Conversation with Yasmena

25 prototypes
+ 3 patents
+ $15,000 in savings
Goal of 20,000 bags sold for next year, which is 10x last year's goal for Emily Blumenthal of Yasmena

The Yasmena bag, the mini purse that is worn on the wrists of many women all over the country (including on Sex and the City!), was a little idea by Emily Blumenthal, then an M.B.A. student at Fordham University. She was going to parties with her then dj boyfriend and was tired of lugging around a purse. So, she invented a mini bag and patented it. The little idea is now sold on QVC, in 10 department stores including Macy's, Nordstrom, and in shops like Modell's.

Much of Emily's success is a result of her researching her options, standing in line outside of Henry Bendel for a potential order, and finally strategizing a licensing deal with Westport Corp., a New Jersey distributor for men's and women's leather goods for clients such as Kenneth Cole and Perry Ellis. She signed a deal with them to represent her two lines of bags, the Yasmena bag and the Yazzy bag (sportier), where she gets a portion of the sales. And the sales come in from all over the map. Here's how she did it:

Is Yasmena Inc. a one-woman show?
Yasmena has always been a one woman show. It was only until recently since I started having licensees that other people have been involved full-time.

Where does the name come from?
I started Yasmena while I was in business school and looked at every aspect with market research in mind. I didn’t feel comfortable with the premise of an eponymous line, especially with the name ‘Emily Blumenthal.’ I never wanted to go through what Jil Sander went through either. In addition, I wanted it to be something that could stand alone without the word bag, be feminine and unique enough that anyone, anywhere, would find it native to wherever they were from. After much research, Yasmena seemed to carry the most weight in terms of individuality, prospective domestic and international branding and potential and would have the least amount of conflicts with trademark issues.

When you went full time with Yasmena Inc., did you have a day job to quit? If so, how did you make the transition?
I was actually working, going to school and going out with my dj boyfriend at the time when I started, which is how the idea of the Yasmena bag came about – that there wasn’t a little bag to hold onto that ‘comfortably’ fit a woman’s essentials and allowed her to be ‘hands-free’ to not worry about her bag being stolen, bouncing around, hanging off her shoulder and taking away from the outfit or leaving a bulge in places on a woman that should warrant negative attention.

The employment transition was decided for me. The company I was working for went out of business so I went to school full-time and focused on the business. After school finished, I continued to free-lance as long as I could until I started getting licensees involved as it seemed like a more sound way to go than looking for funding. You realize very early that the designing aspect is a minimal part of the business and your ego is forced to disappear or else you won’t get very far. If you run out of money, you have to get a job – I don’t believe in accruing debt.

To this day, I am still developing new products outside the line, looking for new licensees, I teach a course at the Laboratory Institute of Merchandising and I am writing a book. You always have to keep your professional assets diversified when you are still small and not wanting to get a traditional day-job again. And if that isn’t enough, a good Jewish mother is enough to keep you grounded.

When did it occur to you to register your business…as a business?
I took care of the business aspect after a year of research and product development. I wasn’t in a hurry to do that until I had a plan to follow. I didn’t want to be an actual handbag designer since I know the market is so oversaturated and I wanted to really be sure that my product could fill a void in the market. I also knew that I did not want to be a sole proprietor since I guess perhaps I had lofty goals that I would need to protect myself as soon as I took my products for sales calls. As soon as I started that process, I did it immediately.

So many designs are copied. When do you think a product reaches the point when it’s worth the time and money to patent the design?
Again, I did that almost right away as well. I believe that money spent for protection is money well-spent. If I didn’t have these patents, I wouldn’t have licensees, made it to QVC or been in the position I am now.

How did you launch the bags?
I started taking my 6 samples around to local boutiques across NYC. There are several ‘Shopping in NYC’ books and actually say which kinds of lines they carry. I contacted and went to every boutique and store that said they carry and support ‘independent designer’ lines. I started doing that in February and gave a delivery date for October. I figured they were probably used to dealing with new designers so giving a later delivery date wouldn’t phase them too much, especially when I presented it “if you like my bags, then you shouldn’t mind waiting for them for holiday.”

At the same time, I made mock-up press kits with some product and lifestyle shots that my industry friend took for me. I drew up very rough line sheets to the best of my ability and to compensate for not having any press – I tried to get as many quotes as possible from industry people saying why the bags were so good. I started going out wearing the bags as much as possible and asking people if they had seen anything like it since I just ‘found this sort of bag’ and ‘isn’t it cool?’ I did a tradeshow that summer and I did the Henri Bendel ‘Open See’ and got a trial slot for November and got my first press in that October. It didn’t hurt either that I knew my bags were being considered (and eventually made it on) Sex & the City – which I am still talking about to this day.

