As a lover of both books and quality bags, Gnome & Bow’s founder, Quanda Ong, naturally chose to combine the two when he first started his brand. Image courtesy of Gnome & Bow.
For many of us, books have been a part of our life since our childhood days. But as we grow older, and with the rise of technology and the Internet, reading has since taken a backseat in many of our lives. We might be too busy to read for leisure, perhaps preferring to pore over news articles instead, or simply have too short an attention span these days. But no matter what or how often we read, we’d all have our favorite stories that we hold dear, whether it’s a childhood fable like The Tortoise and the Hare, a classic like The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or something a little more lighthearted like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
Of course, it’s always nice to pick up a book and revisit old favorites from time to time, but wouldn’t it be interesting if we could carry tangible bits of these stories around with us on the daily? No, we don’t mean lugging physical books around—we’re talking about telling these stories through our outfits and accessories.
Such was the inspiration behind Gnome & Bow, a Singapore-based quality leather goods company founded by ex-banker, Quanda Ong, via a crowdfunding campaign. Built upon the belief that bags and wallets should spark a sense of imagination, wonder, and adventure while also remaining classic, stylish, and functional, Quanda’s unique bags and accessories are all inspired by specific stories like Gulliver’s Travels and The Three Musketeers. Each subtle element in his products are carefully crafted to portray a certain character or theme in these stories, and come together beautifully to tell the story in a whimsical way.
Though the brand was born and bred in Singapore, Quanda has always had big hopes for Gnome & Bow, and set his sights on expanding globally. He’s previously dipped his toes into other Asian countries like Japan, and even further west like Sweden, where he’s been sourcing for distributors and finding a sustainable way to reach out to customers in foreign regions. Recently, he’s had his sights set on America, and thought that a good platform to kickstart his journey there would be none other than Amazon.com.
Here, we speak to Quanda about his experience starting and building up a brand of his own, and his journey as an Amazon Global Seller.
In Gnome & Bow’s Tortoise and the Hare collection, customers get to unzip the race between the hare and the tortoise with two separate zips—one with a tortoise motif, and one with a hare motif—from the starting line on one side of the bag to the finishing line on the other side. Image courtesy of Gnome & Bow.
1. We understand that you left your job in banking to start Gnome & Bow. What was it that gave you the push to make this career switch?
Back when I was still working in banking, I needed a good quality briefcase for work. I was looking for something that wasn’t just functional, but also looked sharp with a unique design flair as well, so I tried to search through different stores for the perfect briefcase that would meet my needs.
Back then, one of my favorite brands was Paul Smith, so I was eyeing their briefcases, but with it being a designer brand, their stuff doesn’t come cheap. I couldn’t see myself spending SGD$900 on a briefcase, and found myself thinking “Hey, I can design a better one, and at a more affordable price”. So that’s how I first started thinking about entering the bag business. Prior to that, I already had a general interest in fashion, so this sudden thought of designing my own bags really got me thinking about jumping into the fashion industry full-time. So I would say it was more of my love for fashion that gave me the push to make this career switch.
Each of Gnome & Bow's products are made with 100% full-grain leather, which is the strongest and most durable type of leather. Image courtesy of Gnome & Bow.
Of course, before committing to starting up Gnome & Bow, it was also important for me to make sure that the business side of things made sense. One part of this was deciding on a unique selling point (USP), while the other was ensuring the scalability of the business. For the USP, I always had the idea of infusing a story into my designs. There are so many different stories out there, which means that there are unlimited design ideas and possibilities, and would thus be a great way to scale the business gradually. So that’s basically how Gnome & Bow came to be what it is today.
2. Another USP about Gnome & Bow’s products is the use of radio-frequency identification (RFID) blocking lining in your products. Can you tell us more about how this works?
RFID technology is very common these days, and can be found in things like our contactless credit cards and passports in the form of RFID chips. What these chips do is that they’re embedded into our cards and passports, and they contain our personal information. So what the RFID lining in our bags does is that it basically blocks out these radio wave frequencies and prevents people from stealing information from the cards and passports that are in our bags.
3. Apart from this RFID lining, are there any other ways in which you’ve designed your products with special features and functionalities to improve customers’ lives?
