Customer service is everything. I strive to provide great customer service and hope that it will lead to happy customers. What I didn’t realize is just how supportive customers can be and how fulfilling those relationships with them are. I have customers who are now brand ambassadors because thoughtful, authentic customer service grew into real friendships with some pretty exceptional women.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Debra Chin. New York native and Bay Area transplant, Debra Chin, is the Founder of MotoChic®, an accessories and apparel brand for women with active lifestyles. Debra came up with the idea for MotoChic® after discovering the joys of motorcycling, and being disappointed by the lack of stylish and functional gear available for adventurous women. She leveraged her 20+ years of experience in finance and marketing for start-ups and Fortune 500 companies to launch a Kickstarter campaign at the end of 2014, which successfully funded production of MotoChic’s flagship product: the Lauren, a fashionable backpack that quickly and easily converts to a tote bag. Today, moms, travelers, businesswomen and fashionistas favor the MotoChic® brand for innovative designs made from high performance materials.
Thank you so much for joining us Debra! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I grew up on the East Coast with amazing parents whose hard work allowed me to be the first generation in my family to pursue a college education. I earned a BS in Economics from Wharton Undergraduate and an MBA in Finance and Marketing from the Columbia Business School. The sun and fun of the West Coast called to me, and I found myself in California working for various start-ups during the dot-com boom.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?
My then-boyfriend, now-husband is an avid motorcyclist and suggested that I learn to ride so I could go on adventures with him. I started taking classes and when I went searching for riding gear, all I could find was what I dubbed “pink it and shrink it” versions of men’s gear for women — a downscaled version of the same design made in pink. I knew I could do better.
There is no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
I was highly motivated because I was my own customer. I think a lot of great entrepreneurs start off as consumers who are frustrated with what they’re finding or not finding in the marketplace. Also, in talking to others about the idea of fashionable and functional gear, I met so many other women who were equally frustrated that I became invested in creating a solution for us all.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
Don’t do it unless you feel called to create something great regardless of whether or not it earns you a living.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
If you’re truly passionate about it, it won’t feel like something you’re doing as a job. It will feel like an urge that’s driving you to create, innovate, and communicate. If the money comes, it’s the proverbial icing on the cake.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
Seeing something I made out in the world giving women joy. It’s like instant sustenance when I get tagged on social media by a woman who owns something I made and is in love with it. Receiving messages from happy customers or seeing Instagram pics of women traveling around the world with one of my MotoChic® bags as a companion gives me chills. Watching The Good Doctor every Monday night on ABC and seeing actress Christina Chang with the MotoChic® Lauren convertible backpack because she handpicked it after seeing it on Pinterest is super cool, too. One drawback to having your own business is having little to no downtime — — the to-do list seems endless and there’s always something on my mind. I’m also a bit of a perfectionist — quality and customer satisfaction are of paramount importance to me. To overcome this, I schedule in breaks or fun time like taking a hike, getting together with friends, or a date night with my husband.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
Discovering that design and innovation is the fun part but the details involved with managing the sourcing and production of goods can take many iterations and extreme attention to detail, which created a steep learning curve and pushes me beyond my comfort zone at times.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself, “I can’t take it anymore; I’m going to get a ‘real’ job?” Is so, how did you overcome it?
Well, it’s tough for me to just sit still so I actually do quite a bit of consulting work for other brands; both this and running MotoChic® are my ‘real’ jobs. But I have moments when I’ve thought about quitting. They usually happen when it’s late at night and I’m struggling with something like a quality control issue or a technical problem with the website. Then I’ll hear stories from customers like an incredible woman doing mission work in Africa (Go Polly!) with a MotoChic® bag by her side and I think, I have to keep doing this.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us a lesson you learned from that?
It wasn’t as much a mistake as it was a WTF-was-I-thinking moment. I was at the Watermark Conference for Women in California and I happened to wander into this pitch competition they were having. I got this wild hair idea and although completely unprepared, decided I had nothing to lose, went up in front of a panel of notable women in business, and completely ad-libbed my two-minute business pitch. I thought I’d made a complete fool out of myself until reps from both zulily and QVC approached me afterward, gave me their business cards, and asked me to contact them about featuring MotoChic® on their sites. Lesson learned: Do the damn thing!
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
Style icon and supermodel Lauren Hutton who was actually my inspiration for the MotoChic© Lauren bag. A lot of people don’t know this but she was the original vice-president of the Guggenheim Museum Motorcycle Club and is still active in the fashion industry at 75 years young. I think she embodies that power all women possess to be able to live in what is still a man’s world, do everything he does — oftentimes better — and yet, never sacrifice her femininity.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
MotoChic® is always looking for opportunities to support or partner with organizations that uplift women like the International Female Ride Day™ event, which happens every May 4th, and our partnership to raise funds for WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease during American Heart Month in February.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You’re going to need more money than that.Even though I raised 30K dollars in 30 days to fund the first production run of my flagship product, there were a lot of hidden costs that popped up, which made fulfilling the initial orders and funding the business more challenging than I anticipated. Luckily, we were able to overcome this and bring the product to market, plus many more since then.
- Customer service is everything. I strive to provide great customer service and hope that it will lead to happy customers. What I didn’t realize is just how supportive customers can be and how fulfilling those relationships with them are. I have customers who are now brand ambassadors because thoughtful, authentic customer service grew into real friendships with some pretty exceptional women.
- Building your own business can be lonely. Not everyone understands what, why, or how you are doing what you do. It helps to surround yourself with people who are good sounding boards, lift you up, cheer you on and inspire you. Personally, what I’ve done is build relationships with fellow entrepreneurs, sought out an executive advisor, and joined several meetup groups.
- Great press doesn’t always translate to immediate sales. Every time we’ve been buzzed about in the press, I had high hopes that orders would roll in. What I learned is that while great press helps brand awareness and credibility, sales impact is gradual. The article might remind a woman, ‘That’s right I heard about that bag and wanted to check it out! Instead of waiting three months to get it, I’ll get it next month.’
- Say ‘yes’ to every opportunity. My instincts told me to follow opportunities to see where they might lead but I didn’t always feel confident in that decision. It wasn’t until several chance meetings led to some pretty exciting partnerships that I realized my instincts have always been steering me in the right direction.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It would be a movement that uplifts the largest number of women possible. Because when you uplift the mothers, grandmothers, sisters, wives and daughters in a community it uplifts the entire community.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Take chances, make mistakes. That’s how you grow. Pain nourishes your courage. You have to fail in order to practice being brave.” — Mary Tyler Moore
No one starts or continues to grow their own business without making mistakes. What we’re willing to go through is equivalent to our determination to fulfill our greatest potential in life.
We are very blessed that 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 with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Pink! Because she’s a beautiful, kick-ass, trailblazing woman who rides motorcycles and I think she’d love a MotoChic® bag. Just this past April she posted on Instagram that she had asked her husband for another baby and he built her a custom motorcycle instead. Pink, I didn’t get a baby shower invite but I’d love to send you a Lauren bag to celebrate your new bundle of joy!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.