We chat to Junko Kemi, founder of, professional business women apparel brand, kay me, she tells us about moving her business across the world from Japan to London.
Please explain who you are, what your business is, and what it does/aims to achieve?
I’m Junko Kemi from Japan, the founder and lead designer of kay me, which is an apparel brand for time-poor professional business women. We have five stores in Japan and I’m currently expanding kay me internationally, London is our first stop.
What time does your day usually start and end?
I usually start my laptop around 7 am and check my personal messages from customers first. I like to get feedback directly from some of our most loyal customers, as they are usually most honest with me. I try to get out of the office by 7 pm to go to the gym or spend some time outside. Japan has so many distinct seasons, so there’s always some outdoor inspiration.
What is your favourite part of your job and what is your least favourite part?
I always love trying on the new samples for the first time; I’m never short of something to wear. It’s great to see the concept become a reality and to test out whether it worked the way we intended or whether we need to tweak the design. I generally enjoy all areas of my work, but perhaps my least favourite is the more bureaucratic side – but these are all necessities of running a business, and I have some great advisors to support me in this area.
What inspired you to start your business? (And what made you want to be your own boss?)
Whilst working as a consultant, I struggled to find professional attire that would be suitable for work and leisure, machine washable, stretchy and practical. I searched everywhere in Tokyo for garments which ticked all these boxes, but they didn’t appear to exist, so I decided to create my own. Within one afternoon, I was already on the phone with a pattern maker and discussing designs. That’s when kay me began.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
My personal experiences as a consultant struggling to find suitable clothing and the influence of my grandmother, who ran a traditional kimono shop, made me realise that I could do something for others to help them achieve their goals. My favourite quote from her is “the goal of life is not to focus on attaining lovely things for yourself, but how you can give to others. That will be your legacy.” This customer centric mantra, learnt from my grandmother, was essential in my creation of kay me.
What has been the biggest challenge for your business?
One of the biggest issues we faced when entering the UK market was the setting up of a bank account.
We felt that UK banks were only really interested in accepting existing big business, and whilst we are pretty big in Japan (£3.5 million annual turnover), this didn’t seem to make a difference in the UK. We eventually managed to get a bank account set up through Metro Bank, who was recommended to us by our London based accounting and legal advisors.
What do you feel are the biggest obstacles to growth for SMEs in the UK?
In today’s world of ecommerce, there’s a great chance to compete alongside the bigger, more established brands, but at the same time, customers’ understanding of what makes a great website and how it should look and feel has become more refined. The difference in design/experience between a mediocre site and a great site is sizeable, and for some SMEs finding the right talent at a price they can afford is a challenge.
Have you made any mistakes along the way and how did you overcome them/learn from them?
I’m not sure if mistake is the correct word. It’s a cliché for sure, but we see everything as learning experiences. At first I found it very challenging to hire the right kinds of people and understand the fashion industry as I was a newcomer. Coming from marketing, I had to change the mentality and attractive points of new talent that I looked for. I also learned a lot from hiring sales staff, and the early days of kay me were always challenging to find the right personnel for our kind of clientele.
What previous experiences have helped you in starting your business?
Before launching kay me, I worked as a marketing consultant at a major firm. The wealth and variety of experiences that I gained whilst there have been invaluable to me, as were the contacts that I built while in the industry. I still apply many of those marketing lessons today to our daily operations at kay me, and I’m truly appreciative of having those skills to fall back on.
What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to start their own business?
My advice to someone starting out would be to use your common sense, be humble and take any opportunity to network – you never know who you may meet who can help you on your business journey.
Having a solid financial model is also very important; I have always had financial reserves in place and continued to work as a freelance consultant before launching kay me, ensuring that I had sufficient funds in place.
However, one of the most important life lessons I’ve learnt is that anything is possible and that there is a positive learning to be taken from all experiences. Difficult life experiences can often be the source of our greatest professional and personal development.
What do you do to relax away from the hustle and bustle of work?
I make sure that I step back and have some “me” time. I like going to the gym and running as I feel it makes me feel good and also is important to maintain a healthy body and mind.
What would you be doing if you weren’t running your own business?
I’m very interested in creating an online educational exchange platform, which would enable business people from all over the world to come together to learn and share ideas with each other.
Visiting London has really helped me shape this idea as there are so many interesting and creative networking events being held here. I would like to recreate this on an online platform because unfortunately, we do not have such a strong creative network in Tokyo.