We wind down with Melissa Mash, CEO and Co-Founder of Dagne Dover, the handbag company designed for a life in motion. She talks functionality and inspiration behind the brand and how important collaboration and communication is when running a business.
What inspired you to start Dagne Dover and where did you see an opportunity to fill a gap?
I was always really into bags. I guess it’s no surprise that my first job out of college was at Coach. After managing Coach’s businesses at its department store partners and helping launch its wholesale e-commerce channel, I really wanted international experience. I ended up leading the turn-around of their first store in Europe. The store had a lot of problems and I was brought in to fix them. The store was at Heathrow Terminal 5 -- a British Airways exclusive terminal with a ton of traditional brands. Travelers could shop Prada, Gucci, Kors, Tumi, Longchamp and many of the other established brands. And as people would come into the Coach store, they would tell me about their bag problems: a leaky water bottle ruining their $1000 laptop, a scratched laptop from loose keys in their bag, struggling to find anything in the blackhole on their shoulder, and more. Heathrow Terminal 5 was a microcosm of the world, and there were no brands that were nailing aesthetics with smart, organized design, at the right price point, and with subtle logos, practical materials.
Walk us through the initial process and how you connected with your Co-Founders.
I went back to business school because I needed a network to help launch and amplify this brand. I definitely wanted co-founders because I knew the consumer-facing, retail part of the business really well, but I was by no means a super analytical businessperson. I also wanted another co-founder to be our designer, who customers could personally and emotionally connect with. I’ve known Deepa, my co-founder and our COO, for the past 11 years. We knew each other before she was a year behind me in business school (and in one of my first focus groups). I met Jessy, my other co-founder and our Creative Director and Designer because she had won the prestigious Coach Accessories Design Competition while she was still a student at Parson’s. She created her debut handbag collection under Reed Krakoff at Coach, and showed up on my radar shortly thereafter.
Dagne Dover bags are intuitively designed. How did you research and think about each design in terms of the modern day consumer given the time frame that you had?
We are extremely data-focused, and it was important for us to use real consumer feedback before we produced and sold a single bag. We had surveyed and focus-group’d 1,000 women and men to hear their biggest bag grievances. It was super helpful to hear first-hand the pain points of their current handbags. These frustrations made people feel unconfident and ill-prepared for the rest of the day.
How does sleep factor into your work life and being a mom?
My bed is my one consistent daily luxury. This past year in particular, I really invested in my sleep quality. I got decked out in all of the Brooklinen possible (sheets, duvet, duvet cover, quilt) and upgraded to a new eco king mattress that I love.
What does starting a female led business mean to you?
Starting a female-led business is an awesome opportunity to redefine what leadership looks and feels like, and to be an example for other companies and leadership teams. Traditional leadership, especially for a CEO, has tended to take on a loud “What I say goes” attitude which has been widely accepted. Our female-led leadership is calm, thoughtful, extremely communicative and collaborative -- with the best collective minds around the table. My co-founders and I strongly believe in fostering an environment where we acknowledge and take into account that our team members are human beings with feelings, emotions and other stresses and conditions going on outside of work. This requires time, nuance and soft skills to communicate and work with employees, while maintaining an awesome culture, high morale and positive work environment.
What advice do you have to entrepreneurs who are just starting out? What is the best piece of advice someone gave to you?
I know a lot of people want to start a consumer product or brand. Product is fun and sexy. But making product is also really hard and expensive. Entrepreneurship can take many forms -- it doesn’t have to be a multi-million dollar idea or one that requires investors. If someone really wants to be an entrepreneur, I would encourage them to think smaller in the beginning. Start an Etsy shop, sell something to your friends, do a booth at your local farmer’s market, etc. Don’t feel like it has to be a big, larger-than-life idea. You’d be surprised how many "less-sexy" businesses are out there that are fantastic.
One of the best pieces of advice I received was at the age of 19 from an Assistant Buyer I was working for. She said that brands that are exclusive and high-end have a much harder time surviving and of course keeping up that facade, and that if you want to thrive, you need to create a brand accessible to everyone. That piece of information was super helpful for my lens of the future brands I decided to work for, and of course, how we built Dagne Dover.
What does the future of Dagne Dover look like?
We’re going to continue to evolve with our customers’ evolving lifestyle needs. Stay tuned for some new capsule launches later on this year!