Go digital: How to build a successful online brand

Have an amazing online business idea, but not sure where to start? We asked Hong Kong success story Michelle Lai, founder and creative director of MISCHA bags and accessories, to share her advice for budding entrepreneurs in the online space.

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Born and raised in Toronto, Canada, Michelle earned a degree in Biomedical Sciences at King's College London.

But her lifelong interest in fashion eventually led her in a totally different direction. In 2004 Michelle started MISCHA as a passion project -- which has since evolved into a successful international business. 

From inspiration to execution, rebranding to web problems, Michelle shares her process for building an explosive digital brand. 

Where did you find inspiration for MISCHA?

MISCHA was a happy accident. I was always interested in design and travel. In my first career, I travelled a lot, particularly to Japan and around Europe. I was very drawn to French style, antique markets and started collecting vintage Japanese textiles which started to pile up at home.

I had a wedding to go to one year, and it was impossible to find a clutch bag to match my dress. In my frustration, I cut up one of my vintage obi and made myself a bag. People noticed, and so I continued, until I quit my day job to launch MISCHA in 2008.

Since that initial concept, I created a signature hexagon print which I apply to my totes and accessories -- I built the brand around that motif.

What was it like setting up MISCHA? Any major obstacles? 

The worst is behind us now. As an emerging brand, we've had many growing pains... challenges from competing with established giants, lack of budget, manufacturing disasters, personality clashes, lack of experience and having enough tenacity to stay motivated.

There are so many, I could write a volume on why not to start your own brand! But there are also so many valuable lessons learnt along the way that apply to other brands.

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What were the first steps to get the brand up and running?

Well, there are all the administrative and legal aspects like setting up a company, bank account, renting offices and getting all that infrastructure in place.

Then I registered the intellectual property on my brand and my designs. I don't come from a business or fashion background, so I had to learn the business from the ground up such as how to find suppliers, how to deal with manufacturers and connect with customers.

You learn by trial and error -- and lots of luck! We launched the first collection of totes at Lane Crawford and Kapok in 2010.

How is working in the digital space different than in traditional retail? 

I think the nature of the fashion and consumer goods business has evolved since I created my first handbag in 2004, and established MISCHA in 2008.

Initially, I approached this business in the traditional Business-to-Business (B2B) sense by doing trade shows, targeting buyers and working with retailers.

This is time-consuming, costly and dependent upon too many factors that are out of the control of a brand.

With the advent of social media and e-commerce, we're able to engage directly with our customers and present ourselves the way we want. 

So what does that mean for new online brands?

More and more, new brands can be discovered and recognised for their innovative designs or products without having to jump through the traditional hoops.

Influencers and changing shopping habits play a major role in this.

Having said that, the digital space is evolving rapidly, and what worked really well for us two years ago doesn't work quite as well anymore. It's a continuous learning curve.

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A digital business needs an online platform. Any hurdles along the way?

So many! I had a terrible experience with my first web designers and developers. I swore not to depend on anyone again, so I went and studied web design.

I designed and built the first iteration of the MISCHA site you see now. We've had several website revamps over the years, and a major rebrand in 2016.

Everyone is so tech savvy these days and very user friendly platforms make it possible for our team to be able to handle things on a daily basis. We call on programmers or developers for more complicated things.

How did you market the unique selling points of the business?

MISCHA is best known for our signature hexagon print tote bags that can be found toted all around the world.

The iconic hexagon pattern was inspired by the traditional Japanese motif, which symbolises the tortoise shell and represents longevity.

The concept comes from classic luggage makers such as Louis Vuitton and Goyard. My designs are very simple, fuss-free and practical.

I try to create a brand that brings together an Asian aesthetic with global style appeal and this mirrors my core clientele. 

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How do you track your success?

I think there are many ways to determine what success means for your business. I set out to create a brand through which I could express my creativity, to give women something meaningful and everlasting.

We host events where we can see how customers interact with MISCHA, and this is really helpful when we design.

On a more tangible level we look at social metrics; how engaged followers are, how much press coverage, how many co-branded collaborations, and whether brand awareness is growing.

The bottom line is growing sales revenue and profitability. And going forward, to connect women through a community in which they can share everything from travel, style, health and wellness to foodie moments.  

Which social media channels do you find most useful for customer engagement?  

Social media is our primary means of communications with our customers.  I can't stress enough how important social media is to us and how it's opened the doors.

Creating your own content is key. We use Instagram and Facebook mainly, but are on Twitter, Pinterest, Weibo and WeChat.

How has your brand evolved over time?  

I started in 2004 and established MISCHA in 2008. Just like every woman, we've evolved and had many makeovers over the years.  

We've worked with freelancers, agencies and in-house designers, but the essence of MISCHA has not changed.

I think in the modern world, people are looking for authenticity and this is what I stand by.