Women running their own companies? We love to see it. In our series Small Business Spotlight, we chat with independent fashion entrepreneurs about their journey to be-your-own-boss status. Here, tips for raising funds, developing a marketing strategy, navigating social media, and more—straight from women who have done it themselves.
While putting together an outfit for a job interview in April of 2019, Jenny Lei realized she didn’t have a suitable bag to bring along with her. In fact, rarely had she seen one that had her ideal combination of style and function, was made ethically, and offered at the right price point. With an affinity for handbags, but without any previous design experience, Lei—then a graduate student of Information Science at Cornell—decided to take matters into her own hands. That spring, she set out to create an elevated, high-quality bag that would easily fit key work accessories like a laptop, chargers, and a water bottle.
Lei worked on the concept over nights and weekends. Leveraging some of her connections—like her college roommate, whose family was a producer of vegan leather—she developed a business plan for a thoughtful, small-batch handbag line, named Freja (pronounced frei-ya) which translates to “love” in Danish.
In February 2020, 10 months after Lei came up with the idea, Freja launched its first work bag—the Linnea Tote. Now, just about two years later, the handbag line is hitting its stride as a go-to accessory for the office and beyond. Ahead, Lei explains how she got started in the competitive handbag market.
On Brand Identity
"The other day, I was talking to a startup friend about how everyone starts businesses by getting funding—but I don’t think we’re ever going to do that. I didn’t start Freja to become the biggest brand out there and I don’t want to create a mass amount of products.
"I want to make sure every batch we create feels special. I think the only way to do that is to keep producing small batches that are filled with thought and intention. I still reply to every email or direct message we get. I would get a lot of emails from women saying, Hey, from a fellow Asian American student. This is why I want to support you. I feel like with a mostly female team and because most of our customers are female, we connect to people on a different level than [a larger business] would."
On Learning Curves
"Our first launch was a total flop. I ran a lead campaign on Facebook and sent our first email. We didn’t get a single order. After that, I started experimenting with other social media ads, like Instagram and now that’s where we get most of our customers alongside word of mouth.
"We also launched our initial work [before the pandemic began] one month before offices began to shut down. I decided to stop shipping for two months and then we switched to a pre-order model. I was like, hey, we don't really have the money to make this right now, but if you want to pre-order, we'll use that money to pay our factory and get this bag to you in a couple of months. People were pre-ordering bags, which I was really surprised about, so we did that for our second and third batches, too."
Lei's factory working on one of her small batch collections.
"Basically, whenever we have enough money to pay for a restock, we launch a new batch. Our eighth batch is now in progress. My goal is to try and launch two or three new products every year. Whenever a bag is ready to go, we launch it, and I try to keep no more than two months of inventory for any product on hand."
"Launching a business really shines a spotlight on your strengths and weaknesses. If I wasn’t going to do something, it simply wouldn’t get done.
"For the first year of the brand, I was a team of one. Our factory shipped everything to me. I had a storage unit next to my apartment and I went back and forth to fulfill orders. I would actually drop local orders off by hand, which became a part of my morning routine. Now, they ship everything to our fulfillment center which has allowed us to launch our first-ever sale on the site."
Sara Holzman is the Style Editor at Marie Claire, covering runway trends and tracking down the latest finds to buy and wear. When she’s not writing about fashion, she pens about the best places to jet-off to.
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