This Founder Is Creating A Completely New Market For High-End Reusable Bags
This article was originally published on Forbes.com
Janean Mann is the founder of the El Paso, Texas-based, fashion-forward eco-conscious bag company, Junes, which is on a mission to make a dent in the 100 billion plastic bags that the U.S. alone uses in a single year. What started out as a mission to fill the void for aesthetically-pleasing, reusable bags has turned into a new category altogether. Junes is to reusable bags what Warby Parker is to eyewear, S’well is to water bottles and Everlane is to apparel.
Born and raised in El Paso with a career stint in New York City, Janean moved back to home with the dream of starting an impact-focused business that also fueled her hometown economy. A visit to a textile store in Jáurez, Mexico, inspired the idea for the bag and the business, and Junes now employs the women’s cooperative of Jáurez, Mexico in making products for the company.
Mann has been incubating the business alone for the last three years - and this year, 2018, has marked a turning point in the business’ growth. Junes is now in 28 wholesale retailers including Whole Foods and the company has started to build traction in direct-to-consumer sales, growing 106% in revenue in the last 12 months and launching seven new products. At the same time, it also employs 18 women at the women’s cooperative.
All this growth has not come without its own dose of personal growing pains. From considering jumping ship to questioning her instincts to navigating real-talk investor feedback, Mann opened up to me about her rollercoaster of an entrepreneurial adventure.
Below is a condensed version of our conversation.
When I asked you to do this interview you wrote back very excited, “OMG YES! This is a huge issue for me. I would be honored to talk about the dirt and grime of entrepreneurship beyond, ‘this is hard’.” What was behind that response from you?
I get so tired of hearing about all these successful companies and entrepreneurs that are profiled as if they’re instant sensations. You know those stories about companies or ideas that took two to five years to become these astronomically huge multimillion dollar companies worth some crazy amount of money and I’m like, what the fuck am I doing wrong? Does my product suck?
I don't think they are publishing enough stories that are portraying the true realities of the life that entrepreneurs are experiencing. There's not enough emphasis on how difficult it is to be an entrepreneur. And I totally underestimated that.
I wasn’t pulled in by the fantasy of being an entrepreneur and having my own company. I know that what I'm doing is what I’m meant to do. And I feel good about that. I feel right about that. However, I just didn't realize it would be this difficult.
What has been something that’s been especially difficult for you?
Having to face all of these other demons I have inside of myself, really going inward. Trying to figure out if I'm doing the right thing, if I can do this, asking myself “am I strong enough to do this? Do I have the instinct? Am I capable of seeing this through?” Earlier this year I started to question my instinct. The trust in myself started to fall away. Whatever “flow” I was in when I first got going with the business started to feel like it had disappeared. I kept making mistakes and I felt like I couldn’t get things right.
What had happened in the business that caused this flow to go away?
It was a slow evolution but I think what really stands out for me was this was the first time I really put myself out there. I was so afraid. The last couple years I had been doing this part-time and freelancing. I was delaying taking a risk to expose myself. I knew deep down inside that's what I was doing. I was making all these excuses and doing all these other things. So last year I was like, “OK I'm doing this full time, I'm putting my heart and soul into this and that's what has been missing and that's why it hasn't taken off.” I did that, but then it still didn't really take off like I thought it would. I've gotten some small wins but then whatever those wins were I felt like I lost because I didn't do something else right. I have big expectations for myself and hearing about all these successful companies didn’t help.
What’s an example of a win that you felt you lost?
I got into my local Whole Foods which had been fairly easy but expanding into other Whole Foods stores had been really tough. I got the approval a few months ago and that felt like a big win. Earlier in the year, I got into another reputable Los Angeles grocery store, which made me feel like I could expand into more stores more easily. Then four months later I got an email from the buyer at that LA store saying “the packaging is not working. The bags aren't selling.” It was a two sentence email. Very cryptic. I emailed her back right away. I called her a couple of times. No response, no response whatsoever. Whereas before she was taking calls. That was really hard. I felt like I couldn't even make it up to her or make it right. I wasn't even given a second chance. That was extremely disheartening.
