Megan Bubalo didn't have a business degree. She had never been married or even engaged. She was just a premed major at Florida State University. But after wedding gown shopping with a friend, she had an ambitious tulle-laced epiphany: I could totally do this.
Today, at only 24 years old, Bubalo is one of the area's youngest and most successful entrepreneurs in the bridal industry, owning her very own shop: Malindy Elene Couture for the Bride, at 2107 W Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa.
After a move to St. Petersburg in 2011, with some previous experience at a bridal shop in Orlando, Bubalo aggressively pushed her way into a consultant position at Malindy Elene, formerly located at 1180 Central Ave. Owner Malindy Bengston (whom Bubalo lovingly calls "Lindy") began to trust Bubalo with the store and often left her alone.
In four months, Bubalo was running the entire operation.
Now that she owns it and has moved it to South Tampa, Bubalo has been profitably selling the designs of Anne Barge, Badgley Mischka, Nicole Miller, Ivy & Aster, among others, for the past seven months.
Bubalo talked about the road from medical student to bridal shop owner.
You're so young and yet you own this really well-known bridal shop. How did this come about?
I started out in the wedding industry in Orlando and I moved to the Tampa area on a whim. Most of my best friends (lived there) from college, so I thought it would be fun to move since I'm young and able to do it. So I moved to St. Pete and was looking for a job. I went to Malindy Elene, knocked on the door and told them if they're ever hiring I was interested and gave them my resume. I was this piddly little girl. Malindy told me to start right away.
She owned the shop for almost 11 years, and she had been working mostly by herself. She had three children and lived in Palm Harbor with the shop in St. Petersburg. When Lindy hired me, she said she'd been looking to sell the business for the last couple years. She told me that I needed to know this because the business could be sold at any time and I could be out of a job.
In a month's time, she wasn't coming into the store anymore. I was pretty much running it. Since I was running it, Lindy told me she would love for me to buy it. I told her I was interested, but I also told her I'm only 24 so ... there's that working against me. Three days later, she came back to me and asked if we could sit down and talk. I thought she was going to tell me someone else had bought it. She actually said she had talked it over with her husband and she pretty much wanted to give it to me. She said she's always wanted someone who was young. She had these big businessmen come to her and ask if they can buy it, but she didn't want her decade of work to not be taken to heart. I didn't know where to start. I called my uncle who has a couple of car dealerships in Missouri. He told me what I needed to do. That was in February (2012). By April, I hired a lawyer, gotten a loan, signed on the dotted line and it was mine!
Moving an established business can be risky. How is that working out?
Lindy told me that if I do this, I have to move to South Tampa; 82 percent of our clients before moving over here were actually from the South Tampa area.
How has Malindy Elene evolved? How have you personalized it and made it your own?
I think a lot of it is the individual attention (that each bride should get). That's very important to me. I know Lindy did that a little bit, but in the end it kind of faded. Now, you come into the store, you're offered water or wine. We sit down with you, we talk to you all about your wedding day -- when it's going to be, where it's going to be, what kind of dress styles you're looking for, if you've shopped before, etc. We pull dresses for you, we help you into the dresses. We try to make it as easy as possible and a relaxing experience, so that's one thing that I've really focused on.
Our price range is from $1,000 to $12,000 and you better believe that the (bride with the) $1,000 budget has the same experience as the $12,000 budget (bride). That to me is extremely important because I think that no matter what, they're still a bride. They want that experience, and I think every girl deserves that experience.
How come you decided to keep the name instead of making it your own name?
(Customers) already knew it so well. I was considering making it my grandmother's name, which is Sophie, and my other grandmother is Catherine so I was going to try to combine Sophie and Catherine somehow, so I told Lindy that. And she told me that Malindy and Elene were her two grandmother's names! So I decided not to change it.
Do you take care of every single aspect of the business on your own, or does someone else help you with the technical side of it?
I have a CPA, and they obviously help me and advise me. When I was first going into it, my uncle (oversaw) everything, but it is 100 percent completely mine, so if it goes down, it's just me, which is scary every single day. But my parents (and boyfriend) are very supportive and I can talk to them, have them walk me through decisions. In the past seven months, I've just learned so much.
So how is business?
I couldn't be happier with it. Of course, you're going to have (tough) months. I think in any business, whether it's your first year or 19th year, there's going to be days where you just want to pull your hair out. But honestly, it's going better than I ever would have thought.
How has the economy affected business?
Brides are now budget-conscious. They understand going into it how expensive everything is going to be. I think you have to cater to that. There's always going to be brides that come in and can spend anything, but there's also going to be brides that have a budget. But I don't feel like it's drastically one way or the other in our store.
What's your biggest seller?
We have a couple of lace dresses that are tied for bestsellers. Just the classic Southern belle lace is always going to do well. Also, fit and flare. Because it's fitted and it shows off your body without being super princessey and without being skin hugging all the way down.
How has the use of social media affected business?
When I first started, we didn't have a Facebook page. So, I welcomed us into 2012 with our Facebook page, and it's so nice. If we have a trunk show coming up, or a big event, I'll put something up to share with vendors (and customers). It's amazing how well that works. Also, girls just like to see that your new accessories are online, etc. It's helped us exponentially. Girls see our dresses on Facebook or Instagram (and they come in). I can't tell you how many times I hear that.
Where do you see Malindy Elene in the next five years?
Well, honestly, I'm not really sure because I initially thought I was going to be this little "mom and pop" - just a great boutique for Tampa girls to come to, but I already feel like it has the potential to get so much bigger than that. What I would eventually like to do is ... have bridesmaids (dresses), flower girl (dresses) and evening wear. Time will only tell. But at this point, I'm happy with where it is right now.
Sabrina Rocco can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8862.