It’s fun to think back on the first conversation that my hair stylist, and now company co-founder, Judy, and I were having about business and careers. My background is in engineering and I lamented my unhappy job situation, while sitting in the salon chair, and she was discussing how few products there were for stylists to travel with their tools, and we realized that together, our backgrounds were ideal to do something about it. We took the leap and launched Pollyseon at the end of 2008.
We began with the Classic Collection and have expanded to a new Eco-Friendly line made from recycled plastic that arrives at the end of the month. Our target audience has also expanded beyond the elite stylists we initially targeted and includes frequent travelers with an interest in traveling stylishly and people who are generally on the go, for example, executives, those in the fashion industry, people juggling work/gym/family, etc. We have steady revenue now, I am working on the business full-time, and the pipeline for sales is healthy. It’s exciting to look back and see how far we’ve come!
We bootstrapped and continue to invest only as revenue comes in. We had investor interest in the beginning but they wanted too much equity for little funding. Beyond a concept, we did not have much to offer. Today, we have two patents issued and one pending and we legitimately have items that no one has on the market. That gives us something to offer when we’re ready for an infusion of cash. We’ve also learned a lot about our capabilities during this time and the type of investor that would be best suited to support our plans for growth. It’s not just about the money, it’s about partnering with someone who provides strategic inside knowledge in the areas where you need the most help.
Initially, we were only targeting hair stylists because of the unique functionality of our products and Judy’s expertise, connections in the stylists and fashion industry. Then an exciting opportunity popped up that inspired us to cross over to the consumer travel market. Through a personal relationship with a member of the Texas State Society of Washington D.C., we were recommended and later selected to be part of the commemorative collection for the 2013 Black Tie & Boots Presidential Inaugural Ball. The collection was embroidered with the event logo and the target audience was primarily professionals who work in the DC area. The reception to the collection was positive. While we had always intended to expand our market from beauty professionals to the broader travel market, our experience at the Ball, which was later reinforced by talks with buyers at the Travel Goods Show, convinced us we needed to make the transition now and actively go after executives and travelers.
Our biggest challenge is getting consumers to hear about you. The real money is in mass manufacturing (and selling). To get that kind of volume, we need a good distributor. Not all distributors are going to be equal which we’ve learned the hard way. We entered into a partnership early on with a company who made no investments in marketing for us and ultimately has not helped us grow our brand awareness or sales. Every time you do a partnership or deal, it needs to be good for both of you. It sounds stupid or simple, but you can get excited when someone bigger shows an interest in carrying your product. It’s flattering, but if they’re not willing to exert the energy to support you, it’s just going to waste your time later.
We were at a beauty show in Las Vegas, a show that is known for being Cash-n-Carry i.e. people want to see the products and be able to buy it on the spot. Having inventory onsite is important and our ability to accept credit cards was as well. I was completely ill-prepared! Our products had been delayed in shipping, so we did not have anything that people could touch and we didn’t have a credit card reader. So there I am, with a spreadsheet, trying to capture credit card information in order to process and ship orders when I get home and I remember the first person, a man from New Mexico, and the look of skepticism on his face as I’m trying to take his info when the spreadsheet changes the credit card number into an exponent. It was a little embarrassing, but we got through it.
We had a lot of problems with the manufacturing process. I went into it thinking we had every detail covered: a bill of materials, material suppliers and specifications, technical drawings and specifications — we had pictures for how it should be put together and it all went into this black box, the manufacturer, who said they could do what we were asking. You pay up front and hope for the best that what arrives looks like what you want. By the time we received the first order and realized that this manufacturer was not going to work, we had to find a new one, six months had passed, and we’re back to square one. We ended up hiring an outside company to monitor the quality control on our behalf, on the factory floor.
Many businesses seem really focused on social marketing right now and that’s great if it works for you. We’ve been successful in building a large following early on but social media hasn’t produced the largest ROI for us. Being “liked” on Facebook or followed on Twitter doesn’t necessarily translate to sales!
What has paid off for us is attending The Travel Goods Show held this year at Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas. It’s sponsored by the Travel Goods Association and is the largest trade show for the travel industry. We made great connections, gained invaluable insight into the industry and have been fortunate in being featured by the press, notably and recently by USA Today as Best Travel Gear for 2013. By attending this trade show alone, we have upcoming features in USA Today Travel Guide, Summer Edition, co-sponsored by Orbitz; Travel Goods Showcase magazine, Summer Edition, Best New Travel Collections for 2013 and Talk Business 360 as in Industry Innovator to appear on in flight segments on US Airways this summer.
Probably one of the things I struggle with daily – you’re just spread across so many different areas. Try to compartmentalize. Women in particular are known to be good at multi-tasking and it can backfire on you. The challenge is to focus for a couple of hours on one thing, like branding for example, and then move on to another area of the business. I’ve also found that working independently can be isolating and in order to keep my energy up, I like to be around other entrepreneurs. People outside the startup scene don’t really get how stressful it all is. Sometimes, you just need a pep talk, you need someone who is going to say “it’s ok, you’re going to make it through”.
We’re still small and doing order fulfillment in-house, although this is the next piece to be outsourced. For now, Quickbooks helps us link the order with the printing of shipping labels, for example, and that saves us a lot of time. You could lose an entire day filling orders, if it’s not efficient, and lose time that could be spent on more strategic things. Anywhere you can create an operating efficiency is a good investment. You want to spend your time on sales and other areas core to your company when you’re getting started, which for us is product-focused not operations-focused.. When you’re bigger, you can shift, but revenue is the priority out of the gate.