How Two School Friends Created a Global Activewear Empire

Katia Santilli and Vera Yan of Nimble

Growing a side hustle into a multi-million dollar global brand is no easy feat. But for Nimble Activewear founders Katia Santilli and Vera Yan, an enduring friendship, shared vision and smart business moves have helped them leap ahead of the competition, posting growth of about 50 per cent annually for the past five years. 

Katia Santilli and Vera Yan, co-founders of Activewear brand Nimble

The schoolyard besties first bonded over a shared love of R’n’B music and aerobics at Melbourne’s Methodist Ladies’ College and remained close even as Yan pursued a finance career in Sydney and Santilli moved to London to work in luxury fashion. When Santilli returned to Australia in 2013, the pair reconnected over their passion for the gym but soon realised that something was holding them back.

“The dominant activewear brands made great quality apparel but they weren’t flattering to the female form,” recalls Yan, “while fashion brands made garments that looked good but couldn’t stand up to a sweaty workout and regular washes.”

So, they decided to launch their own brand, engaging designers and manufacturers to create workout gear that, well, worked. “We were really quick and agile in the early days,” says Santilli – so the name Nimble seemed like a perfect fit.

Nimble activewear brand business tips

The business was entirely self-funded, adds Santilli, “and because we were living together at that point, we could come home from our day jobs and keep pursuing our side hustle.” But as the hallway turned into a warehouse and the kitchen became an office for Nimble’s first employee, it became evident that something needed to change.

The turning point came in 2016. “Two key things happened for us then,” says Yan. “We started investing in digital marketing and we opened our first physical retail store in Bondi Beach. They were significant milestones that turned us from a side hustle into a real living and breathing brand.”

At around the same time, the young business owners signed up for the American Express® Qantas Business Rewards Card. “Having up to 51 days to pay for purchases¹ on the Card was really attractive for us,” says Yan.

“Being able to front end that funding meant we could invest in things that we wouldn’t have been able to afford otherwise, like digital marketing on Facebook and Google.

“Our current ad campaign is an ode to the outdoor sports that have inspired generations of women, like ocean swimming, beach volleyball, golf. Coming out of the last few years, everyone is really excited about getting outside again.

“Having access to funding through our Card allowed us to create a really beautiful representation of the brand and as a result there’s been a huge take-up and it’s one of our most successful campaigns ever.”

Qantas American Express Business Rewards Card

Maximise your cash flow

With no pre-set spending limit on the American Express Qantas Business Rewards Card, businesses can access a dynamic line of unsecured funding.²

This cash flow boost has allowed the Nimble co-founders to focus on expanding the business further, opening a Melbourne store in 2017 followed by one in Brisbane last year. 

“The Card allows our purchasing power to scale as we scale. We’ve been able to access greater and greater amounts of funding over the last few years without filling out loads of extra paperwork because our purchase approvals have evolved in line with our spending and repayment patterns.”

And by earning up to 1.25 Qantas Points per $1 on everyday business spend³ – and 2 points per $1 on Qantas products and services³ – they’ve been able to offset a lot of their business travel costs. 

“Using the Card means we’ve been able to earn millions of points for purchases we would have made anyway,” says Santilli. “So when we opened our Brisbane store, we sent the whole team there on flights booked with Qantas Points. Next year we’ll be going to the UK and the US to explore some exciting business opportunities and being able to book those flights with Qantas Points will save the business a significant amount of money.”

Best of all, the Qantas Points don’t expire as long as the business earns or uses points at least once every 18 months. This gives the Nimble founders the flexibility to use their points to suit the needs of their rapidly expanding empire. 

Co-founders of activewear brand Nimble with their product

The thriving business now has more than 30 employees and annual turnover in the millions. But despite their success, Yan and Santilli say they’re even prouder of the sustainability initiatives they’ve implemented along the way. 

