WHEN DOES HIGH RISK = HIGH(ER) REWARD
Bella Bag Founder and CEO Cassandra Connors shares her insight about taking risks to create your niche.
When did you know you wanted to pursue your business or venture? I was pretty clear that I wanted Bella Bag to be something real right from the beginning. I saw the way that my own creativity was ignited by the concept from day one, and I was motivated by how quickly others latched on to my vision. I am an extremely patient long-term planner. I never, ever thought to myself that it would be fast or easy. I thought that this was something I could see evolving and growing into a beautiful thing.
Did your original business plan change along the way or are you doing exactly what you set out to do? If it changed, how so? My business has evolved, of course. But, more accurately, I would say that it has matured. The basic premise has remained constant – an authentic luxury marketplace that revolutionized consignment. But there are definite parallels between the trajectory of the business and my own personal growth. In the same way that the decisions I made in my twenties were sometimes right and sometimes wrong, the earliest iteration of Bella Bag had its own types of experimentation, trying to figure out what worked and what didn’t. We sometimes sold bags that were not classic by any means, and we sometimes made choices that put profit before customer. Today we refuse to do that. As a business owner, I am coming into my own more and more each day. And as a business, Bella Bag is as well.
What has been your biggest challenge to date? In talking with other entrepreneurs, I see that I struggle with the same issues as many others. One of the biggest for me is feeling overwhelmed but struggling to let go of the reigns and give up control. With my business, I still like to oversee every little thing. But you really can’t, not if you want to scale and grow. You have to release the reigns and trust others. This is my biggest challenge. I need to constantly be reminded to relax.
When you think of the best people to work with, what traits do they share? Flexible, honest, organized, funny – my best team members share these traits. Well, maybe not perfectly organized and flexible at all times, and possibly overly honest (but that is true of me as well!) We are all working on balance. My team is like a group of sisters, for which I feel incredibly lucky.
Give a budding entrepreneur your best hiring and firing business practices: When it comes to hiring, there is no perfect method. Go with your gut. I don’t have much advice here, because I’m still learning. When it comes to letting people go, try to separate your personal feelings from the needs of your business. And I would also say sooner is better than later once you realize that someone isn’t working out. I’ve spent so much time trying to make someone work out, investing in them when they didn’t have their heart in it because of my own emotional investment in them. I don’t cry at work, but many times, after I’ve let someone go, I’ve sat in my car and cried. It’s painful, but you must put the business first.
How did you fund your dream? What are your thoughts on raising capital? In the beginning, before I had a business partner, I definitely did some strange things! My parents had bought me a car after college and I sold it for about half of what it was worth and bought handbags with the money. I had no car for a while, and then eventually I had a car with no air conditioning. And I was living in Florida at the time! Talk about misery. About a year after that, I took a $10,000 loan from a friend at a 60% interest rate – yes, 60%! But I successfully paid it back in 13 months. I knew it was a bad deal, but I was selling handbags on eBay and there were zero alternatives. More than anything, I just wanted to prove the concept and show that I could pay the money back. That friend and I are still very close and he jokingly asks if I want to “rinse and repeat” today! My business partner (Brian Froehling) came on board shortly after that loan and with his finance and startup background and an influx of capital, we began to grow very quickly. We haven’t yet walked the road of raising additional capital, though we’ve certainly been approached by many people. I don’t feel that I am done growing this first piece on our own yet. We’ll entertain those conversations when that day comes, but for now we have a bit more work to do.
How long were you in business before you started to see real growth? What do you attribute that to? I started Bella Bag at 23. I didn’t sell that car until I was 26. That’s three years before I did something radical that sent a message to myself that said, “Hey girl, I’m ready now. I’m committed to this.” It was at the same time that I had decided not to go to an international MBA program. I’m not sure why at that moment – maybe it was an age thing, maybe I was tired of being on the fence, but it was at 26 that I knew for sure that I was not going to be happy with anything less than a 100% effort at a successful business and that I was willing to make sacrifices for it, especially sacrifices around what I had previously thought my future ”should” look like.
Tell us about a time when you thought you should throw in the towel. What kept you going? In 2012, I had just opened my first Bella Bag showroom in Atlanta. A retail presence was not my initial plan for my business, because I thought the entire thing would be ecommerce. But as I listened to my customers and heard their feedback, I began to understand that women truly craved a traditional shopping experience. They wanted to touch and feel the handbags, to ooooh and aaaahh over them on Saturday afternoons with their friends, so I opened the store in Atlanta. One morning, I received a call at 7am from my store manager, who had shown up to work to find no front door on the store. The glass was smashed, the shelving was ripped out, and the inventory was gone. I had always known that being burglarized was a possibility in retail. But when it happens to you, it is chilling. I truly contemplated quitting. But the fact that my team and I kept going has been one of our greatest learning tools and survival stories. And because I was almost nine months pregnant at the time, my thoughts were of being strong for my child and having a story of strength and not defeat to pass along to her.
What three factors have most contributed to your success in business and in life? Creativity, hard work, and being incredibly picky at all times – even when others told me it was too much.
If you could have a one-on-one meeting with any woman, who would it be and why? What’s the first thing you would you ask her? I would want to meet Linda Fargo from Bergdorf Goodman. She’s wonderful to me. She embodies exactly what I look to bring to my day – complete focus, a discerning eye, and a kind spirit. She seems to be intent on bringing her point of view to the forefront, but with an appropriate humility. I’d ask her where she sees vintage fitting in with Bergdorf’s strategy, and how my business could be a friend and advocate of hers.
What would your advice to your younger self be? Be confident in yourself. Everything you desire is within your ability and reach.