Walk into any New England ski lodge, and you’re bound to find ski boot bags — piled atop tables or packed into corners and cubby holes — adorned with the name Kulkea. In fact, you’re likely to be seeing more and more of them, given the brand’s increasing popularity. But Kulkea is no overnight success.
The brainchild of a pair of brothers from Massachusetts — David and Steven Abramowitz — Kulkea’s first boot bags hit the market in 2012. The process and planning, however, started years earlier, even before the brand officially “launched” in 2009. David Abramowitz, 54, a longtime corporate attorney, said the initial impetus came about from his desire “to start my own business,” and a moment’s inspiration.
“I was searching for months to determine what type of business to start when I went up north to Vermont for a weekend to ski with some friends,” said David, Kulkea’s chief executive officer. “I went to the local shop looking for a replacement for my ski boot bag.
“The bags didn’t look like they were even designed by a real skier,” he said, adding that the quality also left a lot to be desired. “I thought I could design something better, and that’s when it hit me. After the weekend, I put together what I thought a real skier would need, and then I ran it by my brother, who thought it was a smart solution.”
Steven Abramowitz, a veteran of high-tech marketing firms, signed on. He said he and David both were motivated by their mother to be innovative and independent. “She came to the U.S. from Finland, got an education, raised four kids, became a leader in the community and launched a successful residential real estate business,” said Steven, 49. “Dave and I are five years apart; he was the big brother I wrestled with endlessly and looked up to.”
“While in high school and college, we worked together painting houses,” he said. “The work was hard, dirty and a bit dangerous, but we were determined to make a name for ourselves as expert painters. We planned in detail, focused on the quality of our work, the tools used and the materials to do a better job than others at a reasonable price. After that experience, Dave and I knew we could do something on our own.”
The brothers “began meeting regularly to spitball business ideas,” when David had his “lightbulb moment” during his ski trip to Sugarbush, said Steven, now Kulkea’s chief marketing officer. The pair then set to work designing and creating a new line of ski and ski boot bags.
“The learning curve was steep,” said Steven. “We had no industrial design, manufacturing or related supply-chain experience. We networked and relied on the good nature and enthusiasm of friends, family, acquaintances and organizations to help us.
“There were countless setbacks and surprises,” he said. “We knew that any company manufacturing products was only as good as its supply chain. After several cycles and some failures, we were fortunate enough to secure a great designer, factory and partners.
“Another hurdle was to enter and prove our concept in a market dominated by a deeply rooted competitor and large luggage brand.”
David portrayed Kulkea’s early days as an eye-opening experience.
“The challenges were far more than we expected,” he said. “Here we were, two guys — a corporate telecom lawyer and a tech marketing guy — entering into the world of developing products for the alpine ski market. We brought a lot of great experience and expertise that would be hugely helpful, but in the early days we needed skills, knowledge and resources we hadn’t yet acquired.
“We needed the right industrial designers, graphic designers, prototypers, factories, importers, et cetera,” said David. “We had none of it. We actually didn’t even know what we didn’t know. We figured it all out by sheer persistence. I joined the Inventors Association of New England and started attending their meetings. I read books on designing and sourcing products. I met with sourcing personnel, the Small Business Administration, and just about anyone who could help us.”
That resourcefulness can be attributed to their mother, and their upbringing. Even the name Kulkea, a Finnish word that means “to go,” has a strong family connection.
“Our late mother was from Suomenlinna, Finland, the same town as Tuukka Rask,” said Steven. “She instilled a strong work ethic, determination and perseverance in us.
“We’re proud of our mother and our heritage,” he said. “When looking at the industry we were entering and aligning it with our values and mission — making it easier to get on snow — we wanted to represent with a Nordic name and brand feel. After thousands of ideas and consulting with Finnish relatives, Kulkea was the right fit.”
The next challenge was bringing Kulkea bags to market.
“I’ll never forget driving around New England in August 2012, stopping into ski shops trying to get them to buy our products,” said David. “It was a pretty humbling experience, but when at the end of two days, 12 great retailers gave us a chance, I was shocked. The fact that I came home with orders blew my mind.”
