Threading the Needle: Travelling with a Backpack Maker

San Francisco entrepreneur and backpack maker Phuong Mai, owner of P.MAI, hopes to make it onto your shoulders.

Ayzia King By Ayzia King

Credit: P.MAI

 

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Being a woman in the working world means constantly carrying the necessities — a bag can easily contain a laptop, wallet, sweater and chargers. That means many women are stuck carrying heavy shoulder bags that can cause pain and are sometimes pretty ugly to look at.

In 2014, when Phuong Mai, the creator of luxury backpack brand P.MAI, was running around as a management consultant, the bag she constantly lugged around weighed her down. The burden ultimately led to a regrettable shoulder injury — and advice from her doctor to invest in a backpack.

Backpacks aren’t just for kids anymore, but finding a dependable and attractive backpack suitable for a professional was a harder task than she thought it would be. Most of the backpacks Mai looked at were either too sporty, masculine or not thoughtful in design.

On the flipside, designer backpacks were not made for working women. “They were too small for a laptop or too delicate for demands of commuting or travel,” Mai said.

“None of them truly combined form and function. We need a backpack for today’s busy women that has storage and organization, yet still looked chic and comfortable — most of all we need something that is going to last.”

In 2015, Mai decided to take the leap and design her own functional and dependable backpack — one that would be versatile going from the work desk to the dinner table. “The problem with unisex backpacks are that they’re often designed for the common denominator — so it can be hard to fit a women’s frame. I wanted to design a backpack that women could feel proud to wear to work. Just because we work with men doesn’t mean we have to look like men,” Mai says.

Phuong Mai, founder of P.MAI. Credit: P.MAI

Phuong Mai, founder of P.MAI. Credit: P.MAI

She started raising money on Kickstarter to launch her P.MAI collection in the fall of 2015. The company met its initial $20,000 goal in less than 60 hours and raised roughly $10,000 more by the end of the month-long campaign.

Thoughtful Touches

Women shouldn’t carry a tote that’s 10 percent or more of their body weight on one shoulder, Indiana University researcher and occupational and environmental health expert Kevin Slates explains in his heavy-load phenomena research. Of course, it often seems that women carry that much in stuffed purses and even more in their oversized carryalls. Backpacks are a solution because they enable evenly distributed weight across a person’s shoulders, which prevents skeletal misalignment.

Running around town with a backpack or a bag that has no form or padding can also do damage to a woman’s shoulders. “Women should never have to suffer to look fashionable,” Mai says. The P.MAI backpack is designed to offer form and function that helps posture and shows off sophisticated style, because Mai believes there is no point in looking good, but not feeling good.

At $395 each, Mai’s bags aren’t cheap, but their price reflects their quality and workmanship. Each of the backpacks are created using versatile and durable materials from a family-owned factory that works with global brands like Tumi and Tommy Hilfiger.

Creative Marketing

After creating the bags, Mai knew she had to gain exposure for her brand but at a low cost.

She did rigorous research on the online backpack market and analyzed her consumer’s lifestyle and habits to figure out which platforms she should participate in. She also weighed which outlets would make the most revenue. Ultimately, she was able to use websites like Racked, The Luggage List and Brit + Co to create a following before launching her own website. These outlets turned out to be a great way for P.MAI to grow, thanks to encouraging customer reviews and kudos given by supporters of its crowdfunding campaign.

Mai couldn’t afford to giveaway backpacks to gain exposure, but she knew that people needed to be able to touch and try on her bags. In January, Mai started a blog called “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Bag.” Inspired by the movie “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants,” the blog follows one bag’s journey from one professional woman to the next as it goes from city to city, telling each woman’s story, while promoting the brand.

To overcome the visibility hurdle, Mai also created “P.MAI Pioneers,” a social-media marketing strategy to connect with other businesswomen — or inspirational women in general. Mai meets with these entrepreneurial pioneers and tells their story on P.MAI’s social-media channels. “These stories aren’t meant to be marketed — they’re just stories that I wanted to share,” she says.

The approach has produced gains in readership and opened the brand to new connections on social media platforms, thus allowing P.MAI to reach a wider range of people that they might have reached otherwise.

“Women sometimes just need an extra push. By sharing their stories, highlighting both their ambitions and struggles, I want to encourage women to gain the courage to pursue their dreams — whether that means taking an entrepreneurial leap or switching to a new career,” Mai says, of the P.MAI Pioneers.

Credit: P.MAI

Credit: P.MAI

To gain more distribution of her products, Mai is working closely with Amazon Launchpad. “I want to be where my consumers are,” Mai tells us. Research shows that 55 percent of product searches start on Amazon. “If women are already searching with intent to purchase on Amazon, then I want them to discover P.MAI there.” The brand will be featured in Amazon’s holiday gift guide, and P.MAI plans to market its backpacks on Amazon Europe in the near future.

A Backpack’s Future

Mai has plunged into entrepreneurship with energy and creativity, quitting her corporate job at a time in her life when she felt that she could take on the risk. “I had gained valuable business skills from consulting, didn’t have kids or a mortgage, and was ready to solve a personal problem,” Mai says. It took time — discussing this career change with family friends, researching the bag market and talking to experts about designing — before Mai decided to fully embrace the entrepreneurial challenge.

To save money, she has sacrificed the stability of living and working in one place by avoiding committing to a full-year lease. “I’ve traveled and moved from couch to friend’s apartments to my family’s home to sublets in order to optimize the flexibility in rent.”

She also hasn’t committed to a permanent location for P.MAI, though Mai is occasionally hitting the pavement. “I love hosting pop-up shops because I can interact with people directly. It’s much easier to convey the quality of material and design when people can feel the bag and learn about its origin story.” She will have a pop-up shop this holiday season in the San Francisco area.

“Carry on, beautifully” is P.MAI’s motto, and it is what Mai is doing. “I believe success is when you can use your greatest skills and talents to serve something greater than yourself. It’s about making a positive impact,” Mai says, in her 1,000+ Stories profile. “We believe in helping women improve their health by changing how they carry themselves (and their belongings!) one backpack at a time.”

Posted: October 20, 2016

Ayzia KingThreading the Needle: Travelling with a Backpack Maker