Melissa Shin Mash, of Dagne Dover, is a Korean American, whose favorite saying is: If something is broken in the world, go fix it. And the motto her company lives by is: Life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself. That’s the motto they live by as a company. Melissa ran the Coach store in London, and returned to America to create the ultimate handbag. She did so by returning to school, researching a top designer, surveying her ideal customer (which were attending grad school with her), and setting up a pre-sell. As success came, so did the challenges!
Yes! The perfect recipe occurs when entrepreneurs come to this country.
In the fashion and beauty industry think of Levi Strauss from Bavaria, of Estee Lauder, who’s family came from Hungary (by the way, see my interview with her son Leonard Lauder, at my website), and Ralph Lauren, who’s parents came from Germany.
In this Episode 2 you’ll hear Melissa Shin Mash, tell how she pre-sold $40,000 of handbags, got her pick of investors, focused on the supply chain and is taking her company, Dagne Dover, to the next level. Melissa is a Korean American, who made up her own motto: If something is broken in the world, go fix it!
Kent: So, today, I’m very happy bring you Melissa Shin Mash co-founder of Dagne Dover,
Im here in their beautiful offices in the fashion district. They are a New York based handbag company, whose philosophy is, You Are What You Carry! Hi Melissa.
MELISSA: Hi Kent, How are you?
Kent: Good. Welcome to The Immigrant Entrepreneur
MELISSA: Thank you for joining us in the office today!
Kent Trabing([1:07]): Thank you so much for coming on The Immigrant Entrepreneur! We want to hear your story. Where are you from? When did you start Dagne Dover and how did you come to create it?
MELISSA: I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio and I went to New York University for undergrad. When I was there I worked a bunch of internships in fashion – worked for a bunch of smaller brands and then ended up having an internship at Coach. I ended up starting my career there so I’ve alway worked in handbags. I was working with buyers at department stores everyday since I was 22. Then I launched a wholesale ecommerce channel at Coach. That was Coach on Macys.com, Nordstroms.com, and Dillards.com. At the end of 2008 I decided to move to London and I was recruited to lead Coach’s turn around in their first UK retail store. They were having a lot of issues with their distributor and they needed someone to come and turn it all around. I led a nine international-salesperson team. All spoke different languages, all had different levels of skill and varying levels of education. I was brought in to redo the buy, redo the visual merchandizing, improve the operations and so on. It was a fantastic year. While I was there I got to speak with customers first hand every day. I heard what their biggest handbag problems were. I heard the same problems of not being able to find your keys or your water bottle tipping over ruining all of your thousands of dollars of tech in your bag or ruining important papers that you’ve written on. These were all really low tech problems to solve and I saw there was an opportunity to solve for a brand that looked fantastic, it always has to look fantastic or a girl’s not going to carry that, but it also had to be practically organized. That is why we like to say You Are What You Carry. You feel just as disorganized as your bag reflects. I went back to Wharton the following year and that is where I decided to pursue this idea. That is where I reconnected with Deepa who is one of my co founders. She was a year behind me at Wharton and Jesse Dover who won the Coach accessories design competition in 2011.
Kent Trabing([3:25]): Who was your first customer?
MELISSA: We were at Wharton. We had the opportunity to survey and focus group a thousand women and men, all in the Wharton network. After we did that we backwards engineered a product that felt solved all the problems they had addressed and said ok this is what the bag looks like, it is $265.00, its $125.00, would you put money down for this? We just put it out there. Didn’t want our friends to take pity on us, didn’t want our family to buy out the bags. We really wanted to find out, did we nail it? Within three months we received $40,000 dollars worth of orders. That was validating and that was great, but then we had to produce all this much faster than we thought. We also had to put together a plan to move abroad much faster than we had anticipated because working in New York, it became clear that nyc manufacturing was not going to live up to a lot of its promises.
Kent: So what year was that?
That was 2013 was when we launched our presale.
Kent: You launched the company a year ago?
MELISSA: Yep. That was just 15 months ago. In 2012 we started working together, meeting with suppliers, meeting with factories and doing all of our sample making. It took a long time to get to where we were when we could actually start selling.
Kent Trabing([4:45]): What was one of your biggest challenges in starting up?
MELISSA: There are a lot of challenges! I’d say the first one was getting the operations and supply chains in place. You can just relinquish control, produce this bag and make it look like that. But that is really not the right way to build a product and make sure thats quality. You really have to control every piece of the supply chain from where you get your zipper or where you get your thread to every single detail. That was challenging. Finding manufacturing in New York was incredibly challenging because there were only a couple of places essentially that could do it at the quality that you want. We felt very strongly that we needed to oversee producing the first time around before sending it off. Another huge challenge for us was fund raising. We have a fashion business. A lot of investors are not comfortable with inventory businesses or businesses that are fashion because they don’t get it. They are not the demographic. There are just a lot of challenges for investors to get comfortable with that. Selling to a dudes, to a bunch of guys and telling them that this was something fashionable. that women would want it, was a challenge. But we did close our ([5:58] cannot understand).
