Phuong M

10. The Story Behind Creating a Luxury Backpack Business

Episode 10

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P.MAI is a global brand that offers luxury and utility backpacks and Phuong Mai is the Founder who turned her personal problem into a business. She uses to travel a lot and carrying a heavy shoulder bag ended up with severe back pain, where she ended up with a misaligned collarbone.

She wanted to create something versatile that combines luxury and utility for today’s modern women. Featured in TechCrunch, Inc., BuzzFeed, and more, P.MAI ranked one of the most “Wished for” laptop backpack on Amazon.

P.MAI_Luxury Backpack

Show Notes

  • [1:25] The story behind starting a backpack business.
  • [3:57] The materials, manufacturing process, and warehouses.
  • [8:43] The Kickstarter campaign.
  • [10:45] When did you start the online business, and how did you choose Shopify?
  • [11:46] Go-to-market strategy.
  • [15:33] How you build your email list (newsletters)?
  • [19:46] Have you tried any television ads, billboards, things that are not digital?
  • [21:15] Google ads, Facebook, Instagram, and other paid campaigns.
  • [22:39] Selling on marketplaces like Amazon, what does it mean to your business?
  • [24:45] Are you trying out anything differently now?
  • [27:25] What differentiates P.MAI from its competition?

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Shiva: Hey, what’s up, everybody. Welcome back to another episode of Driven Ecommerce at Work, the digital transformation podcast for your B2B and B2C business presented by DCKAP. Each week we’ll bring you conversations with e-commerce leaders and the latest trends in the industry. I’m your host Shiva Kumaar.

Our guest today is, Phuong Mai, Founder of P.MAI, P.MAI combines luxury and utility into backpacks designed for today’s modern women. Featured in TechCrunch and Forbes ranked one of the most “Wished for” laptop backpack on Amazon. Phuong, welcome to the show. How are you doing

Phuong: Thanks for having me doing well.

Shiva: Cool.

Great. How’s your morning so far. Good?

Phuong: Yeah, it’s great. I’m here in Los Angeles and, it’s kind of a crazy time in our history with protests and pandemic, but, yeah, just trying to stay focused.

Shiva: Cool. For sure. Yeah. I think this is one of the toughest times and I really hope that, you know, things will be back in normal in the next couple of days or weeks.

So, let me start off with your, the initial background. So you were working in Embarcadero capital partners, right? A private real estate investment company. So how did this, entrepreneurship came in? I mean, tell us about the story behind starting a backpack business, altogether, leaving a job that you had.

Phuong: Yeah, actually my, I started my career in management. And strategy consulting. So I was first at Deloitte and then I joined Embarcadero partners, in San Francisco. So it’s not, when you mentioned real estate, but, it’s a strategy boutique consulting firm. And I was made of half design and half strategists.

We were founded by former Ideo continuum fraud, these sort of folk. And it was during my time in consulting that I ended up injuring myself. Simply by carrying a laptop bag over one shoulder. And so in consulting, as you know, it’s a lot of travel. It’s living out of a suitcase sometimes in hotel rooms from Monday through Thursday and constantly having your laptop on you.

And, I had complained to my doctor about pain that I had in my shoulders and my collarbone. And, she essentially explained to me that I had misaligned my collarbone, simply by carrying this bag on one shoulder. And that was a big eye opener for me, kind of this moment of epiphany, where I realized this is not okay.

Women should not be sacrificing their health. Simply just to carry their things, to work. And, while I think there are more backpack opportunity options out there for men. And on the women’s side, it was very much lacking. You have this spectrum of bags that were, in terms of backpacks, they’re either functional, really practical, but often too casual or masculine or sporty, or on the other spectrum, they were fashionable.

But, completely impractical for work doing how the organization that you needed or, the security or the space or the organization, for example. And so P.MAI was born really out of this. I guess physical and metaphorical pain point, creating a product that combines both form and function into bags that women, love.

Shiva: Cool. That’s a great purpose. I mean, it’s a great why statement behind starting your own company. So, when you had the plan and everything in mind, how did you came up with this idea on the materials side? I mean, the manufacturing part of the business.

Phuong: Yeah. I mean, it’s, one of the things I learned from working with designers is that design process is, is very much an intuitive one.

And as an ex consultant, who came from a business background. So I had gone to U Penn, studied at Wharton, building a product, designing a product from scratch, with something very new to me. And so the way I approached it was a few different things. One educating myself as much as possible and talking to a lot of industrial designers, researching other product in the market, getting inspired by, yeah, different designs that I would see, or even in nature.

