I'm really fascinated with BJJ gi designs, as you can probably tell from my previous posts, so it's quite nice whenever I get the opportunity to talk to gi makers about how they go about their business.
Triin Seppel is a mum of two who happens to love BJJ. She loved it so much she started up her own BJJ gi company, called Fenom. And what a gi! Based on reviews from happy punters Meg, in her blog here, and Georgette, here, it looks like Triin is onto a winner. But Fenom is more than just a gi company, it's a personal mission, nay, a crusade by its founder to empower women who train jiu-jitsu and to get more women to join the BJJ sisterhood.
I thought it would be a good idea to ask Triin a few questions to find out more about her company and her plans to takeover the world, Fenom style:
[Photo credit: Danny Nguyen c/o Fenom on Facebook]
SY: Hi Triin, before we talk about your company, please introduce yourself to the readers, a little about your personal background and martial arts training and experiences in BJJ?
TS: Hi Seymour, well I'm a native of Estonia and grew up in a world of competitive swimming. I moved to Dallas just over 10 years where I currently reside with my two children, Margarita and Alex. As for my martial arts experiences, I'm a newbie with just over 2-years in BJJ. A good friend introduced it to me out of my garage and suggested I train along with my kids. Now we are a family hooked on BJJ!
SY: How did you come up with the name Fenom and the Fenom logo?
TS: Fenom is a play off two words - Female plus Phenomenon. People typically refer to a highly skilled person in martial arts or any other sport as a Phenom. Women and girls grappling is a pretty phenomenal thing so the word play just made sense to us. The logo went through dozens of iterations in terms of design. We wanted to convey a slightly tribal warrior vibe with a feminine touch. I think we have a pretty cool logo. Be on the lookout for new renditions of the logo in the near future!
[Photo: Triin in action passing her opponent's guard]
SY: When? and Why? did you decide to go ahead and start a BJJ kimono company?
TS: In the summer of 2009, my business and training partner were sitting around talking about how gis are so expensive, especially women’s gis. One conversation lead to another and we soon realized there were not many companies out there creating products specifically for women and girls - at least products we liked. We also realized there was an opportunity to not only sell cool products, but to tie our products to a noble cause. Men outnumber women and girls on the mat 10 to 1 for a number of reasons. Part of our mission is to help tip that scale and attract more women and girls to BJJ.
SY: Could you offer an insight into how hard it is to produce a BJJ gi? eg designing your product, the research and sourcing of raw materials, finding a factory, marketing and testing etc etc?
TS: The challenges we faced and continue to face are experienced by every start-up business out there. Finding the right supplier and going through the prototype phase of product development is by far the most intense part of the product life-cycle. The number of conversations required to convey your ideas and bring them to life will make anyone dizzy. I'd like to think that training BJJ makes dealing with the ups and downs bearable. It's a close comparison to the feeling of finally passing someone's guard or hitting a nice submission for the first time. Once the product is ready, the sales and marketing part is relatively easy because it's about sharing a good idea. People like good ideas.
TS: Remember what I said about getting dizzy? This is where we struggled most. The nature of gi sizing requires us to cover a wide variety of body types for each size. This is not an easy task when sizing for women. While we racked our brains and argued over our initial sizing chart, we decided the first thing we could agree on is that gis are generally rough and harsh to the touch. We asked our fabric manufacturer to make the material as soft as possible, and with a few adjustments in the treatment process, we came out with a winner. Our current generation gi also has a little more room in the hip and butt area to accommodate the more blessed. We have plans to create a sizing chart based on body types vs. the standard A1-A6 sizing. It's taking us a lot more work but in the long run we think it’ll be worth it. An ill-fitted garment to a woman is one of the most frustrating things in the world - on or off the mat. We expect our product to go through several revisions as we gather feedback from our customers.
SY: The buzz about the Fenom kimono is really growing. All the wearers have reported about the incredible softness of the fabric. What makes the gi cloth so soft?
TS: We’re exciting about the buzz! Our gis are softer because of a an extra step our manufacturer takes during the bleaching and dying process.
SY: Your website states the gi is made of crystal weave, could you explain this a little more?
TS: Crystal Weave is a cross between Gold and Single weave. Crystal weave allows us to produce much lighter gis while maintaining durability. We also like this weave because of how it reacts to the softening process.
SY: Why only black?
TS: We started with one color simply because we’re a start-up company. We don’t have the resources to launching multiple product types and risk having inventory made up of all the wrong things. We’ve just about sold out on our first round of gis and have gathered valuable feedback from our customers. Our next batch of gis will include small improvements and additional colors.
[Photo by Danny Nguyen]
SY: Most big brand kimono companies also have women's lines; do you think they are just cashing in on the women’s market? And what makes Fenom any different?
TS: I think the bigger companies are cashing in on the women's market, but so are we. No one goes into business with plans to not make money. I think the difference with us is we believe that if we stay true to our mission and cause, people will want to support us by buying our products. I'll give you a perfect example- Our first seminar with Hillary Williams was a great success. If you've seen our promotional material for the event, you'll know we didn't make any money. Our peers called us crazy and said that we were going to lose money. We didn't see it that way. We're not in the seminar business. We're trying to bring women and girls together by eliminating as many barriers as possible. The end result - we had an 11-year old girl that has never trained with other females before, learn from the world-class champion, and has now decided to train regularly. A mother contacted us asking about how she should start training. She supported her kids for years and now wants to jump on the mat herself as result of the buzz created by the event. Talk about impact!
SY: In your experience, how fast are women coming into the sport - BJJ or grappling or even MMA?
TS: Given that I have limited experience in the world of BJJ and MMA, my only reference point is what I've seen over the last two years. There are more women being publicized by MMA and BJJ events. The number of BJJ and MMA blogs published by women has grown significantly. I'm not sure these factors are very good benchmark though. The place to look for real growth is in the local schools. I've been training for just over two years and I still have a small handful of women I train with regularly. This is the real indicator. This is what we hope to help change.
SY: Fenom recently hosted its first women only seminar, tell me how it went?
TS: You get a group of women and girls from different schools together, along with Hillary Williams and you have something great. Hillary is such a wonderful person and excellent teacher. Just under 30 participants show up and we all had a great time of ego-less learning and rolling. It was also exciting to see 20% of the gis on the mat were Fenom Kimonos!
[Hillary (left) and Triin]
SY: What other projects do you have that will encourage more women into the sport?
TS: Although we plan to host seminars 3-4 times per year, we're most excited about an upcoming program we're calling Mommy on the Mat. The program is designed to reach mothers of children already training BJJ. We will sponsor pizza or game nights within schools in our area to help encourage mothers to give BJJ a try. The school benefits from more enrollments, we get our name out there and hopefully sell a product or two, and BJJ wins because there's another woman or girl on the mat. It's a win-win scenario for everyone involved. We also have plans to work with other non-profit organizations focused on creating a positive impact on the lives of women and girls. As these programs launch, we'll publish them to our blog for everyone to check out.
SY: Thanks Triin, it's been a pleasure, good luck with the company.
TS: Thanks Seymour for being interested in what we do and finding it worthy of an interview.