The Story Exchange is devoting the month of May to profiling mom entrepreneurs.
While taking her children to school one day, Amy Davis’s daughter needed a tissue. She leaned over and searched for one on the passenger seat floor. “My car veered to the right and I nearly took out my neighbors fence,” she says.
Soon after she had the lightbulb moment that drives many entrepreneurs to come up with a new product. “I thought there must be a way to easily access a tissue while behind the wheel, which would keep drivers from becoming distracted,” Davis told The Story Exchange.
From there, Davis – who was an MBA student at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut – came up with the idea for the Kiss-u Tissue Tube, a refillable tissue dispenser that fits in the cupholder of a car. She then began looking for a company to produce a prototype, but it wasn’t easy.
“At the time (in 2008) it was very difficult to find an American company to make a prototype for my product,” she said. She contacted several companies in China who Davis says were “more willing to facilitate new concept development” and produce lower orders.
Davis chose a Chinese supplier, who delivered a successful prototype for the Kiss-u, which she then took to Walgreens, and they liked it. Her product was soon stocked in thousands of Walgreens and the orders were coming.
Coming to America
When Davis was able to offer American factories 60,000 units or more to produce, they became interested. And Davis was interested in them.
“Last spring the economy was terrible and I felt that if it were possible for me to produce in the US and still make money then it was my responsibility to do so,” she told The Story Exchange.
She didn’t know how many factories were involved in manufacturing her product in China because “they take care of everything.” The only thing Davis had to do was to arrange shipping for her product from China.
When she decided to produce the Kiss-u in the US she had to find five American factories for it to work (for the top, the cylinder, the plug for the bottom, tissues, and packaging/fulfillment.)
But they wouldn’t consider her unless she had a business loan (to help her gain financial legitimacy.) With help from the Women’s Business Development Council in Stamford, Connecticut, Davis was able to secure a line of credit with a major bank and she was ready to move forward.
The Kiss-u is now manufactured in the US, which is helping to employ people in facilities in Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Connecticut.
Late orders, missed opportunities
But the challenges of coordinating production are nothing to sneeze at, especially since her orders are ad-hok. Davis says regular customers — who have items scheduled for production each week or month — get preference at the factories.
This has resulted in late order fulfillment, which may have cost Davis dearly.
“In China, because of the way the factories are structured with most of the factories housing the employees, people want to do the over time hours it takes to produce a product like mine [on time],” she said.
Last summer the Kiss-u tissues were supposed to be on Walgreens shelves in time for the back to school shopping season. But factory delays meant her product was not in stores until mid-October.
Davis says the delay had “a snow ball effect on everything” with her product getting lost amongst the the Halloween and Thanksgiving merchandise.
Still, Davis says she prefers working with US factories. “There are things about use and consumer preferences that are obvious to US factory managers that would not be obvious to Chinese factory managers,” she says. And she’s happy she no longer has to coordinate shipping from China: “it was a real headache and a lot of work.”
Davis plans to continue manufacturing in the US, although for orders less than 60,000 she still uses manufacturers in China. “I will always prefer to produce a product as close to the end users as possible … It’s an environmental issue as well as a moral issue for me.”
She says producing the Kiss-u products in America is a bit more expensive but she says it’s worth it.
“Bringing manufacturing jobs back to the US has been incredibly satisfying.”
What’s been your biggest challenge you’ve faced in producing your product? Share your story with us.
Posted: May 18, 2012
If you're a woman business owner, share your startup story through our 1,000 Stories project and be featured on our site.