How I Started A Fair-Trade
Leather Fanny Pack Company
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Kelly Kong, and I started Mandrn. We are a fair-trade leather fanny pack company born from my love of travel and passion to share the craft of the Balinese artisans with the world.
Mandrn is a modern travel brand that encourages people to be free to be themselves. #freetobe
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
I grew up in Vancouver, Canada and my background is in marketing in the wellness industry. I have always wanted to be an entrepreneur but never felt confident in my abilities to make the leap. In 2018, I was at a crossroads in my career – whether to move up the corporate ladder or quit and jump into the unknown to build the life of my dreams. I chose the latter. I packed up everything I knew in Canada and moved to Bali.
As soon as I got to Bali, my fanny-pack broke immediately. Having a hands-free bag is key in Bali as you only ride a motorbike, so I was on the hunt for the perfect, timeless, high-quality bag to replace it. To my surprise, it was impossible to find one on the market that fit my needs – so I decided to create one myself from a local leather factory on the same street I ended up living on in Canggu!
After my initial designing a leather fanny pack out of need and functionality for myself, I started to receive compliments. Friends asked me where they could buy one too. I also noted that, in the bag industry, there was a gap for a “fanny-pack” only brand. One SKU, direct-to-consumer, with inspiring minimal and feminine branding. I wanted to create the “one’ bag that you needed and would wear every day – and so Mandrn was born.
The brand is a dissection of my hobbies and interests come together. My love for travel, creating beautiful content and living a slow, minimal and #freetobe lifestyle that encourages everyone to be themselves.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
I like to think of entrepreneurship as being a professional problem-solver. Every day you are faced with challenges and pushed to navigate murky waters in an industry where you probably won’t know the answer to your question. I learned the key to success is to trust your ability to problem-solve and be solution-oriented. In the end, all entrepreneurs started somewhere and didn’t know all the answers, but it’s those who took it upon them to educate themselves and work through those challenges that are successful today!
The first challenge I faced when wanting to start a brand was self-doubt in my ability and waiting for the perfect “business idea.” I wanted to start a brand five years earlier, but could never find it within me to start due to these paralyzing fears. It came to a point where I had to drop my ego and stop caring what others might think if it failed. I just had to start. One foot in the front of the other. I made a game-plan to launch.
My motto from the beginning was “If you fail to prepare, then prepare to fail“. This is a solid lesson I learned from an entrepreneur I admired. I then built a checklist of ‘to-dos’ on how to launch my brand. Every last detail in all business segments of what needed to be done to launch. Every day I chipped away at something until 6 months later, Mandrn was launched!
Ongoing challenges with Mandrn are working with my supplier (a small family-run factory) and dealing with the language barrier. Also, having to learn the full design and product development process through trial and error is also tough. In the beginning, we worked without contracts, quality checks and pretty much winged it. In working in that way, you can move quickly, but also it’s easy to make mistakes. That said, with every mistake, there’s an opportunity to learn and evolve.
We’ve now implemented some streamlined processes that have increased the quality of the product tenfold. They make it easier and efficient to work with our suppliers from overseas.
Who is your target market?
The target market of Mandrn is women ages 25-44, who have high disposable income. Generally, they tend to live in progressive US cities such as California, New York, and Oregon. They value sustainability, wellness, and overall living a healthy lifestyle. They are very educated and worldly and love to travel.
I would define two categories for our target, the “mindful professional” or “modern-mama.”
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
The best strategy for Mandrn thus far has been our close brand lens. We keep a very strong brand, and any photoshoot or image we share on behalf of the brand needs to be part of the brand identity. I think this has helped us grow organically, as our community enjoys the content that we share and it’s easier to get more followers or potential clients.
Secondly, we believe in relationships and gifting. We work with numerous influencers in a really organic way. We never pay for influencers but ask if they will support us if we give them a bag. The majority of them are eager to support small female-led businesses. We’ve gifted about 30 Mandrn bags to influencers, and received numerous tags and content shares.
This has helped in building brand awareness in a relatively new market for us. I have to say these influencers helped support our growth tremendously, from being a concept to an international business with sales in over 12 countries.
Lastly, paid advertising has really been the engine of our growth. I hired an incredible advertising specialist, who helped me build a full advertising funnel. She said Mandrn was an advertiser’s dream to work on since it was a beautiful brand. It just needed to get seen by the right people to convert. I heavily invested testing in ads, and this was one of the biggest pay-offs I’ve seen to date!
