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Building Community Is the Key to Retail Success: Interview with Entrepreneur Nichole MacDonald

By Felena Hanson

Launching a new direct-to-consumer handbag line is more than a long shot in an extremely crowded marketplace, never mind attempting to change how people shop online.

But Nichole MacDonald, founder of The Sash Bag and online sales channel Lash.Live, has done both. Get inside the mind of this San Diego-based creative business genius to find out how she did it.

How did you get started?

I came up with the idea one day when I was at Legoland with my son, who was five at the time. I didn’t want to carry a purse around the park, but I didn’t have a better alternative. During one of the frustrating moments with my handbag, I had a vision for a better way to carry our stuff. The idea literally popped into my mind. I saw something that wrapped around the torso with pockets up the front and back.

After making a handful of them and getting feedback, complete with wearing one myself and having strangers asking me in public where I got the bag, I knew I was on to something. But I wanted to start slow and steady because I had learned the hard way on a previous business venture how easy it is to quickly rack up debt and stress if you aren’t approaching the market the right way.

For the first three years, I was hitting the pavement and selling at many farmers markets and fairs as possible—sometimes four or five times a week. This allowed me to have face-to-face conversations with my potential customers, getting the Sash Bag on bodies and receiving important feedback. So, by the time we launched our online marketing campaigns several years later, we knew exactly who we were targeting.

How did you find your place in the handbag market?

When I founded the company in October 2012, we knew we wanted to go direct to consumer. This was partially due to my experience launching another handbag line, Bagonia, several years before. What I’ve struggled with, and know others do too, is how to find your voice and really connect with the customer.

Right now, retail is very fickle. Brick-and-mortar stores are closing down every day. And online marketplaces like Amazon are very crowded and competitive. Even though there are a lot of people shopping, they are mostly focused on the lowest price and convenience. We’ve had to really hunt for that customer who cares about a high-quality product and great customer service. The way we found them was by just meeting them where they’re at—literally.

Why have you been successful?

Our high customer service standards and customer touchpoints have made a big difference—we don’t just pump out bags. It was important to us that each bag be handmade and include a handwritten thank-you note in each shipment. Those are little touchpoints that people crave and miss, especially with technology shopping. Customers think of us not just as a product, but as a lifestyle and family.

What was a pivot point in your business?

Our first Kickstarter campaign in 2016 put us over one major hump. It made us get savvy with video and helped us reach a new level of eyeballs. Our threshold was to raise $29,000, and we exceeded that by over 250%.

After raising the money, we ran into massive manufacturing issues and almost lost everything. I decided I needed to be very visible, just as I had been when selling face-to-face. So we applied the same type of communication: a lot of transparency, updates along the way about things going right and things going wrong.

We were vulnerable, open, and communicating with our customers every step of the way–treating them as an involved party in the development of the business. Luckily, it worked. Out of the hundreds of orders received, we only had a few order cancellations.

In 2018 we launched our second Kickstarter campaign, which took us to a whole new level. We used this opportunity to really galvanize the community around launching a product they had been asking for: an expandable bag. We hit our funding goal in just 36 minutes and ended up raising over a million dollars!

Nichole MacDonald of Sash Bag

Why did you decide to sell on Amazon?

Up until this time we had been primarily marketing and selling through Facebook and found that some people saw this as “risky.” We realized we could reach a different audience by selling on Amazon. Believe me, it was not simple. It took a couple of months to learn the system. Just getting registered as brand on Amazon (so no one else can sell the Sash Bag without getting approval) was arduous. It’s like a communication vortex at Amazon.

Then the process of adding our products to the platform set off a whole chain of tasks. For example, we usually show our product on a dress form because you can’t really tell what it is when it’s lying on a flat surface. They require the main product shot to be on a white background, so we had to get all new custom images to meet the requirements.

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Then there’s another lengthy process to get products to their numerous distribution centers, with each requiring clockwork-like precision. We ended up hiring a consultant because it was taking up so much of our time to provide the details and specs. Finally, we had to learn how to advertise under a completely unique campaign management system, yet another steep learning curve.

