Ask Trent Kitsch to sum up entrepreneurship in a couple of words and he’ll say, “Problem recognition.” And 15 years ago, as he sat cramped in an inflatable fishing suit on a boat off the Queen Charlotte Islands, his problem was extreme discomfort.
“I sat in that boat, staring out toward China, asking myself one question again and again: ‘How can I reinvent men’s underwear to prevent contact and be more comfortable?’”
He found his answer in Saxx, a premium men’s underwear line he launched while attending Ivey Business School.
Kitsch, MBA’07, will share his entrepreneurial journey as the inaugural presenter of the Ronald D. Schmeichel Speaker Series, as Western celebrates Global Entrepreneurship Week.
He’ll impart insights he learned to build, and ultimately sell Saxx in 2016, and from co-founding Doja Cannabis Company, which was sold to Canopy Growth in 2018 for $630 million. The Kelowna native will also speak as co-founder of Kitsch Wines, a family business he started with his wife Ria.
“If you can recognize problems, you can likely recognize an opportunity,” Kitsch said. “I see opportunities everywhere.”
His idea for an underwear design that reduced friction came just two weeks before he returned for his final year at Ivey ─ giving him a focus for a class project that required him to write a business plan.
He drew on his experience as a former National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 level baseball catcher drafted to the Colorado Rockies. All protective undergarments he wore during those years had hard structures.
“I had probably worn 20 different jocks in my career and had some pretty weird experiences. I took my decades of wearing hard things and in my mind’s eye, started morphing it into something soft.”
His brainstorming led to what is now an internationally recognized brand, distinctive for its “ergonomic comfort pouch and patented side comfort panels.”
Some scoffed at his idea, but he’s grateful for the Ivey professors who “were in my corner and saw my passion and belief in it,” he says. “I was surrounded by professors and experts in every silo of business and, additionally, they were entrepreneurs. I remember (faculty member) Dave Simpson saying, ‘Let him try it. This is what entrepreneurship is all about.’”
“Trent’s story reads like a perfect Hollywood script,” Morse said. “I had the pleasure of teaching and coaching him and saw the passion, confidence and grit that typify an entrepreneur. Since then, he has continued to build on that success, becoming a serial entrepreneur who excels in channeling his passions to create value.”
Coming from a long family line of entrepreneurs, including sister Kelsey Ramsden, MBA’04, Kitsch saw early the value of surrounding yourself with good people.
He approached the president of Fanshawe College’s design program to find the “right person with the right talent and skills” to create a design from what he originally sketched out on the fishing lodge stationery. He then went to Toronto’s fashion district, and later China, to source material.
“One thing for entrepreneurs to realize is that the value is in the idea,” Kitsch said. “I still don’t know how to sew, and I’m not a pattern maker, but I didn’t need to be. You hire the experts and fast forward your own experience by learning.”
Instead, Kitsch focused on marketing, with his strong work ethic driving him to take Saxx from idea to prototype to sales in just three months.
‘The underwear guy’
Kitsch jumped at every opportunity to test the market and build his brand.
Soon known as the ‘underwear guy,’ he sold his first 200 pairs of Saxx from a table he set up in the University Community Centre. Neatly folded pairs of underwear were packaged in small sandwich bags affixed with labels he printed himself. He included his email, encouraging his customers to provide feedback. On weekends, he’d head to Toronto to sell his product outside Lululemon on Queen Street West.
Along with his classmates, Kitsch won the Ivey MBA Business Plan Competition (2007), moving on to the national round.
That’s where a producer of the CBC’s Dragon’s Den saw him and asked him to come on the show. Kitsch dropped everything and pitched his idea the next afternoon.
Although he didn’t secure an investor, he got what he was after: incredible exposure.
“It really is a succession of milestones and luck,” Kitsch said. And, once again, recognizing opportunity. Between the three months of the show’s recording and air date, he made sure the Saxx website was up and ready to go.
“The day after the show aired, we did $30,000 or $40,000 in sales,” he said. “At that time, we were usually doing $1,000 or $2,000 a day.”
Kitsch also won over the audience, winning $50,000 through the Armchair Dragon Award.
Kitsch’s favourite television moment, also in 2007, came when he heard one of his idols, British billionaire Richard Branson, was coming to Toronto to appear on MTV Live.
“As soon as I saw the promo, I thought, ‘I have got to get a pair of Saxx to Richard Branson,’” Kitsch said.
Wearing a jacket with a Saxx shirt and a pair of underwear hidden underneath, he saw his opportunity when a producer came looking for audience members with questions.
“I said I wanted to ask Branson how he felt getting locked out of Heathrow Airport by British Airways,” Kitsch said, fooling the producer enough to hand over the mic.
“When the camera came on me, I took off my jacket to show my t-shirt with a big Saxx logo, and I walked up to the stage to give him the underwear. All the security guards came up behind me at the edge of the shot, and I could see the producer was really mad.”
But not Branson. He not only took the underwear, but put them on over his pants, complimenting Kitsch on his marketing savvy.
And while Kitsch looks back on all the fun he’s had building and scaling up businesses, he’s also eager to share the harder lessons he’s learned with aspiring entrepreneurs in his talk Thursday night.
“My goal is to share one, two or three jewels to help someone along the way,” he said, adding that the biggest lesson comes in a motto he’s followed throughout his life:
“There’s no substitute for hard work and dedicated focus.”
Trent Kitsch is speaking in the Thames Hall Atrium at Western, 40 Lambton Drive on Thursday, Nov. 17 at 4:30 p.m. Register to attend.