Kent Trabing([6:00]): Congratulations. Can you say anything about that? What was that like?
MELISSA: It was long but it was great. We ended up having our pick of investors. We had over 2.5 million dollars worth of interest to fill a round. We had gone out for a 750k round. We ended up deciding to take 1.25 but it was really nice that we could pick investors who really ran the gambit for being experts in digital marketing or ecommerce or traditional retail. We made sure we were covered with fantastic advisors and investors to help us scale this.
Kent Trabing([6:32]): What about the immigrant experience gave you the desires to start your own business and that you applied to the business once you started it?
MELISSA: I think that having grown up, my mom was a pharmacist, my dad was a stockbroker and financial advisor at merrill lynch, they took jobs that they had to take. They were good jobs and they liked them but they weren’t passionate about them. I think, it’s kind of atypical for asian parents, is it was important for my parents that my sister and I were able to really pursue our dreams in every way. Not being discriminated against, not being shut out because of socioeconomic reasons but that we were really able to do what everyone wanted to do. Not just become a doctor or lawyer which a lot of immigrant parents would want them to be and certainly a lot of my peers were influenced into that. It allowed me a freedom to discover what I wanted to do my entire life and at an early age and go for it. To have the internship in fashion, to live abroad and do all these things, I think that my parents have influenced me so much that I owed it to them to live to my fullest potential because they were not able to. I think that is such an important lesson, not just for me, but also what we are creating. We are trying to create these bags that help women live better lives and inspire them that if something is broken in the world its on you to fix it. We were just three girls working in fashion in New York. It can easily be someone else too. That message of life isn’t about finding yourself, life is about creating yourself. Thats the motto that we live by as a company. What is so funny about that quote is that we didn’t just find it, each of us have a unique story about that quote that we discovered about each other when we came together as a team, it is just uncanny that we all had a relationship with that quote and it was just so right for us.
Kent Trabing([8:52]): What is your role?
MELISSA: My background is basically in sales and management. That is what I used to do. I used to manage Coach’s businesses in these different department stores and accounts. Deepa’s background is more in the operations. She was a merchandise planner at club monacos. She is much more analytical and financial. Then Jesse’s background is in design. She comes from parsons school of design. It is quite clear that we have three different sets of expertise so that we don’t have too much friction with us giving too much input on design and jesse is the one who owns it and so on. I think that, that is really important for a family team. You reduce the ambiguity and make sure that you respect eachothers areas of expertise.
Kent Trabing([9:50]): For people who are aspiring towards a career in the fashion industry, what would be your advice?
MELISSA: The most valuable thing that you can do is just start doing it. Start somewhere. It doesn’t matter if you have an mba, go intern somewhere. Take an unpaid internship, learn the operations, learn marketing of a startup. I was fortunate that I was able to go to school in the city and I was able to create those opportunities at different fashion companies at a young age so I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. If its not accessible and you’re just sitting, there are plenty of ways which you can become a brand ambassador for someone. There are so many ways which you can get involved and show leadership.
Kent Trabing([10:43]): Do you have a favorite expression from your parents country?
MELISSA: Yea, unfortunately I don’t speak or understand korean really. I get some of the influence, especially from some of my friends. There is this proverb that I think the loose translation is, You are too busy looking at your feet that you didn’t see where you are going. When one of my friends told me that proverb, I really understood it because I feel like often times it’s very easy to focus on exactly what is in front of you and be very myopic about things. The truth is that you can’t always look down you gotta look up and see the big picture about why you’re doing something that your long term goals are and really not focus on the little stuff for the short term. I think that with starting your own business its such a balance with both. We need to have clarity about your long term goals but you also need to obsess about the details too.
Kent Trabing([11:58]): Do you think that you going to London helped you start to notice things?
MELISSA: The American consumer is so different from the european consumer. The frequency in which they purchase is far less and the average prices is far higher. They invest in their pieces especially in things like handbags. Learning customer service, customer service in New York, if you walk into a Coach store, music is playing, its very friendly. That was not the case in London. You couldn’t do that because the english customer doesn’t necessarily want to be bothered. It is seen as sort of a nuisance rather than friendly. You have to really be able to read your audience. I think that is so important in business period, being able to read your audience and to understand what is important to that individual. One individual may care about certain features of the bag, the other person it is all about the weight or the aesthetic. You just have to figure out what is it about that person that you can connect with.
Kent Trabing([13:13]): Can you tell me about how your parents came here?
