by PATRICIA O’DELL | photos by TOM STYRKOWICZ
Can you smell the ocean? Feel the sand between your toes? Maybe hear the rhythm of the waves? Lina Dickinson and Melanie Bolin, founders of Mer-Sea, a line of products inspired by the sea can, even when they are home in Kansas City.
“We are travelers,” says Bolin. “Sometimes we are actually traveling and sometimes we are just tapping into that mindset.” Business partners for over five years, both women lived in California before moving to Kansas City for their husbands’ careers. Once they were settled and had their children in the groove of school and activities, they realized that they had similar dreams.
Bolin and Dickinson were interested in starting a business and both still felt a strong connection to the ocean, though they were happily planted in the Midwest. They agreed that the sea would be their muse. It may have seemed a curious plan for partners who were landlocked.
“One of our biggest advantages is that we are not by a beach,” says Bolin. “That gives us the gift of focus.”
The friends remember how elementary starting the business was. With backgrounds in product development, business, and sales, they had solid skills and experience. The creative essence of the company was built on instinct. They began developing scents, testing formulas, and making decisions about packaging. Then they began to market.
“It makes me laugh now,” says Bolin. “We didn’t even have an accountant then, and I was processing orders. I wasn’t even using a ledger. I just had this notebook and I’d write down the 24 orders and cross them off one by one as we filled them.”
Specialty retailers began to find Mer-Sea through their website and word of mouth. Soon there was an accountant and significantly more than 24 orders. The business was growing and Mer-Sea hired sales reps to handle their nationwide accounts. Then they had a big surprise.
“Anthropologie found us,” says Dickinson. “It wasn’t in our vision that we were ready for that.”
In fact, the upscale, cool-girl boutique with stores nationwide sought them out and wanted them to develop a collection exclusively for the brand.
“Anthropologie is known for building small businesses,” say Bolin. “We have ongoing storylines with them, and they have really raised the bar on creativity for us.”
As the business enters its sixth year, the partners talk of Mer-Sea like another child.
“We talk about it growing up,” says Bolin. “In the beginning, everything that happened was perfect, like a baby’s first smile.” “Then we hit the terrible twos,” she remembers, laughing.
“But even now, as the business is older, it’s still like parenting. We are learning to let go. We have to let other people do their thing.”
Each woman is grateful to have the collaboration.
“Our desks are side-by-side. We text each other in the evenings. It works so well to have two people involved in the decision-making process. One may hesitate and the other can see that we are ready,” says Bolin.
“The dialogue moves us forward,” Dickinson agrees.
“Sometimes when we’re busy and both on the phones, Lina will just push her chair back and say, ‘This is awesome!’ It’s a great energy,” says Bolin.
Dickinson admits that there are challenges.
“Balance is difficult. It takes so much time and energy. Whatever I have left goes to my family, so my poor friends get shortchanged. Sometimes I’m not sure if I have any friends left, “ she says, laughing.
She is, however, adapting.
“I didn’t know if there would ever be a time when I wasn’t involved with everything. But, as we have grown, I have been able to let amazing people around me take things off my plate.”
The partners – and the business – continue to move forward. As Mer-Sea grows, Bolin and Dickinson understand that expansion may come in different directions.
“Some of it people tell you – what they want to see – either verbally or through sales,” says Bolin.
While Mer-Sea has been successful in fragrance and home goods, the company is expanding the travel mindset to include soft goods like a broader line of travel wraps, new bags, and jewelry.
“We’re starting to have conversations about where that may take us,” says Dickinson.
Still, the devil is in the details. Bolin is responsible for product design and she’s focused – and excited – by small details that make the products stand out. It’s important to both women that they are constantly learning, doing interesting things, and engaged in the world around them. They are creating product for people who see the world in the same way.
“We are discovering new things, seeing what is possible that a short time ago wasn’t in our view,” says Bolin. “It’s a traveler’s mindset.” .
To find Mer-Sea products at retailers near you or to shop online, visit mersea.com.