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Inder Bedi knows how to create a buzz.

The 37-year-old founder and co-president of Montreal-based Via Vegan Ltd., designer of Matt & Nat eco-friendly accessories, stopped traffic a couple of years back when he and his staff tossed about $10,000 worth of merchandise from their fourth-floor office windows into the parking lot.

The company used e-mail and social media to alert fans, then let them spread the word. Close to 1,000 people showed up for the freebie event, which was posted on YouTube.

The Concordia University marketing graduate learned his lessons well, including the value of celebrity endorsement.

Matt & Nat's mid-priced lines of men's and women's vegan bags, belts and wallets, made mainly with recycled plastic bottles and free of any animal products, are popular with stars such as Natalie Portman, Charlize Theron and Sir Paul McCartney.

Vegan talk show host Ellen DeGeneres has even given away Matt & Nat bags to audience members on her show.

The company also regularly sends out bags to women's shelters in and around Montreal and, on occasion, Matt & Nat staff volunteer to feed homeless people a vegetarian meal.

Chosen by Profit magazine in 2009 as one of Canada's 100 fastest-growing companies, the company sells its collections through boutiques and department stores in Canada, the United States and Britain and on its website. It was recently commissioned by Apple Inc.'s Europe division to make bags for Mac computers.

Q: Who came up with the bag throwing?

A: I did. Doing stuff like that, seeing the consumer face-to-face when we give them free stuff, is really fun. It ended up being this ridiculously crazy thing.

Q: Where did the idea for Matt & Nat come from?

A: Our family is from India. I didn't grow up in a religious household – my mom is Hindu and my dad is Sikh – but they exposed us to all kinds of Indian culture. When I was 18, one of Dad's good friends, who was head of the Hare Krishna temple in Montreal, asked me out of the blue to go vegetarian for 30 days. I did so out of respect, and it had a profound effect on my whole life. I continued being vegetarian at Concordia, where I majored in marketing and minored in corporate law, and gave up leather as well.

In my last semester in 1995, when I was deciding between law school or an MBA, I had to do a course called entrepreneurship – which I really didn't want to take. As part of the curriculum, we had to come up with a business and try to raise funding for it. I thought it was interesting that there weren't any companies doing fashionable, utilitarian items that were also vegan and eco-conscious, so that led to Matt & Nat. In spite of not getting any funding and only 77 per cent on my paper, I dropped the idea of law school or an MBA and started the business [launched in 1996]. I still have no explanation for it.

Q: Do you think there's a gap between what they teach about entrepreneurship in school and reality?

A: Back then, I would say yes. I had dinner with one of my marketing professors who became my mentor and said I was thinking about starting this business. His advice was to get out of school and give it a shot. There was a feeling then that the more you went to school, the more it made you raise questions and sway you away from it. I think that's changing.

Q: Did you have a vision of what you wanted?

It kind of evolved. I remember telling myself at the time that if I could do this and make $40,000 a year for the rest of my life, I'd be very happy because I truly enjoyed what I was doing. That may be part of the reason for our success at Matt & Nat. We don't base our decisions on dollars but on passion.

My professors always told me not to go after sales dollars, but to go after customer relationships and the dollars will come on their own. I like that approach. It's not just about building a big business, it's doing something you care about and putting a product out there that you're happy to have your name behind.

Q: What were the biggest challenges for you at the beginning?

A: Convincing people that you could have a quality product that wasn't made out of leather.

Q: How did you do that?

A: We tried to give the whole package of what we were about. Our approach is very soft. We don't try to cram the whole animal rights thing down people's throats.

Q: What was your strategy to break into the American market?

A: Back in 2004-2005, every retailer jumped on the green bandwagon, but people still want a great-looking product. If it's green, it's a bonus but that's not going to sway them when making a purchase.

We're in an industry where change happens very quickly and you have to be on top of what's going on. That's been our approach. We're not ultra-trend[y] but the design is relatively clean, with a utilitarian feel to it. We actually have a celebrity vegan following in the [United] States – people that we send bags to.

Q: How did you get celebrities to endorse your products?

A: A lot of times, someone will just send us a picture of a celebrity wearing our product and we'll send them stuff. Other times, we've just been lucky. I go to New York once a month and one of my favourite restaurants caters Paul McCartney's events. I was fortunate enough to meet him so we've sent him stuff. Through PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals], people have also forwarded our stuff to celebrities like Eva Mendes and Charlize Theron.