About the Bendel 'Open See': did you just stand in line, show your product, and get a follow up appointment? I've only done it once, and it was really to just experience the line (I left before the line began moving). I don't think I was ready at that point to show because I didn't have the means to mass produce.
I definitely stood in line - I got there at 6:15am. I think it is definitely worth doing and by no means is it mass production since the quantities that most stores start out with is so small that you would be surprised that it would mirror your production run. The comments you get from buyers like that are invaluable. In addition, you can make a connection and get a business card and then keep in touch with the buyer and follow up with them by saying 'I followed what you suggested and wanted you to be the first one to see how the line has progressed.'

One should always take every opportunity, leave no stone unturned and get as many orders as you can and then work backwards to make it happen. If you aren't - then you aren't treating this like a business. Fear is not an option.

Do you think you need to be based in NYC (or the like) to develop and sell your products? Or could you do it from anywhere, at this point.
No, you definitely do not need to be NYC. There are plenty of profitable independent designers that are not based in New York. One can still be an actress outside of Los Angeles. In fact, sometimes I think it is better to learn a local market first and understand your product's strengths and weaknesses before moving forward. Sometimes, working with a local boutique
owner, even if it is Tulsa, could give some sound advice in terms of business and design direction. With that said, one could always travel to New York for the tradeshows and go on the road to other gift shows across the U.S. There are other major tradeshows in Los Angeles, Texas and Atlanta. What people tend to forget, if you can create enough interest in your product, you can hustle to ensure your product will make its way to the important people and stores - no matter where you are located.

Where did you first do your manufacturing?
My initial samples were done here but I knew that my manufacturing would have to be done overseas. It was an extremely trying experience. My bags were beaded so I knew I would have my best chances with India. With my research, I found out that manufacturers in India are usually flexible with quantity although you have no guarantee with delivery or quantity and obviously, you will be paying more than if you were manufacturing in China.

I think you’ve hired a public relations firm to help you with PR. Have you hired any other companies to help you with specific aspects of your business?
I actually never dealt with a full-time publicist until recently. I decided that my first licensing agreement was equivalent to making the ‘big-time’ and that I should have a real publicist to go with it. If I were to do it again, I probably wouldn’t do it again. I think and recommend to anyone starting out to do as much as you can on your own – including press. Learn how to write your own releases, if you have to – come up with a fake name for a publicist. Meet all of the editors and make personal relationships with all of them. I haven’t hired any other companies out to work with me other than legal matters.

What does it mean to have another company license your bag? Why did you decide to go this route?
My situation is unique since my product was patented, they were licensing out my patent and my trademarks to product my product through their lines of distribution. I felt that it was more realistic for me to get another company involved who had the manufacturing and distribution channels and retail connections than for me to look for funding and re-inventing the wheel. I didn’t want to lose time or the momentum I had worked so hard to create.

What does the licensing agent handle for you?
A licensing firm or agent’s responsibility is to shop your product or name around to firms that match the needs that you are looking for – whether it is expanding into a new market or branding a new product. It is your responsibility though to outfit this firm or agent with as much arsenal about your product so they can present (and sell) with as much potential as possible to get you the best deal. Again though, these relationships are supposed to be mutually beneficial. At the end of the day, it’s all about making money.

At what point were you when you began shopping around for a licensing firm?
I had done almost three years of tradeshows, shopping parties and events. I knew my price-points were high and that my product life-cycle would have to evolve to a more mass level since I was working with a conceptual item. I knew I didn’t have a marketing budget since working with celebrity stylists and gifting events can only get you so far. I also had knocked myself off and created a low-end line called the ‘Yazzy Bag’ and had just done a production run in China. I had enough demand of people trying to find my bag or saying they couldn’t afford it. I knew there was great potential for this little bag to be exploited in many markets but that I knew I couldn’t be one to do it alone.

Does licensing put limits on your business? What’s the tradeoff, or is there one?
Licensing definitely puts limits on your business. In layman’s terms, it is like owning an apartment (your product as the licensor) and renting it out (to the licensee) – if your tenant doesn’t do what they are supposed to do – you can’t just kick them out if they trash the place because there is a lease (your contract). You are taken completely out of the market as that burden is on your licensee’s hands to fulfill the duties of maximizing your product in their distribution channels of expertise. It can get messy when you have to prove that someone is not using best efforts to support your product.

It doesn't look like you sell directly from your website to get that higher markup from a direct sale. I guess you don't need to since you have so many other outlets...and it would be a hassle to fill orders...
I never started selling online - one thing I do regret. However, I just was keeping my risks at a minimum because I never wanted to deal with the fee with credit cards and sales tax or maintaining inventory of certain styles if I couldn't guarantee that my sales would exceed my expenses. My bags have been selling quite well on for quite some time now and I felt that they were doing more justice (and sales) than if they were sold on my site directly.

Do you have any advice or mantra for emerging designers?
RESEARCH – RESEARCH – RESEARCH!!! Do your homework before you spend money. Before you develop a product, make sure you know your customers' demographics and psychographics. Think about your product’s price-point and think about your budget – if you have one. Consider if you have skills to design, and if not, take the time to learn what you need to do before you dive in.

And most importantly – do not over-design – if you don’t have the money, samples and development get expensive. Keep it simple from the start.

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