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 two moms who stumbled upon an ingenius idea and ran with it. Today, their environmentally-friendly product is on shelves at top retailers and in children's lunchboxes across the country. It's remarkable how far one little idea can go! -– Marlo, MarloThomas.com
By Lori Weiss
When Cris Bourelly and Kirsten Quigley walked into a brainstorming session for budding
mom-preneurs, neither one of them thought they’d walk out with more than what they walked in with.
“We had a mutual friend,” Cris recalled, “who wanted to bounce an idea off a group of women, kind of like a focus group and she thought it would be a good opportunity for all of us to share ideas. The only problem was neither Kirsten or I had any!”
“It’s just one of those hilarious situations.” Kirsten laughed, “where the two least-suspecting people, who came in with absolutely nothing, are the ones who came out with a business.”
Not just a business, but a multi-million dollar business -- based on an idea that pretty much all of us may have had at our fingertips over the years.
It all began with Cris’s three kids, and Kirsten’s four, and the nearly 2000 plastic Ziploc bags the two stay-at-home moms used every year simply packing school lunches.
Cris, who had worked in international law, and Kirsten, an environmental consultant, had traded in their high powered positions for field trips and PTA fundraisers. Neither of them was thinking about returning to work any time soon. But as they sat in that circle, they began brainstorming about what they might do, if one day, they actually wanted to start a business.
“Our kids were in pre-school together,” Cris explained, “but we really didn’t know each other. Sitting there though, the chemistry between the two of us just came out. We leapfrogged right past the formalities and just started talking about what each of us was good at and what we did in the past.”
“Then we got to talking,” Kirsten continued, “about the school auction that was coming up. The theme was ‘Going Green’ and we thought we could collaborate and come up with a basket of products that would eliminate waste.”
“But we’re both pretty type A,” Cris said with a grin. “So, if we were going to do something we were going to find a way to make it work in a big way. We thought we’d present the products at the auction, and then maybe develop a fundraising program the school could opt into for the following year.
So the women went to work, scanning the internet for products that could help families go green. They found food wraps that opened up into place mats, pencils made from recycled newspapers, even a reusable paper towel. But there was little available that could replace those plastic lunch bags -- bags that Moms around the country were using millions of, and kids were simply throwing away.
And that was their "aha" moment –- the moment they realized they were sitting on a million-dollar idea.
“We found one,” Cris said, “but it was kind of like vinyl and didn’t feel great around your food. And we thought, how can we improve this? How can we make a better reusable baggie?
“It needed to be modern and fun,” Kirsten added, “dish-washable and most importantly, food safe.”
And then, early one morning, with her family still sound asleep, Cris went back to the internet and saw a picture that sealed the deal. It was a pastry bag, the kind that bakers use to frost cakes, made from a fabric that could withstand high heat and was clearly food safe.
She picked up the phone and called the manufacturer. After making sure they signed a non-disclosure agreement, she revealed their big idea. And the company not only bit, they offered to help bring it to life.
With the fabric and production in place, all the women needed was to bring a little color to their bright idea, so they recruited one more mom, Cris’s childhood friend, Jennie Stoller Barakat, who’d grown up and become a graphic designer.
They named their product LunchSkins and their company 3GreenMoms, thinking that the reusable lunch bag would be just one of several products they’d sell in their fundraising kit. But they quickly found out, that they’d created something parents were hungry for.
“People were buying the set,” Cris said, “just to get the LunchSkins and we hadn’t even gone into production yet!”
And that’s, unfortunately, when the partners found out that the deal they’d made was far from airtight.
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“We’d call to check on them,” she continued, “and they’d say ‘We produced two today!’ or ‘We got five done!’ That’s when we realized we needed to take a field trip of our own and find out what was going on. As it turned out, the sales rep saw this as a little experiment -- as a side business -- and for us it was the core of our business.”
“People underestimate how hard it is,” Kirsten explained, “to get something into production. Ideas are a dime a dozen. There’s a big difference between having an idea and getting a product to the marketplace. But that fueled us. We weren’t going to let this fail. It just made us more determined to push up our sleeves and figure out a way to get this done right.”
The partners re-grouped and began searching for a better solution. And once again, it came to them when they weren’t actually looking. Cris was at a wedding and seated across from another mom who had put her own product into production.
“She was using a factory in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania,” Cris said. “They had been making bank bags for the last hundred years, but now, with everyone doing electronic banking, they were looking for a way to keep their employees working.”
“And there’s the lesson,” Kirsten added with a smile, “network, network, network. You take away a little something from every person you talk to.”
"It’s true,” Chris concurred. “That woman saved LunchSkins.”
With their production problem sewn up, the women moved to their next piece of business -- building a website, which they did at Cris’s kitchen table.
“We didn’t have the cash to pay a developer,” Cris laughed, “so there I was in the backend of Go Daddy. Jenny was cringing at the way it looked, but we needed to be sure this venture had legs before we invested a lot of money. It was definitely home grown -- baked right there in my kitchen!”
They saw the website as a way to build credibility. It was only as an afterthought that they decided to add a shopping cart.
“Our day-to-day was so immersed in research," Kirsten said, “we completely overlooked the fact that there might be activity going on -- that people might actually want to buy from us! So when Cris discovered ten orders we were tripping over each other trying to fill them!”
And people wanted to do more than just buy a few bags. Once Mommy Bloggers got wind of the fresh idea, they couldn’t write enough about it. And then there was an email from O Magazine. The moms, who began with an idea for a school fundraiser, were about to make the coveted O list.
“Our server crashed two times after the magazine came out,” Cris recalled. “The volume of orders completely outstripped our supply.”
Moms had spoken. They clearly wanted a fun way to go green. And that gave the three friends the confidence they needed to move into even bigger arenas. They took their multi-colored creations to Expo West, a trade show that draws retailers from around the world. And there, they not only began drawing attention, LunchSkins was the runner up for Best New Product -- coming in only second to Chobani yogurt.
Today, four years from the time the 3GreenMoms launched LunchSkins, they have sold more than one million of the reusable snack and sandwich bags and they’re on the shelves of retailers like Target and The Container Store.
And that’s just the beginning. Now the accidential mom-preneurs are taking on lunch totes and napkins -- hoping to make an even bigger dent in the 67 pounds of lunch-time trash the EPA says one child generates in just a year.
“Neither of us was thinking about starting a company,” Cris said.
“It’s like having a baby,” Kirsten added, “there’s never a perfect time”.
“But when an idea comes,” the partners agreed, “you have to go with it, because you just don’t know when another one will come along.”
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