On episode 2 of the Entrepreneurship@DU Podcast, we chat with Calli Garcia and Zak Mbereko, the co-founders of Kairos Customs. Kairos creates personalized artwork for shoes, enabling customers to wear their hearts on their “sole.”


Kevin Douglas (00:07):
Today on the entrepreneurship at DU podcast,

Zak Mbereko (00:11):
We were both pretty passionate about art and we are starting to really dive into an unbeaten path.

Kevin Douglas (00:17):
Some people say, we’re your heart on your sleeve. At Cairo’s customs, wear your heart on your soul.

Calli Garcia (00:24):
Me personally, as an artist, I understand the person more by seeing them talking to ’em than I can understand what they really want in the artwork itself,

Kevin Douglas (00:32):
Learn how two friends met, entered their shared love of art into a small business. I’m Kevin Douglas and this is the Entrepreneurship DU Podcast. Welcome to the Entrepreneurship at DU podcast. Here we have the co-founders of Cairos, a startup that does custom shoe paint services. Will you guys introduce yourselves?

Calli Garcia (01:03):
I’m Callie Garcia, I’m majoring in marketing and I’m a senior this year.

Zak Mbereko (01:07):
And I am Isaac Gza. Depending on if you’ve heard my name at Roll Caller or not. I am a business management major here and I’m a junior.

Kevin Douglas (01:15):
Awesome. So could you guys tell me a little bit about how you met, how you connected with each other and how that eventually turned into this startup?

Zak Mbereko (01:25):
Yeah, for sure. So we actually met courtesy of the entrepreneurship llc. We kind of got everything started because of the, what’s it technically call? I guess it’s like the Lean startup. It was where they give us $20 and you have 10 weeks to start a business and basically make as much money as you possibly can out of that $20. And she worked on a clothing brand of sorts and I worked on shoe restoration for my idea and at the end of it we kind of came together because we were both pretty passionate about art and found a pretty good way to integrate both of the businesses that we had started. And out of it came Kairos about a year and a half later.

Calli Garcia (02:07):
We were on separate groups actually for that project and he happened to be sitting in the common room with us and throwing out ideas for our group. And so we just was like, Hey, let’s do this afterwards.

Kevin Douglas (02:18):
Yeah. Is this the first time you’ve tried starting your own business? Have you even done a lemonade stand as a kid or mowing lawns in the neighborhood?

Calli Garcia (02:29):
I sold snacks out of my locker in middle school I would bring in Reese Rice crispy bars and stuff because my grandpa had a Sam’s Club card, so I would just go and buy those packs and stuff and just sell ’em out of my locker for fun. But for sure, this is the first big one I’ve done

Zak Mbereko (02:46):
For me. I had a pretty similar road. I used to actually make a bunch of rice crispy treats at home and I grew up in Aspen, so I was pretty close to a lot of people that were doing hiking and just a bunch of sports and being outside all the time. So I would go sit in front of the bus stop by my house and just sell as many as I could out to any of the hikers or anything like that. I would also non dis <laugh>, probably under the radar, get a bunch of checks mix or what’s the snack with the m and ms and the nuts Trail mix. Trail mix, that’s it. And I would just repackage that and sell that out. <laugh> trying to make a quick buck. I also used to do lacrosse stringing for people. I actually still do that a little bit here and there and duct tape wallets. That made me a pretty nice chunk of change when I was a little kid. Trying to think. I remember the first thing I ever did trying to make Bunny was I begged my parents to pay me for taking out the trash. Yeah, I mean, I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial mind, always trying to make a quick buck for sure.

Kevin Douglas (03:49):
Maybe you were too young to remember, but what inspired that? Did you hear your other friends were getting an allowance and you were like, I’m not getting this, I should be getting paid for these services.

Zak Mbereko (03:59):
Exactly. Yeah, that was one of the big things. I also grew up in a family of business owners. My parents owned a painting contracting business in Aspen that did pretty well for a number of years. My grandpa owned a lot of real estate in Seattle a long time ago. So I grew up kind of in that environment personally. And that I think was, I don’t really know if I was really inspired at a young age. I don’t think it really occurred to me, but I just am pretty blessed to have grown up in that situation where I kind of picked up a lot of those traits.

Kevin Douglas (04:33):
I can see how that would just rub off on you. Yeah. So in terms of this venture specifically, what is it that you offer? What sets you apart from competitors that you would have in this field?

