For most women raising a brood of young children at home, just getting through each day is an accomplishment -- and that's what makes Theresa Roelke a remarkable exception: When her kids were 4 and 6, she first designed an innovative children's product, then launched her own business to produce and market it. When store buyers didn't know quite what to make of her concept, which she dubbed Kip Sacs, she spread the word by writing and illustrating her own children's books. That combination of talent and innovation kickstarted her fledgling business, Maine-based Whistling Chimneys. Roelke spoke recently with Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about inspiration, perspiration -- and what do when well-laid plans don't work out as expected. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.
Q: What are Kip Sacs?
A:Kip Sacs are for kids, and they're soft fleece "lounging sacks" -- something like lightweight sleeping bags, designed not for sleeping in but for snuggling up in with a good book. They are a multiseason product that is great for day care, travel, ski lodges, summer cottages at the beach or in the mountains. I envision this as the sort of thing that could replace the favorite blankie, rolled up and put into a basket during the day and used at night for reading, watching TV or movies, or whatever. We even found that they are helpful to children suffering from autism, as they prefer confined spaces.
Q: Professionally, you've been a teacher and tutor. How did you come up with the idea for this product?
A:About five years ago, I was tutoring at-risk high school kids during the evenings and staying at home with my 4- and 6-year-old kids during the day, and I began to do some arts-and-crafts projects. One of the things I did was sew small blankets for my kids out of their favorite fabrics. One afternoon, I had the idea of making a blanket that they could actually climb into. I refined the idea and, at Christmas 1998, I made a bunch of them for my nieces and nephews and shipped them off as homemade presents. My sister just loved them and she urged me to make the idea into a business, which I did in March, 1999.
Q: At the same time, you were also pursuing the idea of writing children's books. How did that come about?
A:I've always loved to write and tell stories to my children. Although I've never had any formal art training, I had some artistic talent and loved to draw, so when I started writing down my stories, I did some illustrations to go with them and before I knew it, I had an idea for a book. I pitched it all over the place and sent stories to publishers, but I didn't have a 'name' so I was constantly rejected.
Q: How did the product and the books wind up coming together in one package?
A:I was making the Kip Sacs to order for friends and relatives and neighbors, and getting wonderful feedback on them, so I started trying to pitch them to local stores. It was tough. I sent samples all around, and then went to the stores to follow up with buyers.
The owner of one high-end store in Scarborough, Me., said she got the sample and thought it was an interesting product, but she didn't see any washing instructions so she tossed the whole thing! The washing instructions were in a packet of information I had printed up on my computer, but she didn't bother to open that. Another store finally took some Sacs but put them on a bottom shelf, rolled up, so customers couldn't see them and didn't understand what they were. When I went back in, the owner told me sales were disappointing.
I was so upset, I went home and started to cry. I knew I had a good product, but I needed to educate the customer about what it was, and I needed to find a way to get it some exposure at retail shops. That's when I hit on the idea of writing a picture book and packaging it with the product. That way, I could get my children's stories out to the public without a publisher, and have a fun way of introducing the product to kids and adults and giving it a higher profile.
Q: You went home in tears after some trying days. What kept you from giving up entirely at that point?
A:It was just pure desire to do this. I had total drive and believed in it completely because the project started from my heart and I knew it was something that could help kids and families. I've always had ideas and something of a vision for getting things done, but I usually have to do it my way. I guess that's why they gave me the "Class Individualist" award in high school. Also, people encouraged me and urged me not to quit. And, I found that as soon as I put the book with the product, it just took off. Even stores that previously rejected it picked it up once they saw the book and the entire concept.
Q: Did you publish the book yourself?
A:Yes. I wasn't sure how the story should be marketed -- as an addition to the product? As a promotional piece? I wound up tying the book and the product very closely together, partly to protect my idea because I knew I could copyright the stories. Because kip means nap in Australia, I made the main character a baby kangaroo who is looking for his mother. The first story is called, "A Pouch for Kip" and it's written for children ages 3 to 6. I revised it more than 50 times, because with a picture book it's almost like writing poetry -- every word counts. And I did all the illustrations myself.
Q: Do you have additional products to go with the story and Sac?
A:Not yet, but I'm in the preliminary stages of sourcing a plush Kip for 2004. I'm just about finished with the second story in the series, which will feature a rainforest theme and some new adventures and friends for Kip. I've also had a lot of requests for teen and adult sizes, so I'm developing patterns for those extensions to the product line, working on getting it into more stores and contracting with sales reps to promote it. Up until now, I've been doing it all as a one-woman show.
Q: Is the company profitable at this point?
A:I did make a profit in 2003, but I borrowed money to get the company started, so I'll pay the bills and see where I end up. Currently, Kip Sac sets are selling through major retail outlets including Borders Books, REI, the Hearthsong Children's catalog, Rugged Bear stores in New England, and about 50 independent toy and book stores from Maine to Alaska. Several New England stores restocked my product as many as seven times within the two months before Christmas. And large retailers like LL Bean and Filenes are considering the product for 2004.
Q: What advice would you give other entrepreneurs who have an idea but don't know where to take it?
A:The greatest lessons I've learned have been to accept and make use of constructive criticism, take charge of my goals and dreams and persevere until I succeed. Then -- do it all over again, but even better the following year and the year after!