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Today on the podcast, I am talking to Katie Bell from Katherena about how she followed in her father’s footsteps and launched her own women’s accessory brand. Katie has had her brand for over six years now, and has just launched a membership for businesses and influencers to help collaborate and grow their brands.

Katie shares lots of useful tips about finding a manufacturer, the importance of not over-ordering, and having the confidence to negotiate, and how you can’t necessarily predict what your bestsellers are going to be. 

  • An introduction to herself and her businesses (01:08)
  • Katie’s background in fashion (01:38)
  • How her dad inspired her to set up her own business (03:05)
  • The process of deciding that making the bags herself was not viable (04;34)
  • Making manufacturing connections in China (06:10)
  • How Katie commissions her designs without detailed design drawings (07:22)
  • You can’t always predict what your bestselling designs will be (09:21)
  • The process of experimenting with her range (13:17)
  • Learning not to overorder (15:11)
  • The importance of negotiating with manufacturers (16:24)
  • Storing her stock (18:18)
  • Order fulfilment (19:08)
  • Managing work and her young children (19:55)
  • Selling other products alongside her own on the website (20:48)
  • Her number one piece of advice for product creators (23:42)

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Transcript
Vicki Weinberg:

Welcome to the Bring Your Product Idea to Life podcast. This is the podcast for you if you're getting started selling products, or if you'd like to create your own product to sell. I'm Vicki Weinberg, a product creation coach and Amazon expert. Every week I share friendly, practical advice, as well as inspirational stories from small businesses. Let's get started. Hello. Today on the podcast, I am talking to Katie Bell from Katherena about how she followed in her father's footsteps and launched her own women's accessory brand. So Katie has had her brand for over six years now, and she's also about to launch a membership for businesses and influencers to help collaborate and grow their brands, which is super exciting. So Katie is going to talk to us all about bag designing, bag manufacturing. Um, she had lots and lots of useful advice about the sourcing and manufacturing process. This is a really great conversation and I'm really excited to introduce you to Katie. So hi, Katie. Thank you so much for being here.

Katie Bell:

Hello. Thank you for having me.

Vicki Weinberg:

Oh, you're so welcome. Can we start with you please, give an introduction to you, your business and what you sell?

Katie Bell:

Yes. So my name is Katie and my business is called Katherena. Um, which came from my full name, which is Kathrine Serena. A lot of people think that my actual name is Katherena, but it isn't. Um, so yeah, Katherena is a range of bags for women and I designed the bags myself, but I don't make them. So I manufactured them overseas.

Vicki Weinberg:

Brilliant. Thank you. I've got so many follow on questions. So first of all, Katie, what inspired you to start Katherena? Um, and did you have any, I know this is probably a big question, but did you have any background in bag design or manufacturing before that?

Katie Bell:

Yes. This might be a long answer. I'm sure you won't mind. So I done fashion at university. I done fashion promotion. So I didn't want to do funnily enough, I didn't want to do designing or anything. Um, I wanted to do the sort of styling, working for magazines, that sort of thing. Um, and I graduated and got lucky, not luckily, but, um, I got my dream job when I finished. Wasn't down to luck. It was down to hard work. Um, and interning quite a lot through, um, the summer that I was at university. So yeah, I've got my dream job working in London as a stylist or an assistant to a stylist. We were working with celebrities doing red carpet magazines. Um, and I absolutely loved it. It was completely what I wanted to do, but unfortunately coming from a really small town in Norfolk, living in London, um, just wasn't for me. I found myself really, really lonely. I didn't know anyone there. Um, so I was quite homesick and just couldn't really do it anymore. So I decided to move back home. But I also knew that if I moved back home, there was absolutely nothing there for me. Um, there's no fashion companies, no, no businesses that I could go and work for, um, that I'd be happy doing. So I decided to set up my own business. And that was mainly because my dad had a business himself and I'd grown up around it. Um, and he manufactures his own, um, flight cases and storage cases. Um, so I had the idea while I was living in London, um, towards the end of my time there, I had the idea to create a version of it, um, as a bag. If that makes sense, um, it's probably hard to describe it without showing, but so he makes, um, the cases are for the light and sound industry. So what DJs use, um, and television production companies use, um, but the home version of it was sort of a university trunks. I don't know if you've seen them like boarding school trunks, steamer trunks, that sort of thing. Um, so yeah, I had the idea to do a version of it, a miniature version as a handbag. And so I spoke to my dad about it and he was on, he was very much on board with it. Um, so we actually started making them ourselves in his factory, um, and briefcase versions, clutch bags, that sort of thing. And then we ended up obviously going to China later on and meeting with suppliers over there because making them ourselves just wasn't viable. So yeah, that was sort of the backstory.

