Befriending Bags: Janie Bartlett of My Best Friend is a Bag
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Having discovered a gap in the market for beautiful, quality bags that were practical for the working woman, Janie Bartlett built her company, My Best Friend is a Bag, around the idea of creating a best friend for women in bag form. Adelaide Coleman speaks to Janie about reinforcing beauty and practicality of bags that mean business.

How did the idea for My Best Friend is a Bag evolve?

Some time ago, I found an orange laptop bag in my travels that women commented on continually. It made me think that other businesswomen were sick of boring work bags and were looking for something that made a statement when they walked into a room. When you walk into a meeting for the first time, it’s amazing what people notice about you and how they form an instant opinion.

I started researching and discovered there was a real gap in the market in Australia for business bags that combined fashion with function and were reasonably priced. 

My Best Friend is a Bag was started with a friend, Penny Dunn. We designed our first range but as there is no mass leather bag manufacturing available in Australia, were forced to find an overseas supplier. Within six months we had completed our business plan, set up the company, found our supplier, and traveled to India to have our designs sampled. We had also begun development of our website and eStore.

Having spent many years in advertising and marketing, how have your past experiences in Advertising helped build My Best Friend is a Bag?

My work history has taught me the importance of building a brand. I started with the name. It came out of the fact that, to women, a great bag is a true best friend. We carry our lives in our bags, they know all our secrets, they never leave our sides as we live our busy lives and, just like a true best friend, it’s what’s inside that counts. 

So, the two pillars of the brand were established: ‘Business can be beautiful’, and ‘helping you stay organised’.   Everything we do and say must reinforce these two pillars.

A brand must have a personality. This sets your tone of voice in all communication. While we are confident and businesslike, we don’t take ourselves too seriously.  Just because you have a serious job to do, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a sense of humour. In fact, I’ve always found that my favourite work colleagues have been those that have the ability to have a good laugh when the going gets tough.  

We’ve given each of our bags a name that women might recognise. For example, our laptop bag is called Mia (after Mia Freedman).  Our line is: ‘being gorgeous doesn’t stop you being a digital whizz’.

A brand must have functional benefits – these relate to the practical benefits of our bags. All the things that must be included in each design to make them ideal work bags. A brand must have emotional benefits for the user. Most importantly, you have to know your target audience. Everything you do must have relevance and resonance with your target.

You’ve said in the past that ‘just because you mean business doesn’t mean you have to abdicate style’, how does My Best Friend is a Bag find balance between chic design and practical bags?

We start with the exterior. It’s the first thing our consumer sees so it needs to be fashionable and stylish.  It needs to be a design that isn’t too faddish.  It needs to go with a multitude of work outfits but look just as stylish with a pair of jeans on the weekend. 

Then we work on the interior. It must be practical. It must have a sleeve for electronic devices; it needs lots of pockets to hold glasses, phones, pens and business cards. Ours have a special clip for your keys so when you’re walking to your car or front door they are right at your fingertips. You need to have all of the above, and still have room for your wallet, your makeup and all those other bits and pieces we can’t live without. 

True to our personality of not taking ourselves too seriously, while our interiors are considered and practical, the interior fabric in our current range is a gorgeous multi-coloured paisley. 

As an online business, how do you set yourself apart from larger online competitors?

We just do women’s business bags and accessories. While larger brands often have a business bag as part of their range, we specialise.

Design:

Our products really do live up to their promise of beauty and brains combined.

Price:

We don’t wholesale, we just have our online store. This allows us to keep our prices incredibly competitive as we’re not building in a wholesale margin. In fact, this was a major decision I made several months ago and has resulted in reducing the price of our current range.

Service:

We can give a level of personal service that large companies can’t.   If any of our customers have a problem or question they can talk to me personally.

Social Media:

Like every business, we are active on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, and Pinterest. Again, I like to think there is a personal touch to this as well. You’re hearing from the voice behind the brand when you engage with My Best Friend is a Bag.

I would be fooling myself if I didn’t recognise that there are some well established and respected brands out there that are competing with us for a share of the business bag dollar. I know however that if we are in the consideration set we are hard to overlook. Our combination of quality and price is hard to beat. Nothing beats a personal recommendation and a large percentage of our sales come from word of mouth.

What was the greatest challenge about starting an online business.  How did you overcome this challenge?

Starting a business from scratch online is a challenge and continues to be a daily challenge!  It’s very different to having a brand already in the marketplace and then opening an online store to support your bricks and mortar operation. 

SEO has always been my biggest challenge. My wonderful sister, Lindsay Lewis is an SEO expert and she did all the work on my website and has been my advisor on ways to continually improve my Google natural search results.  There comes a time, however, when you’ve pushed the bounds of sisterly love too far and so I’ve just hired a company to take over SEO for me. 

Going online opens up your business to the entire world.  How has this changed your business?  What has your experience been with of the global market?

Thus far I haven’t had a huge response from overseas. Also, I’m not big enough yet to get reasonable postage rates so I’m not pushing it.  I’m currently concentrating on the local Australian market. 

Where do you see My Best Friend is a Bag going in the future?

As long as we are faithful to the Brand pillars we can do anything that helps businesswomen lead their busy lives.   

We will remain on online store but may extend our range to include more business and travel necessities.

Do you have interesting celebrities as customers?

As we were naming a bag after her, I thought the least I could do was send one of our laptop bags to Mia Freedman. I hope she loves it! Unless they have bought under an assumed name, I don’t think I’ve sold to any celebrities. Mind you, I’ve sold to some incredible businesswomen, who may not be household names, but if they gave Oscars for being great parents, wonderful friends and powerhouses at work, they would get one!

Who is your best friend?

I have some wonderful friends.  Some from childhood, some became kindred spirits via the school tuck shop and standing on the side of the sports field, some started as colleagues and ended up cherished friends but sitting above all of these is my sister Lindsay.  She is an amazing woman.  She has accomplished so much in her life, everything from starting and running a successful business to writing a best-selling biography, ‘The Inconvenient Child’. There is only 18 months difference in our ages. We grew up in the country and were both sent away to boarding school at 12. We have been close all our lives. We have been there for each other every step of the way, through all lives ups and downs.  We haven’t lived in the same city for years but not a day goes by that we don’t communicate.


What did you want to be when you grew up?

I don’t remember having any particular vocation that I wanted to head towards, although I did love the nurses outfit that came in a Christmas stocking one year! I inherently knew, however, that I wanted to be the boss! I was never very good at taking orders and Lindsay and I were blessed with a mother who encouraged us to take chances and not to be afraid of change. She believed we could do anything we set our minds and hearts to.