Click here to order the November 2016 issue in which this article appeared.
Founded: 2012 (direct sales 2015)
Headquarters: Houston, Texas
Executives: Founder and CEO Claudia Gutierrez
Products: Handbags, jewelry, accessories
Having grown up as the daughter of entrepreneurs in Colombia, Claudia Gutierrez had a longtime dream to start her own company. In 1998, at age 23, she emigrated from Colombia to the U.S. to pursue an MBA. A career in banking followed, but it only confirmed that juggling the 9-to-5 life and a growing family was not for her. Drawing upon an interest in fashion and design, Gutierrez began designing jewelry and launched her own business. Three years later, she made another key pivot, abandoning her new company’s traditional retail model in favor of direct selling. “I’m always stopping to think, Is this what I planned for myself?” she says. Today, as Founder and CEO of her eponymous accessories brand ClaudiaG Collection, she offers others the same opportunity to choose their path, and the means to pursue it.
Houston-based ClaudiaG made its direct sales debut roughly a year ago, in September 2015. Since that time, sales have grown steadily, doubling each month as consultants across the U.S. have signed up to sell the brand’s leather handbags, jewelry and other accessories. Though they make a tidy summary, these early days involved plenty of trial and error and a different kind of education for Gutierrez, who says her MBA training often falls short when it comes to running a direct sales organization. More often than not, perseverance and resilience are the order of the day, and for inspiration Gutierrez recalls what drew her to direct sales in the first place.
Finding Your Niche
It began with jewelry. Working as a branch manager in the banking industry, Gutierrez found herself wanting more from her career. “I liked the structure of the job, but it was not fulfilling me as a person,” she explains. “Though I had fun helping people, I felt I needed much more.” Returning to her entrepreneurial aspirations, the mother of four left banking in 2010 to try her hand at jewelry design, and began selling her wares to small boutiques. In 2012 she branched into handbags and officially launched ClaudiaG Collection.
Though jewelry came first, from the moment Gutierrez created her first handbag she was hooked. Indeed, the passion is evident in her voice as she talks about the products (“I want one in every color!”). Even more than a necklace or pair of earrings, she says, a handbag allows a woman to make a statement wherever she goes. For design inspiration, Gutierrez looked to her own heritage. “I’m from Colombia, where we’re very well known for the quality and craftsmanship of our leathers,” she says. Genuine leather is the foundation of ClaudiaG’s line of totes, purses and clutches—a fact that sets the brand apart in the direct sales space. The design aesthetic is modern yet classic, with sleek silhouettes, rich colors and signature hardware. ClaudiaG also offers backpacks, wallets and other leather products for men.
Sales were solid following the launch of ClaudiaG Collection, but wholesale margins were thin, and the constant back and forth with retailers did not provide the sense of community and purpose Gutierrez sought. “I was selling a product that I was proud to wear and others were proud to wear, but that was it,” she says. The search for a viable alternative led her to direct sales. Though she brought negative preconceptions to the model, Gutierrez was intrigued by its potential to help women build a career on their own terms. In 2014 she decided to attend a conference for direct selling startups. “I had no idea what this industry was all about, and I needed all the information I could get,” Gutierrez recalls. What she heard excited her. The budding entrepreneur immediately set out to prove the party plan model with ClaudiaG products, inviting anyone and everyone to informal gatherings known as “Trunk Shows” to experience the collection firsthand, and even planning shows that doubled as play dates for women with children.
About a year later, with a growing number of consultants, Gutierrez knew it was time to pull her products from stores and introduce ClaudiaG as a full-fledged direct selling opportunity. She brought in an industry expert to guide the transformation, which became official in September 2015. ClaudiaG now has more than 300 consultants across the U.S. Reflecting on the company’s evolution, Gutierrez says the greatest benefit has been the opportunity to forge personal connections and make a tangible difference in the lives of others. “Before, I was designing and selling products for women. Now, I’m empowering women,” she says. “I’m showing them the way to be successful moms and business owners, and to really enjoy what they do.”
