My journey as a small business owner
Every entrepreneur has a story. Mine is a continuing one. Ten years ago, my mother, Sally Robinson, invented the original 'PurseKeyper.' The idea is simple – a key-ring that slips on your wrist to keep your keys handy. The unique feature is the patented clip design, which allows a woman to attach the strap to her luggage, stroller, grocery cart, or handle of a larger bag – not only keeping one from losing her keys but also allowing her to hang her big bag when necessary. My mom’s initial idea came from the need to hang her bag on the grocery cart handle without putting it inside the cart, but we’ve found countless uses since then!
After sharing her idea with me, she started sewing them herself in her basement. We secured a meeting with the Dillard’s Accessory Buyer in Feb 2011, driving from Kentucky to Little Rock, Arkansas with a shopping cart and the samples mom had sewn in her basement. At the time, my mom made my entire family sign a confidentiality agreement. She wouldn’t let us talk to anyone about her idea for fear of someone taking it from her. Therefore, when Dillard’s said they wanted PurseKeyper in 100 locations in six weeks by Mother’s Day, we didn’t have a manufacturer, website, and a few other important details. However, we couldn’t tell the buyer no. We came back to Kentucky, quickly found a manufacturer in North Carolina, learned about EDI shipping, and everything necessary to make this a reality. Mom spent three weeks in North Carolina overseeing production. One time when I talked to her, she had walked into a church by herself to pray. We were so nervous. But, we did it!
I have been a Tasmanian devil since that day at Dillard’s headquarters swirling from one thing to another to keep things moving. We quickly applied to the gift shows, learning about the labor unions involved, designed our booth space with a Fancy Nancy doll setting in our grocery cart going to Atlanta, Dallas, Vegas, Chicago and NYC.
Before we knew it, PurseKeyper was in 400 gift stores across the country, Canada and Grand Cayman! Buyers loved the product. One vendor in Dallas laughed at us because we wouldn’t let one person pass by without telling them about PurseKeyper. Another vendor told us it was the best invention since the safety pin!
I just knew we had made it! I placed press packets in all of the gift show press offices. I just knew we were going to be discovered and be millionaires! WRONG.
Success was especially important to me because I had two small children and my husband at the time was out of a job. This was not a hobby for me. Sara Blakely (founder of SPANX and my idol) says, “There is a hidden blessing in the most traumatic things we go through in our lives. My brain always goes to where is the hidden blessing? Where is the positive in this?”. That is where my brain goes too! I thought my mom and me making PurseKeyper was the positive outcome when I was so upset my husband didn’t have a job. I knew we had something that truly solved problems for women and when re-orders weren’t pouring in, it was devastating. We had the wrong point of sale. We could get on the shelf, but not off the shelf. Customers didn’t know what the product was.
Then I met a rep for QVC. Hallelujah! PurseKeyper was so demonstrable, this was the perfect distribution channel. When I attended the training, I met Jackie Gonzales, one of the celebrity hosts. She wanted PurseKeyper on her favorite gift segment for the holidays! This was it! We were going to be millionaires! WRONG.
A few weeks before I was to go on air, I found myself facing a marital crisis. Needless to say, my world was rocked. Some of my best friends told me I “had a bad hair day” on TV that day. I was truly devastated and felt so desperate to sell PurseKeyper as my entire personal world had been turned upside down. When Jackie started talking about the colors PurseKeyper came in, no one knew what the product did. I didn’t redirect her and when the video started running showing the uses, sales started coming in, but it was too late. Success is based on dollar per minute and even though we sold 3,000 units, it wasn’t enough to get asked back.
The ugliness of my divorce started and I knew it was not going to be easy. My mom said to me, “We have made so many mistakes with PurseKeyper and you need to focus on getting through your divorce and fighting for your kids. We can pick this up and regroup after.” The NC factory had also been bought out by a company that did not want to make PurseKeyper, so it was like everything crumbled.
After two years of five mediations and a gut-wrenching two-day trial, I was granted my divorce and sole custody of my two children. The fear I faced during that time is indescribable. I was mentally paralyzed on so many levels. When I would attend women networking events or entrepreneurial lunches, I found excitement again. Seeing others' positive reactions when I would show them a PurseKeyper gave me HOPE again.
In 2013, I started looking for the low hanging fruit to get us back into the marketplace. Mom wasn’t going to spend any money attending the gift shows again and Dillard’s and former stores weren’t responding. A few local gift stores allowed me to test a few new displays, and I was trying to talk to customers and have a better approach about a point of sale.
I also had a friend tell me about the opportunity in the medical supply stores as PurseKeyper is a great accessory for women to use on a wheelchair or walker. I set up a display and started talking to customers. They loved it. I was gaining more HOPE.
I secured a meeting with Kroger in Louisville, headquarters for 197 stores. Kroger was supporting local, venturing into other goods besides food, and securing a bag to the shopping cart to have peace of mind while shopping is why mom invented the PurseKeyper! The buyer loved it. He made an order for 40 locations. We were back!