Over two million plastic bottles have been saved from landfill and recycled into Nimble’s signature MoveLite™ fabric, while plastic garment bags have been replaced by biodegradable packaging as part of a move towards a virgin-plastic-free business.

And the two fitness gurus have achieved all this while maintaining the passion that brought them together in the first place. “Fundamentally, Nimble exists to inspire women to move and feel good,” says Yan. “There's a huge connection between movement and mental health; when you move your body, you're a better, more balanced person. And operating a sustainable business feels like an extension of that.”

Unlock the possibilities for your business. Earn 100,000 bonus Qantas Points* with the American Express Qantas Business Rewards Card. Spend $3,000 on eligible purchases within two months of your approval date. New American Express Card Members only. T&Cs apply. Learn more.

Unlock the possibilities

Vera Yan and Katia Santilli share their top small-business tips…

• The key to… effective time management

“Digital marketing is one of our most important expenditures but that doesn’t mean it has to be hard work,” says Yan. “We process transactions almost every day and because we get a text alert when a payment is due on our American Express Qantas Business Rewards Card we can easily stay on top of it. It lets us focus our energy on all the other things we need to do to continue growing the business.”

• The key to… hitting the ground running

“Vera and I have different skill sets and strengths, which helped us lean into different areas of the business when we were starting out,” explains Santilli. “My background in fashion meant I was able to work on design and production, while Vera put her finance and legal experience to good use looking after things like company registration and trademarks. That meant we weren’t blowing our budget on outsourcing and we had someone we trusted looking after every aspect of the business.”

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Amex Qantas Business Rewards

• The key to… managing cash flow

“Being self-funded means that cash flow has always been a big challenge so having access to the line of unsecured funding² offered by our American Express Qantas Business Rewards Card has been a huge advantage,” says Yan. “Plus, because we have up to 51 days to pay for purchases¹, we can invest in digital marketing, see the revenue from sales come in and use that to pay off the Card balance before it’s due. It means we get the benefits of digital marketing before we’ve paid for it, and that has allowed us to scale up the business quickly without bringing in investors.”

• The key to… being adaptable

“When you’re getting ready to launch a new business, don’t be too tied to your business plan,” says Santilli. “It’s easy to be consumed with making everything perfect but once you launch in market, your customers will dictate what they want so you have to listen to that, pivot and grow with them. If you can test new ideas and trial them in small ways, you can use that feedback to turbocharge what’s working – even if it’s slightly different from your original plan.”

Unlock the possibilities for your business. Earn 100,000 bonus Qantas Points* with the American Express Qantas Business Rewards Card. Spend $3,000 on eligible purchases within two months of your approval date. New American Express Card Members only. T&Cs apply. Learn more.

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SEE ALSO: How a Trip to the Hardware Store Unlocked a Big Business Idea

*100,000 bonus Qantas Points: Offer only available to new American Express Card Members who apply, are approved and spend $3,000 on eligible purchases on their new Card in the first two (2) months from the Card approval date. Eligible purchases do not include Card fees and charges, for example annual fees, interest, late payment, cash advances, balance transfers, traveller’s cheques and foreign currency conversion. Card Members who currently hold or who have previously held any other Card product issued by American Express Australia Limited in the preceding 18-month period are ineligible for this offer. 100,000 bonus Qantas Points will be awarded to the eligible Card Member's Account 8-10 weeks after the spend criteria has been met. Subject to the American Express® Qantas Business Rewards Card Points Terms and Conditions. $450 annual fee applies. This advertised offer is not applicable or valid in conjunction with any other advertised or promotional offer. This offer may be withdrawn at any time without notice

American Express approval criteria applies. Subject to Terms and Conditions. Fees and charges apply. All information is correct as at 1 January 2023 and is subject to change. This offer is only available to those who reside in Australia. Cards are offered, issued and administered by American Express Australia Limited (ABN 92 108 952 085). ®Registered Trademark of American Express Company.

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