Best friends Melanie (Mel) Bolin and Lina Dickinson live on either side of the Kansas-Missouri line, just minutes apart. The two women met and became good friends almost 20 years ago when their young children attended the same preschool.
Years later, as their den begins to empty, Mel and Lena discover that they not only share the same entrepreneurial spirit, but also a love of travel.
These passions laid the foundation for the birth of their woman-owned company, MERSEA, which curates a line of ethically sourced travel apparel, accessories and home decor.
Forbes.com interviewed Mel and Lina:
In short, how did your business get started?
We spent many years raising our children together, and when they grew up, we longed to do something new. We all have careers before our kids are born, and we all have dreams of starting our own businesses. We literally started the company in our home.
We never considered creating MERSEA as a hobby. Instead, it was a deliberate, grassroots effort from the start. We were very aggressive and had some friends to help us along the way.
Our first product was candles in bags. We found a woman who made feed bags for horses in suburban St. Louis about an hour away. Joseph, Missouri, and convinced her to make bags for us! We start in the kitchen – cleaning the labels off the glass and packing them in these little canvas bags.
Since then, we’ve been named the fastest growing business in Kansas in 2018, and we’re heading towards the $20 million mark this year.
Initially, we intend to make final Hostess gift. The name MERSEA is a pun, because “merci” — how it’s pronounced — is also a way of expressing gratitude in French. But “mer” and “sea” also symbolize places we all long to be – near the ocean.
Is being a woman-owned company an asset?
Does official certification of women-owned businesses help us? Honestly, not really.
However, working with women is an absolute asset. Our company is almost entirely female. This doesn’t have to be purposeful, but it develops organically. If we grow and need more help, we turn to our friends and their communities.
Many women are in the same situation as we were when we started MERSEA – they chose to take time off to raise their children and prepare to go back to work.
We know how difficult it is to get out and try to get back in. The system tends to make you feel irrelevant. These women are so smart and hardworking. We are happy to have this “mom workforce” because they are strength.
What type of product did you start with, and how did you expand your product line?
We started MERSEA with a small row of candles. We found another local woman who could make us a dozen candles at a time. Being able to order such limited quantities is almost unheard of.
In the end, she rented us a table in her warehouse so we could pack it up and ship it out of her factory. We slowly took up more space until we moved into our own facility and started pouring candles. This wonderful lady is now working with us leading all of our candle production!
Our first product other than candles was our classic travel pack, which remains one of our best sellers to this day. Customers gravitated toward ease and functionality, so we expanded on this with our “travel” sweater: the Catalina. Although it was invented for travel, people fell in love with it and wear it all the time, and it comes in many colors.
We knew we were on to something and started making more same size, easy care sweaters. Eventually, our product line evolved into other products such as capes, gowns, blouses, dresses and nightwear. In Spring 2023, we will launch our first ready-to-wear collection expanding into a full-size collection.
From the beginning, we have been involved in every step of the process – packaging, shipping, design, production, sales and more. Because of this, we really understand every aspect of the business. We have been able to grow steadily organically and consistently profitably without funding from private equity or venture capital.
Our growth in wholesale and retail over the past nine years has been amazing. However, our greatest growth has come from our DTC online business. We’ve consciously focused on this, moving our website to Shopify in 2017 and starting our digital advertising efforts in 2018. Since then, it has grown substantially, accounting for more than 50% of our revenue.
How is MERSEA different from other travel apparel companies?
We are truly “tested and tested”.
We’ve been on the road a lot — between meeting international suppliers, attending trade shows, and visiting retailers across the country — and we’ve taken our products all over the globe.
If we dabble in ready-to-wear, we still have the traveler in mind. We use quality fabrics and work with partners who can execute high quality workmanship. Our clothes are well made to stand the test of time. We want our pieces to become forever favorites that will be in someone’s closet for years to come.
How has the pandemic affected your business?
Of course, all travel for us and most of our customers has stopped. However, it gave us time to hone our DTC business capabilities. We made some obvious adjustments — masks, hand sanitizer, extra soap — but we knew travel would eventually bounce back, and it did.
How do you source products?
It’s one of the best parts of the business and it’s very personal to us. We travel the world, traveling to places like Turkey, India, Italy, Morocco and China, working with the best artisans and small factories, allowing us to get to know the owners and employees.
We have a great partner in Ecuador and even sent our own kids there one summer to live and work! We love the idea of working with family businesses and small volume manufacturers for limited series.
What is the company’s future plan?
We will launch our first ready-to-wear collection in Spring 2023. We’ll be debuting the collection at Kansas City Fashion Week, a nod to our local roots and a thank you start for the clients who’ve been working with us since then.
We’re committed to continuing to give our customers more of what they want, so we’ll be using feedback from the set to inform and build future sets.
In the world of fragrance, we are launching new fresh packaging for our range and partnering with Pura to offer two of our best selling scents in their diffusers. We’re excited to let our customers experience our scents with Pura.
We’d love to open our own store sometime in the future. We love the idea of connecting directly with customers and getting instant feedback from them.
How would each of you describe your travel style?
Lina: I like my layers. I usually start with jeans and style them from there. I can do a white tee and put it on any MERSEA sweater for an easy and comfortable look. When I travel, I like to bring pieces that I can wear multiple times in different ways so I can pack less.
Mel: For me, this is a classic. I always pack my favorite denim and white oxford shirts. I feel like if you start with a beautifully made base, you can layer it up and not go wrong. My favorite destinations are probably Morocco and Italy. The artisans there are impressive.
You recently did a photo shoot for MERSEA in Italy. where did you go?
We are in Sorrento in Southwest Italy. This is amazing! There is something special about Italy – the light, texture and patina of old buildings. Every corner is a great place to take pictures.
What destinations are on your bucket list? Why?
We all really want to go to Portugal – we’ve never been, there are very small artisan factories there. Plus, Portugal is beautiful, who wouldn’t want to go there?
What’s the biggest travel mistake you’ve made as a travel warrior?
Of course, we’ve made our fair share of mistakes in our travels.
We have many stories of packet loss. We’ve had enough flights canceled to last us a lifetime (one flight that expired our covid test). We’ve sat among enough colorful people to give us material for a series of books.
But, one of the funniest things that happened to us was a trip to Thailand. We were meeting some new makers in Bangkok and wanted to go to the famous Sky Bar, a rooftop bar with one of the most impressive views of Bangkok.
We didn’t know they needed closed toed shoes, so we just packed sandals. Thankfully there was a smart lady at the bar door who was selling used shoes for the occasion. We bought used shoes and had a great time, but when I took them off my feet were a different color. Need I say more? This is what you get when you travel without the right footwear.
Note: This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.