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Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: How Kalilah Wright, CEO and Founder of Mess in a Bottle, has revolutionized the apparel industry

October 06, 2020

Giving a Voice to the Voiceless: How Kalilah Wright, CEO and Founder of Mess in a Bottle, has revolutionized the apparel industry
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This episode checks all our boxes: Radical entrepreneur? (Check!) Radical e-commerce strategy? (Check!) Radical mission? (CHECK!)


In this episode, host Ryan Alford interviews CEO and founder of Mess in a Bottle, Kalilah Wright.

Kaliliah started the business after the Freddie Gray riots in Baltimore a few years ago. Her idea? - To give a voice to the voiceless. How did she accomplish this? - Putting messages on shirts no one else was willing to create.

The company is thriving through their e-commerce strategy. Kalilah tells us how Instagram and Facebook have proven useful for both engagement and as platforms for online shopping.

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Transcript

Ryan Alford [00:00:00] Hey, guys, this is Ryan Alford. Welcome to the latest edition of the Radcast. We've got another radical guest that also happens to be in the business. I'm really excited to have Kalilah Wright. 

Kalilah Wright  [00:00:28] Thank you so much for having me. 

Ryan Alford [00:00:31] We're excited to have you on – the founder and CEO of Mess in a Bottle, Ms Wright. If you're watching the video, you'll see I'm sporting a shirt for Mess in a Bottle. We'll talk more about the messages and what they mean, but they go right down our path, especially being in the business, marketing, often aerospace, really cool messages. Kalilah let's start by telling us about you, your background and what led to Mess in a Bottle. 

Kalilah Wright  [00:01:23] So Mess in a Bottle is a t-shirt company with MESSages that come packaged in a reusable bottle. So I had this idea in 2016, shortly after Freddie Gray, an African-American male, died while in police custody. And so I really wanted my community to have a way of having a voice. So we wanted to give a voice to the voiceless and we wanted to invoke change. So I started putting these messages on t-shirts and then I had them back into the visible bottles. So this comes from the 310 concepts of receiving a message in the ocean. So, that's how Mess in a Bottle started. 

Ryan Alford [00:02:08] Well, let's go back even a little further. It makes me think of a castaway, almost the old Tom Hanks. Let's talk more about your background. I mean, where are you from? Jamaica? Penn State graduate?

Kalilah Wright  [00:02:39] Yes, I am. A Penn State graduate indeed. And then I'm at Morgan State University for graduation. So I had this background in architecture, I was chasing this architecture career for a while now. And it really, surprisingly enough, I was chasing architecture, but fashion was really always my first love. So even when I was in architecture, I would still yearn for fashion. We're at a different fashion retail company that night. I worked at places like Nordstrom, Bloomingdale's, Club, Monaco, so fashion was always a part of my life. But I think that I really wanted to take the architecture around. Just so you know, I think that it was different for women to be out that and for me to really learn about construction and things like that. And I think that that design is that it really has now aided me within my fashion design and fashion company. 

Ryan Alford [00:03:41] I mean, know as far apart as you think it's like and how the things get made, how are they built, how are they brought together? What are the component parts that make something more than the original? So I see the connection there to help your brain, maybe the way you've built the company. I'm sure it's helped on some levels. 

Kalilah Wright  [00:04:02] And what I've told myself, I didn't box myself in to be a designer of buildings. I am a designer now of the power of clothing. So I really do think that it's about how you look at your work and how you're able to strategically position what. Now, architecture has helped me to design my models and use those to really create for us to be able to buy t-shirts. And so I did use my architecture degree and career in the design experience to really build that amount. 

Ryan Alford [00:04:43] What's it been like building the company and becoming an entrepreneur and all of those things that they're always perfect? 

