I had the pleasure to interview Stephanie Su. Stephanie is the founder and designer of Persu Collection, a line of premium, multi-functional, and sleek bags she successfully funded by 303% on Kickstarter in 2015. Her bags have been featured in Forbes, SELF, Brit + Co, and Marie Claire. She launched her second Kickstarter campaign featuring the Ama Backpack and Quila Bag in October 2019, hit the goal amount in 7.5 hours, and became fully funded on the first day. The campaign is going on until November 22nd. As a solo female founder, Stephanie understands how hard and isolating the journey can be and is active in promoting collaboration and women’s entrepreneurship with her experience from being in the fashion-tech cohort GRID110, and female entrepreneur cohort The F Project.
Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “backstory”?
It all started with Groupon, pole dance, and an obsession with fitness classes back in 2011. After college, I took belly dance classes at a tiny dance studio near my apartment. That’s where I discovered pole dancing and fell in love with not only the sport but also the idea of trying new activities. Since Groupon was popular at the time, I started to buy all offers for fitness classes I found interesting.
I hauled a big duffel bag to work so I could go straight to whichever class I was signed up for that evening. I used plastic bags to keep my clothing, shoes, and fitness accessories organized and separated in my duffel bag, which was starting to fall apart. I looked for a more functional and high-quality gym bag I wouldn’t be embarrassed to carry around with me constantly.
After a lot of researching, I couldn’t find the bag I wanted or needed. The ones I found were either sleek and stylish but lacked functionality, or highly functional but looked like the cargo pants of gym bags. Influenced by my experience working at Louis Vuitton, I realized I might be able to design my dream gym bag.
Until I worked for Luis Vuitton, I placed all fashion accessories in one bucket. LV not only taught me to notice the details, but I also learned about the history of bags and how they evolved. Because I previously worked with luxury bags, I knew you had to take very good care of them. I wanted a nice-looking gym bag on the outside but made of a material I could throw around. For me, creating a solution to this problem by designing my dream gym bag became a passion project and creative outlet. I collected feedback, created and tested multiple prototypes, got quotes from manufacturers, and then turned to Kickstarter when I realized I didn’t have the funds to produce my designs. Luckily for me, the Kickstarter campaign succeeded! I was able to triple my goal of $30,000 in 43 days and use the money to fund my first production run, and this threw me into the world of entrepreneurship.
In the first year of launching, I traveled a lot for my business. I took public transportation to an accelerator program in Downtown Los Angeles, frequently flew between Northern California and Southern California, and traveled internationally to visit manufacturers. On these trips, I dealt with a lot of pet peeves. I didn’t like having to grab multiple bins for different items going through airport security, and I wasn’t crazy about the lack of functionality and quality in the backpack I used every day. After going through three ripped backpacks during my daily hustles, I realized my next design needed to be a backpack. At the same time, I felt a smaller bag was also missing from the collection — something just for the essentials, such as a fanny pack, but could also be worn dressed up so that I only had to pack one purse when I traveled.
I started designing and concepting just to see what was out there, and I decided how to make my bags after evaluating everything on the market. There are A LOT of backpacks out there. I like my bags to be multi-functional, but not too much because some functions are not necessary.
I went to work designing two new bags and spent the last three years researching, developing, and testing prototypes. The crowdfunding community helped me release my first designs, so I wanted to include the community again. I launched my second Kickstarter campaign on October 23rd to present my newest designs, and to once again raise funds. I reached my goal amount in seven and a half hours and became fully funded on the first day! The campaign will run until November 22nd.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your company?
An interesting story happened during my second year of launching the business when a TV show for entrepreneurs reached out to me. They spent almost a year asking for information and scheduling Skype interviews with casting directors. The Friday before the show was supposed to start filming, they called me at 3 pm and said, “This is the name of the show, and we need you in New York next week.” I told them I was, of course, thrilled to shoot, but I needed a release from a different TV network where I had done another show previously. However, the TV network offices were located on the East Coast, and they were already closed, and I needed an answer before I could get on the flight on Monday, and it was Mother’s Day weekend. I spent all weekend tracking people down and sending messages on LinkedIn, getting my financial documents and projections ready and, most importantly, practicing my pitch over and over. The hard work paid off in that I miraculously and finally received approval to participate in the new TV show on Mother’s Day by someone at the other TV network that was nice enough to answer me on LinkedIn. After being fully packed for NYC and presenting the release to the new TV show, I was told to wait for three days, with each day being told that I would maybe fly to NYC the following day, before letting me know that I couldn’t get on the new show after all because it was too similar to the previous show. It was the craziest four to five days I’ve experienced in terms of a rollercoaster of emotions, haha!
The moral of the story and what I learned from the experience is that sometimes you don’t know what will happen until the last minute. Part of why I designed my bags is to simplify life while being ready for anything that comes up. The bags are versatile and multi-functional, so you only need to pack or bring one to stay organized and be reliable, all while looking stylish.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I take a lot of care in designing my products. Each bag I create is a result of a lot of research, thought, and problem-solving. I love doing it. In fashion, there’s often a new collection every season. With Persu, I only design when I see particular needs. I don’t create new designs every season solely to keep up with the trends. If I were to create just for fashion, I could focus on the exterior and pump out new bags more often, but I enjoy designing fashion with functionality, so it takes me a lot longer because I have to consider the features. I like to make it stylish without disturbing function.
