Continuing our chats with some of West Center’s SBDC clients, we met up with Anna Birkás at her charming home in Ukiah’s historic Wagenseller neighborhood. We wanted to talk about Anna’s latest venture with the launch of her business, Chickfly!
WC: Tell our readers who you are and what your business is.
AB: I’m Anna Birkás and I started Chickfly. My company makes pants with a fly that works for women. I developed this unique patented design to help women and others go to the bathroom discreetly and with ease.
WC: Why do we need pants with a fly for women?
AB: As a hydrologist, ecologist and general contractor, I work outdoors all the time on crews with men and mixed company. I began to recognize that there was an inherent inequality issue—from women who are limited by bathroom lines, privacy on construction jobs, removal of equipment such as safety harnesses, lost time on marathons—to people with disabilities who want to be able to maneuver on to a toilet and open their fly without taking their pants down to people who are gender-fluid and trans.
WC: What first sparked this idea? What was the “aha!” moment for you?
AB: Well, I’ve always been a bit macho and competitive with men so it’s natural for me to want to do what men can do. Some of that comes from being a general contractor and doing construction work. What sparked the idea was when my son was an infant and I was doing elimination communication with him. In Asia, and specifically in China, babies often wear split pants so I began playing with that design and made some pants for my son. But it wasn’t till about four years later that I thought, if they work for kids, why not for women? So I went to a thrift store and bought a really stretchy skirt and made my first pair. My first attempt started with two individual legs that stretched across the opposing hip, creating a wonderful place in the middle that pulled apart: Chickfly was born! I pretty much knew I was going to start a business as soon I made that first pair of pants. They were amazing and they worked really well!
WC: Are you naturally a seamstress?
AB: I don’t really consider myself a seamstress as I don’t know all the rules. I’m more of a designer – I do water design and construction in my other work – so I can see things 3-D and imagine the design. I did learn to sew when I was very young. When I was a toddler, my mom taught me how to use a needle. I then graduated to our old treadle machine and since then have always sewed throughout my life.
WC: You’ve designed basic yoga pants; what’s next?
AB: You’re right. I’ve made the easiest pair of pants – the stretch yoga pants – but I have ideas about how I could make cargo pants, pants for the military, and more complex pants. But it’s really hard to figure out. You need to have the stretchy fabric in the crotch but very durable fabric for the legs and everywhere else. I’ve made one draft of them but to me, they look funny and aren’t the aesthetic I’m looking for. I fall asleep at night thinking about how to design things!
WC: Tell us about some of the issues you faced when starting Chickfly.
AB: I first started working with West Center and the Mendocino SBDC several years ago with my other business, Village EcoSystems and it was really helpful. I then came back to West Center more recently after I’d been preparing for many years to launch Chickfly. I began working with their advisors in earnest and got help with things like writing a business plan, learning to use social media and create marketing materials, how to position myself online ahead of my Kickstarter launch to make sure I had the right branding, the right attention, and to focus on the right things before I went live with that launch.
WC: Can you tell us what it’s like to have West Center to reach out to?
AB: I find it very comforting and the Mendocino SBDC has been great. It’s really helpful because having worked with them so much over the years, I’ve found out how they can be most helpful to me. A lot of times it’s just nice to have someone there to tell you what to do. I’ve made a lot of big decisions on my own during this process and in some ways that’s exhausting and it also feels inefficient. I’m at a point in the business where I need to focus on only the things that really matter and I need to do those really well. So the Mendocino SBDC has been really helpful in guiding me in that regard.
WC: What role did West Center’s advisors play in helping you?
AB: I had been so focused on doing everything myself, I realized there comes a time when you need some other feedback. I was trying to be everything: the seamstress, the financial person, the designer, the producer of marketing materials, videos and social media. It was a giant learning curve and I learned a lot. But when it came down to getting ready to launch, I didn’t have a budget to hire people at professional rates for the specialized skills I needed assistance with. I got very specific help from West Center and I now know many people there who I can contact for specific things. It’s really nice to know that when I need a hand, I know who to call and where to get help. A big part of my success is being able to get expert advice when it’s needed. For example, since I was interested in specifically targeting outdoor apparel and gear markets, West Center was able to connect me with someone in the Bay Area with that type of experience.
WC: You’re starting a company that has great potential. How will your company’s growth maybe benefit the community and Mendocino County in general?
AB: If the company stays local, then there’s the potential to hire people and provide jobs. I think that’s just so important for our rural county.
WC: Lastly, the $64,000 question: How much have you raised on Kickstarter so far?
AB: As of today (February 18), we have raised $108,000… more than four times my original goal of $25,000! It makes me feel good but it’s a little nerve-wracking! It makes me feel like I should be doing more.
And that’s a wrap!
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