UV50 Startups to Watch: No. 4 Kortni Jeane

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HOPE FLOATS: Kortni Jeane has become a symbol for swimsuits and sunshine. Founder Kortni Niccoli, 26, is determined to have her company be a force for positivity — both in body and soul. “We work hard to represent every kind of woman and be a bright spot in people’s lives and social media feeds,” says Niccoli, who is expecting her first child this October. “That was not necessarily the goal when we started, but it has been an unexpected gift to our customers and to our company.” (Photo by Dave Blackhurst/UVBizQ)

Meet the unsinkable Kortni Jeane. Four years ago, Kortni Niccoli started her swimwear company from her Provo bedroom while strangers knocked on her door in hopes of buying a custom suit. Today, 233k friends on Instagram are double tappin’ their hearts out to get their hands on this colorful brand. On the way, there have been unbelievable ups and some manufacturing downs. (Early on, one manufacturer shrunk the fabric so the suits were three sizes too small. #teenybikini) But through it all, the company famous for its mix n’ match swimwear has become a beloved business with 15 employees, loyal customers, powerful positivity, and a whopping 6,500% growth since inception. Clearly, success suits her.   

I grew up sewing. My mom is a major quilter. I have 12 siblings, and she made a lot of our clothes when we were little. She loved that she could create for us. Creativity is in our DNA.

In high school I took every sewing class offered. My senior year, I helped with a swimsuit clothing class. Hated it. (laughs) Swimsuit fabric is the hardest fabric to work with! My first swimsuit was terrible. My second one was decent. I kept getting better. My sisters and friends wanted swimsuits, so I started making them for people I knew.

After I graduated from high school, I knew I wanted to work in fashion. I took a year off and worked as a buyer for small boutiques. Then I attended FIDM — the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in L.A. Loved it. I thought I’d go into children’s wear.

I was still selling swimwear on the side. It gave me extra money to help pay for school. It got to the point where strangers were knocking on my parents’ door. I had a garbage sack full of fabric, and my dad would just send strangers up to my room to get measured. Totally normal. (laughs)

I grew up with entrepreneurial parents. It’s in my blood. I didn’t know it was weird or different. Family and friends kept encouraging me to make a real go of this and start manufacturing my designs. So in April 2014, I launched my first manufactured Kortni Jeane line.

The launch was crazy and great. I nannied at the same time to give me flexibility and a steady paycheck. Then I got engaged to my now husband. As we planned the wedding, he said, “Are you going to put all your savings into the company?” I said, “Yep! It’s taking every penny I have.”

He supported me — then and now. Still to this day I haven’t borrowed or taken out a loan. I’m just recycling the money we earn back into the business to fuel the growth.

[pullquote]“I had a garbage sack full of fabric, and my dad would just send strangers up to my room to get measured. Totally normal.” — Kortni Niccoli, founder of Kortni Jeane[/pullquote]

When we were starting out, the manufacturer required a 100-piece minimum order. I thought there was no way I could sell that many. So I convinced them to let me order the 100-piece minimum with 20 different fabrics and a bunch of different tops, bottoms and styles. That’s where the mix n’ match concept came from. Now it’s what we’re known for. It’s our edge.

In the early days, it was a lot of pretending like I knew what I was doing. I didn’t even have a company Instagram account — just my personal one. And when everything was ready to go live, I just posted about it on there! What a different world social media was even just three years ago.

Once I started to understand social media, we grew extremely fast. We’ve doubled every year. Because my name is the brand, our customers feel connected to us. They know me. They “like” me. It feels like a community rather than a shop. It’s been such a happy social media mistake.

It’s important to me to represent all women — in every shape and size. Growing up, my mom never once saw her mother in a swimsuit. So her goal was to always wear a swimsuit and play with her kids — even if she felt uncomfortable in it. I see so many women not playing with their kids because they’re uncomfortable in swimwear. Every woman deserves to feel beautiful in a swimsuit. So we design with every woman in mind. Our social media feed shows off every kind of woman. I’m very proud of that fact.

We ran Kortni Jeane out of my house for two years. I didn’t realize that was preventing us from growth — not to mention taking over my life. I never left work. And because my house was the return address on the packages, customers would show up thinking it was a storefront and just walk right on in without knocking! At one point my husband said to me, “Either we need to move, or we need to move your business.”

We filled a 15-passenger van (twice!) and moved into a little warehouse. It was nice to breathe and have space to grow. And within a year, we did just that. This past January, we moved into a 26,000-square-foot warehouse in Provo. This isn’t a basement hobby anymore.

Being in retail is no joke. We depend on customer feedback to help us improve and grow, but we still have to be careful. It’s easy to lose your vision and transition to what the customers say your company should be. But if you’re smart, you can train your customers to think like you do. Listen to them — but don’t lose your voice.

There will be no end-cap on Kortni Jeane. I love what I do. And I’m going to grow it until the day I die. And hey, I don’t have strangers walking into my bedroom anymore! That’s a win right there.


Launch First, Be Perfect Later

“If entrepreneurs waited until the businesses were perfect, we’d never launch it,” says Kortni Niccoli. “When I started, I didn’t have all the knowledge and resources I have now. To this day, we are constantly evaluating, changing and improving. Don’t be afraid to get your business out the door. The work never ends, so get started.”

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