It’s always fun for me to hear about people who are still enjoying and using the gym bags I made in 2015. I recently met a customer living in Boston who bought a bag from me the first year I launched. We had a mutual friend in San Diego who happened to see my bag at his house as he was unpacking after moving to San Diego from Boston this year. I heard about him previously, so we decided to meet for coffee, and he told me how he bought the bag and has been using it since, and how much he still loves it! Pretty cool to meet someone four years later in a completely different city, and by chance!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
There are a lot of people who have helped me along the way. One important person is my dad. Without his help with sourcing manufacturers, I probably wouldn’t have been able to get the quality and trustworthy manufacturers that I have.
For this second Kickstarter campaign, I tried doing everything myself by googling and figuring it out. By chance, three people entered my life that ended up helping me. I linked up with an intern who has been my right, a friend who followed up about helping with photography, and a girl at the café I go to who offered to help with graphics.
As an entrepreneur, I never really built a team before. I just did everything myself. I never asked for help. Agencies seemed expensive and I didn’t want to bore my contacts, so didn’t ask. Now, I’m getting more comfortable with asking for help. I always felt weird about it. It’s about collaborations. I never really allowed these opportunities before, but now I have so much fun doing it. We threw a photo shoot party recently with people who work very well together, modern-day hustlers going after their dreams. I loved the female energy. It was fun.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
My second Kickstarter campaign launched on October 23rd. It introduces the Ama backpack with over twenty features that include a lay-flat TSA compliant laptop pocket, and the Quila bag, which can be worn in three different ways. I was thrilled to hit my goal in seven and a half hours and become fully funded on the first day. The campaign is going on until November 22nd, and you can learn more by visiting here.
Building my second crowdfunding campaign has been one of the most stressful and exciting parts of my journey. The reason this is so important to me is that I’ve sacrificed a lot and given so much of myself to this project. After my first Kickstarter campaign, I couldn’t get the amount of time off I needed to fulfill the rewards, so I quit my amazing corporate job. Since I cut that path off, that experience and trajectory went away. I figured it would always be there, and this was a chance for me to pursue my passion, but time passed, and I was still prototyping three years later. It’s been a hard three years, and I’ve questioned if I should continue with this. This campaign is a presentation of everything I’ve been doing. I had a lot less knowledge three years ago, and I’ve learned so much since then. It’s been a pretty personal journey, and it’s more than just money. This campaign is what me pursuing my dreams looks like, and launching this second Kickstarter campaign means putting it all out there after all these years.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Being a solo entrepreneur, I quickly learned how isolating the journey can be. Without a team to help and cover the areas I was weaker in, my weaknesses blared at the forefront. For me, these weaknesses were mostly confidence issues. For example, I needed to learn how not to be scared of pitching and how to speak in front of people because I was turning away opportunities just to avoid doing it. Since I was forced to address this, I spent several years taking classes and training to overcome it and benefited so much in personal growth. It’s still a work in progress for me but, while running Persu, I decided to start sharing the benefits that I gained from my experience with others. I created local workshops and experiences that provided a safe space for other people to grow personally, gain confidence, and meet a kind community of like-minded people. The types of workshops I’ve done range from heels class and boxing to improv. I also created a small mastermind group to offer the same collaborative experience my previous accelerator gave me.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
It’s so hard to choose just one book, but one that comes to mind is the Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. It evaluates how habits are formed, and how you can effectively break or replace them to increase productivity and achieve the things you want in life. I thought it was pretty interesting to learn the psychology of how our minds work, and I liked that this book can apply whether you’re reading it for your business or your personal life.
I find myself listening to podcasts more these days. There are so many great ones out there, and you can listen to them at the gym or while commuting. My favorite go-to podcast is How I Built This with Guy Raz. Guy interviews some of the most successful people in the world and shares how they ultimately built their businesses. While everyone’s journeys are different, most everyone has very low points. I can relate to this part, so I listen to the podcast for motivation.
Can you share 5 of the most difficult and most rewarding parts of being a “TwentySomething founder”. Please share an example or story for each
Being young, I found the most difficult part was my lack of experience. I was 25 years old when I launched my first Kickstarter campaign and had not yet reached a senior level in my career. I lacked the resources and management experience. A benefit is that I didn’t have much to lose, and being thrown into such a challenging journey made me grow and learn quickly. As an entrepreneur, you have to learn EVERYTHING — shipping, manufacturing, protocols…etc. You learn a lot and start to look at the world with a different set of eyes.
Another thing that I had to give up was the fun, social part of my 20s. Before Persu Collection, I went out almost every weekend with friends and was able to use extra funds from my paycheck for fun things like going on weekend trips and eating at fancy restaurants. After launching Persu, I stopped going out due to feeling guilty that I wasn’t working on my business. I also needed to save my funds for business expenses. With that, relationships started to fade away or suffer, and a lot of my personal life got put on hold.
I think personal growth is the most rewarding part of being a twenty-something founder. Having a startup can push your limits like no other. Putting yourself out there publicly and failing over and over is very scary for me. Pushing the launch button on Kickstarter is scary for me. With the challenges, I’ve also learned so much from making mistakes and trying to solve different problems. This is what I like about entrepreneurship — l love how much it challenges me and stretches my limits.
What are the main takeaways that you would advise a twenty year old who is looking to found a business?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Often, we think we can do it all by ourselves, but we suffer when we do that. It takes a community, so finding a way to collaborate or get some help is beneficial.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. 🙂
It’s hard to choose just one person in those categories! One person would be Tim Ferris. I first discovered him when I read his book 4-Hour Workweek many years ago. Since then, I’ve been listening to his podcast and have learned SO much about life, business, health…everything! I’ve discovered so many interesting people and products through him. I love how multi-faceted he is, and the way he lives an optimal life. I would love to meet him one day.
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