And, and then like any good consultant or ex-consultant I held a focus group, very early on to really test some of my, design thesis for example, you know, I had women, I don’t know. I think there were maybe a dozen of us or so, you know, bring their bags that they were currently using. We discussed, different attributes of the bag and how some of their consumer buying decisions were made when it comes to bags.

And then presenting them with polarizing, purposefully, polarizing design options just to get them to respond. So what that means in practice is for example, you know, presenting a, a really unstructured slouchy, oversize tote compared to say a highly, highly structured bag that is never, it’s not going to fall over when you place it on the ground, despite it being empty.

Right. So, I, went through a very active process of, coming up with a lot of ideas, testing it. You kind of have a kind of start with a hundred ideas and you whittle it down to your top three to five. And then from there you ended up, you know, kind of mashing into one that you think is good. And then the magic starts when you start actually prototyping.

And that’s, that’s a long process as well, because one you’re having to find, you know, who are going to be the right manufacturing partners in this, and for me not having existing, relationships, it was tough. It was, it took a long time. I was a lot of trial and error. I think I reached out to every manufacturer that would talk to me from, you know, California, Northern Pacific, to Rebecca, I think of factory in New York, two factories in Italy.

I was down in South America, looking at leather wood. you know, made iterations, with factories in Asia and the Philippines, China, so kind of everywhere, seeing, you know, who’s capable of doing what, and then once you get the physical product in your hands, you realize there are a lot more changes, right?

So you would ask about materials, for example. And while I had initially started with an idea of what I wanted the materials to be, Oh, okay. I want this in my case, you know, the two toned. nylon that we ended up using, because I thought having this two-tone, we would add a certain dimension to the aesthetic, that I really liked.

And our first fabric, looked nice, quite shame, but then it didn’t have the right durability or even down to things like, so I, you know, one thing to know about me, I care a lot about details. So, when I grabbed one of our prototypes early prototypes, the bag, looked good, felt good. And I noticed this, the sound of the strap that I didn’t like when it’s bent.

it’s very subtle, but I went back to my manufacturer, and it was like, we need to change. The EVA formula that’s in here in the phone number, the material, or the diameter or something because of this subtle crunch is not what I want. They need it. This is a luxury product, a feminine product.

and it, can’t be like you’re, you know, we’re not trying to be like a sporty bag, so, it’s about, yeah. Again, an editor process, sorry, this long winded answer to your question, but let’s say it was iterative process. And, and when it, you just keep working on, as you go through the product development process.

Shiva: So, when did this Kickstarter campaign happened? So after you got settled down with the product and you figured out the manufacturing and other things, is that when the Kickstarter campaign happened?

Phuong: Yeah, sort of, sort of in tandem. I mean, I knew, I mean, it takes our time with great, just because, for a few different reasons, one, it gave me a deadline to work towards and two, For me, it was a way to allow consumers to vote with their wallets, whether or not this is something worth pursuing.

And so in the back of my mind, you know, as an entrepreneur, you take risks and you have to have a certain risk appetite and that’s part of the game, but you also want to make smart risks and calculated risks. So for me, Kickstarter was, was going to be one of those litmus tests that said, okay, you know, this is a horrible idea and no one wants to buy this.

I probably shouldn’t pursue it full time then, And, so I had a prototype that I was fairly happy with that we launched with the kickstart, but here’s the thing I mentioned, it’s iterative process. Right? So halfway through the campaign, and I ended up changing the material. and it was going to be a more expensive material.

But it was going to look slightly different. And so I had to go back to my backers of the campaign. Be very honest, transparent with them was like, Hey, look, I need you guys back to the bag, the silhouette and the structure and the overall design is going to be similar, but I’m, I decided to make some upgrades to those material after spending more time with it.

And either the changes that we’re going to see and, You know, I hope you’re okay with that. Just know you’re going to get a higher product, higher quality product. And, and that there might be a slight delay and I didn’t receive a single piece of criticism or complaint. I think consumers are fairly understanding that companies that are starting on Kickstarter are trying to figure out, you know, what kind of brand they want to be.

And, possibly they’re doing this for the first time. So there’s a little more forgiveness, I think, on the consumer side.

