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 businesswoman who was tired of seeing her bras crushed in her suitcase every time she traveled. As the daughter of an inventor, she set out to solve her dilemma. Erin worked hard and took some big financial risks, but it all paid off -- CupCase has become a lucrative product that is now sold at The Container Store! -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
Erin Wilson had a problem that followed her around the country. As the owner of a warehousing and fulfillment company, she traveled all the time. And all too often, as she’d begin to get dressed for a business meeting, she’d discover that her bras had been crushed underneath the weight of her clothing and accessories.
“I have three children,” Erin explained, “and I nursed them all, so I’m not going anywhere without a bra that’s got some support. But time and time again, I’d unpack simply to find my shoes had landed on them during a flight or my toiletries had weighed them down. Bras that I’d paid $80 for were unwearable. I tried putting socks and tennis balls in them, but they’d still end up with lines and creases which would show through my blouses.”
“The day I had to go down to the gift shop in the hotel and buy a cardigan, so I could look presentable, was the day that I knew I had to come up with a solution.”
While Erin was hardly the first woman in the world to have this problem, most would simply pull out their wallets and buy another bra. But Erin is the daughter of an inventor -- her father, Bob Kennedy, has 19 patents and put his kids through college with the royalties he made on products that make life a little simpler. So where others see a problem, Erin can’t help but think about possible solutions.
“I’m always thinking -- always looking for opportunities. I wouldn’t say I’m OCD, but I don’t know if it’s a healthy thing! I think about ideas for new products as much as I think about whether my kids are okay.”
Time and time again Erin would come up with ideas, but then put them on the back burner, worried about the money it would take to bring them to market. And then, time and time again, she’d see her bright ideas showing up on the cover of catalogs -- created by someone else. This time, she wasn’t going to let a good idea get away.
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When Erin encounters a problem, she can't help but think of a solution. Tired of seeing her expensive bras crushed by clothing and accessories in her suitcase, she knew there had to be a better way. Here, Erin shows off an animal print CupCase at the Las Vegas Magic Trade Show in 2012.
The CupCase functions as a mini suitcase, made especially for your bras. Here is a demo showing exactly how Erin's invention works.
Erin's knack for innovation comes from her father, Bob Kennedy, who has 19 patents and put his kids through college with the royalties from his inventions. Here Grandpa Kennedy bonds with his grandkids -- the next generation of inventors.
Inspiration comes from the strangest places! A cupcake-themed birthday party for Erin's daughter, Chloe, planted the seed for the design of CupCase.
When Erin came up with the idea of CupCase, she asked her father to help her create the design. The pair built a frame (pictured) that would house the plastic that they heated and molded with vacuums to form the first prototype.
Erin shows off CupCases from her very first shipment. Initially, she paid thousands of dollars for designs that never turned out right. Finally, she asked her father for help, and the pair was able to create exactly what she wanted.
CupCase evolved from the very product it holds -- the bra! Erin and her father cut off a bra's straps and created a clay prototype of a carrying case that resembled two heavy-duty cupcake liners held together by a hinge.
CupCase launched at the Junior League Holiday Mart in 2011. Although Erin invested $24,000 in agencies that promised big sales, she didn't really start selling her product until she took control of her own marketing initiatives.
Erin credits her family for helping her push through the obstacles that stood in the way of her success. Family support is priceless!
Figure competitors are big fans of the CupCase, as their uniforms are an important part of the competition.
Though she has gone through her fair share of setbacks, Erin's determination has continuously prevailed. She's made it her goal to have the CupCase pay for her oldest son's college tuition -- and she won't give up! Here, an order is being boxed up and prepared for shipment in the warehouse.
Erin is always surrounded by her product at work, which is a good thing -- the team is always brainstorming new colors and designs.
When Erin first started out, she traveled the country showcasing her product at trade shows. Although she made it into several catalogs and a large retailer in Quebec, she wouldn't rest until she got CupCase into The Container Store. Finally, this May, her dream came true.
CupCase helped sponsor the local division of Bras Across America, a breast cancer awareness event in Indianapolis.
CupCase has given Erin the opportunity to travel to the other side of the world! Here she marvels at the city lights during a business trip to Hong Kong.
Erin is always with her CupCase -- she even uses it as a purse. Here she is with her sister-in-law Kim and family friend Janet on a business trip out west.
Ballroom dancer Chelsie Hightower shows off her CupCase on the set of "Dancing with the Stars."
