Retail Royalty: Tips for female entrepreneurs with Ali Kaminetsky, the CEO and Founder of Modern Picnic

Modern Picnic has completely reinvented what it means to carry a lunchbox with their sophisticated lunch bags for women. Ali Kaminetsky, the CEO, explains how choosing the right partner for returns and exchanges is key for any retail business.

Retail Royalty: Tips for female entrepreneurs with Ali Kaminetsky, the CEO and Founder of Modern Picnic
Ali Kaminetsky, the CEO and Founder of Modern Picnic

Welcome back to the third edition of our Retail Royalty series, where we interview all the movers and shakers in the retail world. 

This week, we were lucky enough to sit down with inspiring young female entrepreneur Ali Kaminetsky, creator of the stylish lunch bag brand Modern Picnic!

Modern Picnic has completely reinvented what it means to carry a lunchbox with their sophisticated lunch bags for women. But what Ali’s created with Modern Picnic is much more than just a stylish and practical accessory. Over the past five years, Ali has built an amazing community of women around her product - and a brand that people can’t stop talking about. Modern Picnic has been featured by every press outlet you can think of, from Vogue and The New York Times to a TV appearance on Good Morning America, and more!

We chatted with Ali about all things branding and entrepreneurship; from what drove her to build her own business and how the team has built such a strong community, to her best advice for other young female founders.

We hope you learn as much as we did from her in this inspiring interview:

Hey, Ali! As busy moms and startup founders, we adore the whole concept of making on-the-go lunch boxes cute! Can you tell us the story behind Modern Picnic and what inspired you to start the business? Did you always know you’d be an entrepreneur?

I actually never planned to be an entrepreneur! I started Modern Picnic completely out of personal need. Right after I graduated from college, I started working in the fashion industry at Macy’s and bringing my lunch into work every day. But when I went online to buy myself a lunch box, I only saw options for children or men. I couldn’t find a single nice option for women that I would feel good carrying to dinner, drinks or a networking event. That’s when I realized women’s lunchboxes needed a makeover! 

The day I had the idea, I went home and jumped right into it. I started with a spreadsheet, brainstormed some names, got the domain and started from there! The past five years have been a real journey of figuring things out, as I had no previous experience, background or connections in the accessories industry. Plus, my parents have very traditional jobs - my Dad’s a doctor and my Mom’s a lawyer - so although they were very supportive of me, they couldn’t offer much advice on creating a brand new category! I had to learn it all on my own. 

We’ve also had to learn as we go and get inspired by the amazing people we’ve met along the way. Was there anyone in particular who taught you a lot about building a business?

When I first thought of my idea, I was so scared that someone else would take it that for the first two years of working on it pre-launch, I really didn't tell anybody! I didn't tap into my network or speak to my closest friends about it, which was very isolating.

Looking back, I know the reality is that no one would have stolen my idea. It takes a lot to give up everything to start a company! Now, I would say my advisors and mentors and the people I lean on are my reason for everything. Having a strong support system and people you can learn from and grow with is so important. I wouldn’t be able to operate my business without having people I can turn to for guidance and advice. 

What was the initial reaction from your friends, family and the public once you did launch?

I told my very best friends sooner, but I remember I told a lot of my friends just a couple of weeks before launch. They were excited for me and also like “Oh, that’s where you've been!” 

As for the public reaction, that was incredibly encouraging. We were launching a first-to-market product in our space, so we started getting some buzz instantly. The week we launched, we got featured in Cosmopolitan, and from there it completely snowballed. To date, we’ve had more than 380 press hits, including Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar and The New York Times! We even had an appearance on Good Morning America in March, which was my first time talking about Modern Picnic on TV. It was really out of my comfort zone but super worth it and definitely really exciting, as I felt we tapped into a different market with that segment!

I think the reason for all the buzz is there’s a lot of ways you can slice and dice the product. Our brand is relevant to healthy eating, veganism, sustainability, and function-based products for women. There’s a lot of ways you can talk about our products!

