The world is full of successful CEOs, innovative entrepreneurs, and risk-taking business owners, but every person follows their own path to the top. In our monthly interview column, How to Succeed, we pick the brains of industry leaders to find out how they got to where they are today.
Linjer may well be the most successful retail startup that still remains relatively under-the-radar: What started as a two-person leather goods startup in 2014 has quietly exploded in the entrepreneurial sphere within the past four years. The company, founded by couple Jennifer Chong and Roman Khan (then 26 and 29 years of age) is centred on quality materials, luxury craftsmanship and simple design — and it manages to maintain it all while slashing the traditional markup. Named after the Norwegian word for ‘lines’ in an effort to emphasise the simplicity of its products, Linjer has gone on to launch a variety of minimalistic, beautiful watches and women’s handbags and accessories all priced at an average of US$300.
Launched with just US$20k worth of savings from the founders’ own pockets, Linjer has garnered major headlines, not just for its impressive sales figures (hitting US$1 million in the first 14 months, and going on to project US$3.5 million for 2016); but also for the high quality and value-for-money appeal of its stylish accessories — not to mention the young founders’ audacity and ability to later disrupt the billion-dollar watch industry when they launched their Swiss movement watches just last year. Given all this, it comes as no surprise that Jennifer Chong landed a spot on Forbes’ 30 under 30 list in 2017.
Linjer has amassed quite the following for being able to keep prices low, thanks to cutting out the middleman. It already had a six-month waitlist for its first product, a leather briefcase, with pre-orders crowdfunded on IndieGogo and Kickstarter. It just launched a US$425 modern doctor’s bag in September, with a design inspired by a similar purse the founders saw in a Parisian vintage shop, with 3,000 people on the waitlist as the first few batches sold out within days.
Having a successful online business seems like the modern day fairytale, but Linjer’s success wasn’t just the luck of the draw. Four years on, the company continues to grow profitably and exponentially. At the end of 2017, founders Chong and Khan moved to Hong Kong into a Sheung Wan office address. In an effort to discover the secret to their success, we sat down recently with the impossibly humble Jennifer Chong to discuss it all — from her reflections on Linjer’s rapid growth to the uniqueness of luxury quality, the trend of influencer marketing, and all the lessons in-between that have made the brand thrive.
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial itch: When I see that there’s a problem I want to solve it. Both my co-founder and I are not super into fashion. We don’t really enjoy shopping, and this was a large part of the reason why we started Linjer: We’re very selective about what we buy and for us, it’s very important to buy things that are well made, where we like the company’s values and their designs.
It was from Roman’s personal needs — he was looking for a briefcase for work, something well made, beautifully designed, and not with a huge flashy logo on it. He also didn’t want to spend thousands of dollars. The choice was between a fast fashion thing for a few hundred dollars, or a luxury brand which is expensive for what it is. Luxury brands mark up their items like crazy — they make something for US$200 and sell it for US$2,000.
Luxury a hundred years ago stood for quality a lot more than it does today, where I feel like it’s very shareholder-driven. It was about a designer building something and really taking pride in their work, and because they’re so expensive, only wealthy people could buy them — I feel like a lot of that has been lost. We’re working more towards the traditional sense of luxury, though our price points are a lot more accessible.
We just saw a business opportunity, a gap in the market between fast fashion and luxury for something high quality and made to last. We like the values that come with luxury, but not the markup. We wanted to make it more easy for people to invest in well-made products.
Around that time, we talked to a lot of our friends who worked in corporate jobs. For them, quality mattered but they didn’t care so much about the logo. We came across StyleForum.net [a forum for menswear enthusiasts] through a friend. That community really was pivotal for us. This was our target audience: people who really take pride in how well-made their things are. Suddenly we found a community of people who had similar interests and values, and were receptive to what we were doing. The reason why Linjer exists is because people took a leap of faith with us. It wasn’t a two million dollar leap of faith, but it was a few hundred dollar leap of faith to help us start our new collection.
Absolutely — it helped us be more precise with understanding our demand. You also get the cash upfront before getting a few months to produce.
We bootstrapped the company, and in the early days we didn’t know if it was going to work. We’ve tried to de-risk along the way — we just wanted to make sure we weren’t giving up too much for something we weren’t sure about — and took turns working full-time jobs. Often when people start businesses they plunge all their life savings into it, and there’s the opportunity cost of your time as well, when you could be working for somebody else and earning money.
We also had a very big manufacturing problem. When we first started out, we really had to pitch factories to work with us. A lot of the high end manufacturers — especially the ones that work with luxury brands — don’t necessarily want or need the business. It’s also a big investment for any factory to work with a startup that has no proven track record. We had both come from the business world; Roman had worked in e-commerce, but we had never worked in the fashion world before. So we had to convince these guys why it was worth their sample room to make a sample for us.
Because we’re bootstrapped, we have control: Our company’s doing well enough that we’re not doing things out of desperation or in response to an investor pressure to show growth every month. There’s a lot of direct-to-consumer brands nowadays, and I feel like a lot of these companies get on a hamster wheel: they need to show growth this next month, so they won’t have time to perfect the thing because they’re looking for the fastest and/or cheapest way to get it to market, and that is not aligned with quality or sustainability. It’s hard for venture capital-backed companies to maintain quality standards.
A lot of brands that are focusing a lot on simplicity and value I think are targeting millennials, people in their 20s and 30s. It could be a more generational thing, where people today are looking for something different to what their parents wanted. There is definitely a lot of just “stuff” that’s out there these days. You look for logoless bags, you can probably find something on Taobao or Amazon for $10. But a lot of it is in telling the story behind the product, what the brand is about. It’s about figuring how to speak to people’s hearts (and their brains) and really communicating the quality level.