With Gutierrez at the helm, it follows that women ages 40 to 55 make up the company’s largest salesforce demographic. Gutierrez describes them as strong, independent women who have no problem making a decision, and who appreciate that ClaudiaG is more than just a pretty bag. “These women work hard and spend wisely,” she says. “They’re doing it because they want to feel good about themselves and show themselves, and the world, that they can do it on their own, and that they can be stylish while doing it.” When a new consultant signs up, she can choose from one of three starter kits: the Great Start ($199), Professional ($399) or Executive ($599). Each contains a selection of deeply discounted product inventory, as well as sales and marketing materials. New consultants also receive a welcome call from Gutierrez, who believes that such personal touches are critical to a consultant’s ongoing success.
Furnished with her new inventory, the consultant begins scheduling trunk shows. A ClaudiaG Trunk Show is a sensory experience; customers like to touch and smell the leather bags and model different looks. Although the company is beginning to experiment with online services such as Facebook Live, Gutierrez believes that the in-person shows will continue to drive the bulk of sales. “It’s amazing how, during a show, one of the ladies will offer up opinions and really sell the bag to the person next to her,” she says. “They try things out, and they have fun doing it.” The trunk shows are informal and relaxed, and on average, nine out of 10 attendees make a purchase. An affordable price point, in the range of $25–$220, likely contributes to that substantial selling power.
A personal touch is also evident in the company’s event strategy, particularly in what is known as ClaudiaG Roadshows. At least once following the release of each collection, members of the corporate team hit the road to connect with consultants, holding events in key cities across the country. “Sometimes consultants feel isolated, but once they attend one of those meetings they get fired up again,” says Gutierrez. “When we see people struggling, it’s usually due to lack of motivation. At that point we pick up the phone or hit the road and get them motivated again.” The ClaudiaG Annual Convention in July offers an opportunity for the salesforce to come together in a positive environment and receive training and recognition. This is followed by a Leadership Retreat for top sellers each January. ClaudiaG also is introducing incentive trips for consultants who reach sales quotas. The first took place just this October in the Bahamas, with about 20 consultants and their partners.
ClaudiaG consultants are supported by a 10-person corporate team that includes Gutierrez’s husband, Juan, who accompanied her to that pivotal direct sales conference back in 2014. In addition to supporting her along the way, a month ago he left his job with IBM to take on a full-time position as Chief Operating Officer of ClaudiaG. “At the beginning, I never thought I would be able to afford him!” his wife says.
In her role as head designer, Gutierrez is supported by two others who help to bring the ClaudiaG look to life. The brand’s inaugural collection featured jewelry and handbags, but two succeeding collections have featured additional accessories, such as scarves and hats. “We have discovered that, little by little, we are creating a lifestyle brand,” says Gutierrez. “We want to offer a little bit of everything to women and help them out when they put together their look.” Products are designed with the modern woman in mind, meaning versatility and practicality are key, even in minor details like the lime-green fabric that lines the pockets of each handbag, making it easier to locate items tucked inside. Thus far, the most popular offerings in the brand’s fall collection are scarves and shawls, as well as the Olivia bag, a plush fur tote with black leather accents.
Sharing What You Have
Perhaps the only thing that animates Gutierrez more than a good handbag is giving back to a worthy cause. Charitable giving is an integral part of ClaudiaG, and over time it has become a point of pride for consultants, says Gutierrez. The company donates a portion of all proceeds through its ShareMyShare program. The funds go to organizations that support children in need, whether through health care, education, nutrition or other avenues. Increasingly, ClaudiaG is finding ways to aid foster children and families, including those represented in its own salesforce. Gutierrez points out that every day in the U.S., 600 more children are brought into foster care, to await the transition to a permanent home. To help reduce that number, ClaudiaG is supporting the work of Arrow Child & Family Ministries, a provider of child welfare and educational services. However, even when it comes to giving back, Gutierrez empowers consultants to set their own priorities. A consultant can host a trunk show fundraiser for the charity of her choice, and the company will donate 40 percent of proceeds while still paying commissions to the consultant.
The opportunity to impact lives and connect with people is what drew Gutierrez to direct sales, and she has found it in the new ClaudiaG. “I needed something more, and I discovered it in giving back, being part of the community and sharing what I have with them,” she says. What began as a dream for Gutierrez—designing a life that aligns with her own values—is becoming a reality not only for her, but for women across the country who have joined ClaudiaG. As for where they will take the business from here, well, that is for them to decide.