little over ten years ago and realized you shared the same entrepreneurial spirit. How did your individual backgrounds set you up to be successful together?
Kailynn Bowling: I came from a management/finance background, but my whole family is entrepreneurs so I had that entrepreneurial spirit. I think when Nikki and I met we were those dreamers and go-after-it type of people, but then we had personalities where we didn’t run over each other. I was in corporate. I was in one of the largest mortgage companies in the U.S. It was during the time of the market crash and I was handling all of their bad loans. I always had a passion to help other people, but it was at a point where I wasn’t really helping anybody. So I was ready to leave and go after my passion.
Nikki Carlson: I was in marketing and advertising for about ten years. I was in a place where I loved what I did – I worked with non-profit clients – but I didn’t necessarily want to be in corporate for the rest of my life. I was ready to step out of that. I had the fulfillment of working with Christian companies, but I didn’t feel like I was utilizing my full gifts and talents.
KB: I think a lot of people talk but don’t really walk, and I noticed with Nikki she was inquisitive. The first time we met we went to LA and I was showing her and a girlfriend how I was buying product and selling it on eBay. Nikki was asking questions and we had a great time going after it and negotiating. Nikki reached out to me afterward randomly and said, “Hey, do you want to start a business?” [Laughter]
NC: We had only met the one time so looking back, we were younger, and it was maybe a little bit naïve. We feel like it was such a God-thing because we are here twelve years later. We work well together and have different strengths. I was in the position of looking to start a boutique but not sure what I exactly wanted to do. So when I reached out to Kailynn about wanting to start something, it wasn’t even [specific]. It was more about meeting and seeing what it would look like to have a business together.
RM: The two of you do decide to start a business and that turned into ChicBlvd. What was the vision for this online magazine for women?
NC: It was an online magazine with the goal of inspiring women in every stage of life – women who were dating, who were married, who had kids, and those who had a career. We spoke to their needs whether it was Christian book reviews or other types of positive content. We built our email list and we had a lot of engagement with our readers. We would run contests to ask them questions and these women would end up sharing their whole life story with us. We would get like 200 emails and we would respond to each one to keep that engagement. We felt like we were encouraging and making a difference.
We were in over 100 publications in six months and our first order was with the Wynn casino and they ordered around 100 so Nikki had all her room- mates gluing crystals onto earbuds.
KB: And this is all before social media. I think Twitter was out and Facebook was just starting. People didn’t have the same kind of engagement because it was even ahead of bloggers.
NC: Our readers felt so connected because we would really try to provide content based on their needs and feedback. We also did writing for WeTV. They contacted us and were doing some intense writing for shows on issues in the lives of women like eating disorders. It was pretty heavy content and then they asked us to write articles based on their shows.
RM: How did the connection and interaction with your fan base lead to the development of your next endeavor together which was ChicBuds?
NC: What we were doing was so fun and great but we said, “We need to make money from it.” [Laughter] “We need to monetize it a little bit.” Coming from my advertising background I thought, “How can we incorporate advertising?” Something we saw Daily Candy [similar website] do was build up their email list and then incorporate ads in their emails and they were able to be profitable. We started doing ads and contests and sending people to different websites to pick out their favorite color on a product and report back to us. It ended up being a form of market research that we were doing for brands and they loved it. Through the course of that we started hearing women say that they wanted electronics geared more for women. There was nothing out there. This was before there was any fashion electronics. We thought, “How can we accomplish this?” And, we started creating our own from there.
KB: It was very interesting because we thought, “Okay we are going to make these earbuds and sell them to our readers.” That was pretty much all we knew back then. We went and got crystals and glued them onto earbuds and we put them on the website for the holidays and they just took off. It was crazy. We were in over 100 publications in six months and our first order was with the Wynn casino and they ordered around 100 so Nikki had all her roommates gluing crystals onto earbuds. [Laughter]
NC: Yes, in a little tiny apartment! You do what you have to do. This was before we figured out manufacturing so we had a little roommate sweatshop. [More laughter] We had no idea at the time, but later we found out it this was a huge missed niche in the technology industry. All the top executives of stores like Best Buy and Fry’s were having these conversations about how to reach women, because a woman is the biggest purchaser in the home, but electronics are more geared towards males. They were looking for products to help bring women into their stores. You can say we sort of stumbled into this niche, but we look at it as a blessing and that God lead us down this path. Neither of us had developed a product before and technology was definitely out of our realm.
