How Allison Hunt co-founded Baltic Born
Brianna Broyles Photography
The Founder Series is a column by and about Utah founders and how they got to where they are today. Click here to read past articles in the series.
What started as an e-commerce clothing side hustle run by my sisters and I quickly became much more. It became less about offering what we wanted to sell and more about providing what our customers needed from us. For a journey that started seven years ago, it’s still evolving.
But there’s a lot more to the Baltic Born story.
A tale of three sisters
In 2016, my sisters and I decided to start an online clothing company. It was at the threshold of e-commerce and social media coming together at that time, and ordering online was becoming more familiar. On Instagram, you saw every post a brand you liked posted. Building a business was more realistic then, when your audience was likely to see all you shared.
None of us had any money. We took out a small business loan for $20,000, which was very daunting. I was a mom of two little ones. My sister Angela was finishing up her degree at the University of Utah, and our other sister, Marianne, was set to graduate from hair school.
No one was in a situation to take on debt, but it was necessary. We wanted to be able to call the shots with this venture, even if it meant working side jobs to pay down that principal as fast as we could each month.
We have Scandinavian heritage, which is where the Baltic Born name came from. It helped that our great-great-great-grandfather was the tailor for the Danish king, and our paternal grandpa owned a men’s suit clothing store. In a very literal way, it’s in our blood to sell clothes.
I majored in broadcast journalism. Angela majored in communications. Marianne is a stylist who won a North American Hairstyling Award (NAHA) and is a creative genius. But between the three of us, not a single business background. This was all new territory.
That meant so much learning along the way, including how to create and price products. What we didn’t yet know, we Googled.
Our first pivot
As founders, we love neutral colors and wear a lot of black, white, gray or tan colors. That’s what we tried to provide at first—this neutral aesthetic—but we realized our customers had different ideas.
On occasion, a couple of floral dresses were sprinkled throughout the site, and they’d sell out immediately. Right away, we knew we needed to offer more where those came from. Instead of focusing on what we wanted to wear and sell personally, we started paying closer attention to what our customers were after: more floral dresses, prints and maxi dresses.
The more maxi dresses we offered, the more sales we made. It meant a brand pivot was necessary. What is my customer’s need? What will make her feel good? What is she dealing with in her body or lifestyle that’s challenging to her in finding clothes that fit? Those are the questions we’re always answering.
By listening to our customers, we shifted to offer affordable occasion wear for women and little else. My sisters and I were having children at that time, and our bodies were changing. No brands were catering to women in their 20s and 30s who were having children. Bodies don’t remain the same size after childbirth—they change during, before and after pregnancy.
As a brand, we wanted to provide clothes our customers could always wear. That’s what we started focusing on, whether it was bump-friendly dresses with elastic waists or nursing-friendly tops so women could bring babies to events and not need to excuse themselves to feed them.
Our customers saw the shift and realized what we were doing. They were so grateful! We allowed them to still feel comfortable in how they dressed, no matter what size they were. No more needing to put outfits in the back of the closet. No more saying, “One day, I’ll be able to fit into it.”
Photo courtesy of Baltic Born
Our community found us
With time, our side hustle gained a small following. Sales were coming in. We shared our enthusiasm by hand-wrapping outgoing orders and scribbling thank-you notes.
Whenever an order was placed, we’d hear a little chime on our phone. This happened maybe six times a month. Whenever it did, we cheered. Our nieces and nephews cheered. My mom and dad cheered because we were cheering.
In spite of so few orders coming in initially, we stayed consistent. That meant continuing to post on Instagram regularly and cycling through new products. There was no handbook of what to do next, so we made our share of best guesses.
Throughout the next year, new arrivals were launched. The more we did, the more new sales we had. The more orders we received, the more reordering we were able to do. This was progress.
Debt-free at last
In 2017, I had a surprise pregnancy, as did my sister. Baltic Born was still a side gig for everyone, and we all had other jobs. My sister was a single mom then and suggested we go all in on the venture so she could provide adequately for her son. That felt right. We easily agreed.
There were other considerations. Marianne had developed a severe allergic reaction to hair dye chemicals and had to scale back on her job, and my husband was traveling all the time. I needed to do so well that he’d no longer have to work. He could be at home, helping me with our kids.
All of us had a renewed sense of the kind of success we could accomplish. We began participating in pop-up shops locally, even setting up a booth at cheer and dance competitions. The more weird random holiday festivals we did, the more our name got out there.
It was typical to wake up early and need to be set up at a festival at 8 a.m. Inventory was hauled there by moms still nursing new babies. We shared the responsibilities; one sister took a lap with a baby in a front pack and another in the stroller and walked the event while we sold clothes.
It was face-to-face selling. Most of our income was coming from pop-up shops then, not online sales. It helped us grow our brand and see firsthand what was selling.
At the Utah Pinners Conference in 2017, we discovered we’d paid off our $20,000 loan in its entirety, which was a huge weight off our shoulders. We estimated it would happen in five years, then surprised ourselves by doing it in just a year and a half.
Being free of debt was amazing! Our hard work had paid off. We could have kept doing exactly what we were doing and continued enjoying some success, but we weren’t even earning paychecks yet.
