Aldora Kwee, co-founder of Akumu Ink

Aldora and her husband Joey founded their clothing line Akumu Ink in 2008. The company derives its name from the Japanese word for ‘nightmare’, and their designs, which are all illustrated by Joey, are a dramatic blend of cute and creepy, inspired by the horror genre and Japanese pop cultural imagery.

The company is primarily a two-person operation (they only employed a part-timer just recently!), which means that Aldora is very hands-on in the business – her passion for and commitment to Akumu Ink is wonderfully infectious. In our sixth Spotlight feature, she shares the highs and lows of creating a brand name, and has invaluable insight for anyone interested in developing an online start-up.

The Akumu Ink duo (and their two dogs), illustrated by Joey

Aldora spent six years at Lodge, which she describes as “the most cherished years of my life”:

The first few years in Lodge was challenging as my English was not very good to begin with, but making friends was easy because everyone was so nice, so it made it a lot easier to adjust. Being in school from 8am to between 3 to 5pm everyday was actually fun for me. The friendly competition among friends, whether academically or in sports, really made high school enjoyable and made me feel like I belonged somewhere, which I really appreciated.

After Form 5, Aldora’s studies took her across the globe, first to college in California, and then university in Montreal, which is the city where she met Joey.

Funnily enough, Aldora made the conscious decision to not study business at university, and instead opted to do separate Biology and Dietetics majors. Growing up in a family of entrepreneurs, she had seen how hard her parents worked, which had meant less time spent with Aldora and her siblings: “…my parents were 100% involved with running the day-to-day operations, 10 hours a day, 6 days a week … my decision in pursuing two degrees in the sciences was mainly because I wanted more time for myself, and not to work long hours as my parents did.”

But a career in science was not in the cards for Aldora. As a professional illustrator, Joey was looking for a new creative outlet for his art skills. A visit to a Hot Topic store, which specialises in fashion apparel and accessories inspired by pop culture, prompted them to discuss the possibility of Joey putting his drawings on shirts. After doing the research and teaching themselves about screen printing, they launched their website in February 2008, and started printing shirts out of the spare bedroom in their apartment. In mid-2008, a university friend suggested they showcase Joey’s designs at a tattoo convention, and the modest success which they experienced there encouraged the couple to further check out conventions as another channel for selling their products.

Left: Plague Seeker; Right: Truly Alone

Aldora handled the business side of things: buying inventory, keeping accounts and researching and booking conventions spots across Canada. In 2011, Akumu Ink was approached by a sales representative who saw the potential in their brand, and encouraged them to print and warehouse their goods in California so that they could start supplying wholesale to any interested stores in both the United States and Canada. Through this new venture, Aldora had to learn how to handle third party logistics in dealing with the printer and the warehouse as well as provide necessary customer service from across the border.

By that time, Akumu Ink had grown significantly enough that Aldora felt the need to build on her business and management skills. After completing her undergraduate study in 2011, she jumped straight into doing an online Master of Business Administration degree, which has proven very useful to her:

Even though I learned a lot during my undergrad years, I truly built my confidence after completing my online MBA degree … I had to mingle with people from different backgrounds, who are a few years older than me, with a lot more experience in the work field … The program gave me a more in-depth perspective on business and [provided a logical basis for] making decisions related to the company.

The Akumu Ink website

In 2014, Aldora and Joey moved Akumu Ink’s base of operations to California to manage their warehouse directly and to gain access to the wide range of conventions held across America, some 25 of them which run annually. In this setting, Aldora continues to be responsible for purchasing inventory and equipment, affixing product finishings such as hangtags and labels, booking convention spots (which entail buying a convention booth, making flight and hotel arrangements, and renting a car), and packing and shipping out orders.

As with most online businesses, Akumu Ink’s continual challenge is to establish a presence and stand out in the crowd on the Internet, but its brand of uniqueness does come with its own little pickle:

The Internet makes it easier for brand owners to bring their products to the public. However, the downside is the fierce competition. To make people interested in our products, we had to make sure that we were different enough from what is already out there, while creating a presence on social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest.

