Today we’d like to introduce you to Bhaji Illuminati and Brian Leahy.
Bhaji and Brian, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
Bhaji: We all remember the evolution of our feelings when COVID first hit. From fear, to dread, to acceptance, we’ve had a crazy emotional roller coaster of ups and downs. One thing I came to terms with pretty quickly was the fact that I’d be wearing a face mask for the foreseeable future, so I wanted to make it something I could have fun with. I had no problem finding tons of great mask options, but soon realized that with masks came many challenges… I was losing multiple a week, forgetting them at home, exposing them to contamination when taking them off. That’s when I started searching for mask holders and was surprised that there was nothing availabile in the accessory department. So I ordered a set of beads and beading supplies and started creating mask holders. I created different colors for different masks and immediately my enjoyment of wearing masks multiplied. I started giving them to friends and family and got stopped almost every time I left the house asking where I got it. I soon realized I wasn’t the only person facing these challenges and that’s when I started to think there was a real business potential here. I have a full-time job at a B2C tech startup, Surkus, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to create a company on my own. I reached out to my good friend Brian to see if he wanted to partner and bring mask holders to the masses. Brian, what did you think when I first approached you?
Brian: I loved the idea and knew there was something here! I remember saying to you “Bhaji, you should sell those things.” The first thought I had was that we should diversify the product lines to appeal to a wider audience, so I immediately started doing research on leather suppliers and supplies. The rest was history. We spent a week developing the launch strategy and plan, came up with the name The Maskeraide, and got the store up on Etsy by the end of week one.
Bhaji: It’s been pretty incredible to see the demand and organic traction. With no marketing or advertising budget, we’ve already passed 300 sales and have shipped to customers all over the world. The messages we’ve been getting are so touching; a parents council bought 50 as a welcome back gift for teachers, a mom bought a custom one in her kid’s favorite colors so they’d like wearing their mask, we’ve had custom orders for pride and health care themes, and the list goes on. It’s amazing to know that we’re helping people enjoy wearing their masks a little more.
We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Bhaji: The biggest challenge we’ve had is also our biggest win — creating enough inventory to fulfill supply. But that’s a great problem to have. It just means we’re doing a lot of beading on the nights and weekends which I never would have predicted if you asked me six months ago 🙂
Brian: It has also been interesting to learn about global supply chains and shortages of supplies due to increased production demand for essential items. Originally, we were ordering everything from Amazon but all of a sudden one day, shipping times went from days to weeks so we had to quickly pivot and find wholesale suppliers. Scaling a product in a matter of weeks has certainly been a great challenge, but as Bhaji said, meeting demand is a great problem to have!
We’d love to hear more about your business.
Bhaji: When we realized that masks would be the new norm, we started to accept the inevitable and try to make the most of the situation. How can we solve one of the biggest challenges we face with masks… always leaving them at home, awkwardly sliding them below your chin when you need to drink or eat, getting germs on them by putting them on surfaces when off your face. So we came up with our simple, stylish, and functional mask holders. Great for men and women, in beaded or leather options, these accessories solve one of the biggest problems with masks, and make you look great in the process!
Brian: All the mask holders are custom and handmade to order. It’s been so meaningful for us to see the outpouring of support from people all over the world. We’ve been getting incredible responses from our customers and are in talks with a few businesses and associations that want to buy their essential workers custom branded mask holders as gifts. We’re also making the move into retail shops here shortly, which we’re incredibly excited about.
Bhaji: Overall, it’s been great to know that we’re having a positive contribution to people wearing their masks more and protecting themselves and those around them.
What were you like growing up?
Bhaji: I was definitely a terror!! Very high energy, adventurous, curious, social. I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial streak, from selling jewelry on my front lawn to a phase where I went door to door selling Cutco knives (yes, it’s true), to the days when I spent hours on end drawing hardware invention prototypes. Now I think I found the perfect balance, where I’m challenged and constantly growing in my day job and am able to find a creative outlet on the side.
Brian: I was also a super entrepreneur growing up, at one point working four jobs by the time I was 17. Working was way more fun than school! Both my parents have been self-employed for decades and really instilled a strong work ethic in me that has translated into a few phenomenal careers since college. I currently run a luxury & destination wedding photography studio based here in LA and am lucky enough to (in a typical year) travel around the globe with my amazing clients. With plenty of free time this summer though, I’m excited to see The Maskeraide thrive!
- Hand Beaded Mask Holder, $10-15
- Genuine Leather Mask Holder, $12-15
- Website: themaskeraide.com
- Email: email@example.com
- Instagram: @the_maskeraide
Brian Leahy Photography