STEM MBA grad starts new sportswear company

UA alumnus founds innovative sportswear company


Photo courtesy of Juan Carrasquilla

Desi Gillespie, Staff Reporter

Everyone’s been there. Outside or on the treadmill. Phone in hand, earbuds in, ready to run. But where to put the phone other than in the loose pockets of athletic shorts? It’s a problem Juan Carrasquilla hopes to solve.

“I love working out and exercising, but I had never really gotten into jogging,” Carrasquilla, a UA MBA graduate, said. The summer after his freshman year, however, he tried to begin running regularly. “I remember whenever I tried to run and listen to my music, my phone would be swinging back and forth in my pocket, even falling out on a couple of occasions.”

He tried using armbands or simply holding his phone, but he was still unsatisfied with the solution. Carrasquilla eventually had the idea to put a pocket on the inside of two-in-one shorts, thanks to his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering, he said. The result is a form-fitting pocket on the outside of compression shorts with an external opening much like a normal pocket.

His design gave birth to Koali Athletico, a company built around providing sportswear with functioning pockets for men and women. The new brand will be organizing a Kickstarter campaign next Tuesday with a goal of raising $12,000. For the price of a pair of shorts, contributors will be able to pre-order Koali’s products before their online store even opens.

This phone-pocket dilemma is one most active students face at some point. Mia McKee, a sophomore majoring in exercise science, is excited for Koali Athletico’s solution.

“A lot of my running shorts don’t even have pockets,” McKee said. “Even the ones that do have pockets are still really annoying when my phone is flopping around. This idea of a spandex pocket sounds really beneficial.”

Microbrands like Koali Athletico have been growing more common as the internet grows older. Companies like Casper mattresses, Warby Parker eyewear and many watch manufacturers have made their way onto the Instagram feeds of many younger consumers.

Niki Beck, a Tuscaloosa native and co-founder of Koali, has been coordinating the brand’s marketing strategies with cousin and co-founder Britt Buzan. Buzan graduated in advertising from the University of Alabama in 2017.

“Juan [Carrasquilla] wanted to really hone in on the smaller aspect of our brand,” Beck said. “It makes the brand more humanized than big companies, who seem almost stiff in their advertisements. Our approach was to have more of a witty personality to connect with the audience we wanted to reach. That hopefully lets them see that there are people on the other side of this product, and that we’re here to try and solve an issue, not just to sell you something.”

With microbrands, as with all companies, effective marketing and strong brand identity is key to gaining loyal customers. Luckily, social media advertising offers comprehensive statistics on post effectiveness as well as targeted demographic data.

“To get this same feedback in the past, you would have had to do an extensive focus group,” Buzan said. “The internet allows you to go straight to an online focus group, letting you select for specialized demographics and eliminate any biases that you may have had with an in-person focus group from a specific location. [Online marketing] is a great way to see what’s working and what can be improved upon at a much cheaper cost.”

Personalized service and niche products also serve to strengthen microbrands. A smaller group of customers with high brand loyalty creates a stable source of support for a company.

“The ability to provide high quality customer service will help Juan [Carrasquilla] build a loyal customer base,” said Brian Taylor, a professor in the department of clothing, textiles and interior design. “I also consult for other small clothing brands. They have the ability to connect one on one with customers and provide customization for their products to fit their customer needs. These smaller brands have the ability to provide that service in order to compete with mainstream apparel companies.”

Carrasquilla was born in Colombia and came to the United States when he was 5 years old. Though he grew up in Louisiana, he maintained a strong connection with his family in South America. After graduating from the STEM MBA program at the University, Carrasquilla began looking for a supplier in his native Colombia.

“It’s been a very long journey to this Kickstarter,” Carrasquilla said. “I really learned the importance of asking around, of making connections and networking. I just had to ask everyone I knew to ask everyone that they knew and so on.”

Carrasquilla’s first Colombian supplier did not last. After flying back and forth for negotiations several times, it was decided that his orders would be too small to be worth the company’s time. His savings began to run low, and he nearly gave up.

However, his uncle’s friend of a friend was able to become his new supplier and contract the young brand. Despite much smaller order sizes, Koali Athletico is able to offer its shorts at a starting price of $35, prices much lower than other large sportswear brands.

“It’s a cliche, especially in business, but the most important thing is to not give up,” Carrasquilla said. “There were a bunch of times I wondered if it was time to quit, but came to the decision that I shouldn’t quit until it was my only option, that if there was any other option I should take it. I made quitting my literal last resort, and that’s the only reason I made it this far.”

For more information, visit the brand’s social media accounts on Facebook and Instagram @koaliathletico, or go to, a landing website that will serve as the brand’s online store following their Kickstarter campaign.