Kalilah Wright  [00:05:06] I think that it's been quite interesting, especially right now. I'm in a phase where I'm shifting from, as you said, founder and creator and grass roots and trying to figure out how to make a company where we are now. We have the house. So now it's like, what's the next step? And it's key things that down scaling the business and understanding the business. That's a whole different beast, an animal. And, I think that now I'm in a different space and the. Now I'm really trying to figure out how to sustain a company and become the CEO. So, I think that I went from being a founder to now I'm the CEO and eventually, sooner or later, I think I'll become the owner where I'm more overseeing everything. And I'm not worried about the day to day as much as I am now. 

Ryan Alford [00:06:06] That makes sense. Talk about the early stages. You have the idea. And once you started that early scale, we started the site, you started getting the word out there – talk about some of the early states of it and building the brand. 

Kalilah Wright  [00:06:27] Yeah, we started initially on a platform of Big Cartwell, and so at the time I thought it was a great way of me being able to start a website, putting up some products and figuring it out. And so then we transitioned from the cartel to eventually Shopify, which of course, Shopify has a lot of analytics, a lot of background, a lot for you to figure out how your business is doing. So we did these two different e-commerce sites. And, it's been quite interesting because right now, even during the pandemic where a lot of retailers are closing, one of the advantages that we've had is we've already built this really sustainable e-commerce business. And so while a lot of people are scrambling, trying to get their business on e-commerce, we were already on here with a lot of data and a lot of information. And, we work the last four to five years with really honing in on our audience and really using the time to look at how to scale and what to do within an e-commerce business and how it will also capture your audience's attention. And, there's a lot of details that show that we had the upper hand an advantage because we've been on e-commerce now for several years makes a lot of sense. 

Ryan Alford [00:07:53] So what are the marketing channels that have driven the most success for you guys over the last three or four years? I'm sure some of those have changed or that you've added things on is how it goes. But you have more budget. You can spend more money to do those things. But then we talk about some of those marketing channels that have been a success story for you guys. 

Kalilah Wright  [00:08:24] I'm definitely out of the I would say Facebook, Instagram, Instagram, even more. I think that for my age group and we are within the business. And so I think that we really target people from age groups between 23 -36. And I think that that has really the core audience of our people on Instagram and Facebook here and there. But I think really using those channels as well as podcasts and having a lot of visibility, I think that people don't even understand how much going on. Other podcasts and really being able to have that type of exposure has also been very enjoyable as well. 

Ryan Alford [00:09:12] You have had a ton of great PR, we saw to do so. Riley, our producer, was already a fan of the PR that's been out there. At what point did you shift and I'm assuming you have team help now? I mean, that's the hardest, I think, for entrepreneurs, just like you're doing everything yourself. I'm sure it's all skin and bones to get the thing going. Was the transition hard or easy for you to take on resources? That will help. 

Kalilah Wright  [00:09:45] I'm going to say hard. It's hard because I think that it's almost like being a mechanic or being the driver of the car driver. And you're used to bringing your car. You're like, “oh, I don't need the mechanic”. But, so you start to jack it up and you're like, “it works”, why should get a professional and then a mechanic comes in and they say, “you can buy this”. I think that's what I've experienced with the business and giving off some of the power, the things that I'm so used to doing. I think that for me, it works if I can make it work. But I think that I have extended that at this point and to this day, I'm no longer making it work. I want it to be flawless. I want it to work. I want it to be not excessive on me. So the reason that I trust these people are hiring professionals is that we want a successful, thriving business. And so I think that as a founder, sometimes you have to let go of that control and know that these people are here. And there are other resources that can help you. And if you want the business to grow, you cannot just continue to depend on just I'm home now with my son. And it's one of those things where it's just the flu, this pandemic. And through the mess out of your business, we may not have been able to survive. And it was just me doing all of the marketing, the social media, the e-commerce site and then having production as well. So I think that if you want to grow and if you want to scale, you're going to have to make some of those hard choices in letting go. And I think one of the biggest things that happened at a staff meeting recently is they said, what part do you want to know about? Where did you want to be involved in? And whatever you don't want to be involved in. We're not going to include you in. 

