In Conversation with Melissa Mash of Dagne Dover

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Describe your business in a few words?

Dagne Dover is a performance bag brand made for people who want to stay organized throughout their multifaceted days. 

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

I had many “good ideas” throughout the years, but I felt that this one was the right idea, at the right time, for my particular experience in the handbag industry. My various roles at Coach in the US and Europe helped me attract my all-star co-founders, investors and manufacturing partners who have all been essential to Dagne Dover’s success.

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

Prior to Dagne, I worked for Coach corporate in NYC, overseeing brick-and-mortar and ecommerce wholesale accounts. I also worked for Coach’s distributor in the UK running the first store in the UK/Europe. After that, I went to business school with the goal of starting my business during that time.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I always wanted to start my own business, one of the reasons being that I always held my time to be extremely valuable. I felt that if I was working within someone else’s framework — their goals, structure and company — I wasn’t able to control what I was spending my time on or exactly how I was developing my own self. I wanted to work for an established company in the first few years of my career in order to learn best practices, with the hopes of taking those learnings and adjusting them to my own business. 

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

When we launched, we established ourselves as a product-driven company instead of a marketing-driven company; that meant instead of spending a lot of money on digital marketing like many other brands do, we spent money building the product in hopes that customers would be impressed by the quality and experience and then tell their friends via word-of-mouth. Given that our product was extremely demonstrative (people like to talk about their handbag problems, and therefore, also show how much they love their bags and what’s inside of them) — it lent itself to a “social showrooming” effect in offices, at the gym, at brunch, etc. Luckily, this product-focused strategy worked, and we were able to hold off on marketing spending in the first few years of the business.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

In one of the early years of the business, a lot of affordable luxury traditional bag brands were struggling and cutting orders with their factories — factories that we were also working with. Since these factories’ businesses were dominated by these traditional brands, our factory was scrambling to stay in business. As a result, our factory at the time, told us that they couldn’t work with us anymore because they needed to figure out how to recoup the massive holes in their production. Furthermore, they needed us to pay 100% up front for our finished goods, or else they wouldn’t ship them. These had not been our payment terms, and we certainly didn’t have the money to cover 100% of the goods. With no easy solutions on hand, we approached one of our investors who had always been friendly. He agreed to give us a sizable loan in order to get the goods on a boat within two weeks. This was a huge gamble on his side, but he believed that we would be able to sell through the goods, find new manufacturing partners and weather this major operational hurdle. He’s forever going to be our saving grace. 

The lesson is about relationships. We ended up bringing him into our seed round as the first investor who we didn’t know personally. He is genuinely a good person who we chose to bring into our family. He could have given us the loan with onerous and punitive terms, but he was generous in making sure he didn’t hurt the business in any way, even though he could have asked for more than what we agreed on. Had we only gone for famous, fancy investors, that investor may not have made it into our seed round. Had he gone with logic and reason, he might have chosen not to give us the loan. But we both took calculated leaps of faith and believed in one another, and we all won.

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

I am so proud of our positive team culture. A lot of organizations can have problems as a result of ego (in particular leadership ego), competitiveness, dysfunction, passive aggression or otherwise. We don’t have that. We have built our company in a way to keep it small and familial, despite us being 7+ years into the business. We have also raised limited funding, which has preserved a culture of being mindful and smart with our resources. We don’t take anything for granted — our success, the pleasure of working with each other, or our ability to afford to pursue the opportunities that we do.

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

A number of our best-selling bags are made for people who are commuting to/from work, going to the gym or traveling. All three of those areas were hit extremely hard by COVID. However, we saw our crossbody silhouettes and baby bags have tremendous resilience through COVID. We’ve had to rejigger marketing plans, inventory, etc. but given the diversity of our product, our business has been strong compared to many brands/retailers.

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

We have launched many products this year but our Made for Summer Collection, which features organic cotton totes, is one that we’re particularly proud of. It’s fantastic for travel! You will continue to see new collections that help serve different aspects of our lives. You will also see more fashion-forward items that we’re all excited to carry!

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

The world can change overnight. Businesses that were on fire or at least stable are now struggling to survive, if they were fortunate enough to have made it through the past 6 months. In this day and age, macro factors like global warming or pandemics can have real and immediate impacts on the ability for brands to survive. Of course it’s not possible to plan for many dire scenarios, but one can play some level of offense and plan for product and customer diversification in order to be able to best weather unforeseeable storms.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

My co-founder, Deepa, taught me the importance of overcommunication. It wasn’t something I was used to prior to Dagne, but it has made all the difference within our team and also within my personal life. It’s how we ensure things don’t fall through the cracks and that we are always on the same page!

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

I gave birth to my second son during the height of COVID in NYC this year. It was an extremely stressful time personally, as well as with having to rejigger so many parts of the business. My partners, Deepa and Jessy, kept me sane and healthy throughout quarantine with a newborn by giving me time and space to sort out my new life with two kids, no/little childcare, recovery from surgery, figuring out schooling for my older son, etc. The tasks that parents have had to overcome this year have been colossal and traumatic. Deepa and Jessy made sure that nothing fell through the cracks with the business, and we all kept each other emotionally and mentally sound during our weekly founders meetings which we dubbed “founder therapy”!

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

Even if sometimes you’re not technically “working,” that doesn’t mean you’re taking a break that will actually re-energize you. You can do something that’s “for you” but it may be more of a chore than rejuvenating (eg: getting your nails done, going to a workout class, going to a doctor’s appointment etc.) It’s important to think critically about things that make you laugh uncontrollably, things that fill your heart and make your eyes well up with tears etc. Those are the things that make me feel alive and that give me a respite from my work. It was a process, but I now understand that difference and actively seek out those experiences. 

I considered myself pretty good at life, and then parenthood just totally threw me off my horse! You have to just surrender to the chaos of having kids. If you’re used to things being a certain way and try to control everything as a parent, you’ll miss the whole point of this great exercise of letting go and enjoying the ride!

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

I’m a classically trained opera singer!

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

I am all about automating my life via apps. My favorite apps are 1. AudioMemos. It’s so much faster to communicate your thoughts via voice than to spend time on texts/email/slack. Then people can listen to your message on their own time, which helps avoid unnecessary meetings. 2. Huckleberry. It’s an app to track your baby’s sleep schedule, and it provides an algorithm suggestion for when your baby will be ready for his or her next sleep. It has been one less thing I have to think about when I’m on baby duty! 3. Slack. Avoid relying on email or text with your colleagues and family; slack is life.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

It means being your own person and building a business the way you deem fit. There is truly no playbook to follow. You have to unlearn any preconceived notion of what you’re supposed to be and build the world you want to live in from the ground up.

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