Teen inventor switched from focusing on her own savings to launching a sales force of peers

Reposted from Columbus Business First

At first Emily Miller just wanted to find a backpack that could hold all her textbooks.

When the Olentangy Liberty High School student designed her own, she found a way to save money for college by mass-producing bags.

But quickly, as friends offered to help her sell, the 16-year-old also found a way to foster other teen entrepreneurs.

“We’re not here to only make money for ourselves,” Miller said. “Our company’s message is teens selling to teens.”

Miller and her mom, Lisa Miller, are co-founders of Laine Avenue LLC, selling roomy, sturdy backpacks with interchangeable colorful top flaps. In deluxe models the flap converts to small purse. The company is named for their shared middle name, Laine.

Starting with the original idea three years ago, they started selling the final product one year ago and are gearing up for a second back-to-school season. The pair is aiming for profitability by sometime next year.

“The entrepreneurial spirit was definitely there,” Emily Miller said. “From a young age I was told I’ve got to save up for college because I’ve got two brothers.”

She made and sold felt teddy bear keychains and other crafts. In the backpack business, she has help from Lisa Miller, partner in Liberty Township advertising agency LaineGabriel. Lisa helped find a designer and manufacturer. Emily is in charge of overall strategy, focus groups and surveys that led to the initial design, color and pattern selection, marketing and social media. Together they pack orders and drive to the post office.

Last year most sales were direct buying from the website, but lately more teens are signing up as “backers.” They promote the bags on social media or to friends, and if given credit in an order collect a 25 percent commission.

Emily Miller saw it as a way to make money for “students who don’t have the opportunity to start a business like me and my mom had.”

Coming from the advertising background, Lisa Miller said, “Selling a product is totally new.”

Condensed from an interview:

What’s wrong with the backpacks you found in stores?

Emily: They all have a rounded top, so it’s so hard to fit all the stuff you need for a school day. (With a full backpack Emily still carried 3-inch binders in her hands.) When it’s nearing the school year, one month before school starts, your choices end up being very limited style-wise.

Why make your design into a business?

Emily: Just having my own backpack wasn’t going to help me save up for a car or college. Everyone around me was facing the same problem. We could sell this and make money off it.

The encouragement I got from my parents and them following through was what made it a reality. A lot of kids, their parents would say, 'OK, go try.' With both my parents being entrepreneurs, them following through is what made the company what it is.

How did you get a prototype made?

Lisa: We worked with an industrial design student. (Cedarville University has a design satellite, International Center for Creativity, in the same building as LaineGabriel.) He figured out how to prototype it. We bootstrapped the whole thing (and paid him).

We bought a sewing machine off Craigslist that used to sew leather gun holsters.

Emily: The design was definitely our thing but sewing it all together was a little challenging.

Where did you come up with the capital?

Lisa: The fabric and sewing machine, we funded that personally, the family, and the first manufacturing run. We toyed with the idea of a Kickstarter. We toyed with the idea of investors. (In the end) we believed in this so much my husband and I budgeted for a couple years.

I’m very methodical and very safe. She’s made me more of a risk taker than I’ve ever been. She’s always like, what do you have to lose. Of course I always have a list.

How did you line up a manufacturer?

Lisa: It’s another of those kismet relationships. My agency did branding for this particular manufacturer. We had in-depth knowledge of what they could do. (First she was rejected by manufacturers in Columbus and elsewhere.) I called a company in San Francisco, I called a company in Indiana. We looked locally at smaller companies that did awnings. People weren’t interested or it was too expensive. The California company wanted $300 a bag.

What’s been the most challenging thing about going into business as a teen?

Emily: Comparing myself to other teenage entrepreneurs who have now grown up and are extremely successful. It’s hard to see that and see we’re not in a profitable stance. But the encouragement from people reaching out and saying this is amazing we want to be part of this, realizing they’re not selling backpacks it’s a completely different product line. It’s definitely gotten better. Everyone’s who’s successful right now had to be where we are now.

What surprised you the most?

Emily: When we sell a backpack in like California or someplace we don’t even know anybody there. People who don’t even know us think it’s a good idea.

Lisa: That means my social media manager is doing a good job.

What’s the future you see for this business?

Emily: If I’m out of state in college I’ll still be able to help out (online). It will be a whole new group of people to spread the idea to. I see this company as a lot of teens in college saying, Laine Avenue help me pay for my textbooks.

What’s the future you see for yourself?

Emily: I want to be part of this as long as I can. As long as the company is going I want to speak for it. It has a lot of potential. It’s something I could stick with even if I take another career path.