Cash flow — from the beginning until now — has always been a thing we had to manage carefully, and this goes for any business, but especially when you’re trying to grow fast. You have to forecast well, otherwise if you think there’s a lot more demand than there actually is then you’re going to get in a cash crunch, because you have to pay your suppliers, and you won’t have the revenue to support that.
I’m so lucky I have a male co-founder! I hate that I have to say that — it shouldn’t matter, but there are a lot of old school guys running these factories. We do our leather In Italy, and it was funny because we had a very old-fashioned male supplier. I can speak Italian; Roman can order a cappuccino and that’s it. We would be having a conversation, I was trying to solve a problem, but this guy would just keep talking to Roman in Italian, and Roman didn’t understand a thing, gesturing to him that “she’s the one you should be talking to!” But this kind of thing happens a lot, it’s hard to change people. It’s gotten better over the years because a lot of these guys have learned that I’m often the one making decisions when it comes to supply chain.
We get along very well actually, and we have very complementary skill sets. We respect each other a lot, so we actually haven’t fought — we’re just not people who fight. We’re very lucky in that sense.
We both come from business backgrounds, so from the analysis standpoint, which we’re doing constantly, we’re both equally strong. He’s very good at figuring out systems and cracking them, so he spends most of his time thinking about marketing. That has been so important for our growth over the last two years; and I basically do everything else — I do a lot of the execution of the design (although we design together); I manage our supply chain, I do operations, fulfillment, manage our customer service team, content production, and so on.
We decided not to crowdfund anymore — I think we’ve matured past that — but we’ll start having launches on our own website. There are many ways to be close to customers. We get a lot of feedback from them and we try to have a very open conversation with them. There are ways where you can get more visibility. Instead of having a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter, you could replicate the platform on your own website. You can still get customers to pre-order and pay upfront. We’re not necessarily doing that yet because we’re just launching our new doctor’s bag, but we would consider it.
Using influencers is a very new channel, and I think there are people who are very successfully capitalising on their followings. For instance, Daniel Wellington got huge around 2012, just by seeding their watches left and right. Their stuff is cheap enough where they can do that — our stuff is not cheap to make.
It’s definitely something that’s a little annoying: when we’re trying to sell a high quality product, and there’s obviously a lot of cheap stuff out there, there are a lot of people who don’t know how to look for quality, or what types of specifications to look for. A lot of people in the watch industry can look at a photo of a watch and discern that this is this kind of glass, it’s this kind of finishing and this kind of leather, and it’s a watch that would cost X amount to make. A lot of consumers wouldn’t know that or they’re very motivated by price or whoever is wearing it. It’s just a reality we have to deal with. I appreciate the breed of influencers who are really trying to add value by curating things for their followings. But there are a lot who are just trying to accumulate a lot of stuff. I’d want to do influencer marketing that is aligned with our values — so that people affiliated with our brand do “get it.”
I’m very happy with what we’ve done so far, we’ve built a lot of star products that have gained a lot of respect. Our soft briefcase was selected as the best briefcase by Wirecutter, our Tulip bag sold like crazy last year. Our watches are really well known for their quality. We have a lot of celebrities carrying our products — not that it’s my favourite measure, but it’s nice to see that when they have a choice of whatever they can wear, they’re choosing ours. I’m proud that we have a lot of happy customers. Sometimes you see people just walking around carrying our products or wearing our watches, and it’s a really great feeling.
There were certain times when I was working a full-time job where I thought to myself, “why am I doing this? I don’t feel great about what I’m doing.” I did have a business role in a tech company at the time of starting Linjer, so if I never did it, I would be probably doing something related to that. I’m very happy doing what I’m doing now. I feel like I have purpose in what I do — sometimes I want to put more purpose in what I do. There’s only so much you can do through having your own brand.
I just watched this documentary called The True Cost, about fast fashion and the environmental and social costs. I’m happy with where we’ve gotten with Linjer, but when I see things like True Cost, seeing how destructive a lot of other brands are in terms of how they do business, it makes me think that we can do more good with Linjer. We’re making things that are well made, and it’s a better alternative to the stuff that’s out there.
I’m not saying we’re saviours of the industry, but just in terms of shifting how people think about how they consume, if you can enable one person to maybe stretch a bit above what a fast fashion item would cost, to invest in something that’s going to last them for life, then I think that is something that’s positive.
We’ve been growing every year. We are exploring new categories — we get a lot of people who come to us and say, “I don’t know what you’re making next, but I wanna buy it!” I think it’s because a lot of our customers understand the quality and care we put into everything.
Naturally, numbers have to make sense for us to feel like it’s worth it, and I think we’re both very personally committed to sustainability and environmental and social justice. This is what we want to commit our lifetimes to, and whether it’s through something else or Linjer, I can’t say for sure right now.
I don’t want to sound arrogant about this, but we’ve been able to grow so much as a two-person team because we have a broad set of skills — we were able to do the design, as well as the business analysis and the marketing. Our backgrounds in business were essential to what we do. We were so lucky because it meant we didn’t have to raise money or hire full-time staff before we were ready.
Over the last few years we’ve had moments of extreme stress, we didn’t take a weekend for four years until a couple of months ago. It has come at a bit of a cost, so another word of advice is to try and outsource as much as you can from the beginning. We outsourced a lot of our operations to our warehouse, a 3PL (third-party logistics), and that has helped us grow with a very lean team. That freed up so much time for us.
Also, finding a need that was unaddressed: Luckily, it was a need that we both also had, so we really understood it, and we had the perspective of how we would meet that need ourselves. It’s really important to talk to people and validate that it’s something that people want and need. Because at the end of the day it’s other people who are going to be buying your goods or services. They’re the ones you need to convince, not yourself. If it’s something a lot of people need, it’s easier to find success.