KB: We just had to figure it out because with all the attention we knew we couldn’t be gluing on crystals forever. We then spent about a year searching out different companies to help us, but ultimately made the decision to just dive in and do it ourselves.
NC: We were a little desperate too because we got an order from Mary Kay who wanted to use it [crystal earbuds] as a sales incentive for all of their sellers. It was around a $150,000 purchase order so we needed to figure out mass production.
KB: And we did. We figured it out in China and then we started going to China and patenting our ideas and designing.
In the office we have mini conferencerooms in the backand we have threerooms – a heart, a listen, and a wise room.
RM: I love that because it’s one thing to identify a need in the market; the iPod hits and you want to bling-out tech – but it’s quite another to actually create a product or fill that need. What advice would you give when it comes to putting an idea into action?
NC: I think people think it’s so overwhelming. They may have a great idea but they have no idea how to get there so they just give up because it’s too much to handle. So I would say build a game plan and go at it piece by piece. We were able to do it. We came from no background of product and just Googled different stages and solved each issue one step at a time. There will be roadblocks and obstacles and we were thankful to have each other because when one was feeling discouraged the other would say, “We totally have this, don’t worry we got it.” We were a good balance.
KB: Another thing we would tell ourselves back then was, “Find a mentor.” A lot of times people think, “I can’t reach out to so and so.” Honestly, you can reach out to anyone. We reached out to everybody. You can’t be afraid to pick up the phone.
NC: It’s kind of funny we were at a trade show one time and I think it was JC Penny and they stopped at our booth and said, “Oh yeah, we’ve heard of you. You have emailed everyone in our company, and our CEO.” [Laughter] But you know what? It worked.
RM: Which brings us to your third collaboration which is where you have spent the bulk of your time the past decade, ChicExecs. Share what it means to have the branding, media, public relations and direct channel management all in one place.
NC: We had built ChicBuds to the point where we had around $400,000 in back orders. We were growing so fast – we were in all the major retailers, we had been on the Today show multiple times, in People magazine – and we would go to trade shows and other brands would come to us and say, “How are you doing this? What PR company are you hiring?” We had to be very tight with our money and we did a lot of it on our own. Since we had so many companies coming to us asking for help, it was a great opportunity to say let’s create a way that we can duplicate the success we are having for other brands. No one had everything under one umbrella and we think it is the recipe for success because everything works together seamlessly. Our passion is helping other brands and expediting the process that took us a long time to learn.
KB: When we started ChicExecs it was probably about a year after we started ChicBuds. It was because, like Nikki said, we were doing our own PR and all these other brands were coming to us and asking how we did it and so we said, “We have a company.” Then we looked at each other and said, “We better start that company.” [Laughter] It literally started at a trade show. The PR company ChicExecs helped fund a lot of ChicBuds. We [initially] self-funded everything. We had built ChicBuds to be in Target, Nordstrom, Macys, Bed Bath & Beyond, and pretty much everywhere.
NC: Since we were growing so fast we then brought on an investment company because financially it was at a place where we needed that backing. We brought on an equity company and did a knowledge transfer to have a strong devoted team focusing on that so we could spend our time devoted to others.
KB: Nikki and I love the entrepreneural spirit and we really want to get back to that piece of us. We also wanted to give back to other entrepreneurs and show them they can do what we did. So in 2013 we decided to leave ChicBuds with the team in Orange County, California, and Nikki and I came to San Diego to build ChicExecs. We had two employees at that time and now we are at 40. We’ve doubled every year since we’ve been here.
RM: Your office is such a unique space. It’s open, creative and reflects your heart and passion. You’ve even incorporated Bible verses in a tangible way. Walk us through the meaning.
NC: Since we both came from corporate, and we wanted to be entrepreneurs, we never wanted our employees to have that feeling. Granted we always support if they want to do something else, but we wanted to create an atmosphere where they feel like entrepreneurs. We call them “intrepreneurs.” They have a lot of ability to make their own way and financially make what they need to – we have a very unique structure.
