Gail Backal was a full-time product manager at Kodak and part-time photographer who couldn’t find a stylish option to lug around her photo equipment while still looking chic. Seeing opportunity, Gail launched Jill-e Designs, the first company to design camera bags just for women. Poised to celebrate its ten-year anniversary in 2017, Jill-e Designs now makes fashionable and attractive carriers for cameras, laptops, smart phones and all those other indispensable high-tech gadgets.
How/why did you start your first business? What was it? What were you doing previously?
Ten years ago, I was working as the Digital Camera Accessories Product Manager at Kodak and one of my product categories was camera bags. On weekends, I assisted my husband – a professional photographer – at weddings. I was dissatisfied with my camera bag because it was completely ugly and masculine with no style or flair. I searched for more appealing options, but found nothing on the market.
This showed me an unmet need in the industry, especially with more women entering the photography market. So I decided to start Jill-e Designs, the first company to offer camera bags designed for women. I created the category.
What are you doing now?
I’m President of Jill-e Designs.
You’ve been an entrepreneur for a while now. High points? Low points? Lessons learned?
One high point came early, when I took a risk and placed our first inventory order a few weeks before initial meetings with two large retailers. I felt it was important to say that we were in production. I left each of those meetings with a purchase order in hand, something almost unheard of today. To have two purchase orders before the product had even finished production was a very positive sign that the product concept had merit.
As far as low points, launching a new business just as the country was entering a deep recession made for a tough sales environment. The rapidly changing retail landscape has added another challenge. We’ve had orders cancelled, accounts go bankrupt, interested buyers change positions and potential “solid” deals collapse in the eleventh hour. When any of this happens, all you can do is pick up and move on. That said, we’ve averaged 30% revenue growth year-over-year over the last nine years.
Regarding lessons learned, as an entrepreneur we spend a lot of time thinking about success: what our success will look like, the steps to achieve it, how to build the next success. In hindsight, it’s also helpful to evaluate opportunities through the lens of what happens if success is not achieved. This allows you to think through some contingency planning, which can be very helpful. If you need to use it, you’ll be glad you did it.
The first time I saw someone in public carrying one of our products was an amazing moment. I was in an airport and saw a woman carrying one of our bags. It’s not only a huge compliment that someone is willing to spend their money on your product, but it’s also a great moment of validation.
What advice do you have for women just starting out in business?
Starting a new business is super exciting but also a lot of work. Most entrepreneurs have a great new idea or product, but it’s almost impossible to have skills or knowledge in all disciplines surrounding a business. Identify your areas of expertise and those with which you’re not as familiar. Shore up the leaner areas by reaching out to others. Ask questions, take notes, and learn as much as you can. Many experienced business folks are very willing to help and answer questions, especially when you offer to buy them a cup of coffee or lunch.
One key trait that will be of immeasurable value is perseverance. Throughout all the ups and downs, the ability to keep your eye on the goal and keep striving toward it will keep you going.
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