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Chilly Jilly Founder Jill Boehler
Courtesy of SmallBizResource.com, a service of bMighty.com

by Gayle Kesten

We've all had ideas for inventions -- momentary ideas that flashed through our minds like a shooting star, then faded to black about 10 seconds later because we didn't know how to make them happen. About 2-1/2 years ago, Jill Boehler, a speech pathologist and mother of three grown children in Andover, Mass., had one of those brilliant moments.

As she sat shivering in an air-conditioned restaurant, she thought: If only I had a lightweight wrap small enough to fit in my purse that I could put around my shoulders. "Call it a Chilly Jilly," one of her friends joked.

"The idea took a life on its own," recalls Boehler, who soon found herself changing careers in her early 50s. And never underestimate the power of serendipity. At the time, one of her sons was dating a girl whose family manufactured clothing in France. They loved Boehler's concept and asked her to come overseas so they could help her get started. "I couldn't believe people were asking my opinion," Boehler says. "I began getting vested in the idea."

With fabric chosen and prototypes in hand, Boehler returned home and worked with a seamstress to modify the design and make a few samples. Soon after her husband took a new job in the Baltimore area, so the couple moved. "I had no friends, no job, no kids, nobody to have lunch with," she recalls. She did, however, have a computer, so Boehler went online looking for factories in Maryland that could produce her wraps. The one she chose, and with which she continues to do business, made her first 100 Chilly Jillys.

Fast-forward to today. Boehler has sold more than 40,000 Chilly Jillys. They can be found in 130 boutiques across 35 states, and they're offered through QVC, as well. But what's really most inspiring is how Boehler's entrepreneurial spirit trumped her lack of business experience. Read on for the challenges she has faced, why she's grappling with the decision to take manufacturing to China, and why she doesn't think she could have started her own business when we was younger.

SBR: How did you fund your business?
JB: I began with $10,000 of own money, and as I went on I started to put in more and more. I have about $100,000 invested in the business. My line of credit was a business credit card I took with 0 percent interest for a year. After the first year, I transferred the balance to another card and started again. I have been able to pay it back. All the money I make goes back into business. If I quit today, I'd be even.

SBR: Describe your product.
JB: I use a fabric similar to one called Under Armor. It keeps body heat in, it's shiny, and it doesn't crease. You wash it, hang it, and it's dry. At first I had a hard time finding fabric. The idea almost went out the window because of that. You can wear Chilly Jillys out, but it's not meant to be in competition with sweaters or pashminas. The idea is to throw it in your purse, and you can put it on if there's a chill.

SBR: How did you get your product into stores?
JB: I took my first 100 Chilly Jillys and went from store to store [within 90 minutes from my home], asking owners if they liked them. I learned quickly along the way that I should make appointments. They would at first think I was a customer, and they'd get irritated. I began setting goals: One store a week would carry Chilly Jilly. So I didn't care if I got no's after that.

One day I was in a store bringing in more Chilly Jillys when a customer said I should call Donnie Deutsch and tell him about my product. I had never heard of him, but I went online and sent an e-mail. I became a full-fledged guest on Donny Deutsch's Big Idea. Then I got thousands and thousands of orders.

SBR: Do you work entirely solo?
JB: I have one person who works for me. We work together on everything. We met at the beauty parlor, waiting to get our hair done and just began chatting. My next-door neighbor is a Web designer and made my [original] Web site. My Web site was up immediately. I've also been working with a lawyer to patent the idea.

SBR: What is your biggest challenge?
JB: Marketing. I had a PR person to begin with, but you really need to be on this all the time. I spend two full days per week doing my own PR. For every 200 things I write, I get one response. So I circle back again. Also, I don't send out products anymore; they're just given out to interns. I have my eyes open, listen for stories, and think of stories. I haven't paid for any advertising, but I do write a lot of e-mail and letters.

SBR: That takes a lot of perseverance.
JB: There are days I've said, "Maybe I'm too old for this." I like routine -- I did the same thing for 30 years -- and this is out of routine. It's a push to go into new situation, like to go on TV on QVC.

SBR: What else is weighing on you?
JB: My biggest problem is [Chilly Jilly's are] made in the U.S. I'm struggling bigtime because the margins are very small and I almost can't make a profit. If I had started as I had been advised to have them made in China, I'd be in different place. Still, I like going to my factory in Maryland. I like the man I work with. I can change the design and have control of the quality. It's very hard for me to separate out business from loyalty.

SBR: How many hours a week do you work?
JB: At the beginning it was every day. all day. Now I stop on Friday at 7 p.m. I will check e-mail on the weekend, but if it can wait until Monday it will. I just do it. Everything will wait. I want to have time with my husband.

SBR: Do you think you could have started this business when you were younger?
JB: Not without an awful lot of upset to my family. [In the beginning] I worked way into the night and I started really early in the day. I know people do it. There are a lot of women who are in this position, and I see them struggling more when they have little kids.

SBR: How do you deal with negative feedback?
JB: I get little negative feedback, but [when I do] that's what I hear and I lose sleep. It bothers me. In the middle of the night when I'm up thinking of bad things, I write those down and get rid of them. That's how I let go of mistakes.

SBR: What would you tell someone who's contemplating starting her own new business?
JB: I don't know how many people want to know it's hard, but it's hard. When it's great, it's really great. It's also down sometimes. No story is an overnight success. You worry when you're busy, and you worry when you're not. Before I always knew what my day was going to be like, and now I don't. You have to keep going; it never ends. You have to come up with new products. But it's also exciting.

SBR: What are your tech tools of choice?
JB: It has been difficult, like using QuickBooks and spreadsheets. I bought an Apple, but I should have stuck with what I knew. I had a Dell before. Apple for business isn't as good. I have a Blackberry, which freed me so I don't have to come home constantly to check e-mail.

SBR: Any personal surprises along the way?
JB: I can't believe how much I've changed and grown. I see things through different eyes. I was in small world of teachers and educators. Now I understand people in business. And with women, there's no more competition. It's all about helping each other. They really want each other to succeed.

Also, I'm not just Mrs. Rich Boehler anymore. I'm my own person. I think my kids think that's cool.

Posted on September 29, 2008 at 1:29 PM | Comments (2)

Comments

It’s stories like this that provide inspiration and give us all hope!

Posted by: PizzaForADream on October 5, 2008 at 11:33 PM

Dear Jill, I have had this idea for a while, maybe you can figure how to do it. Having a pair of panties in a small package, as some of us need a clean pair when out and about. Accidents happen when we laugh to much, cough, having to wait in line, when you get the urge to go right now. So maybe you can come up with something.
Thanks, Helen Freeman

Posted by: Helen on November 3, 2008 at 11:09 AM

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