The genesis of Jennifer Chong and Roman Khan’s accessories brand, Linjer, is somewhat of a cliché. The San Francisco–based entrepreneurs couldn’t find the perfect luxury briefcase under $500 for Khan, so decided to create their own.
But since deciding to enter the leather goods market in 2014, their path has been less expected. They haven’t thrown their hat into the ring for venture funding, choosing instead to seek crowdfunding through Indiegogo and Kickstarter. And, despite much demand for their products (four of their 14 women’s handbags currently have waitlists), they’ve been slow and steady about growth. They haven’t hired a big team, they haven’t taken on any partners and, rather than roll out new product on a regular basis, they’ve taken their sweet time. “We’d rather take another two rounds of prototyping to get to perfect, than to feel pressure to release according to a deadline,” Chong said.
In doing so, they’ve avoided the mistakes of fellow DTC brands that have crashed and burned. The stories of Nasty Gal and Bonobos, which saw their heyday in 2014, now serve as cautionary tales; emerging brands are now careful to avoid their mistakes of taking on too much funding and scaling too soon.
Today, Linjer — which sells watches for $249, handbags for under $425 and briefcases for $489 — pulls in more than $10 million in annual revenue. And Chong and Khan are ready to enter a new, crowdfunding-free era, starting with their next collection.
“We’re now self-sufficient and we have a pretty stable cash flow,” Khan said. “We just don’t see the need to go that route anymore.”
In December 2013, after creating a business plan for Linjer, Chong and Khan opened a thread on Style Forum, a menswear forum.
They posted the plan — to make luxury men’s bags at accessible prices — and included a link to the brand’s website which, at the time, simply featured a sign-up form to get on the email list. There was an immediate, overwhelming response.
“It was an untapped market. Men were not really addressed by European luxury brands,” Khan said. (With menswear growing at a faster pace than womenswear, many brands have since come around: In 2014, Prada announced plans to open 50 menswear boutiques by 2017; it had opened just three the year prior. Stella McCartney launched menswear in 2016, and Hedi Slimane will be injecting menswear into Céline’s offerings later this year.)
From there, in October 2014, they launched a crowdsourcing campaign on Indiegogo, a crowdsourcing website for innovations in tech and design. In the first month, they raised $144,000.
In late 2015, they set their sights on the women’s handbag market, turning to Kickstarter to make a go of it. They’ve since relied on the crowdfunding platform for all product launches, including their recent rollout of two watch collections. In total, to date, they’ve crowdsourced more than $3 million.
“We’ve built up a herd of followers that are really loyal and have continued to back us since Day 1,” Khan said.
Roman Khan and Jennifer Chong
Scrappy does it
Now over three years in, Chong and Khan have worked out many of the kinks that come with owning a startup — but it’s hasn’t been easy.
Until eight weeks ago, they were the company’s sole members. They now have five employees, and they’re looking to fill five additional positions as soon as possible. They invested $20,000 of their own savings to get the business off the ground, and for the first year and a half, at least one of them was holding down an outside, full-time job to make ends meet. Chong was heading up product marketing for Square’s largest international market, Khan was managing director of e-commerce company Lazada.
In addition, they’ve been living what Chong called “a nomadic life.” To be close to their suppliers and oversee production, they relocated to Florence, Italy in February 2016. Then, two months ago, they packed up and moved to Hong Kong to be near their warehouse.
“We’re growing really quickly, and some of the biggest challenges we’re facing have to do with operations,” Chong said. “It’s cheaper to ship from [Hong Kong], and it’s crazy how efficient it is.”
Taking it slow
Disregarding the buzzy speed-to-market race, Chong and Khan have introduced each of their collections by making them available on pre-order. With their latest launch, a line of watches, they did $1 million in sales at the pre-order stage. In 2017, 3,000 women paid for their $425 Tulip handbag, knowing they’d have to wait six months to receive it.
“We start with samples, them it can take five or six months to manufacture our bags,” Chong said. “It’s difficult to forecast demand.”
Khan owed the popularity of Linjer’s women’s bags to a combination of a successful press-focused trip to NYC (“We didn’t have enough samples to send around, so we took them around to a bunch of [publications], and they started writing about it,” he said — Racked and Refinery29 were among the first), introduction emails to Linjer’s established fan base and the brand’s photography showcasing the bags, featured on both Instagram and Linjer.com.
“We care as much about photography as product design,” he said.
The brand hasn’t yet used influencer marketing, but plans to. Expanding to wholesale partners, launching pop-ups and expanding to new product categories are also possibilities — for 2019, that is.
“This year, we’ve got our hands full,” he said. “Next year, we can start to daydream.”