By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, Pershing Yoakley & Associates, P.C.
Becky Chaffee describes her entrepreneurial journey as a “learning hobby.”
Born in New Haven and raised in Northern California, she was trained as an engineer, earning a B.S. in Civil Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Master’s in Civil Engineering from Cornell.
“I always thought I should be in business, but went into engineering because I loved math and my family was science oriented,” she told us recently.
Now in business making uniquely designed purses that are shaped like musical instruments, she says, “I did not plan it (starting her company); it just happened.”
Chaffee moved to East Tennessee 20 years ago and became an entrepreneur almost by accident. After 15 years of shuttling her children to music, acting and sports, she had time on her hands when they got driver’s licenses. So, Chaffee resumed sewing, a passion from an earlier part of her life.
Today, her Violettes by Becky company sells its musical instrument-shaped bags online, but mostly through retail stores around the country. The most notable retail stores are Gaylord Opry Hotel boutique and Wild About Music in Austin. Local stores carrying the music bags include Wood-N-Strings Dulcimer Shop in Townsend, Knoxville Soap and Candle and Smoky Mountain Opry.
“The guitar purse and violin purse are perfect gift ideas for music lovers,” Chaffee says.
In addition to the purses and gig bags, she offers specialty items through the webpage.
Chaffee’s “learning” journey started as a hobby, making purses as gifts for friends. She showed one of her first creations to Susan Eddlemon, the first woman violin performance Ph.D. to graduate from Juilliard, who loved the purse as a way to keep violin accessories with her on stage.
A cellist loved the creation for the same reason, but needed it to be larger. So, Chaffee modified her initial design with the needs of the string players in mind, adding pockets inside and on the back, a pencil holder loop, a key hook and even a small leather wallet.
“I was hand-making everything,” she recalls of those early days. Interest began to grow, so she worked to improve her designs to be more practical, both to make and to use.
“I kept sewing them until they got perfect,” Chaffee said, adding that she made at least 100 bags by hand. “They are very well-designed.”
Hand sewing gave way to production by a commercial vendor. She spent six months looking for a production source in the U.S., but the bags proved too complex for domestic plants to consider. After sampling work from Mexico and China, she is now having them made in Pakistan.
Chaffee says she had to be flexible with her choice of materials, but was able to add options such as locally hand painted for her guitar purse and leather for the violin purse.
Today, a quick look at her website shows bags shaped like violins, grand pianos, and a variety of guitars and ukuleles. For the Tennessee football fan, there’s even a uniquely-designed bag. You can also purchase specialty gifts like your pet painted from a photo onto a guitar or violin bag, a personalized handmade music-themed quilt square, music themed jewelry, and even personalized sheet music bags.
“I learned a lot about a lot of things since starting the company,” Chaffee says, citing marketing, quality control, and importing as just three areas.
“I’ve proven that people will pay $200 for my guitar purses,” she notes with a good deal of pride.
The “learning journey” continues for Chaffee. She says her biggest challenge today is driving more traffic to the webpage. As Chaffee tries to navigate the mysterious world of backlinks, she attends a number of events to both learn from and network with others in business.
Chaffee is a strong believer in the “Pay it Forward” principals, donating her time and earnings to youth music entities. One is her “Youth Composition Competition and Songwriter Contest.” Now in its third year, the event has two divisions, songwriter and composition, each divided into two age groups. Also, as a Sheet Music Plus Affiliate, sheet music purchased through her web page footer gets eight percent donated to youth music causes.
Her purses are on the (November 2015) recommended winter gift lists for Nash Country Weekly magazine and Violinist.com.
Chaffee can be contacted through her website.