Editor’s Note: McGill Dobson Centre Ambassador Nely Gaulea sat down with Nina Lantinga, founder and CEO of Lantinga Vita, where functionality meets fashion and sustainability. A McGill Dobson Cup 2014 Grit Prize winner, Nina returned to McGill as a guest speaker at the McGill Dobson Centre Information Session for the School of Continuing Studies last fall. Learn more about her journey as an entrepreneur since participating in the McGill Dobson Cup 2014.
Hey Nina! How is the entrepreneurial life going?
The entrepreneurial life has been interesting. A lot of change and constantly adapting to change. When you start a business, there are many things that you don’t know about that business specifically. In my case, I had never worked in a company before. I worked in [Psychology] labs and in restaurants, so I didn’t know the office day-to-day routine. Everything is new and you are often expected to have all the answers because you are running the company. Adapting to change and staying positive despite a lot of ups and downs is key.
You are back from a business trip in Thailand. Tell me about that.
Yes. I have a new contact with the best handbag company in Asia and to work with them is amazing. So, I went to meet with them. They are currently making the first prototype. We are working out all the logistics. So far, it has been very positive from every level – margins, production time, supply chain – it’s a different culture and a different way of working, and it’s exactly what we need right now in order to grow. Essentially, that will help us for distribution and retail, which is something that we’ve been wanting to do for a while. Design wise compared to our current Tempus model, there isn’t that much change. We are changing the zippers – they are not going to be metal. They are going to be molded zippers that last much longer. We don’t have massive growth right now. We are still doing small quantities which allows us to test the product, get feedback from customers and iterate. We have a much more clear picture of the price point we know we should be hitting. I think that not having invested in huge quantities of one colour, for example, will have served us well in the long run. With small batches, we can adjust and find out what people want, and will pay for.
How did you launch your first product – the Tempus bag?
When we first launched, we did little pop-up shops at different events. We did Jackalope by Tribu Expérientiel – an extreme sports event in Montreal. That gave us exposure but we realized that it wasn’t the right target market for us since it was mostly teenagers and young families, and we are selling a luxury product. We also did the Montreal Esprit Triathlon – which is my favourite and I do it almost every year. Doing all these different sports is what made me come up with the idea for the Tempus bag in the first place and that’s where it worked the best although it doesn’t look like a triathlon bag whatsoever. Generally, someone who’s going to spend $5000 on a bike will probably invest in a high-quality bag. That seems to transfer into their lifestyle which has proved to be successful. Also, we did the Toronto Marathon, which was really great and also served as a market research study. We had master’s students from HEC Montréal who focused their marketing project on our company and the unbiased perspective and data we got from that was really, really useful to focus our product and marketing strategy. So, going and being out there, you learn. Whether it’s pitching at the McGill Dobson Cup or going to these places and being out in the public. It’s scary because people will judge your idea, but it’s essential.
What else have you learned in your entrepreneurial journey that you didn’t know before?
For one thing, I design the products although I’ve never had formal training in that field so I had to learn. At the very basic level, I had to learn how to use programs like Illustrator and Photoshop. Thankfully, at McGill, there are great courses for that, so that was really helpful. I’ve also learned how to make websites. When you are passionate about something, it’s fun. You have to enjoy the learning process. It’s probably true in every job, but even more so in a startup because you are pressed for time, you need to deliver, you want your business to grow, people are expecting results. There is a certain amount of pressure, but it’s positive pressure. Also, I’ve learned that everything in business is a relationship and you have to build trust with your team, your partners, and your customers.
It has been 3 years since you participated in the McGill Dobson Cup 2014. How do you recall that experience?
It brings back a lot of memories… What I remember most is the pitch. That pitch… it was the most terrifying thing! I was by myself and I had never presented to investors before. I’m used to giving research presentations full of data, facts, talking about neurons and so on. Now, I was selling an idea, a concept… It’s very different, but I think that because it went well, for me, it changed the direction of my life. I couldn’t see it at the time, but I can see it now. This opportunity came at a time when I didn’t see research as a career anymore. So, the McGill Dobson Cup experience was a new direction personally, professionally, and it allowed me to tap into things that I did as a kid, which was drawing… I drew and made my first bag when I was 10 years old! It made me realize that as much as I loved research and psychology – which taught me a lot, as an entrepreneur, you really have to do what you’re passionate about, what comes to you naturally as a kid… I remember I wanted to make things. I designed a full fashion collection when I was 10 years old. For no reason, I actually did a 1-day internship in a fashion/design company in Toronto when I was 12. Things like that made me realize that maybe I was supposed to do this the whole time.
