How traveling took Laura Moffat from a Neuroscience PhD to Fashion Designer
May 20, 2017
Listen to the Interview
Entrepreneur Snapshot
  • Founder: Laura Moffat
  • Company: Kirrin Finch
  • From: Scotland
  • Lives in: New York
  • Recommended Reading:
    Buyology by Martin Lindstrom
    The Rational Animal by Douglas T Kendrick

Key Takeaway: As an entrepreneur, you have all these doubts, but you have to maintain perspective. We’ve been in business more than a year, and most businesses fail before a year. So while you want to quit, you hold out, navigate the uncomfortable and stick it out.

Read the interview

Laura and I met during her General Assembly class Take Control: Developing a Winning Brand Strategy. I asked a lot of questions, and she had a lot of patience with me. We became fast friends and, the more I learned about her, the more I knew I had to rope her in for an interview. In this conversation, she walks us through, step by step, how she took some of the biggest risks of her life. Enjoy!

Jess Ainlay: Let’s begin near the beginning. Where are you from originally and how did you move to the United States?

Laura Moffat: I’m from Scotland originally. I played golf competitively for Scotland and Great Britain, and got a scholarship to come to America and play at UCLA when I was 17.

Jess Ainlay: Wow! Do you feel more American than Scottish at this point?

Laura Moffat: I think so, and I don’t know how my parents feel about that. But your formative years are between 18 to 25, when you are finding yourself. I was here, and socialized here, so I do feel very American.

Jess Ainlay: And you ended up in New York because you got a PhD here?

Laura Moffat: Yes, in Neuroscience. I did my undergraduate in California, thought about becoming a professional golfer, but I realized I wanted to pursue more intellectual aspects. I came to NYU for a grad school interview, and fell in love with New York. I didn’t care what I studied, I just had to be in New York.
So I came here, went to grad school, finished my PhD and then started working as a management consultant in the pharmaceutical industry, then at an agency. I learned what I know about business and marketing from doing that.

Jess Ainlay: How long did you do the corporate thing?

Laura Moffat: I did this for about seven years, from 2007 to 2014 when I quit my job and went traveling.

Jess Ainlay: Were you comfortable working in the office, or was there a part of you that wanted to do something different?

Laura Moffat: No, I definitely really struggled with it, but I was on an H1B visa, which is a work visa. So, I was at the whim of whatever company I was working for at the time. It was a really demanding job, traveling all the time for work, my relationships suffered, but I couldn’t just quit, because I didn’t have a Green Card. I could have quit, but the day you quit you have 30 days to find a job or get out of the country.
I never got to do a gap year like most kids in the UK and Europe, so I always had it in the back of my mind. I think I knew that as soon as I got the green card, I was going to do my own gap year.

Jess Ainlay: When you got the green card, you decided to go traveling. So many people would like to go do that, too, but believe it isn’t attainable or achievable. Can you walk me through that decision?

Laura Moffat: I had been thinking about it for a year. I presented the idea to Kelly, my wife. She thought it was a really cool idea, but was nervous about leaving her job as a teacher, because she could lose her tenure. She worried about what would happen if she left and couldn’t get a job teaching when we got back. But I was relentless about the idea. I kept saying, “this is happening. We’re going to make this happen.”

Jess Ainlay: How did you convince her to take the leap?

Laura Moffat: I wondered if I was jeopardizing my own career, too, but when you tell people what you want to do, or what you did, they get really excited about it and think it’s really cool.

I rationalized the steps with her. Would the principal bring you back? Yes? Then why not?

You have to look at your fear, and explore whether it is founded in fact. Then, you just figure it out - when is it going to happen? What’s the timing? How are we going to execute the plan?

We ended up quitting our jobs, and planning a wedding while we planned our trip, and took it like an extended honeymoon.

Jess Ainlay: Where did you start your trip and how long until you got hit with the idea for your business, Kirrin Finch?

Laura Moffat: We started in the Maldives, went to Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, South East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, flew back to New York for a couple weeks to chill - because traveling is really hard. Then we did South America. In total, we traveled for nine months.

Jess Ainlay: What was your biggest challenge while you traveled?

Laura Moffat: Anxiety. When you’ve quit your job and are about to go traveling, it feels great, and you are totally free. But for me, I’m no good at aimlessly wandering around the world, I kept wondering what my purpose was. The freedom to travel was also a lack of structure - which was also a challenge for me.