Shiva: Yeah. Yeah. When did you go online? So this had to happen immediately after the Kickstarter. Right? So you, want it to go online and then, my other question is, how did you end up choosing Shopify?

Phuong: Hmm. yeah, I mean, I remember looking at a few of those different platforms, you know, and the great part is, unlike 10 years ago where you’d have to be building your, website and eCommerce from scratch. Yeah. Shopify was just easy to use, like, it’s made for e-commerce. it’s easily scalable, a lot of massive companies that are on there.

I really, I remember really enjoying all, seeing all of the other party apps that are on the Shopify site. Marketplace that allows me to optimize my website. so yeah, there was, no easy decision after looking at a few.

Shiva: So, you had pretty much everything set up, right? So what was the go to market strategy or, The inbound marketing strategy, right?

So you have the weebsite up and running and, what kind of plans you had in mind, to bring in the visitors? Was that more on the product images or the product videos that you wanted to concentrate or do you want it to concentrate more on the content piece of it? Like what brought in the visitors to your website?

Phuong: Certainly pre COVID and then before I ended up moving abroad for several years, but while I was still in USA with my business, I would say overall, we wanted to combine both offline and online touch points to turn our customers into brand advocates. So our go to market strategy, and how consumers were able to learn about P.MAI was the combination of word of mouth partnerships, PR alongside online events that could allow them to, feel the product.

So with, we had launched a few popups, that we did, at Facebook headquarters, which was really fun, because the consumer, could understand exactly why the product was created without me even saying anything and so, yeah, doing, you know, trade shows and things like that, we don’t do those anymore.

We’re strictly more online now. but we still do a lot of partnerships. So, you know, hosting coral, cross promotional activities with complimentary brands and influencers is something that, that we’ve done and we’ve continued to do, whether that’s, you know, just this last week we were part of, That’s great cohort of women owned brands and Stacey London, the Stacey London from a, what not to wear was hosting this zoom event for people to essentially shop.

she would, you know, style people live on zoom, which was awesome. And then at the same time there was this virtual pop-up will people shop from our brands. And so, especially during time, like COVID it’s really about, you know, how can we lift other brands up at the same time who might also be struggling.

And for me as a female founder, who’s really passionate about, lifting other women and supporting other women owned business that’s even more important now, more than ever. And, I mean, when it comes to digital marketing and growth hacking, things like that. Yeah. I mean, we certainly try and do our best with, with PR and the fashion travel and business publications.

And we try to invest in, you know, the digital experience with. With content marketing, in terms of, you know, email, a newsletter, social media, we’ve got, you know, referral program. We got a refer, a friend program. We have affiliate program. I’ve tried so many different things, along with just, you know, what, what are some ways to optimize the site search engine, browser optimization and things like that.

And then, yeah. And then it just along the way, just trying to establish relationships among, you know, your core consumer groups that you’re going after. So for a brand like mine, you know, we were, we were primarily focusing on initially with, you know, business professionals. Because these were women who needed to carry a laptop backpack.

but that’s expanded quite a bit now, as, yeah, we have a pretty, diverse group of consumers.

Shiva: Okay. Okay. So you talked about, the popups and, building the email list and other things, right. So what actually helped you to building, the email list and then. Especially the email newsletter. So, I mean, it’s not going to happen overnight, right?

I mean, just, just because a brand or a merchant has a pop up, no one is going to give you email ID. So what actually worked for you and it’s kind of like, so I believe that you’ve tried maybe like a couple of other options. So what you really like and what you felt like. Okay. So these are the things that consumers really like it, something like that.

Phuong: Yeah. So email marketing is gold. For us. it’s, one of our most successful sales channels. and ideally if we can convert user, I have, entered our website. Ideally or organically. So they’ve already had a, you know, an innate interest in our products and our brand of humankind. You know, then of course, we’re going to throw a pop up on there.

We’re going to try and I convince them to give us their email address, while they’re in the browsing stage. You know, by offering them a discount or something like this. and so those are, those are the best because they were on our website, for a reason. now one of the other things that, you know, we’ve tried, as I mentioned, partnerships and giveaways, and so, you know, we’ve used a platform called dojo mojo.

I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it. But it essentially just connects a bunch of brands to collaborate on either trying giveaways or newsletters or things like this. and the beauty of it is, best case scenario. You are able to join a campaign with bigger brands that have, overlapping target group.