MELISSA: Sort of a crazy story, the reason I was born in Ohio was because back in the korean war, my dad’s older brother worked on an American army base and he befriended some of the American soldiers. One in particular was from ohio. He said, “after the war call me up. I will give you a job, I will figure out how to get you some schooling.” That is what he did. Uncle Paul, he moved to Lima, Ohio. He moved to Ohio northern university, worked at a town restaurant as a busboy. Aunt Suzie, his wife, did the same. She worked there too and they made it happen. They started working at a medical laboratory company and soon they saved enough money to buy it. I think they bought that one and bought a few more. That is their business and that is how they made it. They are totally the American dream. My parents on the other hand were brought over by my uncle and aunt. It was such an amazing story that obviously changed my life profoundly. I have always wanted that same sort of experience of really taking a crazy risk. When my parents were living in Lima, Ohio, my mom was a pharmacist working late nights at the hospital, I don’t know if I was born yet, but my sister was born and my dad was working at the GM assembly line. He was getting accounting degree at Youngstowns state and then he moved up into the accounting department. They were always having layoffs. He was a temporary worker. He was like, “Our life is always going to be a little bit miserable, unless I do something drastic.” Then he saw an advertisement on the newspaper for stock brokers at merrill lynch and they were looking for talent that could bring in new communities and different types of clients. He said you know what there are a lot of doctors and engineers here in the cleveland area and don’t trust people who don’t speak their language. He could be the liaison, the person who manages their money. He applied and beat out I don’t know how many hundreds of candidates for the opportunity to train in princeton, New Jersey with Merrill Lynch. He was chosen. My parents spent their entire life savings, I think it was 8,000 bucks on it for him to just up and leave the family to do this. He tells me this dramatic story, he is not dramatic at all, but, he tells me this dramatic story about how he was sitting in this princeton church crying, asking god, he needs to succeed. Those types of stories, how can that not profoundly impact you to live your life so completely and pursue every dream.
Kent Trabing([16:06]): That’s fantastic. What is one of your favorite books Melissa?
MELISSA: I’d say the one book that influenced me in terms of the business is the Tony Shay’s delivering happiness. The reason is because, one, you just totally feel like you are on this journey with him as he is building zappos but also his focus on customer experience and laser sharp focus on making the customer happy is something that has really influenced all of ecommerce. Not just me or us but it really revolutionised how people shopped online and the expectations around it. I read it in one sitting. I was in business school and I stayed up really late. I couldn’t put it down. I highly recommend it for anyone who is a startup entrepreneur or especially an ecommerce entrepreneur.
Kent Trabing([16:53]): What are some resources that you use?
MELISSA: Sure, I use a lot of little techy apps like Evernote for example is something I rely on heavily because I can take notes anywhere and I can organize my notes super easily. That is something that is really helpful for me especially as a business kind of conversations. Hello Facts, Tiny Scan, all these things that you can use on the go are sort of the essentials of my day to day.
Kent Trabing([17:23]): What is in the future of Dagne Dover?
MELISSA: We are rolling out several new styles actually, starting in November. New styles, new colors, new fabrications. In the spring you will see a really exciting lineup every single month. And then we are excited to eventually launch into mens. I’d say later on in 2015. We are excited to be on new platforms too. I am not going to give too much away but up until now we have only been on Dagnedover.com. There is a ton of opportunities to reach new audiences that are ready and primed for our product so we are excited for those partnerships to be announced shortly.
Kent Trabing([17:58]): How do you go about understanding your customer?
MELISSA: That is a very good question. I think it is quite loaded. For us it’s great that we are a customer. It is extremely helpful that we can get together, a focus group of people from our network or one or two tiers out and quickly get some feedback on a product. We are constantly analyzing where we are, what we think our goal is, and who we think our industry is, and who we are actually attracting and making sure we are going after the right audiences.
Kent Trabing([18:34]): Can you tell me about the handbag itself?
MELISSA: I’ll walk you through our tote which is our best seller. The tote has a place for up to a 15 inch laptop, its got a place for an ipad, your notebook, a water bottle, or a wet umbrella, just incase something spills over and gets over everything you can wipe it down easily and put it in the wash. We had many customer stories about how our water bottle holder had saved their life and all their tech. We also have a place for your sunglasses, sacks, kindle, computer chargers, and wallet. I would say that as well as the water bottle holder and the key strap are the favorite items of the tote.
Kent Trabing([19:27]): What other handbags are there?
MELISSA: The tote is meant for the girl who lives out of her bag. There is also the minI tote which is a smaller version of that. It offers a cross body strap as well as few additional pockets. Then there is the clutch wallet. The clutch wallet is a day to night solution. Women essentially carry two bags. The tote they carry to work and a little purse that they take out for the evening. Instead of switching back and forth the clutch wallet is all you need. It has a place for your lipgloss so it stays securely in there. It has a secret pocket for important receipts that you want to save and the detachable card case that is amazing. It is magnetic so it can pop out and you can toss that into any bigger bag that you want to use but you always have your essentials in one place so you dont have to do the switchup. That is really the selling point for that product. When women see it they say I totally get you, I see it.
Kent Trabing([20:33]): If people want to find out more about you where can they do so?
MELISSA: Check out dagnedover.com everyone loves it. In terms of, we get a lot of bulk orders that people gift to their clients or employees. A lot of people doing one stop shopping for the holidays where they just gift every women in their life. This is just a bag that women are obsessed with. You show them the inside of the bag and they are done.