Laura recommends: Buyology, by Martin Lindstrom

Read the book

Jess Ainlay: How did your wife adapt to the freedom

Laura Moffat: She was better at it than me. Kelly would’ve traveled for three more months. But I really wanted to get going with our idea, and didn’t want to just talk about it. I wanted to take action.

Jess Ainlay: What was that idea - now your business - Kirrin Finch, all about?

Laura Moffat: Kirrin Finch is a clothing company for women seeking menswear-inspired clothes.

We would often see things in the men’s section or the men’s wear, cool prints, fun patterns, colors that we were really into, but not designed to fit women. When we were planning for our wedding, it was hard to find androgynous clothes, and this was an unmet need we both really cared about. At first, it was just an idea.

Then, at some point, we were both so far removed from our jobs, that it didn’t feel like we had to go back to anything. We had already quit our jobs, already not making a salary.

What was the worst that could happen?

Jess Ainlay: What in the world made you two think, with your background and her background, that you could start a fashion line in New York?

Laura Moffat: Good question. In the beginning, we thought there was no way we could do it. We didn’t know anything about fashion, or sewing, or design. But we just decided to try. We are both inherently researchers, so we dug into things while we traveled. We read about fashion, did competitive research. When we came back to New York that month, we did a market research survey.

Jess Ainlay: You came back to New York City with no jobs, no health insurance, how did you feel? How did you attack your new entrepreneurial lives?

Laura Moffat: We came back super motivated, very excited to have good WiFi, and then we were just flooded with massive fear. Anxiety. What were we doing?! So, we took classes at FIT, did a ton of research, met people in the industry and just learned. Sometimes, we would ask ourselves, “Should we go back to our jobs?”

Then we launched Kirrin Finch. We decided to start with button-up shirts, after our research showed that this was the item that most people were looking for. We did a Kickstarter campaign and raised $36,000 and launched our ecommerce site at the end of June.

Jess Ainlay: Is the company run by just the two of you?

Laura Moffat: Yes, we do all the designs. Somehow, for whatever reason, we seem to be able to figure out.

Jess Ainlay: Five years ago, did you ever think that you’d be designed shirts all day? That you’d be a fashion designer?

Laura Moffat: No, never. And it’s like a little bit of a running joke in our families, who can’t believe we’re fashion designers. My parents live in a really (really) small town, where everyone knows me as a professional golfer, and now I’m a fashion designer. It’s a total disconnect.

When you want to take a risk, ask yourself: What's the worst that could happen

Jess Ainlay:You’re a part of the Brooklyn Fashion Design Accelerator?

Laura Moffat:Yes. The brand building was fun for Kelly and I, but we needed help on the fashion stuff. We get a ton of mentorship at BFDA. We are trying to scale, businesses don’t profit in their first year, we can’t pay anyone, so we wear so many hats. With no employees, you’re shipping, you’re putting on labels, you’re doing hang tags, you’re writing your copy, you’re updating your website, you’re putting out your email newsletters -everything, until you get over the threshold to make a profit.

Jess Ainlay:How did traveling or living abroad help you with your business?

Laura Moffat:When you travel, you throw yourself into new cultures, don’t understand and are forced to navigate what is going on. You’re uncomfortable a lot of the time. So, you have to learn to live with that. It’s the same as being in business. You’re uncomfortable everyday, worrying about making sales, if people like like what we’re putting out there? It’s all a test of wills.

Some places, like Australia, were easier, because we could be whoever we are. But being a lesbian couple in Southeast Asia, it was uncomfortable and we had to learn to navigate that.

As an entrepreneur, you have all these doubts, but you have to maintain perspective. We’ve been in business more than a year, and most businesses fail before a year. So while you want to quit, you hold out, navigate the uncomfortable and stick it out.

Jess Ainlay:What country impacted you the most?

Laura Moffat:India. I had been there for a wedding before, but was shielded from everything because we were escorted everywhere. But when we traveled, India was hard as a gay couple who stood out like sore thumbs. After three weeks in India, I really appreciated living in New York and feeling accepted and not feeling like an outsider. When I came home, I felt so much empathy for people who don’t feel comfortable, or feel like outsiders.

Jess Ainlay:That’s so related to your company’s entire ethos. You make clothes so people can feel like who they really are!

Laura Moffat:Exactly!

Jess Ainlay:Thanks so much, Laura!

You can connect with Laura and Kelly of Kirrin Finch at kirrinfinch.com, on Instagram, and Facebook

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