A divorce in 2008 left mother of three Melissa Kieling broke and desperate. What she did have was an idea for a better lunch bag. Now, PackIt, her Westlake Village, California-based company, is taking off.
I invented PackIt as a matter of necessity. I was suddenly a single mom, and I had no career experience to fall back on after a decade of staying home to raise my kids. I watched the bank repossess my car. At times, I had as little as $13 in my checking account.
The idea for the product came from listening to my kids complain that their blueberries got warm and mushy at school, despite using insulated lunchboxes with frozen gel coolers tossed inside them. I thought, What if those gel packs were actually built inside the walls of the lunchboxes and the bags could be stored flat in the freezer? It's stupid silly--one of those things you wonder why no one had done before.
To make the first sample, I cut my shower curtain to use as the liner, then cut ice blanket material and ice packs and pinned them together on my dining room table to form a makeshift cooler bag. Then, I begged my dry cleaner to sew them together for me, because I can't sew.
I became a gel expert, investigating various ingredients of frozen gels. I wanted something eco-friendly and food safe that could hold its form and not squish to one side of a lunch-bag wall. I needed it to be thin enough for the bag to fold flat in the freezer, too. I ordered all kinds of gel samples and ran my own temperature tests to determine which ones stayed the coldest the longest. I finally found a gel that could make a frozen bag actually change the temperature of food, cooling it by 20 degrees.
I showed a couple of friends my prototype, and they put $200,000 behind the idea--enough for me to produce a first-run batch of 5,000 bags at a local factory. Then, I set off for a series of retail trade shows. At my first show in Las Vegas, Target buyers came by, looked at the product, and asked for a meeting.
It was a huge deal to me, but in preparing for the meeting, I felt out of my league. I had never given a sales presentation in my life, and I felt funny putting CEO on my business card. I decided to go with the title Founder/Mom, explaining that I was just a mom who saw an unmet need.
They thought the concept was great, but they were not convinced the consumer would understand how PackIt worked or why it was so different than any other bag. We needed to educate the consumer.
I came home encouraged yet paralyzed with fear about everything that needed to be done: the manufacturing, securing financing, production, marketing. Some mornings, I could not even walk past my computer without getting an ache in my stomach. I had no experience in any of this and needed to keep learning in order to check items off the list.
A few months later, I managed to raise $2 million from a group of private investors and get an introduction to a person in the direct-response industry who helped us create an infomercial. On camera, we could tell our story and demonstrate the innovation behind PackIt. I decided it was go big or go home.
The bet on the infomercial paid off, big time. Our annual sales went from $150,000 to $6 million from 2010 to 2011. That traction helped us get distribution in stores such as Target, Walmart, and Bed Bath & Beyond.
Today, I am still awed by our growth: We're projecting $16 million in sales this year. But in a way, I always knew this idea would work. It just made sense--a cooler that actually cooled. Plus, my idea had to work, because I had no fallback plan. It was a matter of survival.
As told to Inc. contributing writer Jennifer Alsever.