Founder of Colle
Colle was founded by two sisters who have owned and operated everything from head to toe. Juliet, an art director by trade who worked in the beauty and fashion space for the last 14 years, and Sherry, whose background has been centered around education in inner districts and underrepresented communities. The major inspiration behind Colle has been the mom of the two sisters. For over 40 years she has been in leading critical care units in hospitals. When Juliet and Sherry saw an opportunity to create a modern solution for today’s women on the move, a concept to create something meaningful for women was born.
Juliet, what role did your mom play in the process of founding Colle?
My mom has always been supportive and an active voice in feedback particularly when it comes to her and her colleagues not having work wear that looked modern and would be proud to wear. She manages and hires young traveling nurses in her field and they would also frequently wish they had a bag that they could carry all their necessities for work and then pack up to wear in their everyday life. Additionally, she was always a strong role model and inspiration in pursuing your passions, working consistently and diligently toward your goals and being confident enough to work through the challenges and adversities in life. She was working around the clock in graveyard and dayshifts at the hospital in critical care units all while raising her two kids. And yet, she never complained. She was like superwoman. She inspired us to believe in something we are passionate about and to reach for the stars. And she taught us to not let obstacles and the potential for failure stop us.
Tell us about the moment when you decided which product you wanted to sell. How did you identify the gap in the market and what made you jump on it?
The conversation about the lack of functional workwear for women was between my sister, my mom, and I and our respective industries. I work often on photo and film sets and with hair, makeup, and wardrobe stylists. My sister works in education in the classrooms, and my mom who has worked in the hospital. It was the collective commonalities of what was missing for each of us in different industries and generations that inspired the initial concept and ideation. Interestingly enough, we found out that while the evolution of men’s workwear and practical fashion had come a long way, we didn’t find enough out there for women. Everything felt incredibly outdated and quite honestly the care and attention just hadn’t been made. The materials were made with toxic chemicals and the design just wasn’t something that could seamlessly fit into post-work life.
The whole idea got real once my sister had my niece. As a new mom, her budget was limited and she wasn´t going to buy luxury bags, so she was using her diaper bag as her fashion bag and didn’t care too much about style because everything fit and made sense. We wanted a bag that looked chic, had a sense of style, and included functional elements - all without breaking the bank. We did so much research, testing, and sampling, and tried to allocate the right production partners that were ethically aligned with what we were passionate about. After lots of sleepless nights, we finally came up with the prototype of a product that had never been seen before.
How do you manage the balance of offering a high-quality product but still keeping it affordable for your customers?
I’m still struggling to find the right balance to be honest. When we launched the brand, I wanted to ensure that the quality was going to resonate. It took us two years to allocate the right factory that essentially uses salvage leftovers of this leather and repurposes it to create our base product. We also had to narrow down the colors because we were having difficulties in the dyeing process regarding the chemical that was being used. There were so many things we wanted to do but had to be narrowed down to keep the balance of sustainability and affordability.
As a business owner, there is a lot to constantly think about and everyday make efforts to improve in all areas. When it comes to improving business and finding areas where we can lower costs and increase our profit margins, our priority is to retain quality especially because we are catering to working professionals who rely on and trust this bag to be dependable while they work. Everything is custom-made and specially ordered. With all the initial costs for the product and then the costs of shipping and packing as an eco-conscious brand, and all the added details to ensure we’re delivering quality, the profit margins aren’t as ideal as we’d like and are even less desirable to retailers. So we end up taking more out of our own pockets to get our product out there and on shelves. In some instances, we’re breaking even if not at a loss to retain and expand business.
Let’s say a hairstylist who works with shears daily is using one of our bags. We have to make sure that the leather we´re using is going to retain shape and is not getting damaged through the wear and tear of scissors and chemicals. We´re currently planning to take the production to the next level and want to switch fully to a non-leather or vegan leather product, which will hopefully allow some room for additional margins.
The retail industry is tough. We have tried to break into the retail doors but the market is trying to squeeze prices that only make sense for big labels and mass production. It’s been rejection after rejection after rejection from retailers, or we are getting requests to lower our price to a point where it doesn’t make sense for us as a startup. But, I’m still very optimistic. I know that there are alternative producers that can create something for us, they just need to be found.
When did you initially launch?
We did a soft launch in 2019. And then the whole world had been impacted by Covid, including myself. I had one of the first cases of COVID before the vaccine came out and I was very, very ill. I didn’t take any business loans and I didn’t have any investors. I was just relying on my savings for a home that I wanted to purchase. I had experience in advertising, therefore I was fully aware of how a product launch worked. I knew that it wasn’t going to be immediately profitable. On top of that, I was launching a product where I had to educate my customers about what it is. It’s comparable to the evolution of the baby bag. First, it was introduced as a prototype that was a bit confusing. You had to show all the details and how it’s being used. Our bag looks like a chic bag at first, but when you look closer, it’s made for function and the modern lifestyle.