Steven had special praise for Phil Burgess, owner of the former Ski Stop in Westwood (since acquired by Boston Ski & Tennis), who “took a chance on us.”
“Customers immediately recognized that our flagship Boot Trekker was a superior product, built by skiers for skiers,” he said. “The quality, functionality, features and design far exceeded what was previously available to skiers.”
The brothers “knew we had something with Kulkea” the first time they exhibited at the Boston Ski and Snowboard Expo, said David.
“The bags just flew off the shelf,” he said. “We couldn’t keep enough bags in the booth. It was such an amazing feeling to see that what we’d developed was being appreciated by real skiers.”
It was a watershed moment for the fledgling brand. The next hurdle was getting the word out.
“We launched Kulkea on a shoestring budget and our marketing efforts were largely rooted in non-paid online channels,” said Steven. “The toolbox I acquired from a background in search and overall digital marketing served us well to garner visibility in the places people were talking about and looking for products in our category.
“Since that time, we’ve expanded to various offline tactics including partnerships with local and national organizations such as the Ski Hall of Fame and building out a team of athletes,” said Steven. “John Egan, the Hall of Fame skier, was our first athlete. He not only helped us produce some great media, but his insight into the industry and product feedback were invaluable.”
The stated mission at Kulkea for the brothers hasn’t changed since their days painting houses.
“In short, we’re committed to producing the best product possible,” said Steven. “If we can’t make something better than what is available, we won’t do it. Design, quality and functionality are key drivers for us. All three must be met to align with our goals.
“We continue to innovate to come up with new and better solutions,” he said. “Whether it be product features, designs and/or getting ahead of trends, we don’t stand still.”
Today, Kulkea offers a number of products, including the Trekker line of boot bags (including a thermal model), duffle bags, ski travel bags and micro-backpacks. In the space of eight short years, the brand has become a major player in the skiing soft goods market. “To us this business has never been about pushing product or selling units,” said David. “It’s always been about doing the right thing. To us, it was about making the best product we could and doing it the right way.
“I go to our factory twice a year and I’m immensely proud that our factory (in Vietnam) is one of the most progressive in all of Asia,” he said. “I have three children, and I never want to be associated with the bad stuff like child or forced labor. We pay more to manufacture, but we’re either going to do it the right way or not at all. With Kulkea, buyers can know we design and develop our own products without copying anyone else, and we do it in a great, reputable factory.”
His brother agreed. “Success can be measured in several ways — revenue, market share and brand recognition, products spotted in lodges, and accolades, all of which have been positive and growing for us,” said Steven. “But for me, it’s the feedback we get from skiers, competitive athletes and riders.
“In addition, there’s a large and growing group of our customers who are advocates,” he said. “They’ll stop by our booth and rave ‘This is the best bag out there’ or ‘I respect what you do and thanks for doing it.’ Many times, these comments are made in front of prospective customers who then go and buy our product. It’s a great feeling.”
The brothers reported that the Outdoor Retailer show in Denver earlier this year was the best retail show they’ve had to date.
“Existing and prospective customers were coming to our booth knowing who we are and what we’re about,” said Steven. “We’ve earned their trust, helped them generate revenue and they’re always hungry for what’s new. Last week at the show we launched our Käydä Travel Backpack. The response was amazingly positive where just about everyone who saw it said ‘This is great, I want it.’ This feedback is a testament to the company, brand and products we’ve built and reinforces that we’ve arrived and aren’t stopping anytime soon.”
Similarly, for David, the future looks bright, and expansive.
“Skiing is at the heart of Kulkea,” he said. “For me, the goal has always been to grow Kulkea into an adventure outdoor brand. My passions are skiing, biking and travel. My dream is for Kulkea to be the best in all of these markets, and we’re diligently working toward that goal.
“We’re at a really exciting time for the business with us having the reputation as the most premium gear bag brand in the ski market,” said David. “It’s going to help us enter these new markets, which to me is a dream come true.”