Six years ago, Melanie Bolin and Lina Dickinson decided to start a business together.
At the time, both women were stay-at-home moms who wanted to go back to work — but this time, for themselves. They set out with their own money and an idea for an inspirational paper goods company, but changed course when they discovered that they really wanted to make scented candles and soft goods such as sweaters and wraps.
Their company, Mer-Sea & Co., is now making waves in the business world. According to an annual ranking by Inc.com, it was the fastest-growing company in Kansas in 2018, with $6.6 million in revenue and year-over-year growth of 1,750 percent.
Interestingly, Inc.com named another KC-area maker-founded business, Nickel & Suede, as the fastest-growing company in Missouri last year. That Liberty-based company known for leather earrings and accessories pulled in $4.1 million in revenue and grew a staggering 3,101 percent in 2018.
On a recent Friday morning, Bolin and Dickinson moved pillowy piles of soft sweaters from the conference table in their office and sat down to talk about how they built an international ocean-inspired brand in the middle of the Midwest.
“It’s always been a progression, a journey,” Bolin says. “And I can tell you most of it was not planned. It was being at the right place at the right time and talking to the right people.”
Bolin, who has a background in product development with brands such as Mattel, and Dickinson, who previously wrote a lifestyle blog that focused on topics such as food and wellness, met when their kids attended St. Paul’s Episcopal Day School in Kansas City.
The women shared a lot in common: Both were active at the school and in their community, and both had spent years living in California. Their coastal connection is the inspiration behind Mer-Sea & Co.’s beachy brand.
“We wanted to focus on something that felt coastal,” Bolin says.
They came up with scents and products that would mentally transport their customers to faraway places. Their first candle scent, Saltaire, smells like the sea, with hints of citrus, jasmine and bamboo. It’s still their bestseller.
In the beginning, Bolin and Dickinson would pour the candles themselves. Now they have 25 full-time employees and a manufacturing facility attached to their office in Lenexa. When we visited, Mer-Sea & Co. employees were busy pouring evergreen-scented holiday candles into gleaming silver containers. The seasonal candles will soon be sold at Anthropologie stores across the country.
Mer-Sea & Co. products — which also include body lotions and scrubs, diffusers, beach blankets and bags — are made by employees in Lenexa and by the company’s partners in countries such as Equador, France, Morocco and India. They’re sold online at mersea.com and in stores across the United States, Canada, Europe and Australia.
Growing and scaling the company has been one of Bolin and Dickinson’s biggest challenges. When Mer-Sea & Co. launched at The American Royal in 2013, the company had just received its first shipment of travel wraps from Ecuador.
“Melanie had to go to customs at the airport, figure out all of customs, and get all these boxes in her car,” Dickinson says. “Because we were so new, we didn’t have Mer-Sea & Co. labels.”
The budding entrepreneurs printed their own labels on fabric paper, then cut them out and hand-sewed them on to the wraps.
“And I don’t know how to sew,” Bolin says.
Despite those challenges, they managed to break even and even turned a profit.
The women say they grew and scaled their company by persevering through seemingly impossible challenges. Their first big order was when Anthropologie requested 17,000 hand-tied soaps. They said yes — even though they’d never produced more than one pallet at a time.
They had to work 80-hour workweeks to fulfill the order, but they got it done. A few years later, their workload is getting more manageable — but being an entrepreneur isn’t easy.
“People still ask me if I work full-time,” Dickinson says. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ Try two times full-time. I feel like we’ve gotten our sea legs, so I’m starting to get my life back, but it’s been a lot of years of a lot of work.”
Bolin adds that to many people, running a business looks fun, “but there are unknown sacrifices that people don’t see.”
There are also many perks. Bolin and Dickinson travel often for work — Morocco and Thailand are a couple of their favorite destinations — and they get to create products they love.
One of Bolin’s favorite Mer-Sea & Co. products is a tote bag made in collaboration with French designer Patrice Reboul. The fabric used to make the Marseille Bleu Tote is recycled from used mops and adorned with leather straps and handmade tassels.
Dickinson loves the Coconut Sugar-scented body cream Mer-Sea & Co. makes for Anthropologie (“I use it every day,” she says) and the Lima Luxe Traveler, a super-soft sweater made from baby alpaca yarn.
The sweater, which costs $299, is among Mer-Sea & Co.’s newer high-end offerings. Dickinson and Bolin say they want to add more clothing to their line — but all new pieces must be able to go from suitcase to airplane to beach.
“We’re not going to have a $200 silk shirt that needs a specialty wash,” Dickinson says. “It has to be something that’s easy to wash and doesn’t wrinkle.”
Because Dickinson and Bolin travel so often, they are their own test models. Bolin says the only downside to building an international brand in the Kansas City area is travel time.
“Getting out to a country like Morocco is hard because you have to do so many puddle jumps,” she says. “That’s my only negative — but the rest, I find incredible.”
“The fact of the matter is, Kansas City is a maker community,” Bolin adds. “It’s very uplifting and supportive. And I would say it’s been a huge part of our success.”