In our brand spotlight, we feature Abound brands who are ready for retail. This week we sat down with Julie Sellers, founder of Dasha Alexander. Dasha Alexander sells home decor, is based in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and has been in business for six years.
Robin: Why did you decide to start Dasha Alexander?
Julie: I get asked this question a lot actually. It surprises people that I own a manufacturing business. I don’t seem very technical, I guess. The only other question I get asked more is, “If your name is Julie, who in the world is Dasha Alexander?” These questions have the same answer, actually.
My name is Julie Sellers and I am Dasha Alexander. I realize, that sounds odd, but you see, Dasha Alexander isn’t my name. She’s not even a real person. For that to make sense, I’m going to have to tell you a little story.
In 2012, along with a good part of the rest of the world, I found myself a single mother of two amazing children and what I like to call, CWC (currently without career). Because that sounds better than unemployed. I had spent the previous couple of decades in human resources in manufacturing and I was past burned out.
I was lucky though, and I had the opportunity to spend some time going back to school and spending some much needed time with my kiddos. I tried a couple of new careers that would allow me more time at home on for size.
I became a substitute teacher in an inner city school, sold hand-painted signs and other sundries at craft shows while getting to be a room mother and a full fledged member of the parent teacher committee. But the craft shows were taking up all my weekend family time and I couldn’t produce enough to provide a full time income. The process was too slow.
Then one day I happened upon some information about dye sublimation technology and I was enthralled. I taught myself to use Photoshop and learned to use the dye sublimation equipment that I spent nearly every last penny of savings on, from YouTube.
I started my first shop on Etsy selling phone cases, so I called it the Custom Case Place. I made the phone cases in my basement and was blessed to actually sell some. Quite a few of them, in fact. And I got good at making them. So good, that I wanted to try some of the other substrates that were available. I added mugs, license plates, custom photo gifts, hand towels and throw pillows.
Branching out meant I needed a new name and it was an easy choice. I named my company after the reason I started it to begin with. My children. But their names aren’t Dasha or Alexander either. At least not anymore.
Before there was Dasha Alexander, there was just a Dasha and an Alexander. Tiny babies, born a world away, who, amazingly, found their way home with me from the wilds of Russia, to Indiana. They have grown up alarmingly fast, with new American names to go with their new American family. But part of me will always see them as those tiny babies, lovingly transferred into my arms and heart now almost two decades ago.
It seemed only fitting to name my company after the two loves of my life, to fill my work here with the same love of life and hope for the future they give me every day.
R: How did you make your first prototype? What changes have you made to your product since then?
J: I made a phone case for my iPhone 5 and it was a bit crooked and the design was… challenged. But I worked hard and came up with 100 sell-able designs and started my first Etsy shop.
R: How do you make your product? What’s your process like?
J: We source our substrates from all over the world, but we design, print or engrave all of our products ourselves in our Indiana workshop.
R: What’s your day to day like? Do you have any favorite and least favorite parts?
J: I am NOT a morning person. So everything that happens before noon is not my favorite. But mostly, my favorite parts are when I get to make things, which I make sure I do every day. Whether it’s a few mugs to a couple of towels or t-shirts, I started this business because I loved the products.
I love sending out a bit of happiness to people and I try to make sure I do some of that every day. But more and more I find myself sitting at my desk doing all the computery stuff that keeps the business going, like taxes, updating the websites, etc. which is my least favorite.
R: What was your initial investment? How did you get the money?
J: I spent under $2,000 to start my company, from my savings.
R: Where was the first place you started selling your product, and where do you sell now?
J: We started on Etsy, and now we’re there as well as Amazon, Walmart.com, Zuily, our own websites, as well as over 100 small boutiques.
R: Where would you love to sell your products in the future?
J: I’d love to do a subscription based box with fun mugs and other items, as well as expanding our wholesale customer base. Shopping in small boutiques in fun locations and it’s always a rush to see one of our products on the shelf.
R: What’s your marketing like? Is social media an important part of your business? If so, how?
J: This is one of my focuses for this year. Our social media presence leaves a lot to be desired, but we can be found as DashaAlexander on Facebook.
R: What are some of the most frustrating challenges and/or moments you’ve had with your business?
J: Finding affordable, appropriate, safe, clean commercial space was a very difficult thing. We have now partnered with the city of Fort Wayne Indiana and the Fort Wayne Urban Enterprise Association and have moved into to an amazing entrepreneur space in our inner city.
There are more than corn fields in Indiana and our city is an amazing place to call home and run a business. We love being a part of their mission to make our community a top tier place to live and work.
R: What are some of your greatest achievements and victories you’ve had with your business?
J: I have a goal of adding a new product offering to our portfolio each year. Some products have leveraged our current technologies, like mugs and towels. But last year I went out on a limb and purchased a laser engraver.
It’s the size of a Mini-Cooper with a price to match, and I had no idea how to use it. But we figured it out and we have engraved over 10,000 glasses and tumblers in our first year!
This year we have added a state-of-the-art direct to garment printer and are currently expanding our textile lines.
R: What advice do you have for people who want to sell a product?
J: You have to love it. Don’t just follow the money. If you love it, then it will show. And others will love your products too.
That being said, learn all you can about product life cycles, cycle times, fixed costs, labor costs etc. Because even though you love it, you have to be able to earn a profit making it if you want to stay in business.
I always think of my business like a locomotive chugging up a hill. That train will keep moving no matter what you do. If you aren’t pushing ahead you are going backwards.
R: Is there any business advice or quotes you’ve heard that you think about often?
J: I love quotes, I’m in the quote business! But my favorite, by Randy Pausch, is never far from my mind.
The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.
R: What’s your favorite thing about being a business owner?
J: Working with my kids and never missing their games.