It took donna lehtonen a long time to call herself a ‘product developer’. Initially she considered her company, No Sacrifice Bags Inc., as something between a vanity project and a hobby. The products evolved out of things she wanted to make for herself, based on her own needs. She soon discovered that she has a knack for designing winning solutions for common problems. In other words, she has a talent for developing products that sell.
It does sound materialistic: a line of products built around her own handbag collection, travel habits and expensive boots. Her flagship product is a purse organizer that comes in a variety of sizes that can easily caddy the guts of a handbag from one fashionable accessory to another. But, at the root of everything Donna does is a deep-seated need to care for the people and things that she has chosen to have in her life.
For most of her life Donna never envisioned herself as either creative or handy. Her first product, le Mobile®, is a luxury purse organizer. It, like the vast majority of her other inventions was born out of frustration. “I just couldn’t find anything that was nice enough.” Everything she tried was either functional but unattractive or attractive but not functional. “I hadn’t found one that was really working for me,” relates Donna.
So, “in 2008 I submitted a design for a purse organizer to Hermès, in Paris. I have to say, it was a little vanity project for me to design one and see if Hermès would accept to make it, because they won’t make everything. They’ll try to help a person out but, it has to be something they can do within their leather crafting shops.”
Donna couldn’t decide between colours for her organizer liners so she ended up with five iterations of her design, “and then the price was outrageous, and really out of reach for anyone.” Plus, it took a year and a half to receive the product.
By that point Donna had discovered something about herself: She really enjoyed the process of making something, going from concept to completion. At the same time, she couldn’t help but wonder if that organizer she had designed could be produced in a more economical way, without sacrificing its look, feel or quality.
After several failed attempts to perfect the pattern, she finally had what she wanted: a nice faux lambskin organizer that retails between $40 and $150, depending on size. That’s not bad for an accessory to handbags that retail for two to four thousand dollars. Donna’s le Mobile is a luxury product that is functional, beautiful and solidly constructed, with both a subtle elegance and a vibrant splash of gorgeous colour.
To make them, Donna had to agree to purchase a minimum order. Suddenly, on completing the project she realized that she needed to sell them. First, she needed to recoup at least some of the money she had sunk into it and second, she really didn’t need sixty purse organizers, so she marketed them through Etsy and on her website, nosacrificebags.com. “My biggest customers are women who have Louis Vitton bags. I don’t know how they find me. They’ll find me and buy them for their bags.”
So far, No Sacrifice Bags Inc. was a hobby. That is until she made her first sale. Donna was surprised by the rush of validation that came with discovering that somebody liked what she made enough to buy it. “I wasn’t looking for it and I didn’t think I needed it. I just thought I need to sell some of this because what am I going to do with it?”
After that Donna started wondering what other products she could come up with. She discovered a new purpose and started to look at the world with fresh eyes.
She stared looking for problems to be solved by products she could create. Turns out the answer lay in the lining of the le Mobile line. To get the colour she wanted she had to order a lot more material than she needed. At the same time, she knew from experience that leather purse straps are notorious for depreciating the value of a handbag if not handled with extreme care.
This led to Love Handles. The faux leather pads are available in a wide variety of each season’s fashion colours, blending into the look of a purse, discretely protecting its most vulnerable area: the handles. Turns out Donna was bang on with her analysis of her target demographic. Love Handles quickly became Donna’s biggest seller but she still had a lot of material left over and continued to look for other products to introduce, while at the same time introducing the hugely popular ultrasuede alternative to her initial handle savers.
The answer came with a sharp turn of a steering wheel. “Honestly, I should have known better. When I was twenty my boyfriend was killed as a result of distracted driving. Back then we never used the term ‘distracted driving’ but that’s what it was. Danny was a passenger in the van when the driver reached over to change the tape in the tape deck. He took his eyes off the road, went onto the shoulder and flipped the van.” Forty years later, the memory is still raw.
What brought it to the forefront again was an uncanny reminder. Donna, as so many other women do, uses the empty passenger seat beside her to rest her handbag as she drives. She was approaching one of those lights that you either run or break hard for and she decided to break. Naturally, the bag started to fly off the seat. She reached for it and accidentally swerved into the oncoming lane. By pure luck there was nobody else around. But it was a sobering moment. She realized right away that had another vehicle been in that spot at that time she would have gotten into a terrible accident and it would have been her fault, “and I thought: ‘well, I’m never going to do that again!’”
Donna’s brain went into overdrive, developing a solution to keep her bag from flying off her seat and her attention on the road. Suddenly, it dawned on her to use the extra lining material to create The Purse Snatcher; available in black, red and tan and retailing for $35. The Purse Snatcher attaches with ease to the car’s head rest, with no need to be removed when somebody uses the seat.
Donna’s husband Bob, a retired entrepreneur who was extremely successful in his own right, didn’t pay too much attention to what Donna was up to. He was happy that she found something she liked doing but didn’t take her away from home too much. “He’s supportive. He doesn’t take an active interest because it’s all handbag related. Well one day, he took one of the dogs to the vet when she was still a puppy and he put her on the front seat. And, of course she’s scampering around and then finally he decided to hook her onto The Purse Snatcher, so she couldn’t jump over into his lap when he was driving. He came home and said: ‘That thing you made, that’s pretty good. It actually kept the dog in the seat.’ Then he started telling people about it. That was the turning point when he felt: ‘Oh, this is something useful.’”
It is useful. That’s the deal with all of Donna’s products. She never starts out making something for somebody else. It’s always something she can’t find but needs for herself. Since coming up with The Purse Snatcher, she has used it for everything from purses to making sure her take-out food or grocery bag stays put.
It took Donna a long time to take herself seriously as a business owner and product developer. Now that she has the inventor bug though, there’s no stopping her and it’s a good thing. We can’t wait to see what she comes up with next.