And the most painful part was the testing of this new packaging. I had spent a decent amount of money designing and having this packaging made specifically for that kind of store. I thought this was the missing piece that I needed to get my bag out into the world and for people to buy it. But it wasn't working. All that time and money and it wasn't working. It felt like it was a total waste and I felt completely defeated. That was a really tough moment for me. To this day she still hasn't reached out to me and they haven't done any new orders.
Do you regret the investment in that packaging?
I do think the packaging still works for different types of stores just maybe not grocery stores. I was very upset and was really hard on myself. And then, that's when you go to the deep down darkest parts and try to find that self-love and say to yourself, “Look you're going to make mistakes. This is what it's about, this is not easy, this is going to be hard, it's going to get better. These are the lessons that I have to learn. It's all a process. It's just all a process.”
It’s interesting you say that this is the first year you really put yourself out there because hasn’t Junes been around for almost three years? What does it mean for you when you say you put yourself out there this year?
I think it's becoming more active on social media and pushing my product out to the world and saying “Hey I'm Junes, I created this cool bag, do you like it? Do you want to buy it?” I'm a fairly private person and I definitely am not somebody who boasts about myself. That’s not the way I was raised and that's just not who I am. I’m not a fan of social media and the vanity it perpetuates. But earlier this year I realized I had been hiding and that was hurting me and the business. And in a pivotal moment, I also realized I'm afraid of being rejected, so afraid of it. I really had to come to terms with that. By not being out there and tackling social media and marketing, I wasn't becoming the person that I needed to be and the brand wasn’t becoming what it needed to be.
With all the struggles of this journey do you ever think about a plan b?
Yeah. I mean I think about it all the time like,“Oh my god, when am I jumping ship? When am I moving to Mexico to start bartending at some beach resort?"
I can't do it though because I feel like my 30s have been my best decade so far. I really finally figured out who I was. And during that time I've realized that I want to do my own thing. I need to be creating. I'm always thinking about new ideas. This is who I am. I can't do anything else. I really can't. I will be depressed because whenever I go get a job someplace and work for someone else in an office, slowly my soul drips out of me drop by drop like a leaky faucet and I end up drying up to a soulless zombie on a predictable and monotonous routine. I'm really trying to embrace that this is who I am. And in order to be the person I truly think I am and that I deserve to be, I need to push through these struggles.
You’re currently fundraising, how’s that process been?
That's been kind of fun actually because it’s been a hard year. Pulling together the concept of my product and my business and what I'm doing for investor conversations has made me excited again about what I'm doing. I'm like “Yeah this is cool. I got this. Look how cool this is, that I made this.” Also connecting with other people who really believe in me and the concept is really a good feeling.
Any learnings and discoveries from the fundraising so far?
I did speak to an investor who was more aligned in the retail aspect of venture capital and had some wise words. They weren't necessarily easy to hear. She said “Don't try to raise money right now, you're not ready. You need to boost your sales more. You need more validation for the product.” She asked me, “Have you had any conversion from spending money on Facebook ads?” I said “No.” She said "There ya go, you're gonna have to spend a lot of money to grow direct to consumer. Focus on wholesale, build traction there first and grow into direct to consumer later.”
Does that mean you’re not going to fundraise then?
I talked to another advisor afterwards. I am going to keep fundraising because I need the help and focus. It’s a lot and my stress levels have been really high. But because of that conversation with her I’m going to focus on raising the minimum amount to enhance the product, to invest in fabric that’s made out of recycled bottles, and pay someone part-time to do social media and fulfillment. And I am going to focus on wholesale to build traction. So instead of a $250k raise, more like a $70-$100k.
How do you feel you've grown since you started in early 2014?
I am much more patient with myself. I've learned to be more self-loving. I've really understood myself in a way that I never really truly understood. I know my strengths and weaknesses and I fully know my demons. I just feel wiser. And I'm actually proud of myself for doing this. Even though a part of me feels like I'm a total failure at times, I know that what I've done is significant. It’s enough to feel like “Hey, I should be proud of myself.” And that's huge because it took me awhile to feel proud of myself.
What are you most excited for as you enter this next phase of growth?
I'm ready to sink my teeth into this monster and unleash it's wild beauty. Even though I'm down most of the time, burned out and the rejection plays something fierce on my soul, I know that I'm a fighter and will keep going. I just hope I win this fight.