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 woman with sports-loving kids. She couldn't find a way to keep her children from tracking dirt indoors from their cleats -- so she and her husband invented one. Today, Cleatskins are used by professional athletes and kids around the world, keeping cleats clean and moms happy. -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
Sometimes the best ideas are just a step away. That was the case for Marianne Kay, whose husband, Rick, was sitting just outside on the stoop cursing as he struggled to clean out their son Jesse’s cleats.
“Jesse was 11 at the time,” Marianne recalled, “and he was a baseball fanatic. And it seemed like the field went with him wherever he went. He never took his cleats off. Nor did his friends and you know they travel in packs! So they’d track in mud and dirt and grass. And the hardwood floors were filled with tiny little nicks and scratches.”
But it was more than just the carpentry the couple was concerned with. They had two other kids, and the youngest, at just 2 years old, was still crawling and finding his way into everything the boys brought in.
“Rick was out there swearing and he said, ‘It’s ridiculous that we have to do this. There’s got to be something out there to keep these things clean.’ That’s when I started searching and realized there wasn’t anything, but there needed to be and we could create it.”
It seemed like the solution the couple had been looking for -- not just to keep their house clean, but to sustain their young family. Rick had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at the age of 36. And while they couldn’t know how fast the illness would progress, they knew they wanted to build a business that would allow them to set their own schedules and spend more time with the kids.
“We tried to think of whatever we could,” Marianne said. “Every day we’d ask each other, ‘Did you think of anything?’ We’d go weeks without an idea. But that day that I saw him out there on the steps, struggling with those cleats, I knew that we could come up with a solution that would not only fix the cleats problem, but our problem.”
And what Marianne quickly discovered was that the “cleats problem” was a big one. According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association, there are more than 100 million people in the U.S. alone using some sort of cleated footwear -- for baseball, football, cycling, track, soccer, lacrosse, wrestling or golf. And parents were struggling with more than just dirt. They were concerned about their children’s safety.
“We were out on the field all the time and we’d see kids slip and fall on them. We watched one child trip right into the metal bleachers. You can tell kids to take the cleats off and not to run, but you know they’re still going to do it, and the truth is that parents are rushing as they shuttle between afterschool activities and to and from the field, so there’s not a lot of time to keep switching shoes.”
So Marianne and Rick went to work, right at their kitchen table, and tried to create a flexible rubber cover that kids could pull on right over their cleats -- a cover that would not only preserve floors and carpets, but prevent slips and falls.
“We went out and purchased cheap flip-flops and shower caps. We knew we wanted a material that would stretch and hold. But we were abysmal at making prototypes. We couldn’t show them to anyone. And now we not only had damaged floors, the glue and cut marks had destroyed our kitchen table!”
Once again, Marianne went back to the internet, but this time not to find someone else’s solution. Marianne was determined to find someone who could help them develop theirs.
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“I just Googled product design and found people who were close by,” she explained. “They’d come up with all kinds of great ideas and then we’d wait, sometimes two to three months for a prototype. Time and time again, when they would arrive from the factory, they’d look nothing like the designs the designer had showed us. One guy even showed us the changes he would make to a sandal he’d already manufactured, and when the prototype came back, it was the same exact sandal! What happened to the drawing?”
But by that point, the couple was all in -- $65,000 in. And while others might have thrown in the towel, they believed in their concept so much that they decided to downsize. They sold their house in Los Angeles and moved their family into a rented home in San Diego, thinking they’d be able to invest the money they saved into the business and cut down on the time they spent tied up in Los Angeles traffic and away from the kids.
“There were points,” Marianne remembered, “when I asked myself what have I done? I’m 49 and I don’t own a house for my kids. My husband is ill. He won’t be securing another job. And we’ve gone backwards.”
But that’s when fate stepped in. The couple was having dinner with a close friend, who wanted them to meet his new girlfriend. The conversation turned to business and they quickly learned that the woman sitting across from them worked in product licensing.
“She said, ‘You really need to work with someone who has experience in athletic wear,’ and offered to introduce us to a friend who had worked with Nike. The crazy thing is, he lived a couple blocks from the home we’d just left in Los Angeles. So we were right back on the freeway!”
“We were sure that this man, who was so established, would tell us that there was already something in the pipeline or it had been done. But he looked at our drawings and said, ‘I don’t know of anything out there like this and I don’t know why. I can help you find the right designers.’ All of a sudden, there were thousands of worries that just fell off our backs.”
It wasn’t long before the couple, who had named their product Cleatskins, assembled a team and made their way to the World Shoe Association trade show. And their booth was surrounded -- not just by retailers like ShoeBuy.com and the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, but by people in the athletic wear industry.
It was interesting to watch our team bristle when they'd see people from the industry come around. They were concerned that they'd try to reproduce our idea. But we'd protected ourselves early on.We had patents on Cleatskins for eight different sports.”
And it was those patents that really got the ball rolling. Today, Marianne and Rick are in conversations with three of the top athletic wear manufacturers in the country. The United States Wrestling team wore Cleatskins at the 2012 Summer Olympics. And the baseball-playing son who inspired all of this? Today he slips on his Cleatskins when he steps off the field at the University of California, Berkeley.
But despite their big wins, the couple still keeps a close eye on the game. While they’ve moved their day-to-day operations off the kitchen table and their merchandise out of the garage, they still man their own website, take calls from customers and find themselves running to FedEx each day.
“We’re involved with athletes and their parents all day long. It’s what we love. And the best ideas are born from things that you’re familiar with. We’ve probably met over 50 people who have said they thought of this, but didn’t do anything with the idea -- and another 20 who tried and gave up.”
“You just have to believe,” Marianne said, “that if you can conceive it, you can make it happen. There really are people who will lend a hand along the way. And sometimes, as we found out, they’re right in your own backyard.”