You have done an incredible job leveraging video to connect with your audience. Why was that important to you?

Some entrepreneurs are afraid of doing video and/or Facebook Live, but live video gives you the ability to interact with people in real time, which has been such a critical part of how we’ve built community.

One of my philosophies is to just be myself. It doesn’t matter that I don’t have on makeup, or haven’t showered that day—nobody cares and that’s normal. People want to interact with people they can relate to.

One time I did a live video for over an hour before realizing I had something in my teeth. Instead of being embarrassed, I just joked about it. Also, for a unique product like ours, people want to ask questions in real time, see how it works, see how to use it.

How have you created such a loyal fan base?

By really listening to and engaging with our customers. Because we were having so much success with Facebook marketing, in 2017 we started a private Facebook group for “Sash VIPs.” It includes special deals and communications for our top customers.

People really like to get inside scoop and be part of deciding where to go with new products (through polling). This involvement keeps them excited about what we’re doing. They have the inside track and invite their friends to join.

What are some of your tips for cultivating a community?

Start with the enthusiasts (the most excited and engaged customers) and provide value. If you’re providing value, people will show up.

In my latest Kickstarter campaign, we created a special “Sash-mania” level. We had a contest—whoever got a group together and ordered the most bags received a personal visit from me. Not normal stuff to have a CEO of a multi-million dollar company go “hang out” with their customers. The winning group was in Canada, so I flew up and spent a weekend in Ottawa with dozens of raving fans!

We also created another incentive: if we hit the million-dollar mark in our fundraising, we told everyone we would throw an all-inclusive party in San Diego that any backer could attend. We threw that party in February 2019 and had over 200 people attending, from all over North America! It’s events and incentives that have really helped people bond—in fact they call themselves “Sash Sisters.”

You’ve now created your own sales channel, Lash.Live. How did this come about?

Because we were now selling 100% online (versus in-person at fairs and markets), we had a difficult time moving products with minor defects. So I decided to turn to Facebook Live where we could show each product and explain why it was being discounted (for example, a zipper put on backwards).

The first time I used this platform, I had 114 bags, which sold in 45 minutes—$14,000 in revenue. This was awesome but it then took my staff three days to process sales! They had to get in touch with each person via their Facebook profile, get their shipping address, send the invoice, wait for the payment, and do follow up.

After doing that a couple of times, I realized that live video is a great way to sell products, but a logistical nightmare. So, I decided to create a proprietary platform that would allow me to sell through live video, while also being sure we had payment/shipping info.

It took about a year to fully build out the Lash.Live software and we now have a fully functioning platform with dozens of other brands and over 5,000 users. In addition to our normal business, we also generate clearance and special offers, and we’re doing an average of about $20,000 per sale.

We still use Facebook Live for general updates and previews, but the actual sales all take place on Lash.Live. Think of it like a DIY version of QVC, where approved sellers can easily set up their sale, flip on the live video, and buyers can purchase a product they want in just one click.

It’s a competitive shopping environment, so buyers have to be there with their full attention. At the end, the seller receives a full report of all purchases and shipping information. All they have to do is fulfill.

To have this interaction with customers is so valuable. It’s this, along with our unique, high-quality products and relentless dedication to customer service, that has made The Sash brand successful.

RELATED: So You Want to Sell Things on the Internet: How to Start an E-Commerce Business

Photo credit: Nichole MacDonald

About the Author

Post by: Felena Hanson

Felena Hanson is a long-time entrepreneur and marketing maven. Her latest venture, Hera Hub, is a spa-inspired shared workspace and business accelerator for female entrepreneurs. She has two company-owned locations in San Diego, and licensed locations in Carlsbad, Calif., Orange County, Calif., Phoenix, Washington, D.C.,  and Sweden, with more cities launching soon. She’s on a mission to support over 20,000 women in the launch and growth of their businesses by the end of 2020.

Company: Hera Hub
Connect with me on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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