By GREGORY ZELLER //
For entrepreneur Tianna Meilinger, it’s a family thing.
The innovator carved her niche back in 2005, when she launched her first company – Vaya Bags, a Huntington Station-based manufacturer of custom bags and weatherproof coverings.
But her craftsmanship goes back much further, to her early teens, when Meilinger started working for her dad. John Meilinger – “Miles,” to friends and loyal customers – was a self-employed craftsman who designed unique clothing from leather and suede scraps recovered from a factory dumpster, among other sources.
Meilinger started sewing for her father’s business – Huntington Station-based Miles Tonne Leather, now run by her brother, Ian – when she was 13. And it wasn’t long before she was stitching together her own entrepreneurial ambitions.
“I learned how to sew, obviously, but I also learned how fulfilling it was to create your own work of art,” she told Innovate LI. “And I feel like each bag I make is a work of art.
“My father taught me about designing, crafting, selling at arts and crafts shows,” Meilinger added. “He taught me the logistics of running a small business.
“He basically taught me the trade.”
Of course, there were other life lessons to learn, and Meilinger absorbed many at Boston College, en route to a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. Combining her new ecological knowhow with her DNA-driven creativity, she fine-tuned her business plans and launched Vaya Bags, determining to “make handmade bags out of as many recyclable materials as possible.”
Like many startups, Vaya Bags took a moment to find its footing. But by 2010, Meilinger had opened her first retail store in the Ridgewood section of Queens, where many of her enterprise’s products are made today (the rest are manufactured by the founder herself in her Huntington Station studio).
The company’s line of custom-designed waterproof wares now includes backpacks, messenger bags, bicycle bags and various musical-instrument-related covers. The products feature an industrial-strength vinyl lining and surfaces made largely from recycled corporate banners, new and recycled fabrics by Sunbrella – a leading manufacturer of sailboat awnings and other “marine canvases” – and used bicycle tubes.
“We are a sustainable company,” Meilinger noted. “We use as much recycled and scrap materials as we can, including utilizing our own scrap.”
Incorporating bicycle tubes wasn’t an entirely original idea, according to the environmental scientist, who is “always on the lookout for ideas on how to recycle and save the environment.”
“I was using the recycled sailboat awnings, and I thought, ‘What else can I use that might be thrown out?’” she recalled. “I saw something else that had been made from bicycle tubes and I thought that was a cool idea, so I started playing around with designs.”
Incorporating used bicycle tubes turned out to be a masterstroke in more ways than one. Not only did it feed into Meilinger’s personal interests – she’s a biking enthusiast – and play nicely with her bicycle bags, it introduced Vaya Bags to the cycling community at large.
And that would lead to an unexpected, though lucrative, new vertical market: Roughly five years ago, Citi Bike – the New York City-based bicycle-sharing program – approached Meilinger about crafting and producing canvas covers for the program’s bicycle docking stations.
Meilinger jumped on, and the Citi Bike commission turned into the first of many. Word quickly spread to “other bike-share programs around the country,” according to the entrepreneur, who noted the covers aren’t recycled – they’re made from the same waterproof vinyl that lines most Vaya Bag products – but they are durable, and they sure are popular.
The Huntington Station manufacturer is currently wrapping up a 500-unit order for a San Francisco-based bike-sharing program, the latest of several deals all traced back to that first call from Citi Bikes in 2012.
“Word spread fast,” Meilinger noted.
While the bike covers are a major part of her business, the entrepreneur’s heart remains in those handmade bags. It’s a link to her father, who passed away a few years back but taught her everything she needed to know, from sewing to identifying the right arts and crafts shows.
Today, Meilinger and her part-time, two-person production team will produce anywhere from 10 to 50 bags a month, a fluctuating pace that rises and falls with the seasons. Spring and fall are best, she noted: Spring brings people outside, autumn brings the craft-show season.
The founder, who also employs a full-time manager for her Ridgewood store, has been self-funded from the start and markets primarily through word-of-mouth and in-person appearances at those art shows. In addition to her Queens storefront and those festivals, her products are available through the Vaya Bags website and the company’s online Etsy shop.
Meilinger also picks select spots for online and print advertising – music and bicycling websites and magazines, for instance, plus a few Brooklyn-based publications, to leverage NYC’s urban-biking craze.
“Urban biking is huge in the city and in Brooklyn,” she noted. “So, we focus our advertising there.”
Meilinger is likely to step up her advertising efforts in the spring, when Vaya Bags debuts an all-new product – bicycle frame bags designed to transfer the load from the rider’s back to the bike’s spine.
But mostly, the environmentally conscious entrepreneur will continue to peddle her wares just like Dad used to do it.
“I come from a family of craftsmen,” she noted. “I love what I do because it’s creative and it’s fulfilling – I can think of something and actually make it right there and have a finished product at the end of the day.
“And I get to meet a lot of my customers through the store and at the fairs, just like my father,” Meilinger added. “It’s great to see how much they love the products. That’s fun.”
What’s It? Custom-made messenger bags and bicycle bags, and other assorted waterproof covers
Brought To You By: Environmental scientist, biking enthusiast and crafty next-generation entrepreneur Tianna Meilinger
All In: $5,000, self-funded, for materials and website design
Status: Your custom-designed waterproof coolness awaits