Creating the "it" product of the summer is both a blessing and a curse. That's Emily Vaca's current reality. The 37-year-old founder of Minnidip, the Chicago-based maker of Instagram-worthy adult-size, though petite, pools, is into her third summer as the originator of the must-have backyard bauble of the season. 

"I photograph all of our campaign shoots myself," she says. "I build all the sets myself with the help of my dad and husband, [who] then does [the] lighting, and our design director does our direction for product shoots." It's a lot, she adds, but the juggle works. "It helps me also lead the team, because I know where the pitfalls are, I know where the efficiencies are."

Minnidip's inflatables, which Vaca designed herself for the Instagram set, landed in Target stores just over a year after launching in 2017 and quickly became coveted. For her spring 2020 New York Fashion Week show, Stacey Bendet of Alice + Olivia featured Minnidip beach balls and inflatable pool tubes inspired by Bendet's line. Thanks to TikTok, the Minnidip sensation continued throughout 2020; Target stores were limiting Minnidip pools to one per customer, and supply issues at retail stores drove even more sales on Minnidip's website. On its peak sales day, August 21, 2020, the company saw a 3,700 percent increase in sales from its peak sales day in 2019. Vaca says that if her brand had had the capacity to do so, Minnidip could've experienced sales five times that number. The  company declined to provide revenue specifics.

That first viral summer was an incredible learning experience, which the entrepreneur says helped her change her approach to everything from advertising and pricing to distribution and fulfillment. "We're able to navigate really quickly and do the work of a team of 20 to 30 people even though we're still only four right now," says Vaca. "We approached it that way from the beginning ... so we were set up to quickly pivot in those moments to find the best solution to get through them."

While Vaca still suffers from the same supply hangups as everyone else these days, she says those first three overheated summers taught her a lot about how to cater to a ravenous market. Here's what she learned:

 inline image

Watch the numbers ... to a point

Vaca says using sales data from prior years can help project product demand and help formulate a stocking strategy, but can also be a "tricky science." For Minnidip, predicting what the demand would be for its products this season was a challenge, because Vaca wasn't sure if the unprecedented demand that ramped up through the pandemic would remain elevated heading into this season. Yet  maintaining a careful balance of supply and demand is important if you don't want to end up with tons of leftover inventory. Doing that is also key to the consumer experience. "Every year," says Vaca, "I see people posting: 'These sell out so fast, make sure to get yours now.' That's a good thing. It increases a product's desirability--and satisfaction when they shop. You want people to feel like it's special that they found one and they got it and it's theirs." 

Be prepared to switch gears

While Vaca relies on sales data to prepare her inventory for the summer season, it's not her only strategy. She also ensures she has plenty of backup options when bestsellers sell out. Naturally, Vaca tries to maintain a solid reserve of Minnidip's bestsellers, but she supplements that demand with other patterns and designs, which are sometimes limited edition or collaborations. "It's striking that balance," she says. It's about giving the people what they want and something unexpected. Something they're willing to try, she adds.

Stay on trend

Minnidip also tries to stay ahead of the design trends so consumers gravitate toward the company's products. "Trying to project what's on-trend versus what they're looking for that might match a swimsuit that they bought that season. We're trying to gauge where the trends and design are going but also seeing which ones people are gravitating to the most and then to continue to flesh those out," Vaca says.

Embrace your niche, but think bigger, too 

Producing and marketing a unique product that has a seasonal consumer market in different parts of the country can have its challenges. Vaca says knowing the ins and outs of your product market and your peak sales window is paramount. While Minnidip may not sell as quickly in the U.S. during the winter, it's not winter everywhere. "We quickly went into Australia, which is a flip season for us," she says. "So that was allowing us to expand our growth but also to have sales coming in during our slower sales time of our stateside season."

Vaca was able to further create a year-round business by offering Minnidip ball pits and balls in the same fun and quirky designs as her pools. "It allowed us to open up and create a year-round brand," she says, "even though obviously summers are our peak season and our craziest."