In 2017 Farzan Dehmoubed, a marketer, and his wife Jennifer, a schoolteacher, created the Lotus Trolley Bag, a set of washable bags with attached rods that can be hung inside a shopping cart. The bags, with features like secure pockets for egg cartons and wine bottles and an insulated pocket for frozen foods, quickly became the top-selling reusable bag on Amazon, and are now sold in stores like Wegman’s, Albertson’s, Kroger, and TJ Maxx. But getting to that point required overcoming a mishap that nearly sunk their startup. –As told to Kevin J. Ryan
We invested $45,000 into our first inventory. It sold out in 10 days. We were really excited. We called up our manufacturer and placed another order. We wired them $50,000–everything we made on the first batch and more.
Six weeks later a big container arrived. We had our friends and family help us unload it. We opened up the boxes and looked at the product, and it was nothing like the first set of bags. It looked the same from a distance, but when you actually looked at the stitching and the quality of the printing and the logo, it was not what we had ordered. My wife and I looked at each other and said, “This can’t be real.”
I remember thinking to myself, ‘We can fix this, maybe it’s just some loose thread.’ But it wasn’t salvageable. We placed a complaint with the manufacturer, even though we knew it wouldn’t go anywhere, since we were just a family business with very little leverage. We later learned it had outsourced the order to save pennies on the dollar.
We decided pretty quickly we couldn’t sell the bags. We didn’t feel comfortable putting our name on them. That meant we would have to take the $50,000 loss. I don’t think Jenn and I talked for the rest of the day. It took a day or two to absorb the shock.
Even though the manufacturer promised us they would do better the next time around, we weren’t going to be fooled twice. I flew to multiple manufacturers in Vietnam until we found a new one we were happy with. We hired a third-party quality check company. When the goods were ready to ship, they would go in and do an audit: open up each box and check them, and send us videos. We kicked ourselves for not doing that in the first place.
We placed a new $50,000 order, which required emptying our life savings and practically maxing out our credit cards. It was two months before the new inventory came. We were pretty upfront with our customers during that time. We told them very frankly: The bags didn’t come out the way we ordered them, the shipment is going to be delayed, and we really thank you for your patience.
I think letting your customers know you’re just like them, and that you’re just trying to provide a product that they’ll be happy with, goes a long way. People related to us. They were very understanding.
We still had a lot of orders canceled though, and we gave discounts to customers who had been patient. We were nervous when the new container came–if the product was bad, we would have lost everything. But it was exactly what we’d ordered. We sold out almost right away. Because of the discounts, we didn’t make much money at all on that order, but we had our reputation.
Not putting that product on the market was one of the best decisions we ever made. If we had, I can guarantee you we wouldn’t be where we are right now. It would have killed our reviews. It would have ruined our brand.
We now have a 4.6-star rating on Amazon with more than 700 five-star reviews. We’re on pace for $3 million in sales this year. We just launched our second product, a reusable produce bag, and those same early consumers are buying it.