The McGill Dobson Cup experience was a new direction personally, professionally, and it allowed me to tap into things that I did as a kid, which was drawing… I drew and made my first bag when I was 10 years old!
So, the McGill Dobson Cup gave me confidence. I remember the first time I met with my mentor, Liam Cheung, he was convinced that I could sell my product. That’s also what I remember about the Dobson Cup, all the different mentors who were willing to take the time although they are very busy people. They were super nice, very open, always giving advice, the feedback helps you on so many levels. I still meet with my mentor from the McGill Dobson Cup for advice.
You won the McGill Dobson Cup Grit Prize 2014. Does that say something about you?
Some people call it grit, my mother calls it stubbornness. She knows that I don’t give up when someone tells me no. You can’t let rejection bring you down. You need to listen to the people who encourage you. People that don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea, that’s just their opinion. Everyone has an opinion. It’s not that they’re trying to bring you down. They just don’t see the potential and that doesn’t mean there is no potential. There is no magic recipe. You have to believe in yourself and not stop unless there is really no growth opportunity. If I had no leads, no nothing, then maybe it would have been different. It’s always going to be challenging, but that’s not a reason to stop.
What was your favourite course at the School of Continuing Studies, and why?
Strategic Management with Mark Hollingworth. What I liked about it is that it makes you look at the whole picture. Your vision has to have a strategy to it. The way the professor thought was a lot about reflection and less about memorizing. It also allows you to be very analytical because there is not really a right or wrong answer. You are looking at facts, at the environment… you are looking at all the different aspects and you are taking an educated guess. With the facts that you have, what are your assumptions? That was a big distinction. He really puts a lot of emphasis on assumptions: what are you assuming and what’s a fact and how does that come together with your strategy? It teaches you that mindset and because the course is at the end of the program, it’s about putting together and integrating everything that you’ve learned.
What’s your vision?
I have a lot of bags popping up in my head. I’d definitely like to take it internationally, in North America, and continuing to develop designs where we can have functionality and fashion come together. I think the two are separated all the time and being in sports, everything is so practical, but so ugly. I don’t feel pretty wearing a big backpack, as much as sometimes we need the functionality of a backpack. That’s a huge design challenge. They’re have a been a lot of bags in the past years that are multifunctional but they still look like a guy’s bag. It may sound silly, but it matters. What we wear and what we use is an extension of who we are, even if it’s a sports bag. I think there is this gap in the marketplace that I am looking to fill where you can express what you do in a day in a more beautiful way. I don’t need to see it’s a lunchbox. You can just hide it with a gold zipper.
… to develop designs where we can have functionality and fashion come together. […] What we wear and what we use is an extension of who we are, even if it’s a sports bag.
The vision is to keep developing the collection in a way that’s responsible for business growth but also for the communities we work with. Now, that we are working with Thailand, it’s important to know: are people being paid a proper wage? Who’s making the materials, are they intoxicating themselves making these materials? How harmful is it for the environment? Being aware of that. As a startup, we do have to make sacrifices but as you grow, it needs to be on your priority list. Realistically, that’s where the world is headed. We can’t keep up with the fast fashion industry – that’s just not realistic. This concept of making and throwing away things so quickly – it needs to stop. I think that many people agree with it, but at the moment it’s difficult to find products that are going to last. That’s also my vision.
… to keep developing the collection in a way that’s responsible for business growth but also for the communities we work with. […] This concept of making and throwing away things so quickly – it needs to stop.
What’s next for Lantinga Vita?
The next big step is getting the Tempus bag out there in retailers in Montreal for now, and we’re looking at different ways to distribute across the country. After that, we have some opportunities in the United States that we’re looking at as well. From a business development perspective, in the next year, that’s the big next step. I’m also working with Thailand in launching a full collection rather than just one product and getting that in the right targeted stores. By having a wider variety, we can cater more specifically to stores and fine tuning the products with the feedback that we got so far, adjusting the little details, producing at a lower cost, and making it possible to actually distribute the products on a larger scale.
Lantinga Vita is looking for students interested in gaining experience in a startup!