Vicki Weinberg:

Brilliant. Thank you. When you said that making yourselves wasn't viable, by the way, I've got lots more questions, but let's touch on that one first. Why was that? Was it volume? Was it cost? Was it everything? I'm just, I'm just really curious because I speak to lots of businesses who do something similar. They start production in house and then there's a bit of a question mark, isn't there, about should I outsource production? So I'm just, I'm curious on, on your experience because it might be a good gauge for someone if they're trying to make a similar decision.

Katie Bell:

Yeah. Thank you. Um, I don't know whether the actual goal from the start was to make them all ourselves full time, or whether, or whether the idea was to just start it off that way and then go to China. I can't really remember. But anyway, it, obviously my dad's background was in making them on a larger scale. So obviously he, all his machinery and tools. were aimed at those larger scale pieces of wood and leather. Um, so that was very difficult. We were having to do it on a much smaller scale. We're having to get in much smaller pieces of, um, metal for the corners and for the clasps. So it was a different, different kettle of fish for my dad and for me as well. I'd never made anything before. Um, so I was sewing on the sewing machine, um, doing all the leather to cover the bags. Um. And yeah, it just, it was going to be far too expensive. So the bags were going to cost hundreds of pounds. Um, and it was taking us like a week to make one. Whereas we knew if we'd have gone to China, which my dad had contacts over there anyway, we knew that if we'd have taken over to them and shown them a sample, they'd be able to turn it around in, you know, a fraction of the time and a fraction of the cost. So that's what we're doing. We actually, um, my dad took me to China with him on one of his business trips. I wouldn't have been able to do it myself, obviously. Um, and still to this day, six years later, I haven't been able to go back there myself, but he was in the position to take me and meet with his contacts. Um, and it was, yeah, really an amazing trip. I met with a few different suppliers. I took the prototypes that me and my dad had made and they, they pretty much made an exact sort of duplicate of it. Um, and I had them all produced then from that.

Vicki Weinberg:

That must've been such a good experience and like how fortunate to be able to give them a prototype and say, this is what I want. Because I think there was so many challenges when you're dealing with a supplier from the UK and you're going back and forward on email and you might be sending photos or however you're doing it.

Katie Bell:

Yeah.

Vicki Weinberg:

That must've just been a huge benefit to be able to say, this is exactly what I want and just hand something over.

Katie Bell:

Funnily enough, I'm in the middle of designing a new product at the minute. Yeah. And. Yeah, it's the same. I wish I could just jump on a flight now and go and meet with them in person, so I could, you know, have a look through the fabrics and the zips. Um, but it's a lot harder with photographs.

Vicki Weinberg:

So coming back to like the startup process, so had you, when you were studying at university, was design included in the course that you did?

Katie Bell:

No. So when I done my college course, which was obviously before I went to university, we had, it was all design. It was fashion design, but it was nothing to do with bags or accessories. It was just clothing. And funnily enough, the, my worst part of the course was the drawing. I liked making, but I hated drawing. I still to this day, hate drawing. Um, I'm not very good at it, but it, I suppose now I just use what's in my head, and I can use, you know, images from the computer, and I can put it together in a different way, to actually sitting down and doing like digital illustrations, which is what I suppose professional designers would do nowadays. I do manage to get around it. Um, my factories, I suppose know me now and that I send images and I just tell them what's in my head rather than actually sending them a, a proper, um, illustration.

