The belt and men’s accessories world doesn’t seem like a particularly disruptive industry. Unless you’re Karl Kozak, that is. Belts are functional daily wear pieces of a wardrobe that are often very functional (think utility style) or super fashionable (think Gucci logo and sumptuous leather) but it’s not often you have the two combined, and even rarer that you find a belt that can be functional fashionable and fits just right.
Karl Kozak found a way to reinvent this antiquated industry and create a belt that feels custom in its fit with an innovative track system—no more taking power drills to create new holes in your favorite belt based on weight gain or loss. It works perfectly to go from office to shooting range, and manages to fit in perfectly with the office suit or athleisure gear.
We talked with Karl about how he manages to keep KORE ahead of the curve, how watching his parents work a 9-5 inspired his entrepreneurial ways, and the importance of a customer service that actually answers the phone within a few rings.
Jenna Bostock: Tell me a little about KORE Essentials, the inspiration and inception.
Karl Kozak: My wife gave me an expensive designer belt for my birthday in 2012, but it didn’t quite fit right. My waist size was in between holes and I wasn’t happy with it. I mistakenly took it upon myself to create an extra hole or two. I ruined the belt and my wife was not happy.
A month later I was having dinner with a business associate who had recently returned from visiting Asian factories. He casually showed me a “track belt” he was wearing. The hidden track system on the back of the belt enabled the wearer to adjust the size 1/4″ at a time. He said that they were very popular in Asia.
It was very cool concept and I couldn’t believe I had never seen one before. I surmised that it might not have caught on because of the strange looking buckle faces or jinky mechanism. I laid awake half the night thinking how I could improve it and called him first thing the next morning asking to get a few samples. I was hooked and felt like they would be a huge seller in the U.S. if done better.
I spent a year redesigning, prototyping and testing buckle mechanism so the would lock in place and release easier. I gave the facades a classic American look and eventually got a patent on my spring-loaded buckles.
I launched the belts on Kickstarter in 2013, the worlds largest crowd funding platform. It’s a brilliant idea and I only wish I had this resource when I was younger.
My collection of 4 track belts took off and we sold over $300,000 worth in about 30 days time. On top of that the feedback from Kickstarter ‘Backers’ as they are called, was off the charts positive. Everyone seemed to love the belts and wanted more. That was a big confirmation moment when I knew I had something very worthwhile on our hands.
Jenna Bostock: Who is the typical Kore customer, why does he come to you?
Karl Kozak: We’re lucky to have a very broad male customer base from about 30-60 years of age, from all walks of life and every profession. I know that sounds overly general but what man doesn’t wear a belt, use a wallet or sunglasses, etc.
We pride ourselves in creating innovative, high-quality accessories and backing that up with excellent customer service. We answer the phones 5 days a week and try to make everyone happy. We work hard to up our game all the time. As a result the bulk of our customers are find us through family or friend recommendations, third party reviews, or organic, unpaid social media posts.
Jenna Bostock: Tell me what your company mantra/philosophy is and how that’s incorporated into your products.
Karl Kozak: We won’t put the KORE name on a product unless we’ve re-designed it, innovated it and increased the quality. So for example when we set out to make sunglasses I remembered an incident a few months earlier when I was helping my 6 year old in the bathroom in Cabo San Lucas. I was bent over the toilet, when my sunglasses, that were tucked in the nape of my shirt, slipped out and almost went for a swim, had I not snatched them from mid air.
I asked myself how can I make them better? Lots of guys drop their sunglasses and either scratch or break them. The answer – embed magnets in the arms, so when close the arms they lock together. This allows you to put your glasses in your shirt, lean over and not have them fall. You can even hang them upside down from your shirt sleeve. Then we went a step further and used the best frame and lens materials we could find. Lastly we like to charge a fair price. That’s how we do it.
Jenna Bostock: What were some of the challenges you faced taking a traditional industry and revolutionizing it a bit?
Disruption is such a common thing. We see it everywhere now, but until recently when I took an online business course through Harvard University on the subject, I didn’t even know the term existed. I was so enthused by the topic, that after completing the course I bought the instructors book to ingest more case studies.
I realized I have been disrupting for decades. My first job out of college was selling newly invented, desk-sized fax machines, in 1994 I started the internet’s first commercial travel site, travelsource.com and founded the 3D Film Factory to designed and sell low cost 3D camera rig systems.
Disrupting the belt industry seem to come naturally to me. With innovation and disruption there’s a learning curve for customer and business owner. You have to be willing to take risks, really listen to your customers needs, stay close to the market and watch how you spend money. I tell my employees – this not a race, it’s more of a marathon.