Akumu Ink on Instagram #akumuink

Even though wholesale is a part of our revenue, being a niche brand makes it difficult to get regular boutique stores to stock us. We are still in the middle of diversifying our products to make the brand more interesting to potential stores; the challenge is that we are only able to introduce a few new products annually and it’s not a guarantee that these products will sell well, so the possibility of making bad investments is always there.

Nevertheless, Akumu Ink has been going strong for almost a decade, so Aldora and Joey must be doing something right. Aldora stresses the need to be driven and strategic in making business decisions:

Problem solving skills and positive thinking are important to have to keep pushing our brand forward … Our persistence and ability to come up with ideas, whether for designs or for new products, or when running promotions, are the reasons why we are still around for almost ten years. We have watched other brands appear and disappear, which is a constant reminder that if we don’t keep pushing forward, we will fail.

Besides shirts, Akumu Ink offers other products like canvas art and keychains

In their business line, Akumu Ink also has to be constantly aware of what the latest pop culture fad or trend is, which can affect the direction they go in with any future designs or product offerings. At the same time, Aldora and Joey interact directly with their customers, whether via their online platforms or at conventions, to suss out what they like about Akumu Ink’s designs and products, and to ask them what they would like the company to make for them in the future: “Direct customers are the ones who are supporting our brand; and without their support, our brand would not have existed this long.”

Misery and the Beast

One advantage of running their own business is that the couple gets to set their own work hours; a large part of this has to do with the time they spend at conventions: “… even though we work during weekends, we can take off weekdays to rest and regroup after conventions. Travelling is also part of the perks of the job, whenever we go to conventions that are out of town. We get to meet different people from different parts of the States, which broadens our understanding of people in general.”

The conventions themselves are certainly a highlight of the job: “We get to experience these conventions, all the hype and the excitement … New York Comic Con gives us a chance to meet customers who have been buying from us for years, experience the city and enjoy the convention whenever we have the chance to get out of our booth.

Credit: Xhaiden Estanis-Ano via the Akumu Ink Facebook community

“At San Diego Comic Con, we are able to enjoy the exhibit floor before anyone else is allowed in, which is a rare opportunity unless one is a vendor. The floor has so much to see and enjoy (e.g. new movie promos, life-size superhero costumes, exclusive products, and other pop culture trends) that will bring the geek out in a person, no matter how not-geeky they are.”

At San Diego Comic Con 2017

Apart from networking with potential distributors, the conventions also give Aldora and Joey the exciting opportunity to meet celebrities like Brian ‘Q’ Quinn from Impractical Jokers and Jason Momoa from Game of Thrones, who have taken notice of Akumu Ink. Business savvy Aldora also drops off t-shirts at celebrity autograph sessions: “Of course there is no certainty when giving free merchandise away for a possible promotion, but my motto has always been: if you don’t try, you don’t know.”

Aldora is obviously very dedicated to her business, and that translates into a drive to help others:

Social responsibility is part of our company, where we donate partial sales of our monthly exclusives to a charity of our choice. We choose to do this to show our support and compassion to others, as we have been lucky enough to be able to do what we are passionate about. We hope our platform can somewhat remind our customers that we are just two people behind a company who also care about others.

Finally, Aldora has some quick advice for any current Lodgians looking to start their own business:

It’s better if you have a partner whom you can trust and rely on to motivate each other. Either way, if you believe in your products/services, keep pushing, but also set a short-term realistic goal. Some expectations need to be fulfilled without blindly trying to accomplish your goal; i.e. don’t over-invest in things, and plan your next moves wisely according to a set time and budget. And do note that if you intend to start a business, it’s not all roses and sunshine. Get a loan only as needed and be prepared to live under a tight budget. Stay courteous and humble, and be kind to others – it’ll go a long way.

Aldora, thank you for sharing your thoughtful and practical insights into running a business. Your determination and perseverance is an incredible lesson to all of us!

Written by Jane Leong

Photos courtesy of Akumu Ink

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