Melissa Mash is founder and CEO of Dagne Dover, a bag and accessories brand designed for humans getting the most out of life. On November 13, 2019, Mash shared her experiences of starting and running a fast-growing retail company with the WE@Yale community.
When Melissa Mash graduated from NYU, she helped manage wholesale brick and mortar for Coach. In 2008, during the economic recession, Mash was eager to find opportunities to grow her career. This desire took her to London, where she managed to land a gig leading the turn-around for the Coach’s first store in Europe. The store, which was at London Heathrow Airport, turned out to be an invaluable experience for Mash to learn about how customers really wanted their bags to perform. Customers would come in to the store disgruntled because a water bottle had leaked on their expensive laptop inside the bag, or their possessions were constantly getting jumbled in the bottom of the bag. The bags, she said, while pretty, were not functional.
Armed with an ambition to create a better bag, Mash headed back to the US. But there was one stop she had to make along the way: business school. At Wharton, Mash set out to add the tools to her kit that would one one day make her a successful founder and CEO. While still in business school, she recruited longtime acquaintance and Wharton classmate Deepa Gandhi to help shape the business side of Mash’s handbag idea. On the design side, Mash recruited Jessy Dover — at the time, a recent graduate of Parson’s — to help design the bags and shape the creative vision for the brand. The team proved to be a winning match, landing one of Wharton’s top innovation prizes for their venture. Today, Gandhi serves as the company’s COO, and Dover is the company’s creative director.
“There’s no way to make the best decisions about anything by yourself,” mused Mash. In developing a founding team, she said, she wanted to have a team she felt like she could identify with as a consumer.
The founding team was not the only part of the business that was built deliberately from the beginning. Mash advised founders to “think about financing from day one”. Instead of going the traditional venture capital route, Mash and her co-founders looked for what she called “patient capital” and “friendly capital”. Patient capital, she explained, is capital from investors who aren’t expecting to turn a profit right away, and are rather making an investment in the long-term success of the business. “If you have pressure to triple your sales every year, your life is going to be miserable,” said Mash. She went on to explain that the company also took on friendly capital, which she defined as capital that comes from friends, family, or peers from the retail industry and the e-commerce industry. In other words, people who understood what they were trying to do, and how the industry works.
Mash advised against founders modeling their businesses off of existing templates. “There’s literally no business that’s like the business you’re going to build,” she said. “Don’t follow the playbook.”