The Kansas City startup scene is growing every day. We often think of startups strictly as technological entities, but the true essence of any startup is entrepreneurship. Kansas City is unique for many reasons, but perhaps one of the most startling things about the city is that it has a vast spectrum of entrepreneurs, each deserving recognition for the work they do.
One such example is the brainchild of Dominic Scalise, age 25, and Austin Lyon, age 23. The Kansas City natives founded rapidly-growing handmade product company KC CO. KC CO. combines Midwestern work ethic with 21st century market strategy to create stellar, relevant and quality products.
While their intentionally minimalistic product line of leather goods – choose from a belt, wallet, iPad case or keychain – KC CO. is able to manage the quality of each and every hand-cut and hand-stitched piece. With keen eyes for design, a deep understanding of marketing, a commitment to ethical business and the passion to thrive under pressure, the creators of KC CO. have created something phenomenal: a 21st century business model with a dedication to relationships. I was fortunate enough to meet with KC CO. co-founder Dominic Scalise to hear more.
|Dominic Scalise sat down with TBP to talk about KC CO.|
TBP: How did this all start?
DOMINIC: Basically, Austin and I became friends during college. Turns out we were both big wristwatch guys, and it’s kind of hard to find other people into that at our age. Austin was making leather watch straps belts. The stuff he was making was really quality stuff. I’ve always been hands-on and I’ve always loved working with my hands, so he gave me a few tips on how to make this stuff. I gave it a shot and made a belt, and it was hideous and I loved it. I wore the hell out of it. I was so proud. And after that I was just hooked. The more I made the better I got and that excited me, because then it started looking like I had visualized it in my head.
At this time I was working at a software company doing sales, feeling really unfulfilled in a cubicle. Every night I came home I went straight to work on the leather, trying to get better and better. That was what excited me, and I was trying to figure out a way to make this work. Suddenly, people just started asking me about the products, wanting to buy it, and that sparked an idea. I thought, ‘Maybe we could make this work.’ So last march I took a day off of work, went to a café, set up an LLC and we were off to the races.
TBP: Why did you decide to create leather products?
DOMINIC: Quality is our biggest thing. We want to create something that can last a lifetime. Leather is also easy to work with, and it’s accessible. Logistically, it was easier for us to figure out how to make a wallet or a briefcase than a sweater or coat.
TBP: What separates your product from other leather products?
DOMINIC: All the leather we used is natural, vegetable-tanned leather, which is different than the chrome-tanned leather that most companies use. Because our product is more natural, it ages really beautifully and develops what’s called a patina that’s just stunning. The contrast between the worn and unworn parts is very drastic, and it starts out really light and turns a beautiful dark color over time. We’re making the product but the person is making it theirs.
|Left: new iPad case and wallet; Right: iPad case and wallet after regular use|
TBP: How long does each product take you to make?
DOMINIC: I don’t really keep track because I spend way too much time on it already. The iPad cases and wallets take the most time, with a belt taking me up to an hour. But this briefcase I brought with me today took over 24 hours to create over a period of days.
TBP: You produce a completely hand-made product, which takes a lot of time. Has the speed of your growth been an issue?
DOMINIC: Absolutely. That’s the main thing for us right now. We intentionally launched with four products. I had way more in mind and we could have done more, but I wanted just the essentials. Moving from the four products into the big stuff, like this briefcase, would be huge for us. Making it work time-wise will consist of hiring more people and buying leather sewing machines. I’d love to produce a hand-stitched briefcase but it’s a lot of work for anyone. The dilemma is going from the four products, which we have down pat, to teaching all new people how to do all that and add bigger products while maintaining the quality standard. We also want to branch off from leather into different materials in the future. It was never meant to be just a leather company. The leather products are so we can establish a reputation for quality, but we have plans for expansion.
TBP: You’ve established KC CO. as a wholly Midwestern, local brand. How have people responded to that?
DOMINIC: It’s very exciting. We’re both born and raised in the Midwest. Everything always happens on the coasts, so it’s exciting to come up with a twist on an idea, especially something as Midwestern as leather-working. We’re putting a minimalist spin on it, so pushing out new design from the heart of the country is exciting for us. It’s really exciting to see Kansas City getting behind it, and a lot of people are getting excited about it. People are representing us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and blogs, which is really flattering. It seems that if anyone in Kansas City goes out on a limb and tries something, people like it and get excited about it and that’s really cool. I’ve been going to 1 Million Cups, and that’s a place where people are really passionate about helping entrepreneurs.
TBP: Who buys KC CO. products?
DOMINIC: Most of our sales come from the coasts and overseas, not the Midwest. I was expecting it to be the opposite. We’ve had customers from France, Singapore, all over the board. In the United States, most of our sales come from California and New York. I think we’ll start to see more local sales once we start selling our products in local stores here.
TBP: What has been one of the most memorable moments with your startup so far?
DOMINIC: I was in St. Louis for Christmas visiting my grandfather, who we call Papa Pinecone. My dad’s side is smaller Italians, and my mom’s side is full of massive, burly men. Papa Pinecone is on my mom’s side, 6’ 4”, deep voice. He had a huge impact on me with learning how to work with my hands. This man taught me how to chop wood, how to challenge a deer to a fight, how to build a birdhouse, gave me sharpening stones for my knives. He is the epitome of a man, and he told me that he really wanted to buy a belt from me. I told him I’d send him one for free, and he said, ‘No, I want to fund your enterprise. Please allow me the pleasure of paying full price for your product.’ It was one of the best feelings ever.
TBP: What would you say to anyone in the community thinking of taking an entrepreneurial leap?
DOMINIC: If you have a passion, then do everything you can to make it happen. There are so many people I know who would rather be doing something else but aren’t pursuing it, and you can just tell that they’re drained. The second I put in my two-week notice at my sales job, I was so thrilled and rejuvenated. The first week after I left my job, I didn’t set my alarm. I was waking up on my own before seven AM, just so excited to get at it. If you have a passion, you’re doing yourself an injustice not to pursue it.
KC CO. is a company hand-built by passionate entrepreneurs, and is poised to become a premier Kansas City brand in time. We’re rooting for them, and we hope you are too. To find out more, visit KCCOUSA.com.