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Managing a Business from Home with KOTN's Husband and Wife Co-Founders

We interviewed Benjamin Sehl and Mackenzie Yeates, the co-founders and husband-wife duo behind ethical fashion company, KOTN, on how they maximize productivity when working from home and contribute what they can during COVID.

Home Work is a series that examines how founders and designers are managing their work and team in a remote world.
Home Work is a series that examines how founders and designers are managing their work and team in a remote world.

Home Work Issue No. 4: Benjamin Sehl & Mackenzie Yeates, Co-Founders of KOTN

Ben and Mackenzie are a husband-and-wife team who founded KOTN with their co-founder Rami Helali. From fair labor practices to supporting social projects through the sales of their products, KOTN is a Certified B Corporation creating quality clothing with ethical practices. As startup and work-life balance experts, Ben and Mackenzie have special insights on working together 24/7, choosing the best productivity tools, and pivoting production plans during COVID to maintain growth.
Before we get started, could you tell us a bit about your roles at KOTN?
Ben: I'm a product designer by trade who grew up in rural Ontario. I run everything from our e-commerce site to digital strategy. I also build out prototypes for new channels that we are working on.
Mackenzie: I'm the Chief Brand Officer of KOTN which encompasses overseeing brand marketing, creative, retail, product design, and buying.

On Productivity

What does your typical week look like?
Ben: At the beginning of every week, I meet with our co-founder, Rami, and give him a brief on the week prior: what went well, what didn't go well, where I'm challenged, where I'm blocked. I'll detail what I'm planning on working on during the coming week. And I'll check my Asana inbox to see if anybody else has assigned tasks to me.
We'll try to identify the priorities among those tasks. And I'll put a time box on each of them — either 15 minutes, one hour, two hours, half a day, a full day, or two days — and then roll out a schedule from there.
I don't reprioritize for the whole week. I just try and knock all of that stuff out. I really make an effort not to overload myself with tasks. I don't want to get to next week's meeting and realize I only hit half of my list.
Mackenzie: Our co-founder, Rami, is a human Asana-board. He remembers every single task. He takes no notes, he just knows them all. Which is funny because he forgets a lot of stuff, except for tasks. So we all have to make sure we get the tasks done!
My team follows a similar strategy. On Mondays, everyone writes out their main priorities for the week. At the end of the week, we go through it again and see how much we accomplished. It's basically a weekly checklist.
Rami Helali (L), Benjamin Sehl, Mackenzie Yeates (R)
Outside of Asana, do you have other mechanisms to track what needs to get done, or ways to stay organized?
Ben: I really like the "getting things done" style of working. So I actually just built an app. It's a Chrome extension that only shows me the one task I have to work on at a time. So every time I open a new page, I'm reminded of what I need to work on at that moment. Once I've completed the task, I check it off and the next one pops up!
Mackenzie: I take a more traditional approach. There's a notepad on my desk that has the days of the week. Sometimes I'll write in little reminders for things that are time specific. Or I'll write lots of notes in Evernote.
I've also been getting into other digital tools a bit more. Apart from Asana which I love I use Airtable a lot. It's like Excel for visual people. You can color code everything and see different views of information, so it's really helpful for planning out new product drops, or shortlists for photo shoots.
I also communicate a lot on Figma. It's a UX design tool, but we also use it for collaboration on different visual projects. We create all our ads on it. We do all our homepage layouts and editorial layouts on it too. And we also plan out our line of products there. It's the best tool in the world! And it is something we've all really gotten on board with during Covid.
Now that you're both working from home, is there anything that you do to maximize productivity?
Mackenzie: I just brought my monitor home from my office. It's made my workspace feel more permanent which helps. Before, I'd get set up, plug in my laptop, and set up everything else I need to work in the morning. That little ritual of getting organized helps me switch into a work mindset.
Ben: I'm not the cleanest person, but when the house is clean I feel more productive. Whenever I see a mess, it turns into a distraction so I can't help, but tidy up.

The one thing that really changed is I'm now a team of one. So I have no meetings, and I love it.

