A Conversation About Leather Bags, COVID-19, the Importance of Sharing, Social Impact, Education in Pakistan, Crowdfunding, and Tips for Young Founders
Georg Wolff and Marco Feelisch, Founders of Buckle & Seam, Forbes 30 Under 30, Graduates of German Accelerator New York Class 2019-4 (©️ Buckle & Seam)
We love to see our German Accelerator companies go far and grow fast. One of our alumni, Buckle & Seam from Berlin, doesn’t just offer personalized premium quality leather goods, they have a clear purpose for their brand and business – to inspire their customers to break boundaries, share their experiences, take action, and write their own success story. On top of that, they have a clear impact plan in place and not only take care of their workers in Pakistan, but also support an education project for girls. We recently went on a virtual date to check in with social entrepreneur Marco Feelisch, Managing Director & Co-Founder of the Forbes 30 Under 30 company, and hear how things are going and what’s up with their new crowdfunding project.
Marco, how have you been since your days in New York? How have you been managing the current COVID-19 crisis with Buckle & Seam so far? Has it impacted your manufacturing process?
We are lucky, our families and employees are all safe and healthy. After our last trade fair in Chicago in March, we went to Berlin to revitalize and to spend time with our loved ones. Shortly after our arrival, Germany introduced a travel ban and went on a (soft) lockdown, and so we had to send our employees into remote work mode. We also shut down our operations in Pakistan, but luckily, we managed to reopen our factory after six weeks with a government permit because we had implemented some special safety instructions for our factory workers. Kudos to my Co-Founder Georg and our product team for making this happen. I am personally really proud of our sales team. They managed to pull off a “neighborhood help initiative” within two weeks from ideation. In mid-March, all retailers were closed in Germany due to the shutdown. Our sales team managed to onboard them to our website to help them sell products online. They established this within 6 weeks and even before big players such as Zalando copied it. Thanks to our major focus on digital sales, our strategy, and the quick adaptations to digital initiatives, we only faced a dip in mid-March but then managed to even grow over the last four Corona months. This is definitely something that we are really proud of!
How has COVID-19 changed the way you are working together as a team internally?
Before the Coronavirus, we spent almost six months in New York as part of the German Accelerator program, so we already had been working remotely with our Berlin and Pakistan offices. So, the remote situation was not entirely new to us as a team. We have a daily stand-up “cuddle” meeting and also a weekly team meeting that both help us to stay on top of things and keep everyone involved.
What were the biggest challenges and also the biggest positive surprises so far?
By far the biggest challenge was to manage the cash flow with a lack of revenue at the beginning of the pandemic. The positive surprise was the strong bond within our team, the positive attitude of our team members as well as the truly outstanding relationships with our customers. They were supportive and sympathetic when we announced that we would need to increase our prices to adjust and be able to plan ahead for the future.
What have been the most important tools for you during the crisis?
Mainly Google Hangouts, Jitsi, and Zoom. All these communication tools helped us to stay connected with the entire team, improved our collaboration, and supported our ‘war room’, which we established in the first weeks of the outbreak.
How have you adapted to the new normal and what are the developments you will encourage even more, also after the crisis?
As mentioned, we have been able to adapt pretty quickly to remote work as a team, as we have had some training in the months before when my co-founder and I were in the U.S. for six months to work on our international expansion. I like the regular check-ins we have built into our routine at Buckle & Seam, we will definitely keep that. We have also discovered that digital selling works very well for us, so we will keep building on that, too. I also want to keep up the connections with other founders in order to discuss various topics, share insights and views, support each other, and inspire each other with new ideas and by sharing experiences.
What have been your biggest learnings from the crisis – both on a business and personal level?
Sharing is caring. I always believed in the exchange and community among startup founders. However, during the crisis, I experienced a whole new level of support. Everyone I reached out to, be it a founder of a small organization or of a multi-million dollar enterprise, was willing to share their experiences and challenges. It was a strong sense of community and connection. On a personal level, I loved being home for a couple of months and getting the chance to fully focus on topics you usually hardly have time for. After the lockdown, it feels like I enjoy the quality time with my friends and family even more than before!
Has your leadership style changed since the start of Buckle and Seam and if so, how and why?
Yes, definitely. Coming from Rocket Internet we were micromanagers in the beginning. Now we empower people and really try to develop the talents in our company.
How did the U.S. business develop before the pandemic and what are the plans for the U.S. after the crisis?
My co-founder Georg and our Sales team managed to get a footstep into the retail market just before Corona. We had a good run, got invited to exhibit at the Chicago, New York, and Las Vegas UBM fashion fairs but then Corona hit all our newly acquired partner stores. Unfortunately, the retail business was shut for quite some time but finally managed to reopen. Our first retail fairs are scheduled to happen digitally, we are curious and excited about these new opportunities and are looking forward to reengaging with our partners. Due to travel restrictions, we cannot foresee when exactly we will be back in the German Accelerator New York office in 2020.
What were the three most important learnings and takeaways from the German Accelerator Program?
- Get the right people in the right seats on your bus (Jim Collins)
- Get to know your target audience and the market before you start doing business
- Get used to managing your team remotely and be specific in communication. Effective communication is key
Social impact is important for you as a founding team and is part of Buckle and Seam’s DNA. Why and how is social impact ingrained in your company? How does it shape your business?
We focus on our core values in every aspect of our young company. This already starts during the hiring process: we start with assessing the personal fit even before we look at the technical job specifics. Our goal is for everyone to create impact – not only internally but to all external stakeholders, be it customers, suppliers, or their families. These values are obviously reflected in our corporate communication and they are being well perceived by the customers.
How is the school project you are supporting in Pakistan developing, and what are your milestones?
Unfortunately, the school was affected by the lockdown as well. It will reopen after the summer holidays for its 138 students in school. Our goal by the end of the year is to find a new building for a new facility and ultimately, to be able to send 1,000 girls there by next year. We hope to be able to travel to Pakistan in Q3 or Q4 this year and spend time with the kids on the ground again!
You have bootstrapped your company first and now you have launched a crowdfunding campaign last week. Tell us a little more about it, how did this come about and what are your goals?
When we started back in 2016, we had 4,000 € in our corporate bank account. With the help of our family and friends, we managed to grow to over 20,000 bags sold. In order to achieve our major goal of sending 10,000 kids to school, we need to quadruple our revenue over the next few years and we need support to reach this goal. After long discussions and extensive negotiations with various Venture Capital firms, we decided to follow a different path and trust our community by getting them involved even more in our company and our goals. We launched our Crowdinvesting Campaign on July 9, 2020, and gave our customers and fans the chance to become part of our journey and extended team. Within less than 6 hours, we managed to complete the first major investment milestone! We will use the funds to further develop our product portfolio and gain international certifications. We also want to grow our team and scale our production.
In your view, what makes an entrepreneur?
Failure, reflection, the passion to bring change, and the willingness to hustle.
What was the best and what was the worst advice you ever got?
The best advice was to have a “founders feelings meeting” on a regular basis, where you talk about how you feel, what keeps you up at night, and what crazy ideas you have with your co-founders. The worst advice has definitely been ‘fake it until you make it.’ This is never a good idea, especially not when it comes to business.
What are your ultimate top 3 tips for young founders?
- Be ready to fail: The important thing is to not give up but to try again.
- Define the values of your company and the vision right at the beginning: A clear vision brings your team closer together and defines a goal everyone is passionate about working towards.
- Find yourself two mentors: One mentor should help you with your business and the other one should support your personal development.
What do you do to disconnect and unwind, Marco?
I enjoy reading about the entrepreneurial journey of other founders, about psychology, or innovation.