Vicki Weinberg:

I guess it really helps that you've got the relationship now though, so you are able to do that.

Katie Bell:

Yeah.

Vicki Weinberg:

I imagine, and I might be wrong, but I imagine if right at the beginning, you hadn't had the opportunity to go to China and you were sort of trying to get things going, it could have taken possibly a lot longer.

Katie Bell:

Yes.

Vicki Weinberg:

Yeah. I, this is something that comes up so much in conversations, like the relationship for your supplier is just so important.

Katie Bell:

Yes, definitely. I have changed the, the one that I met with in, um, back when I started in 2015, 16, um, they actually closed down during COVID. So my, my very first supplier isn't my current supplier. Um, I have changed a couple of times, but yeah, the relationship is still really strong with my new ones and it's, it's key to the business.

Vicki Weinberg:

And it sounds like, coming back to design side. Am I right in thinking that your products, they're very similar to the products your dad was, is manufacturing, but adapted. So did that help to have a starting point?

Katie Bell:

Yeah. So the starting point, um, it's funny because the very first product that I had was that, you know, the miniature, the miniature trunk, um, that was the very first product that I launched and it wasn't my bestseller, and to this day, the clutch bags aren't my bestseller, the rucksacks are, which is obviously a much more casual, functional bag. Um, so I have changed quite drastically, really, to go from, you know, the tiny little box clutch into a rucksack. Um, but yeah, I, I focus my collection now around the sort of casual everyday bag.

Vicki Weinberg:

That's really interesting. And I will put a link to your website in the show notes, encourage everyone to go and take a look, because obviously it's, um, it's hard to talk about products and describe them. So I'm sure if everyone listens to this with their browser open it, it will make sense. Yeah, it will really help. So that's what, yeah, so that's really, yeah. So it sounds like, um, you have adapted though quite a lot in the last few years from your first products to now. So was there a big like learning curve between designing and manufacturing the, the boxy clutches to a rucksack? Because I'm imagining a rucksack has just got a whole load more components and things to think about.

Katie Bell:

Funnily enough. I. Yeah. Yeah. I completely understand my customers now as well, because when I first launched, I'm trying to think how old I was when I launched, I think I was 23 when I launched. And I thought that all my customers were going to be 23 as well. I thought they were going to be, you know, my friends, um, and sort of late teens, early twenties. Um, that's why I designed the little clutch bag. Um, but I soon realized that once I launched. And I brought out the rucksack. The rucksacks were selling a lot more than the clutch bags. And I also then realized, you know, a year or two later that my customer was actually much older than I am. My customer was actually my mum's age and my mum's friend's age. So I completely changed. That was a massive, massive learning curve and really, really helped a lot in the business. Um, so I then went back to the drawing board and changed quite a lot. I changed the branding, um, and I changed my key product, which is now the rucksack. Um, so yeah.

Vicki Weinberg:

That is really interesting. And do you have any sense on why that is, but how that came to be? I mean, do you think it was like the price point attracted a different customer or.

Katie Bell:

Yeah, yeah, definitely.

Vicki Weinberg:

Do you have any sense? Is that what it was?

Katie Bell:

I think the only thing I can put it down to is price point really. Um, yeah, I suppose. And the fact that obviously the rucksack is such a good bag because the, the design, I don't know, the customers have the rucksack rave about it. I've never had anyone return the rucksack, um, touchwood. Um, yeah, it's just a brilliant bag. So I think a, the price point it's lower now than it was when I started. When I first started, I was selling them in stores as well. And I was doing trade shows. I went down that route. So obviously my markup had to be a lot higher. Um, it's, it is lower now, but yeah, I think back when I started with it being 75 pounds, obviously a lot of those, um, early 20 year olds couldn't afford it.

Vicki Weinberg:

That makes total sense. And when I think back, because I'm a lot older than you, but I think back to being in my early twenties back then, I don't think I was that interested in sustainability and spending more on items and keeping them longer and all of that sort of thing. So I think that's probably something that's changed.

Katie Bell:

Yeah.

