As told to Allen P. Roberts Jr.
Barbara Kavovit was curled up on her couch in front of the TV, comfortable but not content. The construction company she had started seven years earlier was fading, she was a newly divorced single mom, and she desperately craved a career that required more creativity.
Then something on the television sparked an idea at once simple and comprehensive: She would make a line of women-friendly tools and tool kits, which would represent not just a way to get things done but a whole idea of empowerment. She took the professional name Barbara K and founded a company called Barbara K! Enterprises, which last year sold more than $5 million worth of stylishly presented drills, hammers, six-in-one screwdrivers, and the like. Her tools and tool kits are sold here in stores like Bed Bath & Beyond and Fred Meyer and also reach women in four European countries, with Australia soon to follow. Her first book, Room for Improvement, is due out on Mother's Day; she is developing a TV show (her second); and she expects Barbara K! sales to hit $15 million this year. Everything emblazoned with her name is ergonomically, aesthetically, and psychologically designed for women -- and, according to their maker, for success.
My eureka moment came in 2001 while I was watching Sex and the City. It was the episode where Samantha just moved into a new apartment and needed to put up curtains but didn't know how. I hated the fact that women who are perceived as being so strong are helpless when it comes to handiwork. I can say from experience, it's harder to bake a cake than it is to hang a ceiling fan.
Right there it hit me -- build a tool kit for women. Every time I went to Home Depot I would see those ugly, clunky tools, and I knew if I could get tools for women, who spend $55 billion on home improvement annually, they'd be a hit. The most crucial aspect of this was to produce tools with a sense of style. Women have smaller hands, but most importantly something made specifically for women must be both functional and fashionable. I wanted the tool kits to be something that could actually be displayed, not hidden away in a cabinet or closet. The original kit is a clever, crafty assortment of 30 different tools that'll help hang a picture or fix a hole in a wall -- but that looks cool and weighs less than three pounds.
I spent 10 years in the construction business -- the New York City construction business. Talk about a male-dominated sector. But I loved being the only woman in the room and I think they underestimated me quite a bit, which only helped me. I got my start by helping the housewives around my neighborhood connect with contractors -- like if one of them wanted a ceiling fan installed or a door fixed, she'd call me and I'd call a contractor. It was all trial and error at first; some guys would never show up and others would do horrible work, which would cost me double. But I eventually learned the guys I could count on and stuck with them. Then I decided to start my own business and act as a liaison on a much larger scale. It was overwhelming at first, but I focused on big companies, such as IBM, iVillage, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. My best year we did about $60 million worth of business. But after September 11, the construction business became clogged and it was hard to get jobs, so I just ceased operations. That was also right on the heels of my divorce and the tool kit idea, so I didn't need much of an excuse to go it alone.
I scraped together $8,000 to produce a prototype of the tool kit and got it done. I still remember the first time I saw it: Next to my son, Zachary, who's seven, it's my favorite thing in the world. When I saw it completed, I knew I had to devote all of my time to developing that kit and the lifestyle it promoted. Shortly after that, I developed the Dorm Survival Kit, which does about as well as my tool kit. It's full of everything a woman away from home for the first time would need. It has a tape measure, a flashlight, even those plastic zip ties, so they can organize all those dangling wires from electronics. They get so messy.
We also make a roadside safety kit that has everything you'll need to fix a flat or jump a dead battery -- but it also has a poncho in it. Changing a tire in the rain sucks, but it sucks even more if you're soaked while doing it.
I hate pink. It's patronizing. Every product we make is blue and gray. Gray is a strong color, the color of anchors.
Every product comes with a little how-to book. I call the books the soul of the tool kit. They're funny little instructions that tell you how to hang curtains, or tell you the best type of tow truck to call -- which is a flatbed.
Knowing in your heart that there's a demand for what you're selling and actually selling it are two completely separate things. It took me six months of cold-calling to get the tool kit into the first store, JCPenney.
It was such a relief to have proof that people were willing to buy what I was selling, which is more than just a kit with tools in it. If there's a saying that sums up my life, it's this: Home improvement equals self-improvement. That's the essence of my products and the books that show how to use them -- and that's what we're selling.
I remember taking swimming lessons when I was nine. I would swim for what felt like hours in the Long Island Sound, and no matter what, those swimming lessons happened. I was out there shaking like crazy in the freezing water, and there was my mom, screaming, "Keep swimming, Barb, it builds character. Keep swimming." I also remember my first taste of true accomplishment, a few years before. My dad, my sister, and I built a bunk bed. We had this pile of wood and a box full of tools, and out of that we built this contraption that I slept on for the next five or six years. My son comes into work after school and I see that same inspiration in him. He sits and draws tools -- he calls them the Zack K! line. I just tell him, "Keep swimming, Zack. Keep swimming."