After nursing three children, Erin makes sure to buy high-quality, supportive bras. But she was tired of having her expensive lingerie ruined every time she traveled with soft luggage. Here is a pile of some of the ruined bras that inspired her invention.
Erin has some creative customers -- this little boy made a fashion statement with his mom's Christmas present. Who knew the CupCase could double as a hat?
Erin shows off the cardigan that she was forced to buy from the hotel gift shop when her bras had lines and creases from being crammed into her suitcase. Now, she doesn't have to worry about looking presentable for her presentations -- her invention keeps her bras in good shape when she travels.
Erin hits the slopes with her husband, Scott, to take a break from the daily grind of running her successful business.
One of Erin's favorite hobbies is staying fit -- she loves to do 5Ks, 10Ks and triathlons. Her kids enjoy fitness too. In fact, her oldest son just beat her for the first time in a race!
“The first thing I did was Google,” Erin continued, “to see what was out there. I found a carrying case that was covered with polka dots and looked like a bra laying flat. I knew there had to be a better way. When the TSA agents at the airport open your suitcase, you don’t want it to scream, here’s my lingerie!”
“I had all these ideas of the way it should look, but I didn’t have design experience, so I brought bags of bras to a local company I found here in Indianapolis. I paid thousands of dollars for designs but they were nothing like what I had in my head. That’s when I decided to take it to my Dad. If he could put us through school on royalties, I knew he could help me bring my idea to life. But I have to say, there’s nothing like handing your Dad a double D bra and asking him to help you design a case!”
So there in the family basement, the father-daughter team went to work. They cut off the bra’s straps and cast a clay prototype of a carrying case that resembled two heavy duty cupcake liners that would ultimately be held together by a hinge. And the result: A pretty case that could be discreetly packed in a suitcase and protect bras from being damaged.
“I traveled with that one for a while and gave a couple others to friends to try out. But I didn’t do a lot of test marketing. I was just certain that lots of women would want this.”
And without as much as one single sale, Erin found a manufacturer and began picking fabrics. She ordered 4,000 and then took her invention, which she aptly named CupCase, to the toughest audience of all -- her neighbors who routinely bought gifts at the local Junior League Holiday Mart. There were some that may have thought she’d lost her mind.
“No one actually said they thought it wouldn’t work,” Erin laughed. “It’s what they didn’t say. You’d see them walking by and rolling their eyes -- like it was the dumbest thing they’d ever seen. But then there were the women who got it. Lots of women who got it. In two days, I sold every CupCase I’d brought with me and had to have more shipped.”
And that was exactly what the crafty inventor needed to give her the confidence to keep moving forward. She began traveling the country, showcasing her discreet carrying cases at trade shows and quickly landed a large retailer in Quebec and several catalogs. But Erin had her eye on one very specific prize. She wanted her CupCases to be sold at The Container Store.
“My brother-in-law lives in Dallas and that’s where they’re based, so I had him drop off a package. As it turned out, someone very high up at the company had put out the word to find something exactly like this. She was having the same problem that I was!”
That was in June of 2012 and this May, CupCases shipped to Container Stores throughout the country.
“They sold out in two weeks! They were having a big travel sale and I had to ship them everything I had so they could keep their shelves stocked. And now we’re shipping our second order!”
But Erin cautions that it’s not as easy as it all may seem. After her initial design and manufacturing costs, she invested another $24,000 in agencies that promised her big sales by using social media. Her return was 6,000 Twitter followers, but not a single CupCase was sold. It wasn’t until she took control of her own marketing -- cold calling stores and emailing the media -- that she started getting sales.
“There were definite moments of doubt and frustration,” Erin recalled. “It took me two and a half years to get the design right, and all along I was questioning whether it was something I should really do. It was costing a lot of money and we’ve got three kids with college just around the corner. But in those moments of fear, I just had to buckle down, and say there’s no turning back. I made it my goal to have the CupCase pay for my oldest son’s tuition.”
And her next goal is to become the “Queen of All Cases”. Erin has already been approached to design a similar case for the golf industry -- something that would help golfers keep track of their tees and balls. And she’s in discussion with a well known lingerie manufacturer that’s interested in offering a branded CupCase as a gift with purchase.
“So many times I thought, 'I just want to be done,'” Erin said. “But then I’d take another step and something would happen. One door would close and another one would open.”
“You just have to keep moving. Once something is in motion, it stays in motion. You just have to keep taking that next step.”
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