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
I think our customer service is what keeps people coming back, it’s that personal touch. We believe that the customer is always right, and we have a “Guaranteed Happiness Policy.” I would never want to keep a customer unhappy just to keep a sale. You have to think long term, and the trickle effect of one angry customer and what they could do to your business, vs one thrilled customer. I’ve found in doing my best to accommodate the customer, I’ve seen angry customers, then turn into some of our biggest brand advocates.
I believe in energy. Leave a positive mark, leave everyone happy– and naturally, with time, watch your brand grow with brand advocates.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
The culture of Mandrn is all based on honesty, growth, community and freedom. When working closely with people, it’s important to keep communication kind yet honest if something isn’t working within the team. Empathy and caring about what’s going on in your colleagues’ lives and how you can support them. How we deal with all suppliers, team members, community is all relationship-first. It needs to feel collaborative, win-win and inspiring in order to make a great team.
I love to create beautiful powerpoint decks of my vision, to get everyone excited and on the same page. It takes a little bit longer to create these decks, but the impact and enrollment you can get from everyone around you to bring the vision to life has made a huge difference.
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
Well Mandrn is powered by Shopify using a template, makes it really easy to set up an online store yourself! I use Mailchimp to manage our email database, and Canva has been a lifesaver in helping me become my own scrappy graphic designer for quick design needs.
Recently I started using Trello, a project management tool and found it to be game changing. Keeps track of all the moving projects I have going on, and makes sure I’m prioritizing the right projects!
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
I’ve noted this before but just START. You’re really not that important in the eyes of others, don’t care about failing or what others think. Just START.
“Fail to plan, plan to fail.” Build a plan with action steps, and everyday chip away at it. In 1 year you’ll be AMAZED at how far you’ve come.
Consistency is key. If you work on something everyday, share content with the world, everyday, even if you think no one’s watching, with time, it will grow .
You need to think big, instead of small when it comes to your business. Spending a lot of money on product or traveling and sourcing. Instead of seeing it as wasted money, see it as an investment made into your business to make more money in the long term. I had to change my mindset for this when it came to advertising and I was spending $150 a day on ads, and change the mindset from fear and waste, to investment to growth!
Get your shit in order for finances and bookkeeping early on. As I said, I’m not the most organized person in the world, I really wish I had an organized file and logged in all my receipts early on. I could have written off more with my business. Now, a year later, I am going through so many receipts, trying to find as much as I can, and manually doing the bookkeeping. It’s a painfully boring process, there’s a lot of room for error. I learned in order for my business to keep growing in a healthy way, having healthy organized financials is just as important. SET IT UP RIGHT- THEN GROW!
Everyone started out as a novice, even the best entrepreneurs. If you can’t figure something out, ask your network. Find another entrepreneur who has lived through what you are going through. The community of business owners is extremely supportive and invaluable.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
My favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur is how much you learn. It feels like you’re in a crash-course in the university for business and life, and no two days are the same. I like to see Entrepreneurship as being a professional “problem-solver” and tackling new challenges and tasks daily.
The freedom that comes with the job, is what lights my soul. I love the idea that I am able to travel the world, and still, have my business run smoothly. It’s exciting, and it’s what gets me up in the morning knowing I can bring value to the world while living my dream life. It keeps life interesting, and means I can collide my professional and personal life seamlessly.
Working with incredible people. If you have strong brand values, it’s easy to attract similar talent and suppliers that share those values, which makes working together easy, fun and inspiring! I’m a people person, so get a lot of satisfaction from being around movers and shakers.
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
That you always have to be “on.” If you run your own business, there is ALWAYS something more you could be doing, and the to-do list never ends. It’s also a very lonely journey for an entrepreneur, and you often have to walk alone and make very hard decisions which could impact other people around you.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
I’m big on manifestation, and I follow Lacy Phillips from To Be Magnetic. Declare what you want to manifest to the universe, work on unblocking your fears, and raising your self-worth in receiving it, and take action steps and work to make that dream a reality.
I grew up watching Shark Tank so that was a big influence on me, on finding a product that is market fit and how to pitch your idea to others.
I love the podcast How I Built This, where different entrepreneurs share the stories of how they built their businesses. It’s very inspiring finding entrepreneurs that are relatable and act as an expander for you!
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
I see Mandrn in 2-3 years becoming an art and creative collective. I am planning on partnering with several artists to collaborate in designing post cards, keychains, tote bag designs and many more product items. We will be launching numerous products, outside of fanny packs very quickly and doing rapid testing of new products and testing them with our market.
I want to build an offline community from our online brand. That’s the dream – in 2-3 years to make an impact on the ground and create a movement of empowerment, real conversations, creativity and love.