Calli Garcia (04:45):
I would say for sure is the effort we put into communicating with the customers. Cause most of the other businesses I’ve seen this, especially on TikTok, they just get orders from people and they design it and send it out for us. We make sure to meet with the customer, get to know them. For me personally as an artist, I understand the person more by seeing them talking to ’em. Besides just getting questions, what do you dislike? What’s your favorite color? To see them talk about their passions and stuff than I can understand what they really want in the artwork itself.

Zak Mbereko (05:16):
Exactly. That’s a huge part of what we like to do. I mean, especially in our first couple pairs of shoes, immediately what we would want to do is hop on a Zoom or hop on a FaceTime if we couldn’t meet that person and make sure that we get that personality because that’s something that we feel is so important about our business is that, I mean, kind of a tagline that we really just came up with a little off the cuff was like where your heart on your soul as a part as opposed to your sleeve, which I think is a pretty common slogan, if you will. And we really want to just bring that personality. We want to make the shoes a part of that person because we understand that shoe wear and clothing and everything is already a huge part of who people are.

(05:56): That’s how they represent themselves. So we want to accentuate that. And then another thing that I think is now starting to separate us is the mass. Something that a lot of people in this industry do is one-off shoes. You do one pair for one person, and we just got done with our biggest order ever, which was 23 pairs for the gymnastics team, which in technical term for artwork, you don’t see that. You don’t see the same exact piece of art replicated by hand or by airbrush over and over and over again. You would just get something screen printed. So a huge thing that separates us is that we can do that and we are starting to really dive into what we’re seeing is something that is an unbeaten path.

Kevin Douglas (06:42):
So you guys are, it seems like you share a lot of the responsibilities. What is it about your dynamic and the skills you’re bringing to the table that make you guys a good team?

Zak Mbereko (06:53):
So that’s something that we’re actually just kind of learning. I mean, we’re very new to having an official business and we’re just learning about all of the things that we’re really good at, what we’re not good at, and being able to compliment that. Personally I can say I might be a little bit more of the organized in terms of talking to people and making sure that we have communication with you or communication with a lot of our customers. I would like to say that I’m also decently good at art, so I get a little bit of the design work and the painting done, but I think that primarily comes down to Callie where she has just an unbelievable talent for being able to put down, as we said, what people’s thoughts, all their emotions, all of that character, that personality into the shoes. She has an uncanny ability to do that.

Calli Garcia (07:44):
I would say at the beginning when we first did this, not even as an official business Zach was definitely doing all of the networking and I was just doing the hand painting and stuff. But for sure right now, I think it’s really funny because he’s the entrepreneur major and I’m the marketing major, but he’s doing all of the marketing and networking and I’m just trying to focus on how to organize the business itself so that we can work more efficiently. But for sure, I think that we are, because it’s just the two of us work just picking up wherever we can for the other person.

Zak Mbereko (08:17):
Exactly. And that’s been a huge thing for us. As I said, we’re just learning all of this. It is, I mean, it’s scary at times. I’m not going to lie because we have no clue what we’re doing really in terms of an official business, but we’re picking up a lot of skills, which we’re super proud of, and being able to compliment that for each other.

Kevin Douglas (08:35):
That’s one thing I hear a lot from the entrepreneurs I talk to is almost everyone is building the plane as they’re flying it. Exactly. And there’s no better way to learn than just putting yourself in it in the action. What are some significant obstacles you’ve found? Because one other thread with all the people I talk to and any entrepreneur you talk to is before you find that success, it’s a lot of failure, it’s a lot of learning the lessons, the hard way and immediately. What are some of those moments for you guys with this business?

Calli Garcia (09:08):
For me in particular, it’s not really associated to the business itself, but it does affect the business, is trying to balance my personal life, my social life, while working with classes and stuff as well as the business. It’s a lot to take on all at once. So just trying to make sure that I hold myself accountable for what I agree to and make sure that if I say I’m going to do it, at least I get it done. And that’s the biggest one for me right now because if I agree to take on shoes and I can’t meet that deadline, then that affects the business.

Zak Mbereko (09:42):
Yeah, I think that just work life balance is pretty huge. I think in terms of the business, one of the biggest I’m not even really sure we can say that we’ve failed up to this point, which I don’t know. I don’t look at it as we have ever really failed. It’s just kind of a learning moment for us. But as Kelly said, just kind of meeting those deadlines where, because we’re in school and a lot of the times that we’ve had the most business has always been around finals time, so it’s just like, oh, panic stations all the time. So just trying to be able to meet that. But then at the same time, a big thing now because as I said earlier, we’re getting into that, being able to do multiple kinds of shoes is finding consistency and really we’ve only had to learn that in our most recent order, and we’re going to be able to learn and be able to be better at that next time and being able to correctly evaluate timelines to get that consistent all the time.