Yeah we have! For example, we have a collection that’s inspired by Gulliver’s Travels, which is all about the tiny and mighty details that really make a difference. One of them is the RFID lining that was previously mentioned, and the other more notable one is that the bags in this collection all come with an inbuilt slot for your SIM card and SIM card pin. This is so that when you travel and have to switch SIM cards, you’ll know exactly where to find your original one.
Another feature in this collection is what our customers like to call the secret compartment, which is a small, hidden compartment for things like coins and other loose items. More recently, we’ve been getting feedback from customers saying that it’s a great size for storing Apple AirTags, which is helpful in case they lose their bags or wallets.
The Gulliver’s Travels wallet features a nifty SIM card and pin slot for frequent travelers. Image courtesy of Gnome & Bow.
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4. On the topic of design, what is your usual design process like, and where do you gather ideas to solve design-related problems from?
The design process definitely varies from product to product, and even across collections. In Gnome & Bow’s early days, I think it took us about a year to a year and a half to go from the ideation stage to the final product launch. Because our designs are inspired by stories, every collection is like a new story. So what we do is we start to brainstorm for potential stories that we think would resonate with our customers, and then from there, we start to think about what kind of design elements we can add to help tell the story through our bags and wallets. And then finally, we’ll begin designing the actual product and testing it out to see whether it fits into our customers’ lifestyles, or meets their needs.
Early design sketches of Gnome & Bow’s classic Tortoise and The Hare briefcase. Images courtesy of Gnome & Bow.
When it comes to solving design-related problems, we rely a lot on customer feedback. We try to ask them for their thoughts on our products, as well as what they hope to see from us via annual surveys. We also track whether they are having issues with quality, or whether the usability of our products is shortened because of certain stress points on the bag or the wallet, and then we try to enhance that in future iterations of our designs. Yeah, it’s really a lot of getting feedback from customers, and always going back to them and asking them what else they’re looking for that isn’t already available in other stores or brands.
5. Though Gnome & Bow first started out as a Singapore-based brand, we understand that you’ve since explored other avenues of reaching out to international customers. In your experience, do you have any tips on building up an international brand?
I think there’s always a big debate on whether one should first focus on the local pool of customers, or go straight to targeting global customers and dive into a market that is more sizeable. Having dabbled in both, I think that first building up your brand locally is very important, because it really helps you to sort out the kinks that you have in a landscape that you’re more familiar with. So I would say if you’re just starting out, it’s good to focus on local customers for one or two years, but always keep your eyes on the global market.
When you start to expand overseas, other issues will begin to surface, especially when it comes to logistics and marketing, so it will definitely help to have solved other internal design-related issues beforehand. For us, we've explored both overseas distributorships, which involves a geographic partner covering a specific region or country, and wholesaling models, which involves selling in bulk to retailers at a discounted price so that they can still make a profit when selling our items at retail price.
The benefit of distributorships is that we can reach and sell our products to a large audience quickly by tapping on distributors' network, but the setbacks are that margins are low, and we would have to sell exclusively in that particular region or country. On the other hand, the benefit of wholesaling is that we can leave the marketing, sales, and order fulfillment responsibilities to the retailer, but the tradeoff is that margins are lower. Of course, with direct-to-consumer models, this would be the opposite. We have to do everything from marketing to fulfillment and post-purchase services like gathering feedback and handling defects.
That said, it can take quite a while to prepare to go global as a brand, and it might even take a few tries before success is achieved. For us, this is our second attempt at embarking on this Amazon Global Selling Journey, but I would say that now, as a brand, we’re more mature, and we know what it takes to grow on Amazon, particularly in the US.
Gnome & Bow’s Amazon Global storefront highlights some of their bestselling products, like their Tortoise and The Hare briefcase, as well as their editorial features. Images courtesy of Gnome & Bow.
One of the biggest game changers for Gnome & Bow now at least is having a dedicated account manager who really helps us and guides us along the way to make sure that we’re doing things right to avoid double work and delays on the logistics side of things. Our account manager also helps us with our ad spend and A+ Content, which is a premium content feature that allows sellers to change product descriptions of their branded Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN) by using rich text and images, to make sure everything is at its best, and allowed us to put our best foot forward when we launched.
Once you’ve tested your ideas locally, sorted out the main kinks in your designs, and have determined a good product-market fit, then you should immediately go into a global scaling mindset.
Quanda OngFounder of Gnome & Bow
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6. What is the significance of listing Gnome & Bow on Amazon.com? Is there anything in particular about the platform that you appreciate or have found helpful?
