In this series, I speak with people who know what desperate feels like. While now blooming into success, these founders share with me their deeply personal financial struggles and lessons learned on their way back to black.
Benjamin Sehl still isn’t sure if he’s “made it.” But after years of building KOTN from his in-laws’ basement and spinning it into a powerhouse social impact brand with two retail stores, he’ll cautiously admit that he feels successful. And success to him isn’t necessarily defined by finances. Though he and his wife and business partner Mackenzie Yeates no longer live in her parents’ basement, they’re definitely not rich, he says.
Success has taken a different form: the Egyptian cotton basics brand has helped to revitalize the cotton industry in Egypt, working directly with farmers to provide fair wages and a better quality of life. Through KOTN, Ben, Mackenzie, and their partner Rami Helali have funded nearly 700 farms and five schools in areas of the country with otherwise no access to education.
Ben’s exposure to the life of farmers in Egypt have helped him gain perspective related to his own struggles. Here, he talks about running out of money (more than once), securing funding (then losing it), and that time The Weeknd’s fan base nearly shut down KOTN’s pop-up.
In Ben’s words:
I had a pretty great life growing up, I have to admit. I actually had a lot of stuff come fairly easy. That was really fantastic but at the same time, I don’t know if it necessarily prepared me for what entrepreneurship was really like.
In January, 2014, I moved from Toronto to New York because my now wife and business partner, Mackenzie, lived there. I took the first job that came my way. I was swept up in the startup, in the success of it all, but there were warning signs even in that first week. By the time I actually got my U.S. social security number, the company didn’t have any money. I’m three months into living in New York and I haven’t been paid. And, I couldn’t get a U.S. credit card. One night, I remember going out with my friend and I didn’t have enough money for transit. It was midnight in Brooklyn and I ended up having to walk 70-something blocks home. It was pretty dire.
I think being at rock-bottom financially was really helpful in terms of getting my ass in gear.
Six months after I started, the startup where I was working said that they’d have to let me go. That essentially ruined my working career in New York for the rest of the time. I moved home to Toronto in December and ended up moving into Mackenzie’s parents’ basement. I got a job at this really great company three days a week. It was enough money to at least be able to live.
While in New York, I had been thinking about a clothing company as a side project. I had no experience with it and I talked to Mackenzie about it, and my friend Rami who was also fed up with his job. He was really gung-ho about it. Then when I was laid off, I said, “All right, now we have to make this happen.” I think being at rock-bottom financially was really helpful in terms of getting my ass in gear.
After we launched KOTN, we were like, “This is going to be huge now.” But then the reality sets in. We had convinced my wife to quit her job and move back to Toronto and she and I started up a design studio to be able to pay our bills. We just hustled—we lived and worked in that basement for a year and a half putting together all the money we could. Our bed was in one corner, boxes in another corner, and we worked from a shared desk that sat in the middle of the room. Looking back, it was really tough. And needless to say, that arrangement didn’t last very long. But I think in terms of building my character, stripping away my ego, and also just having a lot of fun, it was some of the best time of my life.
We were growing really fast, relatively—around 30% a month—which sounds amazing. It’s like, “Wow, you guys must be rich now.” But it’s actually really tough when you’re making physical products. If you’re growing fast, now you have to make enough product to stay in stock. And when you’re small, people don’t have the patience to wait around for you to come back in stock. When you’re talking to investors, too, they’re like, “You’ve got to get a handle on this stock problem.”
At this point I think I was $20,000 or $30,000 in credit card debt. It was pretty brutal.
We ended up having to borrow money from friends and family. Mackenzie and I put in all the money that we had from our client projects into KOTN. Around that time, I left my other projects and we just went all in. I can’t remember how the heck we had money to do anything. We later moved out of the basement so we also had rent to pay. At this point, I think I was $20,000 or $30,000 in credit card debt. It was pretty brutal.
Eventually, we met a small venture group from this large bank in Canada that was focused on social impact projects. We were talking to these investors and it was going pretty well, but it was our first time raising money and we didn’t know exactly the path to take. Things dragged on for eight or nine months.
Then in October 2016, there were a few amazing things that were supposed to all happen in one week. We had our first big order from [Canadian luxury department store] Holt Renfrew. We told them that we were working on a baby line and that if they wanted to go exclusive with us we could do that (we didn’t have any baby line). They agreed and paid us half up front and we got our people to figure out how to make baby clothes.
We didn’t have enough money to pay for proper packaging, so we ended up hand-making each box.
The baby stuff was supposed to arrive on the Monday, the order was due on a Wednesday, and the funding was supposed to come on the Friday night prior. Friday night rolls around and that ended up just not happening. The committee said, “Actually we can’t work in Egypt. That’s too high of a risk right now.” Boom, it was gone like that.
Then Sunday night comes and we find out that a Russian plane has gone down over Sinai and Egypt Air has now canceled all cargo flights in and out of the country. So we can’t get our package. Monday morning, Rami went with three empty suitcases, filled them up with baby onesies, turned around, got right back on the flight, and flew back home.
We stayed up all night. We didn’t have enough money to pay for proper packaging, so we ended up hand-making each box. We managed to get the order to them 30 minutes before the drop-dead date.
Somewhere in the midst of all of this, we also launched a pop-up. That weekend, The Weeknd, the singer, was doing a pop-up in Toronto and it was going to be in the back of the same space. [The people leasing the space] were really selling to us that this was going to bring in so many people. But it ended up totally not being that. It was a massive lineup of teenagers—fanboys and fangirls there for the Weeknd. We stood there for six hours and actual customers couldn’t get in. I had to go and talk to the guards every time to let people into our space, which was just insane.
Those times, I’d say they were some of the best couple years of my life even though they were so difficult.
That was a period of time I’m never going to forget, it was this yo-yo of insane elation to pure despair, every 12 hours for nine days. Every day was the happiest and saddest I have ever been that whole year. I think that really just put the grit in all of us.
Those times, I’d say they were some of the best couple years of my life even though they were so difficult. It just proves what you can do. Growing up, I had some learning difficulties in school. It beats down on your self esteem and self discipline, and what you think that you can actually handle. Those two years were a sort of turning point in my life. They showed me that you don’t need any of these things that you thought you needed. And the experience helped my wife and I bond in a pretty crazy way, in a way you won’t find in most relationships.
Financially, we’re not laughing, but we’re not in dire straits either. I do feel successful, though. The social impact projects that we’ve done are always a source of pride for me. My worst day today is my best day of five years ago. So, who can really complain?
Illustration by German Gonzalez