Barbara Bradley Baekgaard co-founded a handbag and apparel company out of her basement—she named it after her mom—and 33 years later it generates a half-billion dollars in sales.
Don’t be drab. That notion impelled stay-at-home mom Barbara Bradley to begin selling colorful handbags—cutting fabric on her Ping-Pong table—in 1982. She borrowed $250 from her then husband and, with a co-founder and help from a passel of friends and family, launched Vera Bradley. Three decades, a remarriage, and a new surname (Baekgaard) later, she is 76 and her brand is sold in 2,700 specialty shops and 148 company-owned stores and garners annual sales of $509 million. Baekgaard’s story:
I never saw myself going into business. I grew up in Florida, where my father was a sales rep and later part owner of a candle company. My mother, Vera Bradley, was a model for Elizabeth Arden in her youth.
I left college two credits shy of a bachelor’s degree, got married, and had four children in five years. I was a stay-at-home mom in Fort Wayne—my husband owned a paper distributorship—when I met Patricia Miller, who lived on the same street. We became friends. I loved hanging wallpaper, so Pat and I started Up Your Wall, a hobby that made us a little money hanging wallpaper.
In 1982 we came back from visiting my parents in Florida and were at the Atlanta airport when we noticed no one was carrying anything colorful or fun. So we decided to start a company to make handbags and luggage for women. My mother had great style, and we decided to name the company Vera Bradley after her.
We didn’t have any cash, so we each borrowed $250 from our husbands and bought some fabric. A seamstress made the first bag, then we put an ad in the newspaper for people who wanted to sew in their homes. We cut fabric out on a Ping-Pong table, put it with a zipper and other elements in a bag, and gave it to the women who would take them home to sew.
I still had two of my four children at home. We asked them to refrain from answering the phone between 9:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. so there was a more professional atmosphere.
Before long, a friend who believed in the idea gave us a check for $2,500. He said if we were successful, it was a loan. If we weren’t, it was a gift. That check was huge to us. Six months later we went to a bank, seeking a $5,000 loan. The first banker who offered us money seemed reluctant, so we rejected it. You want to work with people who have faith in you. We took out the loan from another bank.
The first year, we did $10,000 in sales. Then things got chaotic. By our third year, we hit $1 million.
We moved into the Taylor Martin Paper Co. building in 1984 and rented space upstairs for the sewing so we could concentrate on marketing and sales. My husband and I divorced, and in 1987, Vera Bradley bought a lot and built its own building in town.
Early on we knew we didn’t know how to price things or do cost analyses. So we got in touch with SCORE, a nonprofit that provides free business mentoring to entrepreneurs, and a volunteer was assigned to help us. I started calling on stores, showing the bags to owners. We had no trouble getting stores to buy our products because there was nothing like it out there.