For every kind of business, whether it’s a brick and mortar, or an online store, marketing tools are very important. Some of the tools that we’re currently using are Sponsored Products, which utilizes keywords to help us convert our warm audience. This is very important, because ultimately, we really want to be able to convert as many customers, who are already wanting to buy our products at a low cost, as we can. Besides that, A+ Content is a tool that we value a lot, because our products are not homogenous commodities. We want to have the avenue and means to differentiate ourselves from other brands and products out there, so A+ Content really helps to establish Gnome & Bow as an original, quality designer bag and wallet brand. We’ve also just started exploring Amazon Vine, which is where trusted Amazon reviewers are invited to test out and leave reviews on new products.
Apart from these Amazon tools, we’re also looking forward to using affiliate marketing tools that will help us work with content creators to refer traffic and sales within Amazon. There are a lot more tools we would like to explore, but we are still at the infancy stage as an Amazon Global Seller, so perhaps in due time.
The way I see Amazon.com now is that it’s one of the quickest and most efficient ways of selling to the US. Millions of US customers are using it, which makes it easy to target and reach them as an Amazon Global Seller. I’m also very positive about the various marketing tools that are available on Amazon that can help us to further grow the business.
Quanda OngFounder of Gnome & Bow
7. In your experience, how do you feel Amazon helps small brands to be seen and heard in the US?
On the marketing side, Amazon.com, being a store with millions of US customers, helps us to have a captive audience of people who have purchasing power. This is especially helpful for small brands looking to break into the US, because when you’re far away in Singapore, for instance, trying to market to US customers is a lot harder, and would definitely require a lot more money and effort. So I would say the Amazon.com global store really brings brands closer to customers, and the insights available within help brands to further understand these customers. It’s almost like a business package I would say. Customers are trying to find something that you offer, and you’re trying to find someone that wants to buy your products at a particular price.
For Gnome & Bow, Amazon.com is currently our only sales channel in the US, but we’re very optimistic about it because of the opportunities offered and the way business is conducted in the store. In fact, one of our products listed on Amazon.com got more than a million views when we launched—the scale of the US is huge! Of course, we’re still a relatively new Amazon Global Seller, but we hope that our sales on the store can grow to become 50% of our total sales volume as a brand within the next year.
Apart from incorporating functional features like pockets and compartments, Gnome & Bow’s products have aesthetic features as well like this classic quote from The Three Musketeers embossed on Gnome & Bow’s Milady Continental wallet. Image courtesy of Gnome & Bow.
When it comes to selling products in the US, the first major problem that hits businesses is logistics. How do I ship products there at a reasonable rate? If I’m shipping single orders separately to the States, it’s going to cost quite a significant amount. For us Amazon Global Sellers, Fulfillment By Amazon (FBA) solves this problem by being a one-stop-shop for us to operate our businesses on the logistics side.
8. We understand that being a part of Amazon and selling Gnome & Bow’s products in other countries got you thinking about how businesses need to focus on hero products. Can you elaborate a bit more on this?
When Gnome & Bow first started out, we started with a small collection, and then as time grew, we increased the number of designs that we had because we thought that this would help us to boost revenue and gain more customers, and keep existing customers excited and engaged. But with that, a lot more costs are involved in terms of marketing and inventory management.
I think one of the biggest things that we learned from being on Amazon.com is how having a hero product and being focused in your branding is very important, because the 80-20 rule is real and applies to most, if not all businesses. Basically, what this means is that we see 80% of our revenue generated from 20% of our products. That being said, from a commercial point-of-view, it’s better to have fewer products, but sell more of them.
9. On that note, what’s your favorite Gnome & Bow product or design to date?
I think my favorite product would have to be our very first collection that’s inspired by the story of The Tortoise and The Hare. The bag in this collection has two compartments—one just for your laptop, and one for everything else, so it really makes traveling and getting through security much easier, and it also protects your laptop well.
Right now, everyone is very tech-savvy and uses some sort of tech product, so having a protective, functional bag is very important. The question then becomes how to create a bag that looks beautiful but still has that kind of functionality? So that’s how the idea of having two zippers—one with the hare and one with the tortoise—came about. I thought about the image of the hare and the tortoise racing, and I wanted to make it fun and quirky, but at the same time, very functional. So that was the genesis of the brand and how Gnome & Bow started many years ago, so this bag remains very dear to me. It’s also the product that I enjoy sharing with customers the most.