There's not one thing that makes or breaks your business. You need to have the whole package and everything has to come together with the right timing. If somebody sees a celebrity wearing your product, it has to be relatively easy for them to go out and get the same product, and it has to be accessible in terms of price points. Most people who buy our stuff don't buy it because it's vegan or environmentally conscious. It's more because it's a good product at an accessible price.

Q: How did you get Ellen DeGeneres to give away bags on her show?

That was through a PR firm we were working with at the time in New York. Also, the stylist for the show was already contacting us for products on a regular basis for Ellen's wife [Portia de Rossi] who's vegan.

Q: What's key when you're a small company with big competition?

Figuring out your unique selling point – your niche – and then capitalizing on it. You're better off with a stronghold on 20 per cent of the market than going up against all kinds of competition with 80 per cent of the market. Being a big fish in a small pond can be very advantageous.

Q: Have you ever turned down an opportunity because you didn't agree with someone else's values?

A: Yep. We've walked away either because it was going to take away our focus from Matt & Nat or didn't tie in with what the company stood for.

Q: Your revenue grew from $1-million in 2003 to $10-million in 2008. What are your current figures?

A: Around the same. Everyone was affected by the recession, especially our industry.

Q: What mistakes have you made?

A: We tried launching Samsara, a [lower-priced] diffusion brand, to hit different tiers of the market, but then we realized we have to be true to what we are. Part of the growing thing over the last two years is that we brought everything back to one brand.

Matt & Nat is an accessible brand for everyone, and that's what we've gotten back to for fall, 2011. There's no more having two brands and selling to high-end customers. Now it's this is who we are and what we do. If you like it, great, thank you, and if you don't, that's okay, too.

Q: Why did you take on a partner in 2002?

A: When I first started, we did all our manufacturing in Montreal but, as we time went on, I realized we wouldn't be able to compete so we had to go to Asia. I didn't have any experience with that and, at the same time, I wanted a business partner who had financial backing so that we were a bit more secure in taking the business to the next level.

My partner, Manny Kohli, had a lot of experience being a trader overseas and in North America so it was a good fit. I take care of the design and marketing and he handles the accounting and back-end stuff. We're equal partners.

Q: How do you handle decision-making?

A: If it a major decision, we bounce it off each other. We've worked with consultants and talk to people in the business, but ultimately those decisions have to come from you. You can get insights from others or help with connections but defining your path has got to come from your heart. That took me years to realize.

Q: Why is your staff so small?

A: We like to keep things small and tight. We're just 12 people. It feels more family-oriented. We outsource a lot of things: all of our shipping, PR and web stuff.

Q: What do you look for when hiring?

A: What we're looking for has nothing to do with animal rights. It's more about an overall positive outlook on life. Positivity is contagious as is negativity.

Q: Do you interview candidates personally?

A: Yes. A lot of times, it's both of us. When you want to compete on a global scale, your team is crucial. You can't get to those levels without having the right people in place, and then giving them direction and clear expectations. I'm very big on details.

Q: Does your staff have to be vegan?

A: No. Only three or four of us are vegetarian. We have a policy that we don't allow meat or fish at the office itself. Staff can eat it anywhere outside but it would feel odd if somebody was eating steak here, given what we stand for.

Q: How do you stay close to your customer?

A: We do focus groups and hang out at the stores of our retail partners, going from store to store, just speaking to the owners, managers and customers who may come in that are Matt & Nat fans. We're doing that more and more. A lot of businesses miss out on that because you're so busy designing that you forget to ask what the customer would like to see or what would be useful to them.

Q: What's your strategy for next year?

A: Give people what they want at an accessible price point, be true to our values and what we stand for. Where we shine with the product is balancing the utility/practical sphere with fashion.

Q: What do you love about what you do?

A: I'm a product person. I love when we design something, get the product sample and everything is great. Or when a colour turns out right or when we develop new hardware – that really rocks my boat.

Q: What's your advice to other entrepreneurs?

A: Be close to your customer. Know their business. Do they drive a car or a bike? What matters to them? It helps so much in terms of design if you know what they deal with every day.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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