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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“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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