10. With things like leather goods and products, customers might prefer to touch and feel pieces before committing to a purchase. Given how online customers won’t get to have this experience, what is the difference in the brand experience journey that Gnome & Bow curates for online and walk-in customers at your flagship store at Tagore Industrial Ave and your local stockist, Design Orchard?
Gnome & Bow’s flagship store at Tagore Industrial Ave. Image courtesy of Gnome & Bow.
For our online customers, we rely on strong visuals, informative descriptions, benefit-driven messaging, and customer reviews to create a reliable shopping experience. At our physical stores, we try our best to provide walk-in customers with great customer service, and an immersive in-store experience. Most of the time, we see walk-in customers convert to paying customers when they get to feel the quality of our bags and test out their functionality firsthand.
At the end of the day, I feel like brands that wish to engage customers in a meaningful way have to be omnichannel for two main reasons—to allow customers to shop on the channel that they prefer, and to increase the number of touch points that help drive conversions. What’s also valuable is creating a seamless experience between these online and offline channels to offer customers convenience and a more personalized shopping experience. A physical tactile experience is that final push for customers to purchase, whether online or offline.
To create an immersive shopping experience for both walk-in and online customers, Gnome & Bow packages each order or purchase carefully and thoughtfully in book-themed boxes that correspond to each of their available collections. Images courtesy of Gnome & Bow.
11. Over the many years that you’ve been running Gnome & Bow, what are some of the bigger lessons that you’ve learnt?
Wow, there’s a lot of them. I think the first is to not try to do everything alone. I’ve learnt the hard way that it’s always best to hire people who are better than you at certain things, like marketing or logistics, and to try to outsource work to agencies who are the experts as soon as possible, or as soon as you start making a profit. This really saves a lot of time and money in the long run. I know for many entrepreneurs, it’s very hard to outsource work in the beginning because most of us start off bootstrapped. Of course, if you’ve got a lot of funding and are just wondering where to spend your money, then that’s a different case. But either way, it’s one of the more important things to consider.
Besides that, I’ve also learnt that finding the right product-customer fit should be a top priority in the brand’s early years. This will really help entrepreneurs to gain focus on what you should be doing and what you should be saying no to. This is crucial, because opportunities will always come your way, so it’s important to know what to take on, and what to save your energy on, because this will make all the difference in the long run.
12. Do you have any final tips for other entrepreneurs who are looking to build up their brands, or who are going through the challenge of balancing the creative and business side of things?
That’s a tough one. I think personally, if I could do it all over again, I would choose to gather some co-founders rather than starting and running the brand solo, because it’s really, really hard. Loneliness and stress aside, things get really tough when you only have one head. Two, or even three heads are definitely better than one, so if you can, and if you’re lucky enough to find like-minded individuals who have complementary skillsets, please work with them, because it will help you grow your business much quicker, and perhaps avoid mistakes that more pairs of eyes can spot.
On the creative versus business side of things, it’s quite hard to attain a perfect balance, especially when you’re a creative, because you tend not to think about things commercially. When I started, I thought I was doing a good job on the more technical business side, but now, 10 years into the business, I don’t think I balanced it well enough in hindsight. To tackle this, I would say the best advice that I can give is to put yourself out there and mingle with like-minded individuals who are also entrepreneurs, or who are more experienced in handling a business and learn from them. I think that’s very important. So if you have the opportunity to learn from people who have done it before, you’ll realize that it’s one of the best things that you can have.
13. Can you share about any milestones in your journey so far, and how you hope Gnome & Bow will continue to grow in the next five years?
In 2021, Gnome & Bow officially became a Made With Passion brand—this is a government-led initiative highlighting Singaporean brands that represent excellence, innovation and growth. This is something we’re really proud of, and it’s also benefitted us because since then, we’ve gotten multiple media features, collaborated with other local brands, and a saw a boost in sales opportunities.
As for how else we hope to grow, we firstly hope to grow our direct-to-consumer sales volume to 80% from its current 50%. To do so, our focus will definitely be on building a converting webstore that offers the best brand experience. Apart from that, we also aim to grow our business in the USA so that it makes up at least 50% of our total revenue.