Sonora-born entrepreneur reflects on success of her Sash Bag brand

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An entrepreneur and business owner who grew up in Sonora has generated millions in sales from her popular accessory known as the Sash Bag, but Nichole MacDonald, now 41 and a resident of San Diego, is considering her next career pivot into public service. 

“When I think back on everything I’ve gone through and everything I’ve created, one of the biggest takeaways for me is how transformational this journey has been,” she said. “You have to be willing to transform. Look at yourself, look at your faults and approach it from a transformational perspective.”

MacDonald’s foundational interest is one of community, she said, something she saw fostered in the nearly 70,000 customers of the Sash Bag. 

“These customers are extremely engaged and very loyal,” she said. “84% are repeat customers. Part of why the product is so great is it actually solves problems.”

And MacDonald’s seeking to solve problems, too, particularly in the areas of manufacturing, economy, environmental awareness and consumer habits.

Whether that means running for public office and generating legislation, or becoming an advocate and promoting public awareness, is unknown at this time. MacDonald is still the CEO of Sash Bag, and she’s seeking a departure point on the company’s profitable and proliferating trajectory. 

“I want to make the world work a little bit better,” she said. “I really want to get involved on a large scale.”

Part of that inspiration comes from MacDonald’s local roots, spending much of her youth, adolescence and young adulthood in Tuolumne County. 

MacDonald attended Curtis Creek Elementary School until fifth grade before transferring to Columbia Elementary School. She left for Wyoming during her freshman year of high school, but after she graduated she took her first job at The Union Democrat, doing graphic design.

She attended Columbia College for a single semester before deciding the collegiate path wasn’t for her.

After working at a magazine in Fresno for a bit, MacDonald then was off to San Diego, where she would reside for the next 21 years through the present day. She was a graphic coordinator at a kitchen electronics company for retail packaging and product design and worked in publishing.

“That’s how I learned a lot of what it took to launch my own product line,” she said.

MacDonald first launched Sash Bag in 2012, but the origin of her idea came at Legoland, a popular amusement park in Carlsbad.

“I just had one of those moments all women can relate to,” she said.

Her handbag — which she designed herself, the product of an earlier company — was a “bottomless pit.” She went back to her car to dump it out, and “the vision for the product just flashed in my head.”

“I wanted a solution to the ridiculous handbag situation for my entire life,” she said. 

The next day, MacDonald and her friend made one. It was a rudimentary design compared to what came later and held together with velcro, but three people stopped her that night to ask about it. 

MacDonald spent two years making sure this idea would work. Not like the previous handbag company, she said, which left her financially, emotionally and physically devastated. 

She called focus groups and did small production runs, asking for feedback along the way about the variability of the product and how much customers were willing to pay. 

The Sash Bag is a hybrid purse that hangs at the side and wraps diagonally across the body of the user. Arranged with 10 pockets and designed with tassels, snakeskin or leather, they resemble a satchel crossed with the crescent-shaped bota bag. They’re marketed toward men and women on the move, managing their makeup just as often as their passport. 

Prices range from $50 to $189.99.

She launched the company in 2012, earning six figures in sales. By 2016, sales were in the multi-millions.

Now, she is just below $15 million in sales total, she said. The company has sold a total of 150,000 units. 

The COVID-19 pandemic shut down manufacturing, which is in India, for 10 months, but the “pause and reset” allowed MacDonald to reevaluate the future of the company and consider a restructuring. 

The company is closing out an equity crowdfunding campaign from public and private contributors and has so far raised $800,000 to help grow the company.

“We want this to be the next Ugg Boot,” MacDonald said.

It helped, then, to have an advisor and investor in Brian Smith, founder of Ugg Boots and their ubiquitous and characteristic sheepskin-styled shoe. Smith has been involved with Sash Bags since 2015 and assisted with manufacturing challenges, continuing on as a mentor and personal friend of MacDonald through the current. 

The restructuring plan is tailored for the business to grow faster and fund production on a rolling basis because, as of now, the business has relied on pre-orders and crowd-funding programs. Public investment lasts until Aug. 13 and with a $100, people can buy shares in the company when they go public.

But that’s still in the future, MacDonald said, and something that’s not anticipated to happen under her stead.

With rolling inventory, MacDonald expects growth to increase by 700% over the next two years. From there, she hopes the company will be acquired and the new ownership will take the company public.

She already has planned someone to take over as chief operating officer and president in 2022. She’ll stay on as CEO and founder, but will have more time to focus on her strengths and delegate administrative duties, she said.

On the side, MacDonald’s continuing work as an ontological life coach (she teaches people how to become life coaches) and is writing a book on business which she characterized as an alternative to the trendy “Girl Boss” philosophy. 

The book’s planned title is “Boss-ish: A Business Book for the Rest of Us.”

“I always found the other stuff to be corny. That’s not what business is like. I’m more interested in authenticity,” she said.

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