Melissa R. Birge is the founder and CEO of Mia Tango, an online maternity boutique that features a curated set of maternity clothing that customers can buy new or used, and then trade back in for credits to buy new styles. She also serves as the audit committee chair on the board of directors of Paris-based SRP Group, which operates the fashion website showroomprive.com. Prior to starting Mia Tango, Melissa served as the Chief Financial Officer of KAYAK Software Corporation, where she worked from October 2009 to February 2016, overseeing the company’s IPO and sale to The Priceline Group. From 2006 to 2009, she held various positions, most recently as the Vice President of Finance, at Potbelly Sandwich Works, LLC, a restaurant chain. From 2002 to 2006, she held various positions, most recently as Controller, at Orbitz, Inc., and prior to that, from 1991 to 2002, she held various positions, most recently senior manager, in the audit practice of Arthur Andersen LLP. Melissa received a B.S in business administration from Miami University, Ohio.
How did you get into the industry?
I was 8 months pregnant with twins and the CFO of KAYAK. I found myself with no choice but to wear house slippers to a meeting with the CFO and CEO of Priceline during acquisition talks. I’m accustomed to being the only woman in the room, but being the only woman AND wearing house slippers?? I felt like a lesser version of myself at the exact time that I wanted to feel like the best version of myself. It made me start thinking that no one really understands or cares about pregnant women and new moms and what they need, and I wanted to change that.
Any emerging industry trends?
Maternity clothes get a bad rap. There are some really great designers out there making high quality, beautiful and intelligently designed pieces...it’s just that no one knows about them and they’re hard to find. We hope to introduce you to them through our boutique, Mia Tango. The big trend for maternity now is clothing that is made to be worn during and after pregnancy. I find myself wearing “maternity” all the time now and I’m not pregnant. In fact, I wore a maternity dress from Noppies out to dinner with my husband for our anniversary recently.
Any industry opportunities or challenges?
Guilt. So many women don’t feel comfortable investing in what they see as a temporary wardrobe, so they settle for wearing lower quality clothing than they’d normally wear and shopping in places they wouldn’t normally shop. They compromise every step of the way. We just aren’t buying all the compromise. From giving women the opportunity to sell back clothes that they’ve previously purchased from us to offering styling advice and personal shopping free of charge, our aim is to rail against it and be here for the woman inside every mom.
Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?
My own personal experience during my two pregnancies left me with the knowledge that maternity was long overdue for change. I felt like no one really understood what I needed and it was too hard to find and get what I really wanted. At Mia Tango, we aim to be the one place that really gets it. Founded by two mothers, we know what you need, when you need it and we want to make it easy and fun for you to get it. From pregnancy through postpartum, nursing and early toddlerhood years, we want to be your source for all you need to look and feel your best. As we grow, we’ll be adding more products and services to do just that.
What's next for the Business in the near future?
We’ve recently added diaper bags to our line up and are constantly expanding our clothing offering with new lines. We launched a line of high quality nursing clothes from Italy today and will add a Canadian line that makes amazing athletic wear later this week. In the next 18 months, we’ll also be adding our own line of chic maternity clothing for those who struggle with fit.
Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?
One of the best things we’ve done is to bootstrap the business. My partner and I do everything from sourcing the products we sell, to writing the copy, to taking photographs, to shipping orders and answering customer service emails. I think it’s important to start this way, because if you go right into outsourcing or hiring everything out, you might miss an important piece of learning.
Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)
We’ve only just started, so sometimes even mundane things like emailing return postage are harder than they should be, because there’s no manual - it’s all just the first time we’ve ever done anything. It’s way more difficult to get people to take a leap of faith and try something new than I thought it would be. It’s not just about making people aware of you - it’s about earning their trust. You have to just set about earning it one customer at a time. But as they say, it’s not a sprint. It’s a marathon. And we’re in it for the long haul.
Ideal experience for a customer/client?
I think that first and foremost, customers like to be acknowledged as people. They want to be treated fairly and kindly, but are delighted by personal service. At Mia Tango, we’re trying to build that personal touch - we send out periodic emails to our best customers letting them know when we get something in that we think they’ll love, we answer questions completely and try to anticipate the questions the customer didn’t ask. Our goal is to make each customer feel special, to be the one place that gets what it’s like to be pregnant and a new mom, and to make it fun to shop for yourself and others!
How do you motivate others?
I find that the best way to motivate top performers is to give them interesting, meaty things to work on and then get out of their way. I usually give them a high level overview, let them ask questions, set some expectations around timing and deliverables, and then just let them run with it. I let them know that I’m there to bounce ideas off of or help in any way, but I try not to lead them to an answer or solution. Smart people always come up with better ideas than I have in the first place anyway.
Career advice to those in your industry?
I believe strongly in the merits of hard work. I think that the best thing you can do is just put your head down and get shit done, and to be the person who your peers count on to take care of things they don’t want to think about. At the same time, bring a positive energy to work and focus on lifting up others around you - be about team success and not individual success. Be a leader - take initiative, give credit to others, take the blame for things that go wrong. If you can do those things consistently, you’ll find that your career advances effortlessly and you’ll make a lot of fans along the way. Treat everyone well - the business world is very small and you’ll find yourself running into the same people over and over again, so you never want to burn any bridges!