And just a much bigger scale. So I don’t know. so for example, we’re doing a giveaway and we, I think we had, general assembly with one of the people on there. or, you know, maybe for a travel brand new, you want to convince someone like, you know, travel and leisure to take on your unit, add you to the convention.

So essentially all the brands are giving away a product to a winner, and then they, share the email addresses of everyone that participated in that giveaway. Of course there’s the expectation of how many, entries that you’re going to drive in order for it to be fair and worthwhile. So that’s what I mean when I say, yeah, of course, it’s gonna be easier to, to join a campaign with people who have equal email list sizes like you, but if you get lucky and you can somehow piggyback on, you know, a bigger fish, shall we say, in this ocean then, then it’s a, it’s a great way to, to increase your email list in a short amount of time.

However, I will caveat that you have to treat these consumers differently because they didn’t come. Even through your website potentially. Right. They may have been on the email list of, you know, one of the other brands that were part of the good way, which is why it’s important to join, to give away with complimentary brands.

Because obviously, you know, if I’m targeting, you know, women and they’re, you know, between 25 and 40, I’m not gonna, you know, Join a campaign with like, not a hairy shave club or something like this because you know, their target audience, isn’t gonna be relevant to me, but back to my small piece of advise is, you have to treat these consumers differently because it didn’t come organically or directly through your channel.

You’re going to have to massage your messaging and kind of bring them along slowly. To make sure that they’re worthwhile keeping on your mailing list because obviously it’s expensive cost meant to have them on their mailing list. So you want to make sure that the ones that are going to be there are worth it.

So, so just setting up an email drip campaign that you, them to the brand, educate them about the brand, maybe offer some sort of value right off the gate, are some tactics that allow them hopefully to see the value in staying on your newsletter before you then migrate them into your overall mailing list.

Shiva: So, while we’re talking about the digital, have you tried any television ads or the billboards? I mean, things that are not digital during your early stages?

Phuong: We didn’t do any, certainly, no billboards that delivers no. we were in, a few magazines. We were in. So United airlines have their first class, a magazine called Rhapsody.

We were in that, we found our way somehow into a local magazine in Tanzania. and so there’ve been, yeah, a few of these instances of print. I mean, we’ve been asked to be, you know, the giveaway bag or. The directors and producers of the Telluride film festival, for example. And so they’re like interesting opportunity that sometimes, arise or like, you know, being asked to be like, Oh, do you want to be part of the like celebrity gift caved?

Or like, I don’t know, the Academy awards or something like this. I, we’ve never pick the bait for that kind of event. But because our bags are pretty expensive, I wasn’t comfortable with giving away stuff for free initiative or celebrity, unless I knew that was going to be, yeah.

Something is meaningful from that. so we have not tried that.

Shiva: So do you believe in, the paid ads? I mean, like, the typical Google ads or social media ads and another thing like Instagram, Facebook marketing.

Phuong: Yeah, I mean, every, every channel works a little differently for every brand, but, yeah, I mean the secret sauce is that if you can, if you know that you can get your.

Yeah. If you know where your customer lifetime value is and what your customer acquisition costs are, and that, you know, you’re, it’s, it’s profitable and it’s just not turning on the faucet more. That’s that’s great. Right? That’s that’s the goal. and, and for us, you know, we certainly experimented and hired different agencies to help us try and crack that code bit by bit.

I think for us any personally, Facebook is, Much better for retargeting for us. versus, you know, what we do on Amazon is a bit differently like Amazon shoppers. I think the majority of online product searches now original on Amazon, I think like 55%. so the nice part about that ecosystem is I think the then tend to purchase a fairly high, and then Instagram was kind of, you know, awareness building and that’s going to be more, yeah.

Top funnel. And, before they, they’re going to go in. Commit to buying a $450 bag. Bu t you kind of have to play the game because if you’re a consumer that we’re going to be there, then the need to be there to do.

Shiva: Yeah. And you’re on Amazon. Right. So how do you see Amazon when you have your own online store?

Phuong: Yeah, it’s like a necessary evil, I suppose. I mean, I think it’s very uncommon for fashion brands to play on Amazon. And I’ve given a short talk on this actually, because, you know.

Shiva: So, is this actually more like a Amazon helps you with the conversion or helps you with the brand building activities as well?

Phuong: No, not brand building. I mean, have you seen Amazon’s website. But I’m more like, my consumer shop on Amazon, right. She’s a prime household and, in prime household, which is great in the us, I think it’s like 90 million household or something like this. Its massive and the average car size of a fine healthily annually is like twice as much as a non prime music.

