Trying to accessorize her outfits, fashion blogger and stay-at-home mom Kilee Nickels crafted a leather earring that was large and stylish without being heavy or uncomfortable. Her creations turned into Nickel & Suede, a $4 million accessories and apparel company that Kilee co-runs with her husband, Soren Nickels, in Liberty, Missouri. That company, which has one brick-and-mortar location in the Kansas City suburb, as well as a healthy online shop, grew more than 3,101 percent from 2014 to 2017--landing at No. 127 on the 2018 Inc. 5000. Here, Kilee describes how she balances her fast-growing business with being a mom of five. --As told to Catherine Perloff
I always have been interested in fashion and making fashion on my own. I thought maybe I would want to be a buyer for a company. I went to school for art but I got scared off by all the talent around me. I wanted to be a mom, and I didn't intend to have a full-time job for sure.
I had a fashion blog to promote the first Etsy shop my husband, Soren, and I ever had, which was making leather belts for baby and toddlers. One day I needed some gold earrings, and I couldn't find any that matched my style. We had purchased some gold leather that I thought was pretty but I had no idea what to use it for. I took my silver earrings that I always wore, traced one on the leather, and put it on some hooks. The rest of the day I had people complimenting me on my earrings but I forgot that I was even wearing them because they were so lightweight and comfortable. It was a huge shift from my usual huge, heavy earrings. We realized nobody was doing leather earrings this way.
We started selling the earrings in an Etsy shop in December 2013. I had my fashion blog and a customer base whom I could send there. We instantly saw people ordering from all over the country. June 2014 is when we launched nickelandsuede.com. Soren quit his job that day and we were both in 100 percent. We were making things in our home until July 2016, when we moved into a 4,000-square-foot building, where we had our offices and our production. We have outgrown that this year and plan to move to a 15,000-square-foot building in January. We still make all the earrings ourselves.
Being a manager and hiring people is not my strength. I don't like giving critical feedback. I'm really an introvert at heart. I feel like this is a problem a lot of creatives run up against when they want to start a business. A lot of the actual building blocks and operations I let Soren manage. He does have a business degree. I definitely found that the employees who report directly to me are self-starters and don't need somebody to babysit them.
Having five kids, parenting could take up all of our time. When we started the business, we had a baby who was 1. Since starting the business, we've had two more. Thankfully, our employees really have bought into this business knowing we are parents first and our kids are with us most of the time. We take our baby to the office and someone who runs customer service will hold him for an hour and then someone who runs production wants to hold him. I've also started having a lot of my meetings at my house. We get a lot of work done around my kitchen table.
Being an entrepreneur, you work nonstop and it's the same thing being a mom. Your time isn't really your own. I've really learned to maximize every spare second. Yet I didn't know when I started how healthy it would be for me. There is a big piece of my job that balances me out as a person whereas being a mom can be really one-sided, where you're giving, giving, giving. But having a business makes me stronger. It makes me more confident. All those things make me better as a mom and happier. I think it's a great idea to start a business if you're a mom. It's worth going after your passion and discovering what your superpower is.