Cuater Founder Robbie McKnight on What Makes His New Brand Stand Out

Cuater offers paper belts with unique designs, perfect for making an unexpected statement
Cuater offers paper belts with unique designs, perfect for making an unexpected statement

Cuater’s product is something you’ve probably never seen before, and it’s making waves.

Last year, Robbie McKnight felt that he had stumbled upon something. It was an idea, built from a childhood dream carried into adulthood. Being the son of Bob McKnight, co-founder of Quiksilver, Robbie had known from an early age that starting his own business in the surf industry was his life goal. Being a lover of water, and bred from action sports royalty, it was apparent that Robbie would do whatever it took to chase his dream. Enter Cuater.

Cuater focuses on paper belts – a category that has been relatively untouched, until now. The belts are made from Tyvek paper; the paper is weather proof, and can support custom prints, helping the belts to truly stand out. So far, after their retail launch on July 1, 2016, Cuater belts are available at retailers including  Surfride, Sun Diego, SouthCoast, Hobie, HSS, Jack’s, Val Surf, and the Quiksilver store in Vegas. This month, the belts will be rolled out to East Coast retailers. The brand also focuses on higher-end leather belts, and wallets as well. The wallets are priced affordably at $24.99 –  fitting perfectly into the “impulse buy” category at the cash register. Cuater has seen enormous growth since it’s launch, and continues to make strides in the industry.

TransWorld Business talked to McKnight about his new brand, and what it takes to build a new category. We also talked with Hannah Fait, manager of the Hobie store in Laguna Beach, CA, to gain a retail perspective on Cuater, and how the paper belts and wallets are doing so far.

Interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What inspired you to start Cuater?

Starting my own business in the surf industry has always been a goal of mine ever since I was a young kid. I was very fortunate to grow up in Laguna Beach and was able to experience the ocean at a very young age. The moment my dad pushed me into my first wave, I knew that this was going to be one of the passions of my life. As I grew up, I quickly learned how the ocean is intertwined with the environment and how powerful it truly is. Connecting my passion to my career seemed like an easy decision and I think Cuater accomplishes that synergy. Also, being able to work with my dad on a start up was a very exciting thought. Having him involved on a advisory level brings invaluable experience to our business.

How did you identify the niche in the belt market, and what made you decide to go with graphic belts as a way to stand out?

The concept of a belt company came about while I was interning in France with Pierre Agnes and Miky Picon. Miky, co-founder of Moskova underwear, expressed the business concept of focusing on a single category while putting a powerful brand behind it and how appealing it was. Already being a huge fan of Moskova at the time, this formula really resonated with me. From there, I hit the whiteboard and researched other categories that I thought were untouched. As I put together that list, belts was definitely a category that caught my attention and it clearly contained a void in the market. I then took it one step further and started looking at ways to evolve and make different belts in order to stand out. At this time, the concept of the graphic belt came along. Never executed before, the graphic belts are durable, lightweight,water-resistant and provide a very unique texture. It's not often that you can find a product that builds more character as you break it in more. The photo-quality images give us the ability to collaborations with artists, athletes, and designers, which is something we will definitely look to push more of.

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What has the reaction been from retailers? Which demographic do you think is most interested in Cuater?

The reaction from retailers has been great. They definitely see the vision of what we are doing and the direction this could go. The fact that this category has been lacking in sales, and if an emerging brand could fill that void while taking up minimal footprint, is very exciting to them. Much like Stance did with socks, we want to be that game changer in belts and bring a fresh look into a category that has been stale for quite some time. Our three styles of belts, ranging from $30-$50 provide a one-stop shop for all your belt needs, which serves something for everyone.

Hannah, you manage the floor of the Hobie shop in Laguna Beach, and have seen Cuater’s introduction to your store and the market as a whole. Why did Hobie originally choose to carry Cuater? 

We chose to carry Cuater because  the product offers something unique that we feel our customers will gravitate toward. The belts not only look great, with the use of mixing, braiding, color, texture, and reversibility, but function well. Not only were we intrigued by the product itself, but we also love supporting small, local brands.

What's the sell-through like, compared to comparable accessories you already carry?

The sell through is great. We have gotten awesome customer feedback from the belts and wallets. At the start of carrying the line, it was important to understand the complete function of each product (i.e. material, color, and fit). However, now customers have gravitated toward the products and are enthused by Cuater and the technology behind each belt.

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Robbie, what areas of the market has Cuater had success in, and in which areas do you see your brand expanding?

Right now we are focused in Southern California because we want to stay close and true to the process. Being able to walk into these shops and talk with the owners, employees, and customers is crucial as we evaluate our strategy moving forward. We will continue to expand in the core surf shops along the West coast while also expanding to the East Coast. In addition to these surf shops, we are going to expand to a few key golf accounts as well. At the end of the day, our team is composed of individuals that come from the surf and golf industries, so we have that natural cross over.

Initially, your brand is focusing in on belts. Can you speak to any product expansion, or where Cuater is headed next?

Yes, our longterm goal is to be an accessories line with a focus on belts. Our brand will always specialize in belts, but will also be expanding into other accessory categories as well. Currently, we are also selling our hats and graphic wallets. We are also planning to launch a new product in February, which is currently top secret. I would love to tell you about it, but your just going have to wait and see!

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How do e-commerce and third-party retailers fit into your distribution strategy?

Being very selective with distribution is key to us. We are very careful on which accounts we go into, and we will continue doing this moving forward. Currently, we do have a e-commerce site, which provides a wide selection of all our products. We will also look at expanding into a few key online retailers, but once again, they need to be the right fit for our brand.

What's your advertising strategy like? We noticed an ad for Cuater in SURFER magazine- what value do you see in print ads for your company, as opposed to digital and social advertising?

We will work towards building a connection with our audience by our continuous storytelling. We will be engaging our customer across any relevant channel the consumer would be looking at. We are highly active on social media because we can all see the advantage that these platforms are providing these days. Through these channels, we will also be working towards shared marketing efforts with other brands that we see Cuater aligned with. We are also working towards building a team of ambassadors endorse the brand and product to represent us. Yes, we ran an ad in Surfer Magazine because we see what value a creditable magazine has in this industry. We all know that our consumers read those magazines from front to back! Like I mentioned before, we will be engaging across every channel whether it be print, digital and social.

What can we expect from Cuater in the next six to twelve months?

Like any other start up we hope to see proven sell through at both retail and online. Our goal is to grow very organically in the next six to twelve months and to be very strategic with all decisions. We are a group of creative individuals and we definitely have a lot of ideas of where we can take Cuater.