Photograph by Gabriela Hasbun
When Coral Chung and Wendy Wen met at
a friend’s birthday party in March 2013, they
began a conversation that eventually led to
a remarkable question: Could the same lean
startup principles often used to launch high-tech enterprises also work when launching
a direct-to-consumer luxury goods company?
At the time, Chung, a 2011 Stanford GSB
graduate, was a strategy consultant who’d
advised Fortune 500 companies on retail
strategy for luxury brands. Wen, an investor
at TPG focusing on equity investments in tech
and retail, had just been accepted at Stanford
GSB and would graduate in 2015.
But both had an entrepreneurial itch, and
both had noticed a disconnect between luxe
brands and millennials. Why didn’t high-end handbags include space for laptops and
tablets, for example, when so many powerful
women rely on those tools to do business?
And how could they keep the price
low enough to appeal to younger buyers?
The answer, they found, was to bypass
the traditional retail system and, to keep
costs down, sell their line of light weight,
versatile bags direct to consumers. The only
problem: Neither had any direct-to-consumer
They incubated their idea in Chung’s
garage and developed t wo Italian-made
handbag styles priced at $895. By March 2016,
they’d raised $1.3 million in funding
from angel investors and partners, and in
November that year they launched Senreve,
a company whose name blends the French
words for “sense” and “dream.” Chung is the
CEO, Wen the COO, and together they now
oversee more than a dozen full- and part-time
employees and interns.
They’ve since expanded the line to include
five handbags and four accessory products,
which now are sold in select Nordstrom
stores. They opened an appointment-only
showroom in San Francisco’s Union Square
area in February.
Help us understand this “disconnect” you
saw bet ween millennials and the luxury
Wen: Most luxe handbags are designed for
an aristocratic woman who isn’t working,
but rather lunching and planning charity
events. That’s a very different lifestyle from
a modern millennial who has the income
but is working, maybe as a partner at a law
firm. She’s multidimensional and juggling
a million things, but she still loves elegance
and quality. For her, a handbag is more
than an accessory. It needs to be her home
away from home.
Chung: She’s traveling, commuting, and she
needs something that transitions seamlessly
from a meeting, to the gym, to cocktails and
dinner. It’s not so much an age thing as a
But what convinced you that your target
buyers were willing to pay $895 for a
Wen: We’re actually quite disruptive from the
price standpoint. Some big-brand bags sell for
as high as $3,500 to $5,000.
Chung: The Louis Vuittons, Chanels, and
Pradas are all well above $1,000. But because
we sell direct to consumers, we can offer
What helped you attract investors?
Chung: They were impressed we were taking
the lean startup approach and applying it to
something that traditionally doesn’t operate
that way. We did a lot of legwork, so that by
the time we launched we were confident we’d
Wen: We weren’t satisfied with the
traditional fashion product rollout model.
Usually the product is a work of art created
by a creative director, then showcased
for retailers. But we wanted to t weak that
methodology. We applied the things we’d
learned — to first test our hypotheses and
roll out the products while tweaking and
integrating and improving. Traditional
fashion companies can’t do that because they
first have to be taken seriously by retailers.
It’s like throwing spaghetti against the
wall and seeing what sticks. Investors liked
that we planned to launch with a focused
set of products.
What proved to be the biggest challenges in
trying a direct-to-consumer approach?
Wen: You have to figure out distribution and
get word out to customers, and we had to learn
a lot of tactical things to make that happen.
We learned how to do guerrilla marketing,
how to set up a shipping and fulfillment
center, what times of day they shop, and how
to tell our story in ways that will get customers
excited about us. Now it’s about managing
demand. We’ve grown a lot faster and bigger
than anticipated and have really been working
on getting products from Italy. A lot of direct-to-consumer companies worry about how
to identify and acquire customers. For us,
we know exactly who our customers are and
how to reach them, so it’s much more about
keeping up with the demand.
You’ve said testing and iteration were
Chung: You need a direct relationship with
your customers, so we took a feedback-oriented
approach. For example, on our website we
noticed a lot of people purchase our bags as
gifts. So we added complimentary gift wrap.
Those types of insights come because we’re
close to our customers.
Can you give specific examples of how you
applied the lean startup approach when you
created the company?
Chung: We had a stealth beta site up three
months before we launched and had about
a thousand people signed up for that to give
us feedback before our actual launch. We
did many rounds of prototyping, testing
everything from materials and designs to
price points and imagery. We’re also scrappy,
especially in the beginning when we worked
out of my house and garage. In some ways we
looked like a traditional Stanford or Silicon
How do you prioritize when you have limited
Wen: I force myself to come up with three
How a handbag company used
startup-garage tactics to market directly
to multidimensional women.
BY MARTIN J. SMITH