(10:41): So I can say with our shoes just now, I mean we had some issues with quality control in terms of being able to get stencils to always stick and things like that so that you don’t get bleeding or whatever, and finding all the right materials and just learning about all of these things that, because as you said, we’re building the plane as we fly it, you don’t know until you try it. So I don’t know. Again, it’s not really failures, but it’s just consistently having to learn new things. That’s always like, oh, it really makes you take a step back. Yeah.

Kevin Douglas (11:17):
I’d love to hear a little more about, you mentioned the balance of personal life being a student and being a small business owner essentially. And what do you think has changed the most since starting this project and how have you managed that balance?

Calli Garcia (11:33):
The thing that changed the most for me was definitely planning my days. I now have to plan things like two weeks in advance because I have to try and use my time as efficiently as possible. I have classes at a set time during the week, and then I have appointments and meetings and projects that I have to do as well. So trying to make sure that I set aside the time for the shoes a business, now it’s my job, so I have to do, it’s like it’s not nine to five, but I have to make sure that I have that time specifically just to shoes. So that’s the biggest change is trying to put that in my schedule. Now.

Zak Mbereko (12:07):
I can’t really say I’ve had too much change in terms of my life around this where I don’t know, all my friends make fun of me or whatever. I’m not someone that goes out and parties very often. I’m always in my room. I like to <laugh> be alone all the time. I don’t know, it’s just something about me. I’ve always been that way. So I wouldn’t say that I’ve ever really had to change, but there’s definitely things that, again, I’m just learning for all of this. I mean, the time commitment has been unbelievable, especially over the past.

Calli Garcia (12:38):
It’s like two

Zak Mbereko (12:39):
Weeks I’m going to call it four weeks where I mean, we did not sleep. We were in the room just going for n I mean non-stop sleeping there, working all day, getting homework done in the same room. It’s just basically doing what I did before, but in a different place and getting used to maybe doing a different thing. So my life I don’t think has really changed, but now it’s just saying like, okay, well now I’m painting as opposed to writing 27 papers.

Kevin Douglas (13:09):
I want to pivot and talk a little bit about just yourselves. You guys end up here at the University of Denver.

Zak Mbereko (13:16):
So personally, I grew up in Aspen, Colorado, so about three and a half, four hours, depending on if you take the pass or I 70 there. But I also played hockey coming out of Aspen for a very long time. I’ve moved out all around the country and a couple of the alumni include the Domus is here, and my family was pretty close with them. They played hockey here, and that was it for me. I was like, I want to play college hockey here. Unfortunately, things didn’t work out. I had a couple injuries, so it just is what it is, but around time for applications, and once I had decided that I wasn’t going to play hockey any longer, somehow I kind of forgot about DU because that was my goal for so long and I knew I had to pivot, and I was very close to going to Kaneisha College up in Buffalo, New York, but got the free application to DU and something about it. I mean, immediately the second I got in, it wasn’t even a question. I just like that feeling that you get in your gut or your heart or whatever. You’re like, I just need to go there. I didn’t even know what I was going to study at the time. I just knew that that was the right thing for me, even aside from hockey, because I knew that that was kind of off the road off, out of the options off the road for me. So yeah, that’s kind of how I ended up here.

Calli Garcia (14:35):
I was actually born in the Springs and lived here for 10 years, but then moved up to Minnesota and I would visit in the summer and stuff. So I really loved Colorado and I wanted to come back for school and all, but I didn’t actually apply to any schools down here. At first it was all schools in Minnesota. And then I got some stuff in the mail from DU actually, and I was like, you know what? I’ll just apply and see if I get in. I didn’t apply to any other schools out of state of Minnesota. So when I got in, I immediately accepted. I didn’t think about anything else, and I was like, I’m going here. I’m going to come here. I knew I wanted to do marketing and I didn’t even look at the campus or anything. I didn’t look at their business school. I just accepted and I was like, we’re going here mainly because it was in Colorado.

Kevin Douglas (15:19):
What do you think DU has provided in terms of lessons from your class, lessons you’ve learned from your peers in the dorms, especially in the LLC communities? How has resources helped you really bring this specific startup to reality?