Vicki Weinberg:

Also, I'll be honest when I admit this might just be me, but when I was younger, I didn't feel like I needed a rucksack to carry loads of stuff around. It's actually having children for me that made that shift.

Katie Bell:

Yeah.

Vicki Weinberg:

And I'm not saying it's only mothers who need rucksacks, but that for me was the moment where I was like, oh, suddenly I have to carry a whole load more stuff than I ever did.

Katie Bell:

Definitely. And I actually bought out a handbag. I hadn't done a, you know, traditional sort of handbag until a couple of years ago. Okay. And. it, it didn't flop, but it didn't sell anywhere near as much as the rucksack. So again, you know, I started off with the clutch bag. It sold okay, but not as much as the rucksack. Then I brought out the rucksack, which sold really well. And then I went back and thought I'll try a handbag this time. And again, the handbag didn't sell anywhere near as much as the rucksack. And after speaking to my audience, they were all just saying, we don't use a handbag. I don't take a handbag out. I need a rucksack. I need to be hands free. So yeah, again, I just stuck with the rucksack.

Vicki Weinberg:

That's really interesting. And it's really, I think it's a real credit to you that you have like listened to people and sort of designed the collection with your customers in mind, because I think it can be really tempting to be, for example, oh, I really like handbags. So I'm going to design this bag that I really like and be a little bit oblivious to the fact that actually it's not, you know, it's not hitting the market, what people are looking for. Especially when you're designing something and you like feel, you know, you might love it, for example. So I think that's really good that you have taken all the feedback on board. Because it is a hard thing to do. I mean, I don't think it's easy to put all that time and effort into something and then be like, oh, people aren't actually buying that. That is, that is hard. I don't know. We're like glossing over it, but that's not an easy thing to come to terms with, I don't think.

Katie Bell:

And especially because I can only afford to really bring out one new bag a year. Um, sometimes it's been even less than that and it's been one every sort of 18 months or I've had a couple of times where I've launched two a year, but yeah, it's such a long time and it takes a lot of money to save up obviously to launch a new, a new bag. Um, so if it doesn't do as well as I hope then obviously, yeah, it is really, really disheartening.

Vicki Weinberg:

Yeah. So I just. Yeah, I did want to bring that up because I know we're sort of talking about it really casually, but it is, yeah, it's hard. So I just want to say that I think it's great that you've kind of embraced that as well and you didn't just continue push it. So with the lines that haven't done as well, do you still sell them now? Do you manufacture smaller quantities?

Katie Bell:

Um, no, the ones that haven't done as well, I've sort of just let them, them sell. I never order huge amount of stocks, huge quantities anymore. Um, that is one of the lessons that I learned early on my first ever batch. I overordered and I had loads, um, and they lasted me years, but I've learned from that lesson. And now I don't, I don't order much. So the handbags that didn't do great, um, they, they sold eventually, but no, I won't be bringing them back.

Vicki Weinberg:

That sounds like a really good model though. So ordering smaller quantities. Because I assume that if something, say for example, your rucksacks sell well, you can then increase the quantities, but I think doing like small batches of production for something new makes total sense. And I guess hopefully you're at a position with your suppliers where you can do that.

Katie Bell:

Yeah. Still not as small as I'd like, but, um, yeah.

Vicki Weinberg:

Because you said early on you overorder, but I think that's a lot of us in the early days, because I think suppliers don't necessarily always make it easy for you to order small batches because obviously.

Katie Bell:

No.

Vicki Weinberg:

Especially when it's a brand new product to them and they might have to do tooling or molds or, yeah, whatever the thing is. They obviously want to, and.

Katie Bell:

I didn't try, I didn't even try to negotiate, so when they said 300 pieces, per colour, per style. I was like, okay, we'll go, we'll go with that then. Yeah, that's fine, 300. So that means I've got like 1200 total, which was just way, way, way too many. You know, I had a container full of bags and I just started, had no idea how I was going to sell them. Uh, whereas now I, I do negotiate. And I get them down lower.

