Salmon Sisters hook Alaskans with ocean-inspired designs

Claire Neaton and Emma Teal Laukitis — also known as the Salmon Sisters — started the Give Fish Project in 2016, an initiative that sets aside 1 percent of sales to buy wild Alaskan seafood that is donated to the Food Bank of Alaska. (Photo courtesy of the Salmon Sisters)

Claire Neaton and Emma Teal Laukitis — also known as the Salmon Sisters — started the Give Fish Project in 2016, an initiative that sets aside 1 percent of sales to buy wild Alaskan seafood that is donated to the Food Bank of Alaska. (Photo courtesy of the Salmon Sisters)

One may argue that some of Alaska’s most successful entrepreneurs are Claire Neaton and Emma Teal Laukitis — better known as the Salmon Sisters. They have collaborated with well-known businesses like Kaladi Brothers Coffee and XtraTuf and have even partnered with companies like Microsoft. This year, the duo made Forbes’ 30 Under 30: 2019: Social Entrepreneurs list.

The Salmon Sisters took a moment from their busy lives to answer some questions over email about getting their business off the ground and the dynamics of being your own boss.

When did you get the idea to create Salmon Sisters?

We grew up commercial fishing with our family in the Aleutian Islands, where they make shows like the Deadliest Catch. It is an area that feels like the wild west, and as high school girls working as deckhands, we were proud of the work we did but we didn’t feel like there was much that represented us specifically when it came to clothing or gear. We wore men’s rain gear, men’s boots and clothing in men’s sizes. Fishermen’s "style" has always been sweatpants and sweatshirts, along with other functional workwear. We were inspired to create some clothing with prints of the fish we caught, instead of the masculine taglines we saw on other apparel representing the fishing industry. We started screen printing [T-shirts] and sweatshirts that fit women and men and Alaskans quickly showed interest. From there, we came up with a name that we felt represented us — “Salmon Sisters” — and began dreaming up more designs and opened an Etsy shop in 2012.

Did you have any resources that were particularly helpful when building your business?

We had a lot of great, local [resources]. There were a few store owners in Homer that took a chance on us and carried our first designs in their shops. They patiently helped us work through our first packing slips and invoices, quality control and streamlining production. [We] had a friend who was an experienced and business savvy photographer who helped take great photos [of] our products, build our first website and offered business advice. We already had skills to manage a small business from our upbringing commercial fishing, but used business plans support through the Alaska Business Development Center. Financially we have had a bookkeeper who has been with the business since we began and a great accountant. We found an amazing attorney. We have used Shopify and MailChimp support extensively and inventory management program StitchLabs.

What has been the biggest obstacle you've overcome since starting the business?

Running our business while at sea. We still fish June-September for salmon and halibut and live on the boat all summer. Sometimes we fish in remote areas where there is no phone or internet service. We opened our first shop two summers ago, and this summer will have three seasonal locations open while we’re fishing. We’ve hired an amazing all-women team and have been transferring knowledge and control onto them as we prepare to leave again for the fishing season. It’s difficult to let go of control, but also important to see if [your] business can carry on sustainably without you. We’ve also struggled with access to capital, managing growth and subsequent inventory management, manufacturing, and building a remote and expert team.

Since starting Salmon Sisters, what has been the biggest lesson you've learned about starting your own business?

You have to make trade-offs because you cannot do it all. For us, this has been commercial fishing versus running our business versus going to grad school and pursuing other creative opportunities versus having a pulse on everything daily. It takes a lot of grit (we give 100 percent every day, through the highs and lows) to find success running your own business, and it is all due to your ability to manage risk, handle stress and failure, understand the value you are personally bringing to your business, and maintaining the vision.

Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs trying to make it?

Accept feedback with an open heart, but stay true to your vision. People will share many ideas with you along the way about what your business is or could be. You are the person who knows where it needs to go, so really trust yourself and remember to keep checking back on the idea that drove you in the first place, [and] value and respect your customers — they are your key to success!

Sam Davenport