Jenna Bostock: What’s been the marketing strategy for Kore?
Karl Kozak: The foremost marketing tool is our products. I prefer to sell something that sells itself or at least makes it easy to sell. You have to believe in what you’re doing and if you’re making the best product it’s easier to talk to people about. We are constantly asking retailers, reviewers and influencers to try out our products and give an honest review or trial. We do that because we know that 95% of recipients come back and tell us they love it. They express the fact that they can’t believe how good it is or that it’s a game changer.
When you have that kind of product it means less spent on advertising. We let our customers and retailers talk about us. Every week hundreds of guys tell us that they recommend our products to all their friends. There’s even word now that we have a cult like following. It’s mostly because of our focus on making the best product we can. I feel sorry for people that have to sell mediocre products, that can’t be fun.
Jenna Bostock: Do you have brand ambassadors? I saw a few Olympians repping the brand.
Karl Kozak: We don’t have any official brand ambassadors but instead we have a legion of guys from different backgrounds and industries that talk about and use our products daily.
This is especially true in the firearms industry where a lot of people use our belts for concealed carry, as well as law enforcement and special forces. We did have a group of Olympic coached that reached out a few years ago and asked if we could outfit the athletes and we did. After the games were over several individual athletes came back to us and asked how they could get more belts for themselves and friends.
Jenna Bostock: How do you avoid becoming a trend?
Karl Kozak: We’re organically but intentionally growing the brand from a belt company into more of a men’s adventure accessories brand. The image and name of KORE Essentials is transforming into us into an innovative, adventure brand tailored to men. Now that our customer base is in the hundreds of thousands, some of them started asking for different products or suggesting things they wanted to see us to make. The consensus is that Kore will make it better and innovate it.
A few years ago some customers started asking if we could make a watch strap that adjusted perfectly so their watch wouldn’t slip around their wrist. The result – after 2 years of design and prototyping this summer we will debut several swiss dive watches with track bands. The bands have small tracks molded into the backside that clicks to your exact wrist size. Of course the watches are made to high standards using 15 jewel swiss made movements, sapphire glass and stainless steel bodies rated to 300 meters.
Jenna Bostock: What is one of your favorite aspects of what you do?
Karl Kozak: I spend the bulk of my time these days on product design, product improvements and marketing. I want to make stuff guys want to own and talk about. I generally don’t make anything that I wouldn’t wear or use myself. That’s what I prefer to do and that’s what is most important for Kore right now. I get to spread the word, give out gear and talk to enthusiastic customers and vendors. I want to hear ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’. Luckily there’s not much ‘ugly’. Its rewarding to have people tell you they love our products and want to be customers for life. It’s validating and says to me that we’re doing the right thing.
Jenna Bostock: What do you see for Kore Essential’s future?
Karl Kozak: For the past 5 years we’ve been on an upward trend. If it’s up to us we prefer slow controlled growth. This way we take one step at a time and do things right or as best we can. We like to stay close to our customers. Big companies typically push customer further away as they grow. It gets harder and harder to get customer service for example. But our customers know that they can pick up the phone and call us and we’ll pick up within 3 rings Monday through Friday. We want to continue to create a bond with customers and keep their needs first.
Jenna Bostock: What advice would you give to aspirational entrepreneurs who are still struggling?
Karl Kozak: Do something different. Look for meaningful ways to differentiate yourself, your products or services from your competitors, or be the first to do something new. Your service or product needs to stand out not blend in. It needs to be worthwhile and solve a real problem. Start small and test before you launch full force, listen for feedback from customers and be willing to pivot. It’s that kind of flexibility that will make you grow in the right direction.
Use gorilla marketing or non-traditional avenues to get the word out, not expensive ad campaigns. Try something creative.
Be conservative with you money. It’s easy to spend for things but much of that won’t create revenue or help your success.
Jenna Bostock: What is the best and worst piece of entrepreneurial advice you ever received?
Karl Kozak: Probably the best entrepreneurial fervor came unwittingly and accidentally from my parents. They both have MBA’s and were big on education but were company type people, not entrepreneurial at all. I was very rebellious and wanted to do things my way. Seeing my parent’s work habits turned me off to my dads repetition to “find a good company to work for, with a car and 401K”. I decided as a teenager that I didn’t want to invest my life working for a large company, only to have them fire me, or lay me off on a whim. That just never seemed like an ideal scenario to me. I knew then that I had to strike it out on my own.
The worst pieces of advice came at times when I didn’t listen to my gut instincts or intuition. Instead I listened to others who gave advice based on their fears, or lack of insight.