My second interview of the show was with Dan Balsiger, proprietor of Bo Bo Bags. His site was up the other day but not as of this writing. Still you can see his line in a lot of stores online, I can’t seem to recall how many he accounts he has but it’s a good number. You would have liked Dan, very open and friendly, just a really nice guy. Below is Dan in his booth at the MAGIC Show.
He’s been producing his own line for 7 years. I forgot to write down how many accounts he has but he has quite a few. He has a skinny team, only three people in house. He also does some private label but cautions that you can’t play with only one major. He says a year and a half ago, his business changed and he refocused. Now he’s glad he made those changes and feels his line is really tight. Before, he says he was all over the map. He mentioned that when he first started out, one of the things he did was get into ecommerce but he was targeting a lower price point which ended up not working out. He redeveloped his line for the mid-priced range with about 150 skus and that’s working out better. I don’t know what materials he was using before but he’s got a really nice pebble finish Italian leather in great great colors (classic colors rather than trendy ones). Those Italians are something else. Nobody beats them in making small and beautiful metal parts (handbag hardware, nobody but nobody beats them) and produce great leather. It was the leather that made me stop at his booth. Also, his booth was nice and open, not all hunched over and closed up like many of the accessories booths. I’d think it’d be hard to do jewelry accessories without the joint looking junked up.
Anyway, I saw the great Italian pebble finished leather in his booth and stopped for a visit. Actually, I think I said, “hi, I’m not a buyer but can I look anyway”? So we started chatting a bit. I asked him how he started in the business. He said he was a Marketing major at San Diego State and got a job as a sales rep right out of school with L’Oreal. From there he got into marketing and merchandising with a huge junior’s apparel line (Bebe’s). Since they did a lot of imports, he moved into production which in an import house means package and contract management overseas. He also handled quality control, placing contracts and did a lot of travel all over Asia. After doing that for three or four years is when he started is own line. He says when he first started he was doing lower end stuff but running huge numbers. He did that for four or five years but says that competing on price wasn’t working well (don’t I tell you the same?). The label had no value so he wasn’t getting reorders. That was when he reorganized and refocused to develop this current midprice bag line of which he’s very pleased with the performance.
I asked him for the best advice he could give you and he said to “keep your blinders on”. He explains that you have to stay focused on your product. Don’t jump at every trim or piece of hardware you can throw in to the product. Also, stay focused on your vision and don’t be distracted by what your competitors are doing. You need to keep an eye on what they’re doing, where they’re going and showing and who they’re talking to but he says specifically to not watch their styles. Develop your own signature. You want to watch where they’re placing their product, how their distribution compares with yours, their pricing and their sales reps but focus on your own product. Lastly, he says there’s no such thing as a quick buck. Competing on lower price points didn’t work for him.
When I asked him what he knows now that he wishes he could have know then, he said that he wishes he’d listened more to his sales reps. He should have listened with regard to creativity and wishes he had been more receptive to change. As an example, he mentions his current leather supplier (Italian). His supplier had actually approached him in his booth several times before (if you show at market, suppliers will come around and pitch you saving you some sourcing work) but he wouldn’t listen. Luckily, the leather supplier was persistent, Dan changed his line but he says he’d be a lot farther ahead now if he’d listened sooner. He also says that if he hadn’t have listened when he did, he’d be dead by now. Not literally dead, the business dead.
When I asked him what was the most expensive lesson he learned, he said being over exuberant about selling, being too anxious to make that sale. He says you have to qualify retail accounts. He says there are lots of “alligators looking for new lines, they steal from new lines”. He says they give great presentations, very personable and place big orders…but they don’t pay or they return products at the end of the season. He mentions that it’s easy to get carried away, it’s very flattering to get big orders from known accounts, it’s a validation of what you’re doing and if the account is from somebody much bigger and more established than you, you feel as though it might be arrogant of you to check them out -but you have to. As he said, there are a lot of alligators just looking for new lines because they know how to steal your product, and you’re new, how would you know how to handle it after the fact?
Anyway, I hope you appreciate Dan’s advice and do check out his line. I got a great laptop bag in beautiful red leather, exactly what I’d been looking for but couldn’t find in local stores. I love those Italian leathers. Oh, and he bought my book. Said he wished he’d had it years ago. He barely let me leave with the sample copy I was showing; I brought him a new copy the next day. Thanks for everything Dan, it was great meeting you.