Best friends Melanie (Mel) Bolin and Lina Dickinson live only minutes apart, on opposite sides of the Kansas-Missouri state line. About 20 years ago, the two women met and became fast friends when their young children attended the same preschool.
Years later, as their nests began to empty, Mel and Lina discovered that they shared not only the same entrepreneurial spirit but also a wanderlust for travel.
Those passions laid the foundation for the birth of their women-owned company, MERSEA, which curates a line of ethically-sourced travel clothing, accessories and home decor.
Forbes.com spoke to Mel and Lina:
Briefly, how did your business get started?
We spent years raising our children together, and when they got older, we were itching to do something new. We both had professional careers before kids, and we both had a dream of building our own business. We truly started the company out of our homes.
We never saw creating MERSEA as a hobby. Rather, from the start, it was an intentional, grassroots effort. We were very scrappy and had some friends helping us out along the way.
Our first product was a candle in a bag. We found a woman who made feed bags for horses about an hour away on the outskirts of St. Joseph, Missouri, and convinced her to make our bags! We started in our kitchens—washing labels off of glass and packaging them in these little canvas bags.
Since then, we grew to be named as the Fastest Growing Business in Kansas in 2018 and we are inching toward the $20M mark this year.
Originally, we had set out to make the ultimate hostess gifts. The name MERSEA is a double entendre, since “merci”—the way that it is pronounced—is also a way of saying thank you in French. But, “mer” and “sea” are also symbolic of where we both longed to be—near the ocean.
Has being a women-owned company been an asset?
Has the official certification of being a women-owned business helped us? To be honest, not really.
But, working with women has been an absolute asset. Our company is composed of almost all women. This was not necessarily purposeful, but it evolved organically. As we grew and needed more help, we turned to our friends and their communities.
There are so many women that are in the same position we were in when we started MERSEA—those that chose to take time off to raise their children and were ready to re-enter the workforce.
We know how hard it is to step out and try to get back in. The system tends to make you feel irrelevant. These women are so smart and hardworking. We are grateful to have this “mom workforce” because they are THE FORCE.
What types of products did you start with and how did you expand your line?
We began MERSEA with a small line of candles. We found another local woman that would make us a dozen candles at a time. Being able to order such a limited number was virtually unheard of.
Eventually, she rented us a table in her warehouse so that we could package and ship out of her facility. We slowly took over more space, until we moved into our own facility and began pouring our own candles. This wonderful woman now works with us and leads all of our candle production!
Our first product outside of candles was our Classic Travel Wrap, which remains one of our best sellers today. Customers were gravitating towards ease and functionality, so we expanded on that with a “travel” sweater: The Catalina. While it was invented for travel, people fell in love with it and were wearing it all the time, and in multiple colors.
We knew we were on to something, and began creating more one-size, easy-care sweaters. Eventually, our line grew into other offerings, such as ponchos, kaftans, cover-ups, dresses, and pajamas. In the Spring of 2023, we’ll be launching our first ready-to-wear collection that expands into a full-size range.
Since the beginning, we’ve had a hand in every step of the process—packing, shipping, design, production, sales, and more. Because of this, we truly understand every aspect of the business. We’ve been able to grow steadily and organically, and have always been profitable without ever needing funding from private equity or venture capital.
Over the last nine years, our growth in wholesale and retail has been amazing. But, our largest growth has come from our DTC online business. We made a conscious effort to focus on it, moved our website onto Shopify in 2017, and began digital advertising efforts in 2018. Since then, it has grown substantially, accounting for over 50% of our revenue.
What differentiates MERSEA from other travel wear companies?
We are truly “battle-tested.”
We’re on the road so much – between meeting with international vendors, going to trade shows, and visiting retailers across the country – we’ve lugged our products all across the globe.
As we venture into ready-to-wear apparel, we are still keeping the traveler in mind. We use superior fabrics and work with partners that can execute high-quality craftsmanship. Our clothes are well made and will stand the test of time. We want our pieces to be forever-favorites that will be in someone’s closet for years to come.
How did the pandemic impact your business?
Of course, all travel stopped for us and most of our customers. But, it gave us time to hone in on what our DTC business was capable of. We made some obvious pivots—masks, hand sanitizer and extra soap—but we knew that travel would eventually bounce back, and it has.
How do you source your products?
That’s one of the best parts of the business, and it’s very personal to us. We travel the world to places like Turkey, India, Italy, Morocco, and China, partnering with the best artisans and small factories that allow us to get to know the owners and employees.
We have a great partner in Ecuador, and even sent our own kids down to live and work there one summer! We like the idea of partnering with family-owned businesses and small capability manufacturers for limited collections.
Any future plans for the company?
We’re launching our first ready-to-wear collection in Spring of 2023. And we’ll be debuting the collection at Kansas City Fashion Week, a nod to our local roots and a thank you to the customers that have been with us since the beginning.
We are committed to continuing to offer our customers more of what they want, so we will use the feedback from this collection to inform and build future collections.
Within the world of scent, we’ll be launching new, fresh packaging for our line, as well as partnering with Pura to offer two of our bestselling scents in their diffuser. We’re so excited to have our customers experience our scents through Pura.
Sometime in the future, we would love to open our own store. We relish the idea of connecting directly with our customers and getting immediate feedback from them.
How would each of you describe your travel style?
Lina: I love my layers. I usually start with jeans, and style upwards from there. I can do a white t-shirt and throw on any MERSEA sweater for an easy, comfortable look. When I travel, I like to bring pieces that can be worn different ways and multiple times so that I can pack less.
Mel: For me, it’s classic. I’m always packing my favorite denim and white oxford shirts. I feel that if you start with beautifully made basics, you can layer and can’t go wrong. My favorite destinations would probably be Morocco and Italy. The artisans there are beyond impressive.
You recently did a photo shoot for MERSEA in Italy. Where did you go?
We were in Sorrento, in southwestern Italy. It was amazing! There is something about Italy that is so special—the light, textures, and patina of the old buildings. Every corner is the perfect place to take a picture.
What destinations are on your bucket list? Why?
We both really want to go to Portugal – we have never been and there are amazingly small, artisan factories there. Plus, Portugal is beautiful, so who wouldn’t want to go?
As travel warriors, what are some of the biggest travel mistakes you’ve ever made?
We have had our fair share of travel mishaps, for sure.
We have had lots of lost bag stories. We have had enough canceled flights to last us a lifetime (one that made our covid tests expire). And we have been seated by or in-between enough colorful people to give us material for a book series.
But, one of the funniest things that happened to us was when traveling to Thailand. We were in Bangkok meeting some new manufacturers and wanted to go to the famous Sky Bar, which is a rooftop bar and has one of the most impressive views of Bangkok.
We didn’t know that they required closed-toed shoes and we only packed sandals. Thankfully, there was a smart lady outside the bar entrance selling used shoes just for this occasion. We purchased our used shoes, had an amazing time, but when I took off my shoes, my feet were another color. Need I say more? This is what you get when you don’t bring the right shoes when you travel.
Note: This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.