On Working from Home

On that note, what is your home office like?
Ben: We have two floors, thankfully. Mackenzie takes the top floor, I take the bottom floor. We only have one desk, so I've been working from the couch. It's been a bit uncomfortable.
We've finally committed to creating a more permanent workspace for both of us. We're about to build a new desk and we're in search of ergonomic chairs that look good in a home (wink).
What's your favorite part of working from home? Is there anything you look forward to in your day?
Ben: The one thing that really changed is I'm now a team of one. So I have no meetings, and I love it. I'm much more productive.
As a result of this newfound flexibility, I can take a break in the middle of the day. I like splitting up my workday by going for a run down by the water. That's probably my number one! That, and hanging out with our dog.
Mackenzie: It's nice that we get to eat lunch together everyday. I really enjoy that. We get to share more normal moments together.
With all the time you spend together, how do you navigate being married to your cofounder?
Ben: We got married six months into starting KOTN and we've been working together for five years so we've gotten to really understand each other. We have this pace of talking to each other where we can move really quickly. For the first four years, our desks were next to each other. We were together 24/7 literally.
We don't really like any of the same stuff, except for everything that we do at work. Because we have so much of that overlap, it's actually nice to have our interests separate.
It's stressful being married and working together too. It gets hard to separate work from life. Sometimes there's a little friction. But overall, it's been really great, and we've gotten better at navigating it with time.
Can you tell us more about how you two collaborate at KOTN?
Ben: Mackenzie's parents worked together as well. And my parents are both physicians. There was always something so cool in the collaboration, the differences of perspectives, and the respect there. And how you can come up with better answers. There's a lot I can help Mackenzie with. And there's a lot she helps me with. I don't think either of us could tackle this without each other.

The funny thing is we actually talk less during the workday than we did when we were in the same office.

Did that prepare you for working from home?
Ben: The funny thing is we actually talk less during the workday than we did when we were in the same office together. KOTN has an open office plan, but we're separated by different floors now.
Mackenzie: Plus, Ben is in focus mode most of the day while I'm mainly on calls. I transitioned my role a little bit during this time. A lot of my job now is just talking to people and answering their questions, so we have different styles of working due to our roles.

On Adapting to Covid

Has your approach to brand building changed to adapt to what's going on in the world?
Ben: At the start of Covid, we turned our focus to social media. Our stores were closed and we didn't feel comfortable pushing sales. We realized it was a good opportunity to focus on building brand loyalty and customer love. We put a lot of effort into sharing cool stories and interesting content just keeping people entertained without the pressure to buy our products.
Mackenzie: We were seeing lots of preplanned ads and posts from companies. It felt out of touch with reality. So it was very important to us to be nimble and tailor messaging to what was going on.
So much happened. There's Covid. And then there was so much social change. Which is really important to us. With the BLM movement, we wanted to make sure we were addressing it appropriately.
Your factories and farmers are in Egypt. How has your supply chain been affected by Covid?
Ben: There’s been a huge impact on Cairo so the factories have certainly been negatively affected. It’s a very densely populated city, and the culture and economic situation is such that it’s not possible for people to work from home.
Our factories shut down at the beginning — which we agreed with — we wanted to keep all our employees safe. At the same time, there isn’t the same government support or infrastructure like in Canada or the US. So not going to work means not getting paid. At a certain point, going back to work is a necessity for these families. And that’s been challenging to navigate.

Having five years of experience as a startup helped us work in the moment. It's been a real asset.

Has that changed your production plans for the upcoming year?

Ben: Before everything happened, we were looking forward to Fall 2020 as the season we were going to move forward with our business and streamline our production schedule. That all got blown up, just like everybody else’s schedules. The new timeline is Spring 2021.
Having five years of experience as a startup helped us work in the moment. We were used to last minute product delays and other obstacles. It’s been a real asset now. We’ve managed to keep growing and we’ve moved some production to Portugal as well.
You partnered with Holt Renfrew to create and donate 15,000 masks. Can you tell us more about that, and how it came to be?
Mackenzie: It was quite the impromptu project.
Ben’s parents are physicians. His brother, my brother, and my sister-in-law are all doctors. So it was incredibly important for us to support the healthcare industry however we could. We just didn’t know what we could do.
We collaborated with Holt Renfrew before, so when we saw a post on LinkedIn from a Holt Renfrew employee talking about making masks and asking if anyone had fabric, we quickly got in touch.
We turned some dead-stock fabric and goods into masks. It was a cool opportunity to recycle products. The masks were created locally in Canada by Holt Renfrew and donated to SunnyBrook Hospital in Toronto. It was a great moment.
Now that everyone's working at home, have you seen any changes in what clothing is popular?
Ben: Sweatpants!
Mackenzie: They sold out really fast. Then we launched bike shorts, which were the summer sweatpants. They sold out in 45 minutes!
Ben: We were seeing four or five sales a minute. It reminded me of the few times where we launched a product, and I would check the site and think we messed up. Because the email was just sent out and nothing was available. I thought something went wrong, but they actually just had all sold out right away!
Mackenzie: It was pretty sick! I’ve heard people call jeans “hard pants.” And it makes sense — they’re less comfortable and a lot of those tend to sell in-store rather than online. But now that we don’t have changing rooms open, and everyone is staying comfortable, it’s time for the “soft pants.”

On new furniture, exclusive sales and more.

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