One of the reasons I started my website is that I wanted a place for women to come together and dream. We women need to know that we don't have to hang on to an old dream that has stopped nurturing us -- that there is always time to start a new dream. This week's story is about a fitness fanatic who found a hole in the yoga market when she slipped on her sweat in class. The former stay-at-home mother of three invented sticky yoga socks for better balance, which led to an empire of yoga-inspired products that has made over a million dollars. -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
Libby Andrews is what some might call a fitness fanatic. From the time she was in her first year of college, she was running five miles every day to keep the "freshman fifteen" from catching up with her. It wasn’t long before she was on the school crew team and adding swimming and biking to her workout regimen. So it was no surprise that after having three kids within thirty months Libby was doing her best to get back on track.
“Three weeks after my youngest, Sean, was born,” Libby laughed, “I was out there walking with a double stroller and a Baby Bjorn.”
It wasn’t long before she was back in the gym, doing regular cardio classes and lifting weights. But now Libby was looking for a little balance -- not just to even out her rigorous workouts, but her life. And yoga seemed like the perfect addition.
“I’m normally a front-row person, but I was so outside of my comfort zone, I was sure everyone’s eyes were on me. I was having a really hard time balancing on one foot and keeping my eyes closed. I kept falling over. And I’m not one to take my shoes off, so I’d leave them on, which would make me fall down even more.”
“So finally I took them off,” she sighed, “and then my feet started sweating. So now I’m slipping on the mat. I took the shoes off so I wouldn’t fall, and now I’m slipping on my own sweat -- onto the sweaty mat that someone else sweat on before me! Yoga is supposed to be calming. But for me, it was pretty stressful!”
By the end of the class, during the time people usually spend cooling down, Libby was typically folding up her mat and running out the door -- on to the next task on her very long to-do list. But one day, as she got in her car, it hit her that if she could take the material from the mat and attach it to a sock then maybe she wouldn’t slip so much.
“So I stopped at a TJ Maxx and bought a mat,” Libby recalled. “I wanted to see if it was even possible. I cut it up and glued a piece to an old pair of gym socks, but I was still slipping a little. That’s when my husband suggested cutting holes out for the toes -- to give me the grip I needed. That was the answer! And I knew at that moment, everyone needed to have these.”
But Libby was not only new to yoga -- she knew nothing about bringing a new product to market. Before becoming a stay-at-home mom, she’d sold computer systems to large corporations. She had no idea where to begin, but she did know -- since she hadn’t seen socks like this anywhere else -- that she wanted to protect her idea. So she filed for a patent. And then she waited -- three years.
“And that was my first mistake. I waited until the patent came through to get my idea out there. I didn’t know that once you applied for a patent, you were protected.”
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But timing is everything, and just as Libby got her patent she was introduced to someone at a Christmas party who happened to work with a hosiery company in North Carolina. She was off and running. Or so she thought. As it turned out, her bright idea was not quite as simple to manufacture as it was when she was sitting at her kitchen table.
“I thought I found the perfect manufacturer,” Libby said, “and this company in North Carolina was going to take care of warehousing, shipping and financial tracking. They were willing to put up money to buy the initial inventory and just take a percentage of my sales. It seemed like the perfect solution.”
“So once the manufacturer sent me samples, I placed an order and started doing trade shows. I sold $60,000 of yoga socks just by showing the few pairs I had, and we were all set to deliver by Black Friday -- until I got the first 500 sets in. They were terrible. There was no consistency. The soles weren’t placed in the same spot on the socks. There was no way I could sell them.”
But the ball was already in motion. At one of those trade shows, a Reuters News Service photographer had taken a picture of Libby’s Stick-e socks, which are made with rayon from bamboo, and that picture ended up at the top of an article called "Green Is The New Black" as an example of eco-friendly fashion.
Orders started pouring into her website. So, while she still didn’t have any socks, Libby had plenty of work to do. She had to track down a new manufacturer and try to hold on to her customers -- all while her children napped or after they went to sleep at night.
“I called all the buyers,” she remembered, “and told them we weren’t going to make it. But they stuck with us -- including a big catalog, which is the best, because being in a catalog is like being in a magazine -- and instead of paying for an ad, they’re paying you. We had to pay more to get them manufactured and shipped quickly, but somehow we were able to deliver them by the second week of December.”
And as the Stick-e brand began to take off, Libby started getting feedback from her customers. “They’d say their feet didn’t sweat, but their hands did. I knew if we wanted to get into the big stores, we needed a whole line of products. So we started producing them. First a towel, and then gloves.”
“And then I started watching people roll up their sweaty, smelly mats and put them under their arms. I wanted all of my products to solve a problem and for me, that was a problem. So I thought, 'How can I make mats that would be easy to clean?' So I bought some velcro at a hardware store and attached a strap to the mat. That way it could be hung in the shower. And as a bonus, it also made it easier to carry!”
As an afterthought, Libby decided to add an alignment line. Her instructor was always after her to straighten her hips, so she thought she couldn’t be the only one who needed a little help.
“And that’s what everyone was talking about,” she said with a smile, “the alignment line! After all that work, trying to make it easy to clean, my little after thought became the big selling point.”
And big would be an understatement -- not just for the mat, but for the entire Stick-e brand. Today, five years from the time Libby sold her first pair of socks, she now has ten products that are available at retailers including Dick’s Sporting Goods, Dunhams, Sport Chalet, Paragon and Amazon.com. Last year, her sales hit seven figures and she’s expecting that to double in 2013, when Stick-e arrives on the shelves of 350 Sports Authority stores and she adds to her ever-growing line of items.
“People are always asking me how I got into these stores -- whether I knew someone -- as if there’s a short cut. It took years of calling and calling again and simply sticking with it. It’s a journey.”
“I just took it one step at a time,” Libby said softy, “and each of those steps led me to the next. So many people don’t pursue things because they feel like they have to have all the answers before they do it. But that’s the definition of a journey -- you figure it out as you go.”
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