From a small bag purchase to first UK franchise for the O Bag brand. Anthony Charles visits Marcia Robinson’s Crouch End shop to have a chat about her journey so far…
Tell me about O Bags?
Well, O Bags is an Italian brand, the brand was developed in about 2009; first they came out with watches called O Clocks and then the designers invented this bag that was customisable, allowing you to change the handles, the trims, the inserts; building a bag to match your style and personality and that became the O Bag – everything begins with an O; the O clock, the O Bag, the O Sun, for sunglasses.
Okay, so where did you first see it? Was it in Italy?
No, I actually first saw it in a shop in Brighton; I was down there for a jazz festival and as I walked past a general bag shop there was this yellow thing in the background. The bag shop wasn’t really my cup of tea; it had teddy bears in the window and leather goods, but the yellow thing…
Was it calling out to you?
It was calling me; so I went in and the lady had a little stand of bags, one of which was the O Bag and she explained how you can customise it, choose the handles and just change it according to your style and personality and I loved it; then I just got compliments whenever I carried it, so I thought, there was something in this.
Let’s go back to that shop in Brighton; did you think then that there was a business opportunity, or did you just love the bag?
No I just loved the bag and I don’t often find things that I love, but I instantly loved the concept of matching it to your style and personality.
When did it really click that there was a business opportunity?
It was other people’s responses to it that made me think – that’s really interesting; people are actually noticing that I’m carrying something; strangers are commenting on it; then when my family and friends began asking if they could get one, I tried to look for them but it was quite difficult, it wasn’t an easy thing to find. That’s when I began asking myself, why wasn’t it easy to find? Why isn’t everyone buying this bag that I love? And that’s when the idea for the business started to develop.
And you were actually in banking at the time?
So you were in banking and you see this bag; people are asking about the bag; you can’t find it anywhere – what happened next?
The interesting thing is, although I was in banking, I actually had another business idea and I was already planning to leave my banking job to focus fully on developing this idea; the bag kind of got in the way and took over.
So I’d already made a decision that I would leave because it’s very difficult to focus on building a business, when you’re already in a job and I think at some point, if you’re going to be serious about it; you have to make that decision to move.
Okay, tell me about the transition from being an employee, to an entrepreneur; was it difficult mentally?
Mentally it wasn’t, it was fine; at that point I was a full-time employee at Morgan Stanley and I’d been there for twelve years; however I had made a decision the year before that I was going to have my own business next year.
But then I needed some finance behind me, so I left work to go contracting, because that was the easiest way to build up some equity to have something to fall back on and to invest. I said to myself, I’m going to do this for twelve months maximum and when month eleven came I was ready to go.
So it wasn’t a difficult decision, because I think my mindset was already at the point where I knew I wanted to do something else. I thought if I don’t do it now, then I might never do it; so I was ready.
Do you think it made a difference being mentally prepared?
Yes; mentally, I was ready to take the leap; many years ago, I had plans to leave my job and do something different, but I wasn’t quite ready and I never did it. But now my mindset had adjusted and I knew that I had to make the transition; I made a vision board early last year and that helped me to focus, to keep visualising and it worked. I know it sounds a bit namby-pamby, but for me anyway it really worked; seeing where you want your life to be; what you want and then putting in the effort and seeing the results.
I just want to talk to you about the vision board for a minute; many people that I talk to, who use vision boards and visualisation, say that once they’ve visualised it, it almost feels as if they are playing out the visualisation in real life; some say it feels like déjà vu or as if everything is happening in slow motion. How was it for you?
For me what happens is that I do things then I look back at the board and I think, ‘Oh my God’. For instance, last May, while I was still contracting, I wrote the word ‘franchise’ on the board; I didn’t see this coming but now I’ve bought a franchise, so I often look back and think wow! It’s actually materialised and in some ways it feels like déjà vu, but I know that it’s more than that; I know that it’s meant to be because I’ve put in the effort to make it happen.
So you were in banking and now you are an entrepreneur; what about the rest of your family; any other entrepreneurs?
Yeah, my sister Debbie came over from Barbados to help me get started; she loves sausages and the variety we have over here. In Barbados most sausages are processed like frankfurters, so she has seen a gap in the market with ex pats who love good quality food but have limited choice when it comes to sausages. One of my sisters owns her own market research company and another sister is always baking and selling and is very, very dynamic and another sister in New York makes the most amazing creams and cosmetics and packages them up like hampers for sale; she’s very entrepreneurial; she’s a bit of a black Martha Stewart – amazing. So without realising it, we’re all either wanting or doing, or planning on being entrepreneurial.
