As a young person in San Francisco, Fallyn Smith goes to a lot of festivals and events.
Until recently, she stayed hydrated by wearing a CamelBak (a backpack with a refillable reservoir) or carrying a water bottle in the crook of her arm. If she forgot to bring a reusable bottle, she’d have to purchase a plastic one — contributing to the million bought every minute, according to The Guardian.
“I wanted to be able to dance, stay hydrated, hold a drink in my hand,” says Smith. “It was really frustrating when I was leaving a festival, stomping through plastic and knowing there’s a solution.”
The solution she envisioned? A fashionable hydration purse. A way to carry water without wasting plastic or looking like you’re going on a hike.
A (Smith &) Starr Is Born
Not having any fashion or manufacturing experience, Smith, 34, submitted her idea on a crowdsourced invention website called Quirky. If it got enough votes, it would get produced — and she would get a cut.
Smith shared her submission on Facebook, encouraging people to vote. The post went viral among her friends — until one of them, Chelsea Starr Alexander, told her to take it down.
Realizing its potential, Alexander, 30, thought Smith should bypass Quirky and produce the purse herself.
So Smith removed the post and contacted the handful of friends who’d expressed interest in helping with the project. But when she held an initial meeting at a coffee shop, Alexander was the only one who showed up.
“If [we’d] thought we were growing a business from that day forward, we probably would’ve gotten overwhelmed,” admits Alexander. So they took it one step at a time and focused on making a single sample.
First, they turned to a resource in their home base of San Francisco: the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center, where they began taking classes on business and fashion. They also took online classes about running a successful Kickstarter campaign.
Once their confidence and knowledge grew, they used $8,000 from their savings to start the process of research and development. They hired a patternmaker to design the purse, then looked for a factory to manufacture it.
Hoping to have their purse made in the USA, they used Maker’s Row to search for options. But none of the samples they ordered were up to par.
“The factory in LA told us we had to go to China,” says Smith. “We wanted to stay in the States for sure, but we wouldn’t have a business [that way]. They weren’t making quality bags at a price we could afford.”
By talking with friends and contacts from their classes, Smith learned that a region called Guangzhou was home to many bag factories. She poked around on Google, then hired a factory to make a sample. After going back and forth with a few fabrics, they finally had a bag they wanted to sell: The Conway.
In October 2016, they launched a $30,000 Kickstarter campaign.
“We really wanted to have enough inventory to be able to run for a year or so,” says Smith. “Our goal was to use Kickstarter to find market interest… we wanted to make the goal high enough that it was beyond just our network.
They found that interest and hit their target in 35 days. A few months later, they launched their website and started selling bags directly to consumers.
In the year since, they’ve sold about 1,000 hydration purses and earned a gross profit of $85,000.
Marketing That Matters
The majority of Smith & Starr’s business has been from repeat customers and referrals.
“I think the novelty is really something that’s helped us,” says Alexander. “It catches your eye when someone pulls a spout from their strap.”
Another key factor in the company’s success? Unlike other fashion brands, Smith & Starr has a mission beyond helping customers look cool.
“Plastic water bottles are not good for the environment, for your body or for your wallet,” says Smith. “Hydration is the key to it all, and not enough people are staying hydrated. We made it easier; you don’t even have to tilt your head back to drink.”
In addition to selling directly to consumers through its website and hosting events with its charitable partner, Water for People — to whom it says it gives 1% of its profits — Smith & Starr promotes itself at wellness fairs, yoga events and music festivals.
“We’ve realized that at every single event, there’s a lack of water,” says Alexander. “So we offer to bring free cold water and fun swag and be the ultimate hydration station. That’s been a good guerrilla marketing tactic.”
Finding the Balance… Together
Throughout the entire process, Smith has worked full time as an elementary school counselor, and Alexander as a marketing and public-relations consultant. They spend about 20 hours per week on Smith & Starr.
“We talk a lot about wellness and want to make sure we’re living up to that,” says Smith. “We do need to rest and take breaks sometimes… There is that hustle mentality, but we definitely celebrate our wins.”
They admit there have been lows and times one or the other wanted to give up. But they’ve continued to hold each other accountable.
“It wouldn’t have been possible to get this far without having each other,” says Alexander. “We really trust each other and believe we can push each other further… We never even thought we’d get this far.”
As for how much farther they’ll go — and whether they’ll eventually quit their day jobs — they’re keeping an open mind.
“We definitely want to grow as big as possible and have people be as hydrated and healthy as possible,” says Alexander. “We have big dreams, but we’re also just taking it one day at a time.”
Susan Shain is a freelance writer and digital nomad. She covers travel, food and personal finance (basically, how to save money so you can travel more and eat more). Visit her blog at susanshain.com, or say hi on Twitter @susan_shain.