KB: I was thinking back to the verse we put on ChicBuds, Proverbs 23:19: “Listen, my son, and be wise, and set your heart on the right path.” I couldn’t remember why or how it even started, but it just was who we were. ChicBuds came about through ChicBlvd because we were listening. We’ve been wise on the decisions we’ve made basing them on who we are and our values, and that verse was really important to use. We put it on our ChicBuds product as well as incorporated it here in the office. It also helps us to share with other young women our story, but in verse form. In the office we have mini conference rooms in the back and we have three rooms – a heart, a listen, and a wise room.
NC: It is also about us keeping our heart on the right path too. No matter how much we grow or what else will happen, we give back to God. We know He is ultimately blessing us and we need to stick to our morals and stay grounded. We also try to instill our values in our team through our mission statement. We don’t tolerate gossip, we love each other, we recognize each other’s talents and we really try to enforce that into our team.
KB: It was so important to us that it’s [painted] first thing on the wall when you walk in [our building.] I always think of the story of when we were building the office and the electricians were putting lights up. I was sitting [to the side], and they couldn’t see me, and these two men were getting teary-eyed talking about our mission statement. One guy says to the other, “Are you doing what you really want to be doing?” [Laughter] I couldn’t believe I was listening to this. But it showed me that what was important to us was affecting somebody here even before we opened our doors. It’s not just something we say or put out there, we really mean it and walk it.
We don’t think someonecan be completely ful-filled unless they are also helping to make a difference with whatthey have by using theirgifts and talents tohelp others.
RM: The two of you seem to work really well together and set the tone providing a great example, but I’m sure there have been some really challenging times, or instances where you disagree. When it comes to decision-making, what does the vetting process look like? How do both stay aligned?
NC: Generally, if there is something that we don’t agree on 100 percent, then we realize that we are probably not there yet. We’ll keep talking it through until we get to a place where we both agree. If we don’t have a peace about something, then we know it isn’t quite right.
KB: We do balance each other really well. It’s the perfect marriage of personalities. I tend to be a little more like, “whatever,” where Nikki is like, “Let’s stay on task.” [Laughter] I think communication is key and we tell each other our feelings. If one of us is feeling really stressed out, the other one can be a better support or vice versa.
RM: Giving back is important to you and your brand. How are you using your brands to create change? And in turn, you just launched a monthly entrepreneur box to help inspire others and grow their business. Talk to me about your vision for Hustle Humble.
NC: We’ve done a lot with different non-profits like Big Brothers Big Sisters who have come to us consecutively for their big events and since we are product-driven, we have been able to donate items for their silent auctions to help them raise thousands of dollars. Our clients love to donate so we donated products to a youth center in Colorado and give to women in shelters. There is something to say for following your passion and building a business, but we don’t think someone can be completely fulfilled unless they are also helping to make a difference with what they have by using their gifts and talents to help others.
KB: With ChicBuds we also donated a percentage to charity. We teach brands how they can give back and how they can get their story out there. There are so many ways to get involved.
NC: Hustle Humble is an extension of ChicExecs where you get a magazine [geared toward entrepreneurs with tips and advice] as well as actual product in the mail showcasing various entrepreneurs. We give back a box of school supplies to kids for every box that sells.
RM: What keeps you encouraged? What keeps you motivated? What keeps you wanting to stay vested in business and other entrepreneurs when you could be sitting back and enjoying the fruits of all your past success?
NC: I think we are both pretty driven people. We love to be creative and I don’t think it comes naturally for us to sit back. We get a lot of joy by always thinking of something new.
KB: I think deep down, at our core, we just love to give. We just couldn’t stop giving whatever that may be – whether it’s giving an idea, or helping someone build a business. Recently someone came to us and said, “Do you ever think that sometimes you give out too much information?” [Laughter] I thought, “What do you mean?” And one of our employees was sitting near and said, “That is one thing I really love about Nikki and Kailynn, they are open books. They are not the girls that will say they can’t tell you because you are a competitor. They will tell you everything.” It was nice to hear from her perspective because we didn’t get a lot of help. We had Google. The thing we get a lot of joy out of is giving people tips and encouragement to get them ahead in business.