Ryan Alford [00:11:55] How big is the team now? 

Kalilah Wright  [00:11:58] We have about 12 things being equal, it's growing as we are hiring. I mean, we're getting new people. So we have a reasonable number of people.

Ryan Alford [00:12:12] I know the apparel business, the t-shirt business. I think there's a lot of people. It's a popular space. It’s perceived easy because we've helped enough companies, especially on the fulfilment production side, and I know you do some master class stuff, we'll give some shout outs to that. And so we'll break down every secret. Talk about some recommendations or anyone out there that might be starting a T-shirt, company, apparel. Any quick tips that might salivate the listener to maybe come to check out your master course?

Kalilah Wright  [00:12:49] I'm so out to say that there are a couple of different ways for you to start your own apparel and your company. You don't have to have a lot of money. You don't have to have a lot of following. I've made a lot of mistakes through the years, dabbling into different parts of the business. And so, I do a class where I share and I'm very transparent about a lot of our successes with things that I didn't do so well that I'm still working towards. So I think that for anyone who wants to spend on a power brand, it's easier than maybe a lot of people think. You can actually start with almost little to no startup capital. But I do think that then if you want to scale it and grow it, then you need funding for that. 

Ryan Alford [00:13:43] How much are you? Do you produce all your stuff? Are you at the point now where you keep a production amount of certain things versus you call it on-demand with whatever it is? I mean, is it a little bit of both? 

Kalilah Wright  [00:13:57] We're a little bit of a mix. So, again, having an operations manager, we have a lot of what we do about forecasting. So we'll sort of say, “We think we're going to do this amount of numbers, maybe we should increase the number of products that we have or the amount that might be allocated to a certain product”. So we really focus on the forecast. And part of that look at the number that we set our goals at the beginning of the month and then go on from there. So, to think about what's going well. And then we do weekly check-ins as well. 

Ryan Alford [00:14:35] Have you come up with the messages? I mean, do you have a writing down or do they know your vision they're helping? Are you? It seems like it originated with your mind and it’s still seeing the thumbprint everywhere. But maybe talk about your process for creatives? 

Kalilah Wright  [00:14:52] I recently hired a creative director, and I think that it's been helpful to have somebody as to how to flesh out the ideas. But overall, the messages I still need and it's only been able to work in that direction because I think our marketing and our audience are made up of people that look like me. And I think that it's been good because the voice and the message, coming from a black woman. And so I think that it's been amazing that now other groups, other ethnicities, are also just appreciating the voice of a black woman. And so I think that for me, I'm not open yet to a writing team. And I needed to write that he gets the most of it because I feel it has to be very authentic to me. And I don't buy from that. 

Ryan Alford [00:15:54] Let's talk a little bit about there since you went there. I mean, the empowerment, the, a black entrepreneur, female that is empowering others, that seems like a message that's got to be hitting home. Now you've got to be what feedback are you getting? As you said, it's got to be great. 

Kalilah Wright  [00:16:13] I think that people are really excited that I started this thing from nothing and they watched me grow the brand, figure out what I want to do, make mistakes. So that it's been gratifying to see, almost like your whole team is winning and they've been really moving me on. And really people - my mom is a super fan and supporter, of course, and she buys literally every month, several months. And she had more than I do. And so it's been really sweet where I think people who are even strangers. That's the energy that I get. They just really want to support the brand. And it's been helpful to spread the message. 

Ryan Alford [00:17:11] Have you been involved in maybe even the youth movement? It seems it would be a great message to be in the African-American community. Perhaps I would assume this perception that maybe is something that's not attainable and you're sitting here living proof of that, living that daily. 

