Cameron Cruse faced a problem common to those who marry into the military: Relocating often, it's hard to find a job, much less build a career. Cruse teamed with fellow military spouse Lisa Bradley to put people like themselves to work making high-end handbags. With R. Riveter, in Southern Pines, North Carolina, they've built a network of spouses to make their products. -As told to Etelka Lehoczky
Facing a military reality.
When I married my husband, who was then a Ranger instructor in the U.S. Army, I didn't expect career challenges--I have a master's in architecture. But we started moving two years later and I had trouble finding a job. I met Lisa when our husbands were both stationed in Dahlonega, Georgia. She'd moved six times in eight years, and was feeling the effect of this lifestyle. We'd heard about the Create Jobs for USA campaign, and it sparked our business model. We wanted a national network of military spouses making our product. We produce handbags--they have lots of pieces, so remote workers can make multiple parts. It's a statement too: A handbag is an investment you carry every day. But at its heart, the company isn't about bags. It's about the network.
Learning to market.
We did a Kickstarter in 2014. Lisa has a very process-minded brain, and I like sewing and operations. Marketing always got caught in the middle. The Kickstarter forced us to learn how to sell, and the $42,082 we raised took us from a hobby business to a full-blown enterprise. We have a warehouse and storefront with 31 employees. We've also created Post to Pillar, a curated marketplace of products made by military spouses working for themselves. There are so many military spouses who have a vision and make their own products, and are building their own brands.
Boot camp for bootstrappers.
We started in 2011 in my garage. Each of us put in $2,000. We'd sell five bags to make the next 10 bags, and 10 bags to make the next 20. We sold them at trade shows and little markets, really pushing word of mouth. We built the network of Remote Riveters organically, with friends who wanted to make a little money. Whenever they moved, the network grew--it was almost exponential. We've never had to advertise for Riveters. You can come out of the gate making about $8 an hour, and equipment-wise, most people just need a sewing machine. They buy the material on credit. Today, we have 20 Riveters and a waitlist of more than 1,000 people.
Lisa and her family moved to New York less than a year after we started. Surprisingly, that helped us nail down our roles sooner than if we'd stayed together. When you're apart, you're forced to focus on your piece of the puzzle and be very intentional about what you're going to bring to the group.
Time in the tank.
We got on Shark Tank in 2016, which was like a massive slingshot. Mark Cuban's team taught us the importance of keeping your momentum going. We've been included in his Amazon Exclusives collection, but we've actually had more success on our own e-commerce channel. A lot of what we sell is our story, so we're most successful when we control our message.