If you've ever been the recipient of one of those awful black nylon laptop bags (I sure have), either as a gift or part of conference swag, or spent hours searching online for a stylish, functional laptop or camera bag (done that too), then you know what a challenge it can be to simply find something that looks like a purse or bag you would carry anyway, but that just happens to also fit and protect your iPad, Macbook or DSLR.
I typically travel with my laptop in an incase, tucked inside a black leather, monogrammed tote, my big camera wrapped in a sweater inside my suitcase. It's not ideal, so I immediately loved the bright colors, functional pockets and classic styles of Jill E Designs, a woman-owned company run by Kodak's former Product Manager, Gail Backal. Featuring two collections, Jill for women and Jack men (some of the best bags for men I have seen), and recently picked up by Apple (each bag contains a unique ID number, stitched into the inside, so once registered Jill-e can locate lost bags).
Curious to learn more about the company and how PR and marketing has supported their growth over the last seven years, I caught up with Gail as she travelled across the world to learn more.
How did the inspiration for Jill-e Designs come about?
My husband is a professional photographer and I worked as his assistant on weekends. I was also the Product Manager for Kodak’s Digital Camera Accessories Group at the time and part of my responsibilities included camera bags. As a result of the both experiences, I felt there was an unmet need in the pro and advanced amateur market for camera bags that were functional, yet fashionable. At the time there were no camera bags on the market that looked nice aesthetically on the outside. I felt there was a need for this, since so many women were getting into photography, as a business or hobby. Bags are important to women and it only made sense to me that a camera bag could sport some style along with function.
Once you had the idea for the business, how did you go about making it a reality?
I was fortunate because I’d worked in product development and product management my whole career. The combination of skills and relationships I’d built helped me launch this business. The first step was to design the product. This was straightforward since my experience working as a photographer meant I knew exactly what I wanted in a bag. The next step was to find a manufacturer. This is where my network of contacts proved invaluable.
What were some early challenges and how did you overcome them?
The biggest challenge in starting any business from the ground up is financing. Everything you do requires money, from ordering inventory, to setting up the warehouse and shipping logistics, to traveling to meetings to land sales. It all requires money to lay the foundation, before we actually put any money back into the business. I began by financing though personal savings and loans from friends and family.
If you’ve built a reputation as a reliable person and can articulate your vision of the newly formed company with an approach you’ll take to be successful, your friends and family may be willing to help.
How did you begin to get the word out and get your first sales?
Again, here’s where my network of contacts helped. I was able to get meetings with a few key customers early on. The buyers came to the meeting skeptical, but the key was to show a product that was new and differentiated, along with statistics of the market that showed how many women were entering the field. This got their attention; they could not ignore the data that indicated a market in this category existed.
What do you believe to be the biggest benefit of a PR strategy? Biggest PR success thus far?
A PR strategy really helps get the word out to customers. Your products will only be of interest to a retailer if they sell. In the end, it’s the customer who’s willing to buy the product that will determine success or failure. Our biggest success so far occurred when we launched our Jack line of products. We invested in targeted marketing and advertising to male photographers. It was interesting and rewarding to see customers respond in a positive way and purchase the product.
How did your exclusive collection for Apple come about?
Our products are known for their smart, classic and thoughtful designs made with high quality materials. We focus on protecting your electronic devices, providing organizing features like lots of pockets, while also paying close attention to the aesthetic details. As a result we have felt that our products are a good fit for the Apple brand. Our products and design approach are what made this exclusive opportunity a reality.
What trends or tools are informing your PR & marketing strategy for 2014?
We look at a variety of things in the marketplace, plus factor in our own product development strategy. Right now social media is playing a big role in informing consumers about products, so that will be a piece of our strategy. Also, it’s a crowded marketplace and people are busier than ever. You need to respect that people have very little free time and must ensure your message is valuable and not intrusive. Finally, we are all dependent upon our favorite device, whether it’s a smart phone, tablet or laptop. These mobile devices go everywhere today. In that light, our products must fit people’s needs and provide benefit to their daily lives.