Interview with Marie Callan, Founder and CEO of URBAG®

Find out how Marie Callan was inspired to launch URBAG®, the garment bag that takes the plastic out of dry cleaning.

What’s your career background?

I’ve spent decades working in sustainability and profit-for-purpose companies throughout Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa. I also had the chance to work for the Financial Times for seven years, which was very formative and inspiring. We fostered discussions with industry leaders and social enterprises on sustainability, circular economy and social impacts just as society started to be aware of the environmental impacts of the current business landscape.

I then jumped into the entrepreneurial world myself to help lead change in the field, and co-founded a start-up tackling packaging in the e-commerce delivery space. Then I launched URBAG®!

How did your career change after having children?

I was working for my first start-up at the time, with the 10-to-15-hour days that goes with setting-up a business on that scale. The career change was rather drastic as soon as I announced my pregnancy to my co-founders. I took a short maternity leave, but at the time, we were also facing huge complications.

The uncertainty of new rules and taxes post-Brexit really complicated our business. We ended up deciding to close the UK entity. I stepped down and let my co-founders take over the business from the other side of the channel.

I finished my maternity leave and decided to take some time to think about my next steps.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

After many trips to our local dry-cleaner, I was frustrated with the chore of it. It just wasn’t easy and convenient. I had to carry the bag I used to drop off my husband’s dry cleaning around with me all day because I couldn’t leave it at my dry-cleaner, and I didn’t want it to go to waste.

Then I had to bring home our clothes with these ugly single-use plastic covers, just to throw them in the bin as soon as I was arrived home. What a waste. Surely, there could be a better way. 

Almost everyone was using a bag to drop off their dirty clothes at the dry-cleaners. Everyone also had a suit garment bag at home, but no one was bringing it with them to the dry-cleaner.

My eureka moment was when I thought two bags could be combined into one solution. URBAG® is a duffel bag that unfolds into a high-capacity garment bag! I started looking for similar products and solutions on all e-commerce websites and search engines. Nothing. This is when I knew that there was an opportunity to fill this gap in the market.

How did you move from idea to actual business?

I took a small piece of bed sheet and started to figure out how my new combo bag could work. I had to think about making it functional, easy to use and hygienic. I was looking after my baby all day long at the time, and so I spent many evenings and nights working away. A

s the idea developed, I started to make prototypes. I went on a sewing course and borrowed a sewing machine from some friends. With the prototype almost finished; I asked a tailor to help finalise the details with me. I sourced fabric and all the necessary materials and researched small local manufacturer to run the first batch. In the meantime, I managed to obtain the UKIPO and the EUIPO design patent, and from that point, the adventure became very real.

Luckily, a new local dry-cleaner was looking for an alternative to plastic. They loved the idea and supported URBAG® from day one. This was an important milestone for me, as they were great at promoting the solution with their clients, and became a strategic partner, helping me develop the idea further. 

What’s your USP?

URBAG® is first-to-market garment and duffle bag combo, with a UKIPO and EUIPO design protection. 

It is also the only stylish, convenient, reusable and zero-waste garment bag for dry-cleaning available on the market right now, worldwide.

Who’s your target audience?

Most of our clients are men. I suppose that is because they usually tend to bring their shirts and suits to the dry-cleaner more often than women. Generally speaking, they all wear a suit for work most days, and are between 25 and 50 years old.

How do you spread the word about what you do?

We are just starting to communicate about URBAG® now, since people are slowly starting to go back to work. Until now, our dry-cleaning partners were our main sponsors by speaking to clients directly and gathering feedback and thoughts. We are now developing our PR and social media strategies, as well as ad campaigns.

What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?

Covid, which has been such a big obstacle for so many other businesses. The past three years have been busy to say the least. Setting up a business and having two children amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic has been a real challenge. No childcare and being stuck at home adds to the already intense pace of start-up life.

But we turned this obstacle into an opportunity. Our main dry-cleaning partner suggested to go ahead with a soft launch to test the market as people had more time to chat in-store, and the staff had just a few clients a day.

The second biggest obstacle is behaviour change, from both the customers and laundry industry standpoint. Customers are actually ready and understand the importance of bringing their own bag to their dry-cleaners. We then had to prove demand from customers, and highlight the current and future plastic tax about to be implemented by the UK to push dry-cleaners and the laundry factories to get ahead of the change.

And your proudest moment so far?

I’m so proud of how far URBAG® has come. It really has been a labour of love. From what started as me and my sewing machine at the kitchen table, we’ve since created a product and a brand that is pioneering sustainability in the fashion and laundry industries.

On a more general, sustainability-focused note, there has never been a more critical time to reduce the amounts of single-use plastic we are using. At URBAG® we hope to inspire more people and businesses to make conscious choices in their daily life to reduce their waste and invest in products that last a lifetime.

Why is work so important to you?

Work gives me a purpose. I do it for my children, so they can live in a better world. I hope that my work through URBAG® shows we can fight plastic pollution through innovative product design and that zero-waste products don’t mean compromising on luxury.

Who inspires you?

Sarah Blakely, Joy Mangano, Madam C.J. Walker, amongst other entrepreneurs and change makers. All three women invented one product that they designed, prototyped and sold themselves at the beginning. They went through the ups and the downs; they kept going against all odds; they believed in themselves when nobody else did; they had to face gender inequality and machoism; and they all had a lucky break at some point.

When I doubt myself, I think of their perseverance and keep going.

How do you balance your work with your family?

It was difficult at the beginning with no childcare and 2 babies under 2! When my youngest arrived in April 2020, I decided to take a step back for a few months to preserve my mental health. I was burning out trying to do everything, and quickly realised that I needed to make a change until some sort of normality resumes. 

Today, I make sure to work efficiently throughout the day, and fully dedicate myself to my family in the evening. I make sure I am fully present, enjoying family time when I am with them. 

What are the three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?

My first advice is to take your time to fully research the market (target audience, sales channels, pricing strategy, competition, supply chain and value chain) and assess if and how big the need for your product is, and what you will need to do to make it profitable. Do this before you invest in large sums in the project. That said, you don’t need the perfect solution straight away.

It’s very likely that the shape and purpose of your solution will change as customers give you feedback. As Guy Kawasaki says in his Ted Talk, ‘Don’t Worry, Be Crappy’. Do throughout market research but don’t wait for it to be perfect. The market will guide you as you go.

Secondly, if you can have a balance between launching a new start-up and keeping an income stream on a side, that will be ideal. This will take pressure off your shoulders and give you the time to fully research and grow your business slowly. 

Finally, if you are a sole founder and have invented a solution to change an industry or change the world, it’s important not to go alone. Gather some friends and external advisors and form an Advisory Committee, who will be committed to brainstorm ideas with you and discuss solutions and avenues on a regular basis. It can be very lonely and overwhelming to be a sole founder. 

Find out more about URBAG®.