The purchase of a handbag from a boutique in the UK seaside resort of Brighton led Marcia Robinson to make a drastic career change. The bright yellow O Bag received so many favorable comments from passersby that the seed of a business idea was planted in her head.
Eventually, Marcia left her career as an IT professional behind her and set about launching the first ever dedicated O Bag store in the UK. In this article, she discusses how she navigated her career transition into a completely different field.
For 18 years, Marcia worked in the financial services sector, managing global technology teams for investment banks. Prior to that, she trained bankers and stockbrokers on their technology platforms. For the most part, she loved her work, enjoying being around people and helping solve their technical issues. However, the higher she climbed up the career ladder the greater the discontent with what she was doing.
“I enjoyed it less the higher I got, and for the last few years my enthusiasm waned a bit. Management is very tough and I was working across time zones, which was quite demanding on my family life. I wouldn’t travel a lot, but when I did, it was intense.”
Evolutionary, not Sudden Change
Change did not come about straight away. There was a considerable gap between thinking that she might want to do her own thing and then actually going to do it. The process started when she was on maternity leave with her son.
“I knew I always wanted to go back to work, but then I thought is what I am doing really me. Could I see myself when I am 60 odd working in an investment bank or in technology? You see, I’m actually not that fussed about computers. I then started to really focus on finding a job I was passionate about.”
Marcia started to think about business concepts, and came up with an idea of an indoor play center. This would be a quirky and trendy environment for kids, their mums and their mums’ friends who don’t have children. But then she went back to the city and her job in IT, and dreams of running her own business were put on the back burner.
“For a while, my focus was just change industry and do the same sort of thing, but in publishing or fashion and so on. For a little while that suppressed the feeling of wanting to do something else, but then I realized I would just be doing the same thing, but in a different environment.”
Making a Big Decision
Still, Marcia continued with her career, but a turning point was coming, and that’s when she got to VP level.
“The next step for me was executive director and that’s quite a big job. You are giving blood, sweat, guts and everything to make that jump. I think it scared the living daylights out of me.”
Marcia decided she wanted to put her energy into doing her own thing rather than moving a step up the career ladder. So she left her permanent, stable job and took a temporary contract to support her financially while she pursued her play center idea.
And then she saw the bags that would change her entire career trajectory.
Fateful Shopping Trip
“One weekend I went to a jazz concert in Brighton with my sister and visited shops in the area. There was a lady who had a leather handbag accessories shop and I saw this bright yellow bag in the background. I hadn’t seen anything like it before, and she explained how she bought the bags from a trade fair in Milan.
“I bought one and when I went back to the jazz festival I got a really interesting response from strangers, loving the bag.”
O Bags are versatile, customizable handbags, shoulder bags and beach bags. And when Marcia checked online to see where she could buy more, she discovered they were difficult to find. This told her that not many people were selling them, and so she tracked down the manufacturer’s parent company in Italy to see if she could market a few on the Internet.
“In my discussion they weren’t interested in people selling online. They had a franchisable formula that worked in Europe. If you wanted to be a stockist you needed to have a shop.”
By this point in time Marcia had, in her own words, become obsessed by the bags. She had done her research and felt that it was worth taking a punt on being a high street retailer. This, despite having no previous experience in retail, other than a part-time weekend job as a student.
“I was confident in the product knowledge. By then I had traveled to Italy and had reached out to other retailers in the word and did as much research as I could. I was quite nervous about having a shop, but not worried about the people element or the budget side of things.
“I had worked with budgets for years and I’ve always been good at finding the right talent for a team. The side that scared me the most was how you market something like this that is totally new.”
To bridge the gaps in her knowledge, Marcia reached out to local people and to anyone who would be able to help her. Before the shop opened, she set up a preview shop in her kitchen and invited neighbors, mums from school and anyone who knew anyone in some PR capacity.
“I was amazed at how many people I knew had connections or skills. When it came to the legal element of looking at my contract as a franchisee, I have a friend who’s a solicitor. I also have friends who are project managers and a few who did some work on magazines. I was reaching out to friends and getting free help, because I didn’t have the finances behind me.”
Marcia was tapping into a vital support network that hitherto, she didn’t know was there. This included a friend who offered some valuable business advice.
“One of my best friends is a business coach and without realizing it I was getting advice on the insecurities I might have about calling up a fashion house.”
Marcia says she’s been on a steep learning curve since she first started to realize her career dreams. One of the hardest parts, and it’s an ongoing challenge is getting into the right fashion circles. The fashion industry is clique, but again she’s getting help from friends and using the power of social media to expand her business’s reach.
Marcia’s store opened in March 2015, and she is now forging ambitious plans for the future.
“Ultimately it’s a business and to increase revenue, I would like to and need to open up other shops and need them to be in high footfall areas.
“It is definitely about expanding, and we’re looking at a few locations at the moment.”