Vicki Weinberg:

I think you don't know what you don't know though. And I think, especially early on, so I used to manufacture my own products and I had no idea the first time I placed an order that I could negotiate. I had no idea that that was a thing and that I could, and it sounds like now just so obvious, but you just don't, you just don't know.

Katie Bell:

You don't want to offend them either.

Vicki Weinberg:

No, I think when you're, when you're new to something as well, I think you almost, um, take, you always almost assume that everyone else knows better than you. And if they're saying that number, that must be the number because that's the number you're told. I think it takes a little bit of confidence to kind of go, well, actually that doesn't work for me. And I think it's worth for people listening to know that. Most of the time, I think people are open to negotiation. You may not, as you've said, get down to the number you'd like, but there usually is a middle ground between the number they want and the number you want.

Katie Bell:

Yeah, definitely. And the same on the price as well. I always try and get them down a little bit. They, they will often sort of ask what the budget. Or what the target price is and not necessarily can they reach that, but, um, it's good for them to ask and for you to sort of nudge towards it.

Vicki Weinberg:

Yeah. I think so. I think it's good to have those conversations, even if you don't end up exactly where you want to be. Hopefully you'll, you'll end up a bit near that. And I think it's also worth knowing you can do that on your first order as well. You don't have to wait to your second or third or whatever, because presumably, um, all manufacturers still want business and still want new business, or they wouldn't be having serious conversations with you about, you know, about your product.

Katie Bell:

Yeah.

Vicki Weinberg:

So when you had, just out of curiosity, when you had a container full of, of bags, what were you doing in terms of storing them? Were they like boxes all over your home?

Katie Bell:

No, again, thankfully my dad has obviously got a factory and he's got a container that he has. Um, that I then took over. So I've still got it, um, but I keep it a lot less full than it was back when I started, the container was full of boxes and my dad wasn't overly thrilled about it. Um, and yeah, nowadays it's a lot less. There's only, I don't know, maybe five or six boxes at a time in there now. And then I've also got a new summer house that my husband built for me in the garden. So the summer house has got, I keep like a few in there, um, on hand so that I can obviously package up orders.

Vicki Weinberg:

So are you still doing your own fulfilment at the moment?

Katie Bell:

Yes. Yeah, I'm still fairly small in terms of orders. Um, I only work part time on the business at the minute. I don't have, I don't go to work full time for a job, but, um, I'm mum to two young boys. So it's very, it's still very much part time. I actually, I was full time in the business. Uh, when I first started and now after having my two boys, I've obviously reduced my hours quite a lot. But the great thing about this type of business is that you can, you can do that, you can reduce your hours. Yeah.

Vicki Weinberg:

And even if you get to a point where orders, and hopefully they will, hopefully you'll get to a point where orders increase, you know, you're then in a position maybe where you can, you can still reduce your hours. You just have to think about what can be outsourced. So.

Katie Bell:

Exactly. Yeah.

Vicki Weinberg:

That is one of the advantages.

Katie Bell:

I think while they're, while they're little, I'm sort of just working around them and it can be frustrating at times and I do, yeah. I'm sort of like, oh, I just wish I could spend a little bit more time on work. Um, but I know that, you know, it goes so fast and they'll be at school before I know it. Well, next year my, my first little boy goes to school next year, so yeah, there'll be more time to be had then.

Vicki Weinberg:

I totally relate. I mean, I try, my children are both at school, but I try still now to work around them and work within school hours. Some days I can, some days I can't. But yeah, like you say, they do grow so fast. Things change so quickly. I think, yeah, as long as you're in a position where you're able to. Yeah. I think, yeah, it makes, it makes total sense. And as I say, the good thing about selling products is that it doesn't matter whether you package up orders at 10 o'clock at night or 10, 10 a m. in the morning.

Katie Bell:

Yeah.

Vicki Weinberg:

It really doesn't matter.

Katie Bell:

Yeah.

Vicki Weinberg:

And I know on your website, so just change the subject ever so slightly. So I know on your website that you also sell some products that you, that aren't your products, the products you've created. Um, let's talk a little bit about that. So why, how, and when you made the decision to do that and how that side of the business works.