Zak Mbereko (15:37):
I mean, quite honestly, DU did everything for us in terms of being able to make this a reality. I mean, starting from the LLC from day one, I mean, all of the support that we got from Professor Michael Caston right off the bat, or I don’t know if he’s currently employed here, but matches Aldi as well. We got an unbelievable amount of knowledge help in terms of physical things, like being able to get the money for the shoes to start this in the first place, to the classes that I have taken where I can name first dollar to First Idea Sale as and monumentally helpful to this business and getting to know ano. A couple of the other professors like Neil Pollard, who, I mean, the opportunities that they have pre presented us have just been second to none in terms of being able to get a room at the garage so that we don’t have to do this in our kitchens or being able to know about and apply for the micro grants that they provide here, or being able to possibly get into base camp which if anyone is unaware of that is the business accelerator that they offer where you get six week, six weeks, $5,000 and a lot of mentoring to be able to grow your business, which I know has been massively helpful to a couple of the other occupants, including Claire Wetzel, who runs Illegal Oats.

(17:01): For anyone that doesn’t know. Yeah, I mean there’s on, I could talk about this for days. It is, it’s quite unbelievable what they’ve been able to provide us.

Calli Garcia (17:09):
My biggest resource has definitely been the professors and the network DU gives you, if all of my professors, they are so willing to help you reach out to people or help you find those resources. My marketing professors, they’re helping me with the social media and properly setting up how to handle networking, the websites proper, the legal portions of it as well. And then especially the the LLC professors that we had they were so helpful with getting us the resources and the entrepreneurship program, just reaching out to those other professors as well. And so I would say that’s my biggest resource is that do you want you to use their network and they will help you any way they can.

Kevin Douglas (17:55):
And then finally, some rapid fire questions. Oh, ooh. So just here we go. <laugh> max, like three to five word answers. So just do you, you okay so first question is favorite movie?

Zak Mbereko (18:12):
Ooh, parasite. I actually just got done watching that.

Calli Garcia (18:17):
I’m sorry. The Top Gun Maverick, the newest one.

Kevin Douglas (18:21):
That one was good. Favorite band or musical artist?

Zak Mbereko (18:26):
I’m a huge Mac Miller fan.

Calli Garcia (18:28):
I’m a BTS fan.

Kevin Douglas (18:30):
Nice. Favorite place in Colorado to hike or camp if you’re into that kind of thing?

Zak Mbereko (18:36):
I would say, I don’t know about Hike, but just be an Aspen back home for me

Calli Garcia (18:41):
Down in the Springs. There’s a few places, especially the, what is it, garden of the Gods for sure.

Kevin Douglas (18:47):
Cool. And then favorite Colorado sports team? If it’s possible to have one

Zak Mbereko (18:54):
Humongous Avalanche fan,

Calli Garcia (18:56):
I would say Avalanche as well.

Kevin Douglas (18:58):
Yeah, it might be the only choice at this point. Awesome. Well, thank you guys for coming on the podcast. We really appreciate having you. Where can people find you to learn more about Kairos?

Zak Mbereko (19:10):
So we just opened up our Instagram Kairos underscore customs, that’s K A I R O S, underscore customs, just how you would spell that. We also opened up a Twitter. I don’t know the handle off the top of my head. Maybe Kali can help me there.

Calli Garcia (19:26):
It’s also Kairos Customs, just without the underscore but we haven’t completely set that one up. So it’s more just the Instagram for right now. 

Zak Mbereko (19:35):
And we are currently in the process of building a website, which is a little more complex than we had <laugh> envisioned. But

Kevin Douglas (19:41):
Yeah, I felt a few websites. I understand that struggle and hopefully Twitter still exists.

Zak Mbereko (19:46):
Oh, that’s a really good point, actually. Yeah, could be if you guys can get to that in six months time.

Kevin Douglas (19:53):
Awesome. Well, thank you for coming on the show and best of luck with Future of Kairos.

Zak Mbereko (19:58):
Yeah, thank you. Thank you so much. We’re so happy to have done this with you.

Kevin Douglas (20:05):
The entrepreneurship at DU podcast was recorded in Marjorie Reed Hall on the University of Denver campus. You can find us on Instagram at DU Entrepreneur, on Twitter, at underscore entrepreneur, and on Facebook at entrepreneurship at du entrepreneurship. At DU is part of the Daniels College of Business, which has its own podcast. By the way. Check out Voices of Experience available wherever you get your podcasts.