The isABelt girls have always been inventing. My sisters and I came up with the idea for the isABelt while shopping for low-rise jeans. As cute as the pants were, they would not stay up and you could see right down the back of the pants whenever we bent over or sat down. We found ourselves wearing belts even if the outfit didn't call for one. And we noticed that our friends had the same problem. We decided to do something about the dilemma, so we created the isABelt. IsABelt Ltd. -- owned and operated by partners and sisters Leslie Wilkins-Gaudio, Elise Wilkins and Lori Wilkins-Vaughan -- is booming.
It took us less than a year to bringisABelt -- a half-inch-wide, flexible belt that virtually disappears when worn -- to market in 2007.
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Get it Off the Ground Leslie did most of the initial legwork. First she found a graphic designer, Michelle, who is still with us four years later. This was important because you not only need a product rendering, but also a logo and packaging, so that you can box and brand your product. It's important to find the right graphics person because she not only has to interpret your visions, but also give input and know when to step back.
Our next step was finding a manufacturer. With the web at your fingertips, there is no reason to travel far and wide to find the right people. After speaking with various manufacturers, we decided on one that would be able to accommodate our small initial test order. This was key. Most manufacturers will not manufacture limited quantities of a product because it costs too much. But by researching and using Skype, we were able to identify a manufacturer that could handle our initial needs and grow with us as we grew.
Before manufacturing, we trademarked the name and started the patent process. One mistake many new companies make is pouring a lot of money into a product or company without knowing whether it will be successful. We started with an initial order of 250 pieces of each size. We have four sizes, so our initial order was for 1,000 pieces. We ran the numbers and decided that would give us enough product to see if there was actually a market without breaking the bank. Also, in the event the product did take off, we would have enough product to fulfill any new orders or reorders that came in.
We started out by consigning isABelt to local stores. We decided to go this route because of several factors. We had a rapport with many local retailers. This made it easier to go in and present the product and opportunity. Second, it was a no-risk option for the retailers. They would have the opportunity to present a never-seen-before item to their customers, and if it didn't sell, we would happily take back the products. After identifying our test retailers, we gave each of them nine pieces and placed them in a basket on the counter with a small sign saying "isABelt." They were not responsible for payment unless the product sold -- and sell it did. Four years, 500,000 pieces and 1,000 retailers later, we still count these test stores among our customers.
There's a lot to consider when starting any business. Here's what we learned when we launched isABelt.
- Investors or no investors? That is the question: isABelt Ltd. does not have investors. Leslie, Lori and I (along with our mother, a silent partner) all put up a minimum amount of capital to purchase the initial order. We started by putting up $10,000 each, in the event that there were immediate needs. I believe that much of our continued success, especially in this economy, is because we started out slow and steady and reinvested all monies back into the company. As we grow larger and receive larger orders, we are looking into factoring for financing. IsABelt sales are about $750,000 annually and growing every day.
- Marketing: The challenge of marketing your product is knowing and understanding your market. The key to successful marketing is to live, breathe and eat your product. We talk to everyone we come into contact with about our product. I think the most basic key to successful marketing is to network, network and network. This has afforded us the opportunity to have isABelt featured in national magazines such as Real Simple and on TV shows such as Today and The Big Idea. IsABelt has been featured on HSN and is now being sold in retailers across the United States, Canada and Europe. Our marketing today is not what it was four years ago. When you have a new product, your marketing tactic is to present the newness and novelty of the item. As you grow and brand your products, the emphasis shifts to the "everyone has one" tactic. The trick with marketing is never to stop.
- Sell with passion: We have found that no one can sell and represent our product like we can. As an owner, always be involved, especially when hiring sales teams. Fuel their passion and provide incentives.
- Competition: As with all great inventions, there is competition. Start the patent process if you have a new invention, but remember that it takes three to four years for patents to publish. In the meantime, if you have a great product, there will be knock-offs. Know why you have a superior product, and do not get discouraged. When the patent is published, you will be able to notify others of their infringement. Until then, there will be enough business for everyone.
- Quality control: Two years ago we ordered 10,000 isABelts. Unbeknownst to us, our manufacturer used an inferior plastic called "regrind" in our clasp. We found out about this when we sent an updated e-mail blast to our previous customers and started getting responses that said "mine broke." We were devastated. But we tackled the problem head on. To ensure that this won't happen again, we request samples of each new reorder and test the strength and integrity of the product before going to mass production. We also do spot quality tests. And, of course, we've replaced every broken belt to date.
- Grow the line: Your customers are always looking for your next product. isABelt's first expansion was to create isABeltWIDE -- a wider, unisex belt. Then we came out with isAStrips, isABelt's version of fashion fix-it apparel tape. Our newest product is called Strapdowns; they anchor your pants in place when you put on your boots.
- Tips for aspiring entrepreneurs: Our biggest tip for aspiring entrepreneurs is to really believe in what you are doing, and just do it. If you think of the big picture of starting a business and/or new product all at once, it can be pretty intimidating and overwhelming. If you have an idea, get on the internet. The world is at your fingertips. Take one step at a time, and you'll be surprised how things start happening. Take all the advice you receive with a grain of salt; go for it and follow the old saying, "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again."
Elise Wilkins is a partner inisABelt Ltd. and handles marketing and PR for the company, which manufactures and sells a virtually invisible belt.