Katie Bell:

So obviously with only being able to afford to bring out one new bag a year, roughly, um, I was getting to the point where I was sort of like feeling a little bit, I wouldn't say bored, uh, what's the word I was missing that sort of excitement of having something to launch and I didn't want my customers getting bored and just, you know, hanging around waiting a year for a new bag. Um, so yeah, I decided to buy in some, um, I've tried a few different things, but at the minute on the website, I've got bag straps, um, key rings that I've bought from other small businesses, just little things that compliment the bags that can obviously be sold alongside them.

Vicki Weinberg:

That makes a lot of sense because as you said, you want people to come back, but it's always easier to get someone to buy from you again than to search for a new customer. So I think that makes total sense and having things that compliment your bags.

Katie Bell:

Yeah, definitely. And I always have them when I do in person events, um, when it's like Christmas markets and country fayres and things, I always have little things on the side there and I just never used to sell them on the website. Um, so it's sort of a recent thing that I've started stocking on the website as well. Um, I was just finding at events, my stands were looking a little bit bare without, because I had such a small range of bags, um, I just thought it was nice to add those little key rings and fun little accessories, um, alongside them.

Vicki Weinberg:

Were those things selling at the events?

Katie Bell:

Yes, especially towards Christmas time. I was finding that the, I mean, when I first started, I had these little, you know, the fluffy pom pom key rings that were really in a few years ago, I remember taking those to a Christmas market and were was just selling so many of them, just one after the other, these, these pom pom key rings. Um, so yeah, I've, um, I've started doing just, you know, little different key rings, really.

Vicki Weinberg:

That makes total sense. And I think you're right. It's a nice addition as well, because someone might buy a bag, then buy something to go with them.

Katie Bell:

Yes. Yeah. And, and gifted, gifted items as well. Um, again for Christmas, it's nice to have the option to sell something that can be easily gifted because sometimes a bag is quite a personal choice, isn't it? And I find a lot of people don't necessarily buy them as a gift. They usually buy them for themselves.

Vicki Weinberg:

Yeah. I think that makes sense. I'm thinking, I don't think I would buy a bag for someone unless I knew them really well, but a strap probably would take a chance on. Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. Oh, well, thank you so much, Katie. I've got one more question before we finish if that's alright and that's the question I ask everybody, which is what would your number one piece of advice be for other product creators?

Katie Bell:

I would say that there is so many information out there and so many resources out there nowadays. Um, to help you learn things, things like podcasts, like we're listening to now. Um, I absolutely love podcasts and have done since I started my business. Um, every day, well, not so much anymore, but I used to listen to them daily. Um, on business topics again, find Facebook groups that, um, have other business owners in or that help business owners. Um, because yeah, there's just so much out there now to help you. So if you don't know something, just be open to learning it.

Vicki Weinberg:

Oh, that's great advice. Thank you. And I think you're right. And also there is so much free advice, isn't there? So I know like a podcast or a blog or a YouTube video might not be the entire answer, but actually for 80 percent of things. Yeah.

Katie Bell:

And sometimes even, sometimes even just listen to them gives, like, I'll sit and listen to a podcast and it might even be anything related to bags or online shopping or anything, but I'll just hear something and think, oh, that's giving me an idea for something else. So then I'll quickly write a note on my phone to think, oh, go back to that one later, because it can really start thinking, start coming up with ideas for things.

Vicki Weinberg:

Yeah, absolutely. Oh, well, thank you again, Katie. It's been really good to talk to you. I'm going to link to your, um, website in the show notes when this episode is live, it will be before Christmas. So everyone should go on there and look and see. Get a few ideas.

Katie Bell:

Thank you very much.

Vicki Weinberg:

Thank you again.

Katie Bell:

Thank you.

Vicki Weinberg:

Thank you so much for listening right to the end of this episode. Do remember that you can get the full back catalogue and lots of free resources on my website vickiweinberg. com. Please do remember to rate and review this episode if you've enjoyed it and also share it with a friend who you think might find it useful. Thank you again and see you next week.