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Kelly Cook and Tina Craig, the two women behind popular blog empire Bag Snob, first bonded over a mutual love for handbags while in business school at the University of South California. When both became stay-at-home moms, they realized that they could turn the hours they spent on the phone talking about shopping, bag details and sales into an into an actual resource for other bag obsessives.
Cook and Craig started Bag Snob in the summer of 2005 with only a few Google ads to sustain the site. Seven categories later—including beauty, shoes and jewelry—the two have successfully turned their blog into a lifestyle brand and recently developed their own bag line with HSN. They've also landed some impressive partnership deals with luxury companies not exactly known for working with bloggers, such as Cartier, and fostered relationships with icons like Victoria Beckham and Alexander Wang.
Racked recently caught up with the Bag Snobs to talk about growing their brand, how they pioneered affiliate link partnerships with companies like Shopbop and Net-a-Porter before it was a "thing," which bag trends they hate and the ethics guidelines they find crucial to maintaining their authenticity.
What were you doing before you started Bag Snob?
Tina: "We had just gotten married and had babies. Before that, I was on MTV Asia and had lifestyle fashion shows on TVFlow, Chinese TV."
Kelly: "I started working in the fashion industry out of college, was a stockbroker at one point and later on, worked in business development for internet startups."
Craig and Cook.
Why start a blog about handbags?
Kelly: "I thought that being a stay-at-home mom was what I wanted to do, so I wasn't working at the time. After five months of being at home and going to baby-mommy groups, I realized that I really needed to have something creative outside the home. My husband came up with the idea for us to start a blog because all Tina and I did was talk on the phone about fashion, about bags. She lived in Dallas and I lived in Boston. I had very few shopping options so she would shop for me. We would be on the phone for hours [talking] about bags and finally my husband said, 'Why don't you guys start a blog and write all this stuff down?' And at the time, there were no fashion blogs, not like today. Actually, I was like, 'what's a blog?'"
Tina: "I used to call [Kelly's] house and say, 'Oh my god this bag is on sale' and leave a 20 minute voicemail. And her husband was like, 'Who does that? You guys are crazy. I don't want to be part of this conversation. Start this blog, talk about your bags and what you're buying and it'll be fun for you. Put up a couple Google ads and it'll sustain itself.' It cost $20 a month, and all of a sudden, people started reading us."
Were you always interested in handbags?
Tina: "Kelly and I became really good friends in college [because of] our mutual love of bags. We would shop together and buy each other bags using our parents' credit cards. Her mom used to tell us that we would amount to nothing in life because all we cared about was shopping and only about bags."
Your blog launched in 2005, way before social media. How did you get readers?
Tina: "[Back then], if you Googled a Chloé Paddington bag, a Chanel bag, a Hermés bag, our little blog, our journal basically, would come up. I would [also] attribute it to British Vogue. The editors would read us because when editors have to do research for bags, they would Google [the style] and our website would come up and it was full of information. British Vogue featured us, it was our first big feature. Before that, one of the New York newspapers referred to us but [our names] were anonymous because we thought the internet was such a scary place and we didn't want to have our names out there."
Kelly: "I think the pen-pal voice really resonated with our readers because it's an honest opinion from a girlfriend about a bag whereas if you read a magazine, it doesn't have that tone. It's very important to us after all these years that we maintain that tone, the honesty from the gut."
A Bag Snob editorial.
How did you start monetizing the blog?
Kelly: "My husband put up a bunch of ads, mainly Google AdSense, just to have them up there and our first check was for $400. That's when we realized that we could really make money from this. Not that $400 is a lot of money but that we put in only $20. That's like a 3,000 [percent] return on investment! We started affiliate marketing right away. We actually got a cease-and-desist letter from Net-A-Porter because we would use their images and put up their links. They said that we need to take off all of their pictures and all of their links unless we joined their affiliate program, so obviously we did. And we were one of the first partners with Net-A-Porter."
Tina: "At one point, we had 15 revenue streams. We have straight-up ads, we have tons of posts, we host events, there's a very profitable affiliate network. So when Net-A-Porter reached out to us... We were like, okay, so pay us to keep the photos up or take them down. It was a no-brainer for us. We realized very quickly that this could be a profitable business. There were no business models to look at so we were pioneers, we created our business model. Back then, other bloggers would accuse us of making it up and [said there was] no way that we could make money from blogs, and we were like, there is a way if you can figure it out."
How did you establish relationships with high-end brands?
Tina: "We've always [worked with] luxury brands through our ad servers. Brands reach out to us in different ways, they want us to come to shows, they want us to come to showrooms. We work with a lot of brands on an editorial side. I just hosted an event for Cartier in New York three weeks ago to launch their new bag line. It was the first time that they had actually hired an internet [personality]."
In the beginning, did you get help from other bloggers?
Tina: "All the time, we mentored [bloggers]. Kelly's husband came up with a code so that you could monetize your affiliate codes. Back then you had to choose either Europe/Asia territory or the US. He came up with a dual country code so you didn't have to worry whether your reader was from Europe or Asia or America. So Kelly would hand it out to people, I would hand it out to people and teach them how to use it. I even wrote up this thing on affiliates for bloggers so that they could make money off affiliates."