Kalilah Wright  [00:17:35] Yes, we actually had several schools that I took mentorship of. Though we don't post about it as much about it. But we do mention mentorship as well as we have different groups of kids who come and they come to the shop, they see what we're doing. I think that people do want to see, especially a ‘black woman’ sitting at the head of a table and the fact that you can have a dream and allow it to become something real that is attainable. And that's been my main goal. I mean, not even just the kids. But you've been here in Baltimore. We have a lot of you that are cleaning cars outside. And, I try my best to teach them and say to them, this is not your only means of being able to get money and start your own business. But I want to show you what entrepreneurship looks like.

Ryan Alford [00:18:31] What is that thing that you are most proud of? 

Kalilah Wright  [00:18:39] What I'm most proud of is probably is my son. I think being able to come to a space that would save my son and also being able to hire especially black women. I think that and I've created this space where we feel comfortable in the space. I think that even now, having all these conversations about black women here and going into work and this is something that we've lived with for years. So, If this is what product I use and it's comfortable, it's not, it's not rigid and it's not a place where you're afraid to be. I think that I'm very proud of allowing my son to be able to see the space that I created for black women. And that that's one of the things I'm most proud of. 

Ryan Alford [00:19:48] What? Any partnerships, so anything going back to maybe the business and marketing side, anything that you can talk about? I mean, you've got direct to consumer sites doing a lot of things on social media. Any visions or goals to be?  

Kalilah Wright  [00:20:25] Over the next year, we will be in a massive retailer that is going to be exciting. And honestly, that is pretty open and allowing the universe to sort of lead me in whatever direction is going in. And so I think that I'm really open. We had a partnership last year with one of them. And so that I continue to be surprised that I don't even know sometimes whose vision board I'm on. I think that it's really cool to sort of watch these things happen.

Ryan Alford [00:21:08] I love it. So we can't name the mass retailer yet. 

Kalilah Wright  [00:21:12] I guess, 

Ryan Alford [00:21:14] Radcast wanted to break the news, 

Kalilah Wright  [00:21:20] Will be announcing maybe in about a month. 

Ryan Alford [00:21:28] Well, congrats on that work. I know as we close out here what's or we have danced around a little bit. But what's the. Not the end game, but where's all this going? Where are we headed? 

Kalilah Wright  [00:21:46] I don't know. I'm still trying to figure it out. So, I don't know. I have dreams of possibly a massive amount of battery and dreams of a massive hotel in the message hotel tell. I have dreams of selling my company for several million dollars, but I had no idea so I think that I'm really open to whatever comes. I think the vending machine is something that we want to probably pay attention to and to deploy some vending machines all over. So I'm open. I think that this has been a fun ride and I've been excited and open to whatever. 

Ryan Alford [00:22:32] I have an idea for your vending machine. You need to have a mystery soda and you don't know which search we're going to get. 

Kalilah Wright  [00:22:41] And it doesn't matter. 

Ryan Alford [00:22:44] Kalilah, it's been really great. I really appreciate your time. I know you're busy. I think that this relighting the lighting things. I love that message of opportunity that is out there. I know there's a lot of negativity in the world and a lot of negative news, but that you're living proof that there is an opportunity and you're showing others that opportunity, building a hell of a business at the same time. 

Kalilah Wright  [00:23:06] Thank you so much. Thanks again for having me. 

Ryan Alford [00:23:08] My pleasure. We'll talk soon. Thank you.

Speaker 3 [00:23:13] Really enjoyed this episode with Kalila Wright, amazing founder and CEO of Mess and a Bottle. We discussed everything from her background to getting Mess in a Bottle to a great place where they are booming in the e-commerce space with both merchandise and future partnerships. Really interesting talking to an African-American woman in the Times and everything that's going on, hearing her perspective and inspiring both the youth and other African-Americans to the dream of entrepreneurship and really everyone. Her message really touched the gamut of anyone starting a business and was really fascinating to hear about her background. Appreciate everyone listening to this episode. You can always follow along with more theradcast.com or on Instagram at the.rad.cast. And we'll see you next time

Kalilah Wright

CEO / Founder Of Mess In A Bottle