That’s amazing! You mentioned your press coverage introduced you to some new audiences, which leads us to our next question. Has your target audience shifted over time? How do you measure who your audience is and what they're looking for? 

There are a few things that pretty much all of our customers have in common. The Modern Picnic customer is female. She lives in a city. She has a mid-high income, and likes the ‘attainable luxury’ feel of the brand. But the age of our customers varies a lot - she could be anywhere between 18 and 54!

What I love about the Modern Picnic community is that while it started really small, with graduate girls like myself and my friends who just needed a lunchbox, it’s reached so many different women who love our bags for different reasons. We’ve got new moms that need to carry breast milk, vegans who care about owning sustainably sourced products, and healthcare workers who just don’t have time to buy lunch in the middle of the day. We’ve also got plenty of women who just like the silhouette of our bags and want to wear them day to day! Modern Picnic is for all of these women.

What are your tips for building and retaining such a loyal customer community? 

We may have started as a lunchbox company five years ago, but the vision has always been much bigger than that. We want to be a multi-category brand for the modern woman. We are constantly looking to our community for guidance on what they want from us next, which has allowed us to be incredibly thoughtful with the products we bring to market. We don't have that many products on our site, but for every single one, I can give you the story behind why we launched it. So, my number one tip is to really listen to the customer and lean on them for guidance. 

We’ve also always prioritized proactive - rather than reactive - communication. And this is especially true when it comes to logistical things like returns, exchanges and shipping. We obviously do all we can to try and minimize mistakes but when they do happen, it's important to make sure the customer knows there's a human on the other end who is proactively trying to fix things and make it right. 

I also really believe in surprising and delighting customers. Every month, we’ll choose an order at random and put in a freebie or something nice like that. It’s not even about the ROI - it’s just a privilege to surprise and delight our community! So, to go back to your initial question, listening to and prioritizing the customer is really important. It all comes back to them.

Of course, we always love talking about returns! How do you handle returns at Modern Picnic? What are the main reasons customers want to return and exchange?

The number one reason people are returning is almost always due to sizing. They either want a bigger or smaller lunch bag. To combat that problem, we make sure our website shows the product as clearly as possible, through size guides, real-life comparison pictures and even videos. 

But overall, our return rate is pretty low, as our product is quite niche and customers have a lot of intent when purchasing. Believe it or not, we didn't actually offer seamless exchanges until about two years ago. We were doing it all manually, which created a lot of friction. Choosing the right partner for returns and exchanges is definitely key for any retail business!

We love that and can definitely help with that. Do you have anything exciting happening coming up this year? 

So many exciting things! We’ve got community activation events, some cool partnerships and some really exciting products coming out too - after years of being asked which containers we recommend women put in their bags, we’ve just launched our own range of food containers!

And last but not least, what is your biggest piece of advice for founders and young entrepreneurs? 

The first is definitely to expand your network, lean into them and surround yourself with people much smarter than you. 

Another lesson I've learned - and is a challenge I’m still grappling with - is the importance of balancing your long and short term goals. Being on such a small team, it's easy to get caught up in the minor details, but you need to take time as the founder to zoom out and come up with the roadmap and the plans that will set your team up for success.

The other piece of advice I have is to remember that “with risk comes reward, and with hustle, comes opportunity.”

And finally, if you’re a young woman starting a company, remember that “to be called on, you must raise your hand.” And sometimes “no” just means “maybe later”! Our biggest investor told me “no” a couple of times, but I kept in touch (respectfully and mindfully, of course) and he eventually came around!

The bottom line is stay persistent, be resilient, be agile, and work hard!

What a note to end on! We hope you loved this chat as much as we did. You can shop Modern Picnic’s beautiful new range of bags - and brand new food containers - on the Modern Picnic website

And if you’re a busy girl-on-the-go, you’ll also love our easy ReturnQueen returns service, which lets you schedule your returns to be picked up from your door. No more post office trips, packing or returns hassle. Just download the app to get started!