How important was the support of those people around you to make this work?
Incredibly important. I mean the type of support that I’ve had from my sister, my husband and friends is something that you just can’t put a price on – my sister Debbie knows the business as well as I do; she’s up until two or three o’clock in the morning like I am, I can leave and go to Italy for two days as I’ve just done and the ship still sails.
You know there’s nothing that I wouldn’t trust her with. Part of that is the closeness we are as a family, we can trust each other; we depend on each other and everyone supports each other; just as it is with Andrew my husband; he used to be in IT and a project manager and he has left that side of the world to help in our business and he is absolutely amazing.
And what was the hardest thing for you in the journey so far? What was the biggest obstacle you faced?
I think a number of things; firstly, retail is not my thing; I’m a consumer, so I buy bags, I buy things, but I’m stepping into a world that is kind of unknown; it’s the fashion industry and I want to increase brand awareness. I’m learning to connect with fashion editors and journalists and that’s difficult, because in the fashion world I’m unknown; the brand is unknown and the fashion industry can be fickle; so that’s been challenging. Also dealing with the sort of legalities of not owning, but leasing a property like this, there have been a lot of ups and downs.
And lastly it’s buying into a franchise, there’s lots of things that crop up that you didn’t think about, there are a lot of challenges with dealing with an international Italian firm; culturally, we’re very different; we work very differently. I’m very organised and structured, I’ve been in that big corporate space for a long time, but not everyone works like that; you know, you try and call someone at twelve o’clock in Italy, they’re all having siestas for two hours, or long lunches.
And there is a language barrier as well, it’s been very challenging and as a new company, they’re only five or six years old, they’re still learning, they’re still growing, they’re still developing and then I come along and think that everything should be ‘so’ and it’s not always like that; you have to learn to adapt and be flexible and kind of go with the flow to some extent.
Well you have certainly hit the ground running; where do you see this going, what’s on the vision board?
My biggest focus is just to increase brand awareness and get as many people understanding the concept, otherwise it’s just another bag. But when you understand the flexibility, the customisation, the options that are open to you and being able to dress according to your style and your personality, then I think people will really embrace it. So I just need to focus on getting the message out there, increasing brand awareness.
There’s a lot of work to do and I want to do things a little bit different; I want to be able to host parties, I want to get more involved in the community; on my vision board there’s a little bloke with some hands and it says giving back; I’ve always wanted to be able to give back in some way, like at Morgan Stanley, I did reading groups with kids and I did some mentoring, but I didn’t really feel qualified; they’d ask me to do things but I didn’t really feel like I had much to say.
Whereas now, I just want to encourage and support our young people, you know ethnic minority people, who may think ‘it’s all right for you because you’ve done this and you’ve done that’ but, I want to be able to share my experience with them. I’ve got a young boy; I want to teach him that you’ve got options; you’ve just got to make the right choices; know what’s available; don’t always think you have to go down a certain road.
I remember being sixteen attending a boarding school because my dad was in the military and we wanted to be able to stay in one school; I remember leaving at sixteen, being told about my options and they were not really many; I remember choosing a subject just because it sounded like ‘business studies’; I didn’t know anything about it, I didn’t know what I was going to do. I’d like for young people to think beyond the norm; to think beyond being in an office; there’s nothing wrong with these jobs, but just understand there are more opportunities and possibilities; we need to show young people what they are.
So what advice would you give to our readers, people who are still in jobs, looking at making that transition? What nugget of advice would you give to them?
I would say keep an open mind, keep learning, keep being inquisitive, keep finding out about things; don’t get stuck in your current mindset; broaden your mind and don’t believe that you have to do it this way because your parents did, or because your friends are doing it; think beyond – think big! If you think that way I truly believe that it will happen.
Thank you very much for your time and the best of luck.
Visit the O bag Factory North London to check out their quirky, colourful and interchangeable fashion accessories. The North London shop is an official stockist and franchisee of the O BAG FACTORY collection, an Italian brand of customisable fashion accessories.
Wesite: www.obagnorthlondon.co.uk. Address: 15 Topsfield Parade, Crouch End, London, N8 8PR. Tel: 020 7993 4260. Opening Times: Monday to Thursday 10am to 5:30pm, Friday to 6pm, Saturdays 10am to 6pm, Sundays noon to 4pm.