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 stay-at-home mom who got a hot surprise when her husband served her the wrong piece of chicken off the grill. The mix-up sparked an idea for a new kind of grilling accessory which is now licensed by one of the largest distributors of kitchenware in the country. I'll bet she never imagined a simple family barbecue would help her earn millions one day! -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
Leslie Haywood would be the first to say that she’s led a charmed life. She married her high school sweetheart, Jason, and became a stay-at-home mom to two beautiful children -- exactly what the two lovebirds had planned long before their senior prom. But she had no idea how spicy that charmed life could be, until her husband went a little overboard at a backyard barbeque.
“We had some friends over,” Leslie explained, “and he was making his special Jamaican Jerk Chicken, which can be pretty hot. But he knows I don’t like spicy food and you know how that goes -- happy wife, happy life -- so he made sure to prepare a milder version for me and some of the other girls.”
“I’m not quite sure what his system for separating the spicy from the mild was, but after a few drinks, it didn’t work out so well. I took a bite out of the chicken and it lit me on fire.”
And that’s when Jason blurted out something that Leslie still thanks him for today -- despite the hot and bothered tone he may have said it with: “Someone’s got to come up with a way for me to tell what’s what!” It was Leslie’s light bulb moment -- a moment that also threw her plan of being a stay-at-home mom a little off track.
“I thought we have wine charms because I don’t like someone else drinking out of my glass, why don’t we have something like that for meat? So that night, after cleaning up the kitchen, I started drawing prototypes on scrap pieces of paper.”
Then she immediately did a patent search, thinking that the idea was so simple, that someone must have thought of it before.
“I needed to be sure,” Leslie continued, “that I wasn’t infringing on someone else’s intellectual property. Only 3 -5% of patents go to market. Just because you don’t find it on Google or at Walmart doesn’t mean someone doesn’t own the patent. All I found were plastic meat markers, which have been out for a long time -- but you don’t put those in while you’re cooking. I couldn’t find a single thing that would signify that a piece of meat was to be prepared well done or medium, spicy or mild.”
While the timing wasn’t perfect -- with two children under the age of three -- Leslie was determined to not let her hot idea slip into someone else’s hands.
“I never considered myself the entrepreneurial type,” she said. “I was a stay-at-home mom. I thought the biggest thing I could possibly be was the president of the PTA. But fear is a powerful motivator. I was so afraid that I’d see this product on store shelves five years down the road and someone else would have done it. I could live with failure. We all have failures. But I couldn’t live with regret.”
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So Leslie’s husband took a penny and impaled a roofing nail through it and seconds later, she had her first Grill Charms prototype. “It had to be flat, so it would stay in the meat. You don’t want it to fall out when you’re flipping. But really it’s like a thumb tack on steroids.”
Overnight she became what she now refers to as the naptime entrepreneur -- slipping in research and phone calls all while her children slept. “In today’s digital age, there’s no excuse for not doing something. It’s not rocket science. It's a series of small steps -- finding a patent attorney, packaging and a manufacturer. None of the steps are hard -- there's just a lot of them."
And she did it all with what most would consider less than a shoe-string budget. Leslie found a local machinist who created 41 more sophisticated samples for $250. She did market research by sending out questionnaires to a dozen guys who liked to grill. And her packaging was designed and tested for free --after she found a program at Clemson University in South Carolina, which pairs students who are eager to get real world experience with industry partners.
“The manufacturing part is where the real money comes in,” Leslie sighed. “I had to come up with $3000 for the tooling, each time I wanted to develop a new collection. So I staggered the production and began with one set that included two Rs for rare, two MRs for medium rare, one for medium well and one for medium -- which if you wanted to, you could turn upside down and use to mark meat that’s well done.”
Before her first order had even arrived, Leslie hit the pavement, knocking on doors of local merchants who were preparing for the holidays. “I’d go in and say, ‘I’ve invented a gift item and I’m wondering if I could show it to you.’ The curiosity gets them every time. The very first store owner said, ‘As soon as they’re ready, I’m buying a case.’ And that gave me the confidence to go to the next store and the next store. I was in five stores before Christmas.”
And that confidence also helped Leslie land a chain of bookstores in Canada, as well as TJ Maxx and Marshalls in the United States -- along with 200 other independent stores. It wasn’t long before she had the money it took to re-tool three more times -- creating the spicy set that inspired her new venture, one with a more feminine flair and a collection she calls "A Charmed Life," which happens to include a dollar sign, something she is about to see a whole lot more of.
Leslie just agreed to license her hot-off-the-grill invention to Fox Run Brands, one of North America’s largest distributors of fine kitchenware, bakeware and grilling accessories, which means they’ll do the heavy lifting and she’ll collect royalty checks. And with worldwide distribution, there’s the potential to make millions.
“When I first started Grill Charms in 2007, my idea of success was to be like Martha Stewart or like Sarah Blakely, the creator of Spanx. But once I turned 40, I began to see success more as freedom -- the freedom to spend more time with my family. So I’m willing to let someone else bring the company I built to its fullest potential.”
“And having done this, I now have the confidence to pursue just about anything, which is good because I’ve got at least four new ideas for kitchen products and the perfect partner to do it with! I can’t wait to get started.”
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