Mom worked with a group in our hometown of Somerset to start manufacturing. We were creating jobs in my hometown! A dream come true. She also invented the “PhoneKeyper” because at this point in 2014, everyone was getting smart phones they couldn’t lose, so by attaching the PhoneKeyper to the PurseKeyper we had the solution for women everywhere! Kroger allowed us to have a free standing 5 foot display with a video running of all the benefits of the products. A friend allowed us to use his UK and UofL NCAA licenses to test. Mom and I were delivering to all 40 Kroger checking in the backdoors from 4am – 11am rain, snow, sitters for kids, driving all over Kentucky. But, I just knew we would scale up to all 3000 Krogers across the country and be millionaires! WRONG!
The renovated Krogers had buried their outlets to plug our videos into. We found our displays pushed against some random wall where there was an outlet. I also realized how confusing it was for customers that saw our sign, PurseKeyper, and then we had the little bags (PhoneKeypers) hanging there. It was confusing over which purse the PurseKeyper was holding. Again, a point of sale disaster.
I was spiraling. I had no money left. My mom was so upset with the manufacturing end having to trim threads and oversee quality on everything that went out the door. But, we were having sales and women would tell me how much they loved their PurseKeyper. Why couldn’t we get it right?
Finally, a friend in New York told me I had to drop the word Purse. She said, “it is a handbag in the industry. You also call it a PurseKeyper and then spend so much effort telling everything else it does”. Ahh!!! It is a KEYPER!!! That is when the KEYPER and IT BAG were launched in 2016. However, my mom was done. She told me she couldn’t do it again. I found myself going through my rolodex, talking to every friend, family member and neighbor that would talk to me about the idea of KEYPER and the IT BAG. Before I knew it, I had found a great team that believed in the products and in me!
Sara Blakely ’s words “if you have a product that solves problems and it is selling…….listen to your customers”. We had sold over 60,000 products at that time. I knew I couldn’t give up. With the obstacles of the brick and mortar point of sale and with the new e-commerce boom, I was re-branding and re-launching with a new focus.
It took one full year to secure a USA manufacturer in Lebanon, Virginia and a manufacturer in China. I changed the hardware from silver to brass, changed the “shirt tag” branding label we had sewn on the backside of PurseKeyper to a KEYPER brass plate. The clear bags were becoming a must-have at sporting events and as I had also been working with a licensing company to expand our NCAA licensing, we could move forward with a fashionable clear bag, signature faux leather line, a real leather line, and a canvas line.
I found a girl to do the new website on a deferred payment, an amazing PR consultant who had aired our first interview in Dillard’s in the beginning and was still using the product. She genuinely understood the journey and is a believer. I found a neighbor and friend who is a banker and could help me with so many aspects of decision making. The team was forming. They would say, “we don’t know what we don’t know." Again, Sara Blakely says, “Don’t be intimidated by what you don’t know. That can be your greatest strength….”
Since Mom had overseen the manufacturing before and I couldn’t sew a button on, I had to learn about zipper teeth sizes, zipper pulls, fabrics, duties, tariffs, importing from China, digital marketing, not to mention the new world of e-commerce and digital advertising! I started in the dining room, moved to the family room and now have taken over my basement with KEYPER. I am so thankful for the friends and family who are helping me stay the course.
However, I have had friends tell me other friends “just didn’t get it” and it hurts my feelings so much. I kept telling myself how Sara Blakely had friends and even family tell her, “are you sure someone else hadn’t thought of that?”...and were negative. And she would tell herself to “listen to the customer. If it is selling and solving problems, don’t give up”……and I haven’t. I work 24/7. KEYPER and KIDS are my life.
The former QVC rep loved the changes and got us on QVC.com. We started selling on Amazon Prime. The new website and all social platforms are MyKeyper.com and MyKeyper. The products provide benefits to each person on a very individual basis. One can mix and match. Use together or separate.
With national exposure this year on The View and GMA and hearing from customers all over the country about how they love their KEYPER, is this it? Is this the turning point? I HOPE so!
In fact, during the years of 2017/2018 rebranding and redesigning the movie JOY came out about Joy Mangano’s story as an entrepreneur, which inspired me so much. She was also a single Mom who didn’t want to give up on her Miracle Mop. She stayed the course and now is a huge success. My friends tell me my movie will be called HOPE. I have lived so many years with HOPE and trying to keep it together while I continue the journey.
In fact, that's why I love the tag-line that KEYPER helps women #keypittogether. We all want to feel like we have it together, but a small thing like misplacing your keys or phone takes that away. That is my focus. This year, I also launched the KeypitTogether foundation pledging 5% of profits to help women and children in crisis “keypittogether”... much like I was in need of help during my divorce.
My children are now 13 and 15. They have watched me stay the course with persistence and perseverance. I HOPE I will be a testimony to them and others as I stay the course. The new KEYPER is up and running. I am filling orders, answering customer service and running every aspect of the business. I am still a long way from ever being a millionaire. But, I am thrilled with the KEYPER product, the bond I have with my mom, the friends I have made, the customers I have heard from, the lessons I have learned, the fear I have walked through.