Forrest Shinners has snow in his blood. The Vermont native grew up in his parents' ski shop at Stowe Mountain, sleeping in a bassinet under the counter while they worked. He eventually moved to New York City for work, but an off-the-cuff remark from an ex-girlfriend inspired him to start Kit Lender, a service that provides ski apparel on an as-needed basis. He talked to Pacific Standard about working endless days and nights, turning a small business into a huge enterprise, and moving into the summer space.
Why start Kit Lender?
Between me, my parents, and my brother, our closet is a Patagonia and Burton supply store. Over the last few years of living in New York, I'd occasionally take friends and girlfriends up skiing. One in particular noted that she hated skiing. I said maybe it was because she didn't have the right gear and bad clothes. When we got to my house, she went through my mom's stuff and picked an outfit. She was completely decked out and felt like she was super cute on the mountain. She had a great day. After, she said to me that it was like Rent the Runway but for the mountain. The lightbulb went off.
I pitched it with my dad. He thought it was a good idea. We have the backing of the store for the operations and contacts for the inventory. Neither of us have a huge e-commerce background. He's more of a numbers guy. I went to work educating myself on all that stuff. We hired a really good pedigreed firm, Frank Collective, to do our design work. I felt that it was a market that was going to get new entrants, and I wanted to have a brand. On the Internet, your logo is your storefront. Having great prices is not enough.
The reception has been overwhelming. At this point, there's some vindication. The next step that I see is continuing to grow, build the brand, and be the leader in this space. I think it has legs in more sports.
Are you doing it full time?
I work as a risk analyst for an asset management firm. I try to do a little Kit Lender work on the sly, answering emails and things like that. My dad handles a lot of the shipping and some of the customer service out of the ski shop in Vermont. At night, I'm going through bugs, following up on emails, and picking up on phone calls that weren't returned. I punch in as a Kit Lender guy at night, and then start all over again.
I've been spending every other weekend finding a way up to Stowe to do some of the shipping myself or talking strategy. It's slowly perfecting things. Everything takes like eight times longer than you think it should.
What's your background?
My background growing up was in the ski shop. I grew up sleeping under the counter as a baby. I did the dish dog thing and waited tables like any kid. I went to college for math and finance. I took some time off to ski bum a little bit, too. I moved to New York and I've been fully in the finance world for the past five or six years.
Were you trying to find a way back into the skiing world or did it just happen?
I don't think I was. I'm happy with it. I like where we are. It's not necessarily a ski business. It's a tech company that is disguised as a ski shop. I like that it has the numbers, but I'm learning a lot of new things. It's nice to work for yourself. After working for the man for this long, I think I've wanted to get out. A couple of my friends in the city have started pretty successful businesses. I didn't think it was something I was going to do, but it fell in my lap. I had a buddy who just launched a pretty successful business, and I realized that I had a support network that was pretty strong. I think if it was five years ago, there's no way I would have done it, both from a maturity standpoint and because I didn't have people I could ask questions.
What constitutes success for Kit Lender?
I feel like we're successful to a great extent right now. To me, success is about dollars and cents to some extent. I'd love to see that $1 million mark. That would be the coolest thing. Taking on outside funding is going to be an important success mark for us. I think it's necessary for us to grow. Getting validation from outside capital is another piece there. It's already shaping up to be a successful small business, but I think I have greater aspirations. It would be really cool to me if people would be like, "You started Kit Lender?"
Have you thought about going at it full time?
Absolutely. I mean, maybe. It's been a little overwhelming. I thought it would be easier. My goal was to get through the winter and set the table for next year. I would continue to have a New York network, and then maybe next year would be the time where I punched out and did it full time. If we got investment, that would mean I would need to quit my job. It's been long days, long nights, long weekends. I think going into next winter is going to be a gut check: Is this something that can be run with a lot of outsourcing? It's gonna be time to either shit or get off the pot.
Can you share numbers?
I wanted to be live by October. We came up with the idea in May. We didn't get going until June and July. We were done with designs in August. We didn't go live until mid-December. It started off as one order every couple of days. Now we're doing close to $1,000 a day. Today we did $2,000. Our numbers are increasing significantly every month. I'm thinking that we'll do $30,000 or $40,000 [in February]. January was like $15,000. December was a couple thousand.
Acquisition costs are only Google Adwords, emails, and social media. It's very very minimal. I stepped on the gas a little bit, but we're just spending $40 a day. It's to the point where I know that the more we step on the gas, we could kick it to the next gear. But it's about pacing it and knowing what we can handle right now.
I think we have a market. Our goal is to expand to the summer. I think it will be mellower, but fly fishing, getting some camping stuff. I'm already talking with companies that do group tours to do all-inclusive packages for them. There's a lot in that outdoor space. I think our bucket is not just skiing but all outdoor activities. There's a lot of life there, especially for people like New Yorkers, who once a year go and do something where they need a nice backpack and nice stuff.
How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.