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Where They Were Then

What the Baggu Founders Have Learned, 10 Years In

Where They Were Then BY liz 02/07/2017

 

In 2007, Emily Sugihara, her mom Joan, and her childhood BFF Ellen van der Laan started making and selling reusable nylon totes in a rainbow of shades. It was the perfect biz idea: simple, affordable, and somehow totally overlooked by everyone else. That line they created is, as you probably know by now, called Baggu—and a decade later, it’s a model for how a tiny, bootstrapped company can grow into a household name without sacrificing a drop of cool-kid chill. We asked Ellen to take a minute and reflect on how far the company has come.

 

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Q: What have been the biggest challenges to growing the line but still keeping that Baggu feel intact?

 

A: “As you’re working with bigger retailers, like the Bloomingdale’s of the world, the stakes get higher. It’s harder to have the same considerations about staying totally true to brand and staying creative when you’re coming up against things like specific packing requirements—they might require everything to be wrapped in plastic, but we like to have the least amount of packaging possible, for example. And we’ve found that we can totally find ways to make that work—we just have to be even more deliberate when doing those things, and find creative compromises.”

“It’s also been about realizing how much work goes into selling the products, even after they have left your warehouse and are in other people’s stores. I think in the very early days of Baggu, the win was getting that big order. But then that next jump is considering how do our bags look sitting on those shelves of that store? Or what condition are the bags in when they arrive at that warehouse? Those things that really make a difference.”

 

Q: Young designers must ask you for advice allllll the time. What do you tell them?

 

A: “My biggest piece of advice for brands trying to have longevity and to stay viable is to feel okay about growing slowly and to feel okay about turning opportunities down that don’t seem quite right. I think because of the way that venture capital has come into play, there’s so much money being thrown at certain brands that it can feel like, gosh, how do we compete and stay relevant? But being able to grow your team by maybe five people a year is also a really worthwhile way to do it. We have 40 people now, including store employees. And I think taking things more slowly has allowed us to be around as long as we have.”

 

Q: When and how did you decide to make the jump to retail shops?

 

A: “We’ve been talking about this a lot because we just opened two more stores in 2016, one in Oakland and one in San Francisco. So Emily and I were just trying to figure out when we opened the first store in Brooklyn. And there’s not a solid answer because it was one of those slow, organic processes. We had this office on North 3rd Street in Williamsburg—we have three spaces in that building now, but originally is was one storefront. I think that was five years ago. We just had some products out in the front, and if people walked in, we would let them shop. So we decided to have a pop-up shop out there. We figured we’d try this, and if it didn’t work out, we’d just say it was a pop-up. And if it did well, we’d announce it was going to stay around. So we did the pop-up for three months, and people came, so we kept it. Eventually we added some more permanent fixtures, but I think it was only about three years ago that the Brooklyn store was fully open. It was not really a particularly strategic decision—we just knew we liked having people being able to come in, and we liked the neighborhood. So it seemed like it would probably be okay.”

“Then in the past year, we’ve really been trying to focus in on our direct-to-consumer business, making the website more shoppable and opening two stores out in the Bay Area. And with those, we were definitely more intentional about investing in the space right away. Retail feels like it’s really going through a big shift right now, and we’re kind of feeling out what’s going to happen with big-box retail in the next ten years. Right now, we’re really putting a lot of energy behind Baggu.com and the stores because being able to control that whole sales experience seems to be the most successful for us, and we’re working on new ways to translate that full experience to our wholesale channels.”

 

Q: How has the design process changed since you first started doing this?

 

A: “I can give you a few examples of that one. Learning about merchandising a line was huge. When it was three of us and we were doing mostly just the standard nylon Baggu, at some point I think we had like 50 colors—there were three or four different shades of each color, like variations of pea green and mustard yellow. Now, we would never do even two shades of something like that because obviously someone would just pick one of those and not buy both. Just learning to be strategic about putting volume behind certain styles has been really important and allows us to be more efficient with costs.”

“And back to the retail question—before it would really matter that a product sold well across all of our channels for it to be successful. Just in the past year, we’ve finally had enough volume behind the website where we can just sell a product on the website or just sell it at the store. So now if we’re doing a new style, we can pick and choose the channels that we’re going to do that experiment in.”

 

Q: Any final words of wisdom?

 

A: “You really can do things your way if you really want to, but that takes a lot of remembering to be deliberate about what your original mission statement was and always going back to that. And I think—or at least I hope—that that does come through to the people who interact with our brand.”

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