A Balenciaga tube bag Snob Essentials is giving away.
How do you delegate responsibilities?
Tina: "Editorial is split in half. I handle PR and marketing and Kelly handles a lot of business, ad sales, business admin. Other than that, everything else is split equally. We share credit cards, we share bank accounts. Our husbands don't even have access to our shared bank account or credit card."
At what point did you realize you could expand beyond handbags?
Kelly: "We did beauty right away, probably the year after. And then from there we did couture, jewelry. We realized that our readers are interested in other areas of our lifestyle including recipes and cooking, everything down to kids."
Tina: "And then we brought all six blogs into one lifestyle website because it was very taxing to keep up six websites and it didn't really make sense to have these segregated readers. Last year we decided to pull all six blogs into one site called Snob Essentials. The essentials you need to live this certain lifestyle. It's not like we're snobs, being a snob just means a certain elevated taste level and it has nothing to do with your monetary or income level. Money is not indicative of good taste, so having snob taste just means that even if you have $10 to buy a new cup, you want the best cup you can find."
How do you handle receiving gifts from companies?
Tina: "That's always been an issue and for us, we've always been very transparent. We've never ever taken something in exchange for a positive review so that hasn't been an issue for us or our readers. There have been designers who have said to us, 'You don't like me one season, you'll like me next season, it's fine.' That's how you keep the authenticity in your voice, you can't like everything."
Kelly: "We're very upfront about receiving products. We say it's a consideration for an editorial, it's not an automatic editorial just because you send it to us. When people want to give us things of high value, that's when we really have to draw the line and say no, we can't accept those type of gifts."
What type of rules have you established for freebies?
Tina: "We don't really have a price range but you know if someone wanted to give us diamonds then we would have to think well why, what is their purpose. We've never accepted $12,000 diamonds but we gave away a pair of $12,000 diamond earrings. So we usually say 'why don't we give it away to our readers'. Right now we're doing a Balenciaga bag [giveaway]. Obviously we would love to have kept that bag but we're giving it away. For the giveaways we do have a value, we want it to be exciting for our reader. Usually our giveaways are at least $2,000. We've given away Hermès Birkins, we've given away Chanel bags. We've partnered up with Net-A-Porter, Shopbop, different brands to do giveaways."
Are there any bag trends you hate?
Kelly: "As soon as I say I hate something, a brand comes along that does it in a way that's totally cute and I love it. So it's hard for me to say I hate this one trend because it's really about how it's executed and if it's tastefully done, anything can be good. Right now, yes, this whole fringe trend is driving me crazy, but then I did see one that I thought you know, of course Jil Sander always manages to make anything tasteful."
Tina: "We really dislike anything that promotes fast food on a bag, I'll say that."
What challenges did you face when you first started the blog?
Tina: "Posting regularly. We were both new moms. And the challenge was coming up with a schedule: How do we delegate this? Now we have editorial meetings with our staff on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays so we know what to expect. We didn't know how to separate ourselves. I'd be working and yelling at her. The content wasn't a problem, it was how to get that content out there in a timely way."
What about now?
Kelly: "There's not enough time in the day. Now that we have the bag collection to work on, we have extra traveling to do. And my kids are getting bigger now, they have a lot more activities. It's difficult to balance work, family life, and personal life. Also, now we have a staff. Before, I could manage my own time and do things in the middle of the night, but now we have to keep everybody else's schedule in mind."
What lessons have you had to learn the hard way?
Tina: "At first, we actually had a rule of no gifts [because of an incident]. We had a brand that reached out to us saying that they had some gifts they wants to give away, so we said sure. Then, when the bags came, I called Kelly right away saying, 'Oh my god these are horrible, we have to give them back.' Kelly emailed the girl and said, 'these bags aren't really bags we felt comfortable giving away, however, we're happy to send them back to you.' And the next thing you know, the girl's calling me at home because I had to give away my number to receive the items, and leaving messages: 'How dare we, and our names are not even our names, obviously we're Asian from the look of it and we have Caucasian names.' She sent very harsh and severe emails and we kept asking her to stop. She wouldn't let it go. We were so distressed about it that we consulted with a group of bloggers and they told us to post it on the blog and make it public first so she can't do anymore crazy things. We posted her email on our site, and sent her a cease-and-desist from our attorney. In the end, we learned a huge lesson. Number one, don't give out your home phone and address, and number two, do not accept free gifts and do not agree to give away a bag unless you know the brand."
Where do you see the blog headed?
Tina: "We feel like e-commerce is where it's going. We already have this very strong niche audience so it's only natural now. We would like to do a multi-brand e-commerce.
Do you have advice for bloggers new to the game?
Kelly: "Always be passionate about what you are doing because what people are after is your authentic voice and if you don't have passion, your voice isn't going to be interesting to people. I would highly discourage people from starting a blog as a way to make money because all of the decisions you make are not going to be for the interest of other people and it's so obvious when your voice is not real."
Tina: "I always tell girls don't do this because you think it's gonna make you famous, do this because you really really love it. Don't worry about what other people are doing, just do your own thing."
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