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Secrets of Success: Angela Newnam

There are some “rules” of business success most entrepreneurs abide by. But many also have their own “secrets”—things they do or believe that helped them achieve success. In “Secrets of Success,” a weekly interview series here at’s Small Business Forum, I ask some of today’s smartest, most innovative, most successful business owners to share their insights and success secrets with you.

Meet: Angela Newnam, who grew up around textiles. In fact, she was raised in the “textile capitol of the South” (her dad worked for Milliken, which sold the first wicking fabric to Under Armour), so it’s not that surprising that years later Newnam found herself almost right back where she started.

The 40-year-old Harvard MBA turned stay-at-home mom was talking with her girlfriends one afternoon, which led to an epiphany: If companies like Under Armour and Nike could use synthetics for sportswear performance, why shouldn’t everyday undergarments perform as well? So began her search for a performance liner fabric to create the perfect panties.

Once Newnam found and purchased the No Trace technology patent (which is a story in itself), she started searching for manufacturers, insisting on keeping all production in the U.S.

Newnam’s company, Knock out!, an innovative lingerie and garment line, has seen 50 percent growth every year since she launched in 2011. Made in South Carolina of Texas-grown cotton, the Asheville, North Carolina-based company’s products are available at more than 650 retail locations in the U.S. and Canada. Knock out! was named a Top 15 Global Startup by the Kauffman Foundation, and won the Harvard Global New Venture Award. Knock out! has created more than 60 full- and part-time jobs in the past four years. What did you want to be when you grew up?

Angela Newnam: It certainly was not my dream to be an entrepreneur! While not passionate about any particular career path, I did love making things and solving problems. I grew up in the mountains and loved building forts and treehouses. I loved our small garden. Seeing the end product was always important to me. I was lucky that my professor counseled me to go into supply chain and operations consulting. With over 15 years in consulting, I was able to make real change happen in a variety of industries—from making more cans, to cheaper towels, to faster machine tool production. Why did you start your own business?

Newnam: After having three children and starting the exercise path back to fitness, I discovered that “performance panties” did not exist! Performance outerwear came in all sizes and styles, but underwear had not changed in decades. I put together three patented technologies on cotton and knew I had to go for it! Women loved the concept, so I set out to develop attractive products with high performance built in. Did you experience a pivotal moment on your way to success?

Newnam: Knock out! had already sold roughly 20,000 undies in our first year when my husband encouraged me to enter the Harvard Business School New Venture Competition. I didn’t have a business plan—only in my head. I spent a long weekend putting one together and won the first round in Washington, D.C. and then the worldwide final in Boston! I knew women loved our products, but to have a panel of venture capitalists declare Knock out! the winning business was a validation of our concept and implementation. What’s the best small business advice you ever gave and/or received?

Newnam: Most startups focus on making their products or services perfect and not enough on selling and getting real feedback from the customer. Many amazing products cannot get traction because they lack a distribution channel or effective marketing. Early on, I hired an industry veteran to build our distribution and sales functions to get access to our highly competitive market. What’s one “best practice” more entrepreneurs should be embracing?

Newnam: Even small businesses need to act like larger businesses and have systems, key performance measures and annual reviews. As the business grows, wants investors, or seeks to be acquired, all of these management tools give credence to the business model and its long term potential for success. As an example at Knock out!, we have automated and integrated order entry, shipping and inventory that is accurate on a daily basis and ensures our best-in-the-industry service. Do you have a 2015 small business prediction?

Newnam: Extreme and shock value marketing will continue to rise. With marketing messages coming from all directions, it is harder and harder to gain the consumers’ attention. Well-done shock media can be very effective as a social media tool. What’s your favorite book?

Newnam: For business, I loved Brains on Fire, by Robin Phillips, Greg Cordell, Geno Church and Spike Jones. The book’s focus on growing sales by word of mouth and testimonials from loyal customers is particularly impactful for small businesses that don’t have large advertising budgets. Personally, I love Jane Austen’s classics. Pride and Prejudice is my favorite and never gets old! Is there a quote you find particularly inspiring?

Newnam: “Energy and perseverance will conquer all things” – Benjamin Franklin and “The only way to have friends is to be one.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

My mother has these quotes hanging in the kitchen. I have always leaned on them during tough times.