Skip to Main Content

How Vera Bradley Did It, by Tory Johnson

by Tory Johnson

As we head into the Thanksgiving holiday, I’m excited to share with you my time in Texas where I had the honor of introducing 5,000 women to my business idol: Barbara Bradley Baekgaard, co-founder of Vera Bradley. While the brand and its products are beautiful, the creative brain behind the scenes is even more impressive.

Bothered by what they deemed ugly luggage for women while waiting for a flight in the Atlanta airport, she and her partner each borrowed $250 from their husbands in 1982 to immediately start the company. Last year it went public and generated $366 million in revenue.

As I interviewed Barbara, she wowed the audience with her humor, style and savvy. Here are some of my favorite moments:

Before starting Vera Bradley, as a young woman she had a wallpaper company called Paper Dolls, a play on words, referencing the young owners. After a move to Indiana a few years later, she thought she was too old to go by doll, so Barbara wanted to rename the company Well Hung.  It was vetoed her (first) husband, who preferred a stay at home wife.

To convince him that she could care for four children, manage their home and hold down a job, Barbara would race home from work and sauté onions to make the house smell as if she’d been cooking all day.

A couple years after starting Vera Bradley, she tried over and over to get a client to pay his outstanding balance.   Finally the man replied via fax saying, “I don’t owe you this money. And, even if I did, I doubt Vera Bradley would drop dead over this amount.” Turns out, Vera, Barbara’s mother for whom the company is named, had indeed died that week at age 82. Barbara faxed the obituary to the gentleman with a note that read, “You do and she did.”

Instead of hiring people and telling them to be nice, “we hire nice people,” Barbara told our audience. The company gives every employee $50 cash on their birthday with a hand-signed card. Cash is gifted to ensure the recipient spends it on herself! They even have a Happiness Committee charged with spending money year-round to please employees.
One of the core values of the company is the F word: fussy. They’re fussy about every detail, which is evident in the product, the stores, the catalogue and everything that carries the Vera Bradley name.

Barbara’s father gave her business advice that she has followed every day: Sell yourself first. Then your business. Then your product. If people don’t like you, they won’t buy from you. (That’s never been more relevant than today.)

I could go on and on with examples of her humor-and I will share lots more over time-but I hope these nuggets allow you to reflect on your personal brand and how you’re infusing humor and smarts in all you do.

A day earlier in Houston, I had the privilege of welcoming Amy Simmons to our stage at the Spark & Hustle Small Business Boot Camp at the Texas Conference for Women.   She’s the founder of regional chain Amy’s Ice Creams throughout the state.

While she shared a wealth of information and advice, three highlights stood out:

To start her company, Amy needed $100,000. The first investment of $5,000 came from a janitor who worked alongside her at another ice cream shop. The lesson: Don’t judge people based on title and be nice to everyone. You never know where your champions will come from.

The company’s mission is to “Make someone’s day.” (What’s your mission? How are you living it?)

When asked if she had plans to expand nationally, Amy said no. As a passionate proponent of small business ownership, she went on to explain that she believes every region should have its own local ice cream greats. It was so refreshing that she has no interest in becoming Walmart-and shutting out independent shops.

After shaking hundreds of hands and talking to so many talented women, each of whom have big dreams, I was reminded of something shared by another Spark & Hustle speaker: race car driver Leilani Munter.

“To be successful, you have to be willing to hit the gas when your body is begging you to hit the brakes.”

Take a moment to pause on this holiday week to reflect on all that you have – and all that you wish for you and the people you love. Find comfort in your good fortune of having the power within your head, heart and hands to make great things happen.   And identify one big thing you’ll commit to seeing through before the end of 2011.

Cheers to your success,

Tory Johnson

If you missed my 20-minute call on lessons for small business success with SurePayroll’s Michael Alter, listen to it at your leisure here.