When the pandemic came around, I was at the development stage. I already invested money into the research, testing, and our first production. Shortly after that, I tested positive and became severely sick. I couldn’t work, I had no income, and was bedridden for a month - fully unclear of whether I was going to survive this. Nobody knew anything about vaccines at the time. I had no choice but to put my production on hold and everything I had worked so incredibly hard for unraveled into this very scary gray space.
During this time, my sister had to make a very difficult decision as well. She had to prioritize her family and her job as an educator, so she stepped out of the business. I’ve been riding solo ever since. Somehow, by some miracle, I was able to wrap up that first production in 2021 and that’s when we officially launched Colle with an online shop. We started getting some attention from offline and online retailers and third-party platforms and the product picked up here and there. There was definitely this anxiety that this might completely flop. To this day, I still think about that sometimes.
Are you willing to disclose how much money you invested in your product development?
Maybe around $200,000, which includes product design and development, raw material testing and sourcing, certifications, production, marketing, e-commerce store, brand development, packaging, and all the taxes and fees that come along with building a new brand. I used my hard-earned savings, but to me, the value was never placed in the actual dollars. Instead, it was about creating the right innovation to make something worthwhile for women (and men!) in the workforce - with quality and attention to the environment and how we are ethically aligning our product material choices to play into a circular economy. Upcycling and recycling are incredibly important to us individually and as a brand.
Which marketing strategies did you use to get the first sales?
It was a combination of creativity, strategy, and understanding that this was going to have to be an educational launch. Nobody knew that our bags were not just like any other bags so I spent a lot of time and a lot of my budget on developing a launch campaign. I wanted it to be educational as well as hit home for everyone out there who has a need for a modern tool bag. I wanted to present an option to customers that they never knew was possible, because up until now, it hasn’t. I was aiming for something more than fashionable and practical; it had to be modern and connect with the functional elements and intent of the actual product. The idea was to produce a campaign that was going to educate consumers on what this never-before-seen product was and resonate with everyone out there living a booked and busy lifestyle. So, instead of going the traditional route of finding professional models to photograph in a stylized finished image, I wanted to find a diverse group of women in various professional industries who used tools in their day-to-day work and who were willing to grace our sets and sit with me one on one to share what they did in their respective industries and the challenges they faced as women in their workforce. And so we had four wonderful women, a writer, a child psychotherapist, a wardrobe stylist, and a hairstylist, join me on set and share their stories and challenges. The icing on the cake was working with a tremendously talented photographer, videographer, and director, Mary Fix, who captured all of the amazing talent on set. She has been with us since the very beginning.
I remember the day on set so very well. I was surrounded by this incredible room filled with so much talent, and I was so humbled by that moment. I feel lucky to have had this opportunity. There was a moment on set where I felt confirmed in my intentions and development for the Colle Tool Bag. Before coming on set, I asked them if they would be able to bring their native tools that they use every day. As they were maneuvering around throughout the day with our bags, I had the opportunity to garnish feedback on how practical the tool bag would be in their respective day-to-day work and received constructive feedback that I ended up taking into consideration in the final production. I could not have been more grateful.
Did you ever question the whole concept, the product, or your abilities as a new business owner? Or were you even at that point where you thought: “I’m out. I don’t want to do this anymore.”?
I don’t think I’ve ever doubted the roadmap. But sometimes I would have loved to have a much clearer vision with longer timeframes. We all know that small businesses tend to start with a lot of inconsistencies. There might be one month where we make $0, but the next month we can make $100,000. I was fully aware of that, so I continuously mapped out my content production, my budgets, and most importantly my time. Without proper time management, none of these things would have happened. Sometimes the financial stress had been so incredibly heavy on me that I woke up in the morning and it was hard for me to go to my computer or to look at my emails. Bills were piling up and To-Do lists got longer, and I still had to make sure that I was able to get through this with a clear mind. But still, I never doubted that I could deal with this. It was more of a question of how quickly I could get back on my feet in tough times and find solutions to make this work. Often it worked, but there were times when it just took me longer. In those moments, I had to face reality and ask for help to flip this into something positive. Thanks to my experience as a creative consultant for brands, I knew that relying only on the metrics that drive sales would be a mistake. We also had to focus on authenticity and the why behind all this.
As the founder I am constantly looking for improvement, new production partners, or new ways to change my material. For example, when we started Colle, we were all about using leather because of its durability and luxurious feel. We still have the same frame of mind to always pay attention to detail and quality, but as the business is growing and shifting, my priorities are to lead this brand to growth and to stay rooted and invested in our efforts toward sustainability and how we can continue to design and create an innovative product while keeping our planet in mind.
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