At age 59, starting a business was something Anita Crook had never considered. Yet, by age 60, she was a budding entrepreneur, and by age 64, the owner of a multimillion-dollar business which produces a handbag organizer called Pouchee®.
Anita's inspiration for starting the business was also part of the reason for success: She found a need, then found a way to fill it.
"It was one of those things that just happens when you're not expecting it," Anita explains.
"My son bought me a really nice purse for Christmas one year. It was an expensive purse, but it didn't have any pockets in it to organize things, and I didn't know how to tell him I'd never use it. So, I kept thinking that if I had a way to organize this bag, I would use it."
Anita couldn't find anything on the market that would let her organize the purse in a useful way, so she "played around with some ideas" and came up with a design she thought would work. She designed Pouchee specifically to fit inside women’s handbags to make them more organized with a place for everything: Outside pockets for pens, sunglasses, mobile phone, credit cards, keys etc. Inside pockets for lipsticks or small flashlights, zippered pockets for change or personal items and inside dividers that keep it all organized and in one compact place.
There was one little hitch, though. Anita's design was on paper. She didn't know how to sew. Through a friend, she found a woman who could sew. That woman made Anita a prototype and put her in touch with another person who introduced Anita to a broker who helps US companies find reliable manufacturers in China.
"The next thing I knew I had a few samples in hand and 2000 Pouchees coming in from China," says Anita.
At that point, Anita took up the one task she most dreaded: finding buyers for her new product. Her target customers were the owners of gift shops and boutiques who wanted something different to sell to their clientele –things that couldn't be found in department stores. And at first, she approached them with trepidation.
"Selling isn't my cup of tea," says Anita. "With fear and trembling I went door-to-door showing my little Pouchees to the owners of small specialty boutiques and gift shops. I was scared that if they rejected them I'd run out of the store crying. "
Despite her fear of selling, she approached one shop owner after another, in the Greenville, SC area. "Every store I went to loved them and bought them, Anita recalls." In fact, Anita's Pouchees were such a hit with shop owners that she sold out the entire first shipment of 2000 before it arrived from China.
Anita reordered, and soon shipments of 2000 turned into 5000, and then more.
For the first couple of years, Anita stored the inventory and operated the business from the three-car garage attached to her home. And, in the beginning, like most startups, she did everything herself. She was not only the designer and salesperson, but also the bookkeeper and the person who packed up orders, shipped them out and kept track of inventory.
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To expand the business she started exhibiting at the Atlanta Gift Show, and started using sales reps to widen her reach. Now, some 2000 stores carry Pouchees in the US and abroad. As the business grew, Anita hired a couple of employees and moved the business out of her home to a warehouse location.
"My biggest challenge has been in knowing how to regulate my inventory. Our business has grown 45% a year-- even in the last year's economy. I don't know how you plan for that. I remember looking at my inventory one August and my shelves were stocked to the ceiling. I thought, 'How will I ever sell all of these.' And September came along and our sales were 107% over the previous year's sales. I had very few of the style of Pouchees that everyone wanted on my shelves and we were heading into October, our biggest month of the year."
To keep overseas shipping costs down, Anita normally places orders about 90 days in advance and has them shipped from China by boat. But to accommodate her customers for Christmas that year, she had some Pouchees air freighted in.
One challenge other entrepreneurs often face that Anita has been able to avoid has been funding growth. She started the business with about $10,000 of her own savings, and applied for a line of credit early on so she wouldn't have to worry about running out of money. She still has the line of credit, but hasn't had to use it.
"An advantage of being older when you start a business is that you work a lot smarter," Anita says. "I knew I didn't have time or money to waste, so I did a lot of the work myself for as long as I could. I didn't go out and buy nice office furniture or get a swanky office. I worked out of my home in the beginning. Even now, the office we have is functional, but not swanky."
Working smart and staying out of debt "as much as possible" were two strategies that helped Anita build her business into a multi-million dollar operation. Another strategy has been to keep coming up with new designs and new products.
"We are always coming up with innovative ideas. We want to stay fresh. We can't keep selling the same old Pouchees to the stores. To keep them excited and keep them ordering more, you keep trying new things."
Those "new things" range from making Pouchees in different fabrics and designs to changing the placement of pockets and the size of the organizer. Some of the ideas have evolved from the customers, themselves.
"We had a lot of ladies who told me they love to take their Pouchee out of their purse and carry it by itself. We thought that if this is something people want to do, let's see if we can come up with a way to make it better. So we made a slightly bigger Pouchee, put the credit card pocket on the inside, and put a pocket on the outside to hold a Blackberry or cell phone. "
Anita's advice for other budding entrepreneurs? Try to stay out of debt, and "Don't try to be the biggest guy on the block at first," she says. "Test the market first. There's a learning curve in every business. I've hired PR firms, been on TV, been on QVC… getting your name out there is important. But you don't want to do too much too soon. In the beginning you're learning and you can pay a heavy price for that learning if the market isn't there for the product."