In 2018, the next step was taken. We hired a Los Angeles-based ad agency, but it didn’t end well. Mistakes were made, and we were $10,000 in debt again. But failure was never an option at any point. We got rid of that agency and found a better one. It set us on a new path to success.
Moms in a basement
The agency suggested we grow our inventory by increasing the exclusive products we offered. Until then, we’d sold a fairly curated collection. Buying so much of one item was terrifying. What if it didn’t sell? But we knew we needed to do it in order to move forward. We trusted the process.
Once our own styles were designed and marketed, they started to really take off. Throughout 2018, we grew immensely. We learned a lot in a short amount of time, from customer service to shipping and returns. Without any real network to lean on, it meant a lot of stabs in the dark and lots of trial and error.
Remember, we weren’t well-practiced in business. We weren’t technology wizards. We were just moms in a basement. My basement, actually, which we outgrew. My parent’s basement was where we landed next. Our first few employees were high school girls who visited us in the basement and helped fulfill orders a few hours at a time.
"If you want to go down the same road we did, be prepared to fail. When you do fail, refuse to quit. There were times we felt this business was too much to handle. The stress of managing a business is heavy, and it can take a toll on you physically, mentally and emotionally. On the other side of that, if you love to reach the goals you set for yourself and see yourself grow, by all means, do it. Get after it. Start that company. Improve along the way because you want to and not because it’s based on any competition. Having fun can be a real driver, as it is for us. That’s the entrepreneurial spirit: to start something you like and continue to find reasons to like it even more."
Photo courtesy of Baltic Born
Before very long, we started taking over my parent’s house entirely. A typical day involved doing a photo shoot upstairs, moving furniture around, taking our photos and moving all the furniture back into place. Then, a shipment of 18 boxes would arrive, and we’d haul them down two flights of stairs, sort the inventory and add products to Shopify. They’d all sell, and we’d haul the orders back up the stairs and head to the post office four times a day. It was becoming a very physical job.
Baltic Born exploded through the fall of 2019, moving from our mom’s basement to a 3,000-square-foot warehouse. The size of our orders was increasing. We were headed in the right direction.
Then, in 2020, COVID-19 hit. No one saw that coming, and nobody knew what to do. We sold affordable occasion wear. If no occasions were happening, what were we supposed to do?
One early solution was deciding on a daily minimum sales goal, the least amount of money we’d have to make in order to keep our bills paid. Most days, we doubled that number. But all of our employees needed to be quarantined, adding to that growing uncertainty.
In the meantime, my family filled in. Because we had all quarantined together—nieces and nephews, even—everyone worked for us during that time. We still had to fulfill orders. The clothes were still selling!
Pivot part two
Occasions weren’t happening. Many were stuck at home and bored. We connected with our audience via Instagram Live, and we showed clothes and interacted with our customers in real time. That went a long way during what was often a lonely time for our customers.
After three weeks, everyone realized COVID was not going away. Still, people were getting restless, our customers included. If a couple still wanted to get married, they would (and did!), even if it meant a backyard wedding with a small group. Sales plummeted for three weeks and shot right back up again.
Supply chains overseas were still closed, but we had a lucky advantage: we’d ordered ahead and received a ton of inventory. It allowed us to thrive when no one else was. Sales shot through the roof as our exclusive styles sold out over and over again.
More success meant we needed more space, and lots of it. We secured additional warehouses at a time when they were impossible to find in Utah. We filled 16 storage units with ready-to-be-sold merchandise.
When we rented a 30,000-square-foot warehouse in 2022—five times larger than our prior space—it changed everything for us. Automation was implemented for the first time, and it nearly put us in our graves! There was new technology to learn, fulfillment practices to put into place, a new warehouse management system, adding barcodes and so on. It was a lot.
Side hustle no longer
As we grew, so did the demands on our time. To keep up, my sisters and I worked 13-hour days. We never got to see our kids. We had no time to eat and were losing weight, just constantly running, running, running. Moving into a larger warehouse was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, but we’re on the other side of that, and it’s so beautiful now. Doing so allowed us to run the business for less.
I’m really proud we were able to grow this business all on our own, just as we said we would. Baltic Born was No. 14 on the Inc. 5000 last year, which lists the 5,000 fastest-growing companies in the country based on revenue growth rate. This year, we’re at No. 168. We’re also No. 3 on the list of the fastest-growing companies in Utah this year. That bodes well for our future and longevity. With so much competition in the e-commerce space, we’re proud to be recognized.
A word of advice
If you want to go down the same road we did, be prepared to fail. When you do fail, refuse to quit. There were times we felt this business was too much to handle. The stress of managing a business is heavy, and it can take a toll on you physically, mentally and emotionally.
On the other side of that, if you love to reach the goals you set for yourself and see yourself grow, by all means, do it. Get after it. Start that company. Improve along the way because you want to and not because it’s based on any competition. Having fun can be a real driver, as it is for us. That’s the entrepreneurial spirit: to start something you like and continue to find reasons to like it even more.
Photo courtesy of Baltic Born