All her life, Utah entrepreneur Jaye Genung has struggled with being cold. In fact, she had long ago accepted feeling chilly as a fact of life. “My eyes are blue, and I’m always cold,” she says.
Over the years, she tried a variety of solutions to cope with Utah’s bitter winters — the state sees average temperatures as low as 26 degrees — but nothing worked. So she decided to create her own fix.
Last year, Genung, 41, launched Dragon Heatwear of Midvale, Utah, to make and sell coats and gloves for both women and men with self-heating mechanisms embedded in the lining. The company’s staff of six sells its warming wares to people throughout the United States and Canada, and is expanding at a much faster pace than Genung had anticipated. When she placed her first manufacturer order, she wondered how she would sell 100 coats — but Genung sold 1,200 inside of a year.
With her company, Genung solved a personal problem that, it turns out, was shared by many people — including whole communities she had never considered in her original business plan.
A Perfect, Chilly Storm
Genung’s entrepreneurial journey began, in a way, after she got divorced. She had married young, and the couple stayed together for 21 years before parting ways. When she began dating again, the fact that she was chronically cold was often a point of conversation on dates, as well as a factor in planning where to go or what to do. One man even purchased her a Snuggie as a joke.
Her current husband, a plumber who does not suffer the same discomfort — she says he is “like a boiler” — suggested she try wearing a self-heating jacket. And he bought one for her as a gift in 2015, a couple of years after they started dating.
Though it wasn’t the “15-pound monster-man jacket” she expected when he first floated the idea, the coat did have some problems. The biggest was that its heating mechanism was powered by a bulky battery pack, which either rested in the small of her back or in her lap and was especially inconvenient for driving. Also, it was more utilitarian than stylish, she recalls, as if its creators simply thought, “Let’s do a woman’s one, too.”
“I thought, ‘I can do this better,’” she says. Genung found a far slimmer battery and used it to power carbon-fiber coils built into the chest and back of her machine-washable coats, which she now sells for $150 to $250. As she developed her idea, she began brainstorming how to market her stylish, toasty coats to other “cold moms at soccer and lacrosse games” around town.
While considering starting up, Genung was well into a career in product development and project management. She had been working her way up the ranks in corporate Utah since 1996, earning degrees in English and legal studies from Utah Valley University while working at companies like BlenderBottle, which makes portable drink bottles. After years in the workplace, she had seen plenty of gender inequalities, especially in salary negotiations and the advancement of less qualified male peers — and she wanted out.
“I’m not a religious person, but I think things happen for a reason,” she says. Her work experience — and frustrations she had navigated as a woman — would ultimately give her both the business acumen and fire for change that she needed to take the entrepreneurial leap. She did so with some help from Kyle Jacobson, a trusted former BlenderBottle colleague who offered marketing advice and now serves as Dragon Heatwear’s chief marketing officer.
Genung’s product development experience came in handy almost immediately by preparing her for the difficulties of forging manufacturing partnerships in China. “I learned the culture, the do’s and do-not’s, the customs, when to call, when not to call” well before starting up, she adds. Despite that know-how, she spent close to a year researching options before committing to a factory.
Genung decided at the start to forego seeking investments — even crowdfunding gifts — and opted to bootstrap her efforts entirely, as she still does today. Her reluctance to take money is born of her frustrations with male corporate culture, she says, and a resulting commitment that “this is mine, and no one’s gonna tell me how to run it.”
Genung says she is receptive to advice from her male colleagues, her husband and other knowledgeable men in her life, but that the buck stops with her. “Ultimately I’m going to speak up and say: ‘No, that’s not the way. Here’s what we’re gonna do.’” So far, her instincts have guided the company well, she says. “Growth and market reach are only hampered by the ability to buy enough stock to feed that market.”
Offering Unexpected Aid
As it turns out, her market extends far beyond the local, cold climate she thought she would serve initially.
When Genung launched the company, she says she assumed her coats would never reach warm states like Florida, Hawaii and Texas. But she quickly found surprise clientele in people who work in meat lockers, on docks and who have health-related needs for warm clothing, such as people with circulatory disorders.
Learning how her coats help people with health challenges has been an especially welcome surprise, Genung says. She remembers one woman who bought a coat for her 80-year-old father, a man suffering from kidney disease, who said it was “making all the difference in the world to him.” There was also the customer who told Genung that the coat gave her a more subtle way of soothing the pain she felt from a double mastectomy while out running errands in public.
These individuals may not comprise a large portion of her client base, Genung says, but knowing that her products make a difference has been “really gratifying.” That is why she plans to stay as involved as possible in the customer service end of her business, even though she knows she’ll have to wear many hats as she manages its continued growth.
Genung declined to disclose revenue figures, but says Dragon Heatwear has already earned and expanded “beyond what I, a year ago, would have ever imagined.” Indeed, she had initially hoped to be able to work full-time on the business within its first 3 years of operation, but she made that shift just 7 months in.
And if you take it from Genung, she’s just getting warmed up.