Startup Diaries: Local Manufacture; International Expansion

Fran Rodriguez, founder of online personalised gift service Bags of Love, takes us through the early days of her business, including her decision to manufacture her products locally, and the launch of her sites in the US, France, Germany and Japan.

I was admiring a customised handbag from a high end boutique store, but the price was so expensive and the waiting list even more ridiculous. I couldn’t seem to justify the price. Was it expensive just because the bag was handmade? Or would one just be paying for the exclusivity? I thought it couldn’t be that difficult to get exactly the bag that I wanted made myself. So, from the kitchen table the first Bag of Love was developed and produced.

Having always been creative, it was great to express this through designing bags. My husband Chris and I were at a loose end and thought that this could be a successful business. In 2002 we decided to start Contrado Imaging Ltd and in 2003 we established Bags of Love.

There was a gap in the market for products personalised with photos and at that time there was a large shift towards digital. Images could be sent online easily without the need for scanning.

As we were printing customers' own images onto bags it meant they were exclusive to whoever ordered them. We were able to offer people unique bags without the price tag and lengthy waiting list.

Bags of Love began as a line of personalised bags and has grown into a brand with a huge selection of customised gifts from makeup bags to canvases. I enjoy coming up with ideas for new and sometimes quirky products. Our range of canvas options became so large that it was worthy of its own site

When I started the business and I was coming up with ideas and developing products, it was very important for me to learn about the materials that we would be using to make the products. Some materials have limitations, for example with leather printing, photos come out great but large solid blocks of colour can become a bit patchy. We made sure that customers were aware of this restriction because we wouldn’t want anybody to be disappointed.

Sometimes when you develop a prototype, it doesn’t always turn out as well as you had hoped. In those cases it is imperative that you do not get discouraged, but instead try again.

All of our products are made on site at our facility in London, not outsourced abroad. This allows me to be very hands-on with the company and ensure that all the products are finished to a high standard.

I put together a highly skilled team to print and assemble our products. It was important for me that that they be as passionate about handmade goods as I am. If manufacturing is outsourced, it's more difficult to respond to any changes to an order that a customer may want, not to mention an increased delivery time. 

When setting up a business you do not want to alienate any potential customers. With all of our range, including fabric printing, there are no minimum orders, which is very popular with design students. It is useful to put yourself in the position of your customers from large companies to students and think about what their needs are.

I started Bags of Love online and it remains a solely online business because of the nature of image uploading and personalisation. Nowadays with the accessibility of camera phones, even more people are becoming keen photographers and taking photos that can be printed onto gifts.

Since Bags of Love UK began we have launched US, French, German and Japanese sites. All of these countries are above average in terms of the figures for online shopping.

When starting an online gift website you need to make sure that your site is easy to navigate and easy for customers to design their products and place orders. If people have a hard time using your site or don’t feel that they are exactly sure of the product specifications they will simply leave your site and go elsewhere.

We built great trade relationships with many well-known companies and have branded fulfilment services with them. The key to these relationships was developing products that people want and can’t find elsewhere.

When you have exclusive and unique products you pick up business that your competitors are missing out on.

The ethos behind Bags of Love is based on producing high quality creative products with a fast turn around and delivery. I believe in doing things the right way and not cutting corners. Skimping on quality will not result in any second orders. 

Fran Rodriguez is the founder of Bags of Love an online personalised gift service with something for everyone and photo-canvas. Fran enjoys living in Queen’s Park with husband Chris and their five children. She believes that handmade personalised products don’t need to be expensive and come with a lengthy waiting list. Fran likes to spend time thinking about what she can personalise next.

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