A humanitarian trip to Armenia inspired best buds Burag Celikian and Sevan Aliksanian to start a t-shirt business. Dreams of reviving the graphic t-shirt and repurposing art encouraged the friends to go for it. With little design or business experience, the guys partnered up with sales director Shant Der Ashodian and graphic designer Eddie Celike to launch Arka. Now, the small brand has grown into a large scale business, sold in over 200 retail locations worldwide. Co-founder Burag Celikian tells us how he transitioned from a real estate agent to launching a kick-ass t-shirt brand.
What made you decide to be an entrepreneur?
While I was in college, I always knew that I wanted to start my own business. However, I wasn’t too sure as to how I would go about it. I had many concerns such as starting capital, what industry I would try to break into, and various other obstacles that I may come across. After graduating, I started working as a real estate agent. After 3 years, I realized I had to make a decision, either quit real estate and go after my dreams or make this my career. I always had a passion for the fashion industry but I wasn’t sure as to the degree of difficulty and the initial investment was. I knew for sure that I wanted to design, something completely opposite of what I was doing at my previous job. I simply wanted to make things that people like. Luckily, two of my partners who also happen to be my best friends also wanted to come along for the ride. We each discussed the different ways we can all contribute to the business and conducted research for an entire year by attending trade shows and asking as many questions as possible.
Where were you in life when Arka was just a budding idea?
I was actually in Armenia involved in a project to donate computers to schools. We were being given a tour of the school by the principal and we came across a wall that had Soviet era warning signs. The images were striking and clever. My first thought was these would look great on T-shirts. My friend and I were inspired by the artwork and felt that we too can create thought provoking images that would translate well on a Tee.
How much of what you learned in college did you apply to your business?
As a marketing major, I apply a lot of what I learned. The funny thing is, as an entrepreneur, you tend to take on many tasks and assume many rolls. This could lead to overlooking certain things that are essential to your business. What you will soon realize is that there is a formula for success. However, that formula isn’t always tailor made to your business. With some tweaking and adjusting, you can find a system that works for you. Being a marketing major has taught me how to identify certain patterns that indicate whether something is effective or not. Marketing has showed me that prior to making any product, you must know who your customer is going to be so you can cater to them.
They say the first five years of business are the toughest. Was this true for Arka Clothing?
Yes definitely! Especially since we have zero background in this industry. We were completely self taught and unfortunately we didn’t have any mentor to really guide us through the beginning stages. However, we learned a lot about ourselves and what we are capable of. We probably should have dissolved the company on three separate occasions but we refused to give up on ourselves. You will constantly hear people say that you should ignore failure and carry on. I disagree with this notion. I think you need to look at your mistakes and analyze as to why that happened.
How does the owl represent your brand?
When we started ARKA, we wanted to create graphics that had a meaning and a message. We felt like our logo, known as Arkamedes, represents wisdom. In story books, owls get referenced to as wise and noble, therefore we thought it would be a very fitting image of what we stand for.
What did you do to get retailers to notice you and want to carry your products?
There are various ways to do this. We felt like our best chance of expanding the brand was to attend trade shows. There are thousands of buyers that attend and for a small brand like us, we were hoping to get any order that we could possibly get. You can also pitch your product to various showrooms who have the contacts to these stores. You will pay a monthly fee, almost like a membership along with commission for any sale. We handled all our sales in-house, simply because we didn’t think we could afford to work with a showroom at the time. Another approach is to walk into local retailers and ask them who the buyer is and let them know that you represent a brand that could work for their store. There is nothing to lose by doing this and you will be surprised to know that more often than not they would give you the chance to pitch your product.
How important is it to vend at trade shows? What was your first trade show experience like?
Trade shows are not only important to meet buyers but to also meet sales reps of other brands. By networking with other sales reps, they would happily throw some of their clients over to you. You can compensate them with a small commission or even just buy them drinks when the show is over. Our first trade show was a local one we did in Los Angeles. It wasn’t packed with buyers, it was relatively slow. However we did write two orders and we were extremely happy with that at the time.
What pieces from the new collection are your favorite?
With our new collection, we tried to take a more minimalist and mature approach. A couple of my favorites are Lunar Phases which is a very minimalist design depicting the phases of the moon almost like a textbook diagram and the other has to be our Black on Black Logo tee which has a clean high end aesthetic.
What’s it like working with your team?
We are a band of brothers. We are constantly joking and making fun of one another. Our humor is not for the feint of heart and I don’t know how a sane person could last in our office. Sometimes I forget that I’m working.
Some entrepreneurs start off solo. How do you think things would have been if you ran your business alone?
I would probably need to hire a few people to take on many tasks required for daily operations. Considering I didn’t have the startup funds to do so, than I would need to do designing, sourcing, marketing, website maintenance, book keeping, sales, etc. That is a lot to take on for one individual. It would be an uphill battle to say the least and growing the company may take longer but it is possible.
What do you have planned for the future of Arka?
Currently, we are working on a cut and sew line that will be manufactured domestically. It will be affiliated with Arka but will operate under a different name. We are really excited about this project and hope that others will appreciate all the time and effort that we’ve put forth to bring this dream to life.
Visit ArkaClothing.com for their latest gear!