I don’t know, like $1,400 a year they spend or something like that. my numbers might be two years validated, but, so in my mind, I don’t care that okay. Yeah. P.MAI, you know, we say we’re kind of in this like affordable luxury space and we, you know, wouldn’t dare to hurt our brand equity, like being on an ugly clunky platform like Amazon.

But no, I don’t care about that. I care about where my consumers are, you know, she’s going to be like toilet paper on there while still looking for a work bag. I’m going to be there. I want to be there where she is. and so for us, you know, in the best case scenario, sometimes it has led to people that find us on Amazon because they’re searching through bags and then best case scenario, they convert on our website, which is great, but that’s probably, that’s not, common.

Most of the people that find us, it we’ll end up competing on Amazon. So obviously our margins aren’t as good as they would be.

Shiva: So, are you doing any special marketing activities right now? Because it’s a pandomic situation and then it’s hard to get the warehouses and, you know, even orders keep coming in like two months ago.

Phuong: Yeah.

Shiva: Are there any special activities that you’re specifically focusing,

Phuong: From the marketing spot? I mean, I think, what I mentioned earlier, which is we, we are more interested now in lifting other businesses at the same time, because we’re all in this together. And so we’ve done. I think three different virtual plateaus with a group of other female fashion brands or female brands now, fashion.

and that’s something that’s unique to up to the pandemic, I think because it’s this notion of, you know, Hey, you know, especially for a brand like mine, you know, bags or, No more top of mind when someone is either traveling or commuting into the office. Right. That’s why they would need a bag to carry their stuff.

and so we found, yeah, that, engaging in, you know, more of these interesting, meaningful, partnerships was one thing we were going to experiment on. but even from a, you know, non-marketing, but rather business side, you know, we, we sort of, taken a small pivot, and even our product lines.

So rather than coming out with another bag, our most recent product, is called the violet clean kit. And, it is in direct response to the pandemic. So what it is, it’s bag. That you place your items in and using 12 powerful ultraviolet, C light, it will disinfect and sanitize your stuff in about three minutes and while other, other fashion brands right now, you know, they’re in the curtains of business, right?

We’ve got fabrics and things like that. So they’re going to be manufacturing. face masks, which has become very popular and, commoditize, well, I realized we are bad brand, so I’m not going to pay in fact, your face mask. There, there are a bunch of other people that are doing that. but can I come up with a product that’s still a bag and still functional and still looks good because those are some of our.

No court tenants then. Yeah. That’s what I’m going to do. So that’s been something that’s been new for us.

Shiva: Cool. Good. so, before we wrap this up, let me ask you a quick question from the consumer standpoint. So let’s say there are so many, backpacks available, right? But let’s say for a consumer or as a consume why would someone have to buy from a P.MAI compared to your competition?

Phuong: Yeah. I mean, I think P.MAI stands for form and function, right? We are all about the sophisticated utility in a bag. so we pride ourselves in making high quality products, that are going to help them look good. and feel good so that you don’t injure yourself like I did. and I think, You know, today’s consumer is very discerning.

And obviously the internet has allowed them, to have access to so many traces, like you mentioned. And so I think, you know, having brand integrity and authenticity is really important, you know, I think people, Some people really fall in love with their brand because they can relate to my story of injuring myself.

You know, I’ve had so many customers write to us and say, I used to have all this back pain and ever since switching to your backpack, you know, I feel so much better and I don’t have any pinched nerves in my shoulders or my posture’s improved or my neck or whatever. and those messages make me so happy because it’s, the reason why I started this brand, you know?

So, I think for any woman who has never tried working, you know, buying a backpack because it was previously considered to juvenile or whatnot, are highly encouraged her to switch to a backpack simply for her health. And, yeah, that would be my public act.

Shiva: Cool. Yeah. Sure. and thank you so much for your time Phuong.

So for the listeners who are listening to this, I’ll just give a link to them its Right? Perfect Phuong, Take care and you have a good day.

Phuong: Thanks, you too.

Shiva: Thanks for tuning in and subscribe to be among the first to hear it if you haven’t already. And if you like our episodes, do me a favor by leaving us a review on Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening to this right now. If you want us to cover anything else on B2B or B2C in the upcoming episodes, just go ahead and email it to Either way, catch you guys very soon in the next episode until then stay safe and stay healthy.

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