Duffy Hofer is a mom who loves surprising her children with meaningful and special gifts. But Hofer found that with every holiday and birthday, the packaging of certain items was becoming more and more recognizable (think iPhones and video games). She decided to create a reusable set of dividers that can be arranged around a gift item in a larger box so the recipient is entirely unaware of what they are unwrapping, hence her business name Disguise The Surprise. Hofer’s business isn’t just a new concept in gift packaging, it was also her way of helping to support her family and find a project of her own. The Creve Coeur, Missouri-based entrepreneur is navigating the new realm of entrepreneurship: finding local groups of other female entrepreneurs to consult day to day, getting her tech fluent teenage son to help with promotional videos, and of course, seeking out the ever elusive work-life balance.
Hofer’s story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
What was your reason for starting your business?
As a mom of two teenage boys, I got frustrated when I was wrapping gifts. As they got older, the gifts they wanted came in very recognizable shaped boxes (cell phones, earbuds, video games). If you hand it to them wrapped in the original box, they know what it is immediately. Boring! I spent too much time trying to come up with clever ways to disguise these gifts…taping things down, running around the house trying to find different size boxes. I thought to myself there has to be a better way to do this. I worked with local labs and designed a 12 piece divider set that solves this frustration in a quick and easy way, in addition to making thoughtful multi-item gift boxes for any occasion. I knew I wanted to go back to work to help with our family finances, but wanted a flexible schedule to still be here for my kids. To find a good work, life balance.
How do you define success?
Success comes in various forms to me. Of course, in order to continue to move a business forward, you have to have sales coming in. Continued growth and increase in sales is one part of success to me. Expanding revenue streams where a product is being sold is a part of success as well. Being able to take an idea from your head to producing a product sold on the market is hard work and therefore also part of a successful definition. Being able to do this in front of your kids to show them that anything is possible if you work hard is also part of success. Having press outlets pick up the Disguise The Surprise story and showcase the emotional benefits to people out there is also success to me. I truly believe our gift-giving habits, though they might be a small aspect of our life, can bring joy to many people. Therefore sharing these benefits with new people is success.
Tell us about your biggest success to date
Jill Martin from the 3rd Hour Today Show gave her on-air colleagues (Al Roker, Tom & Joe) some socks disguised in boxes with Disguise The Surprise for the first day of Hanukkah. That was very cool to have happen. She believed in the product and it’s benefits to put on-air and share with her audience.
What is your top challenge and how have you addressed it?
I would say my top challenge is financing. My husband and I boot strapped everything and upfronted a pretty large cost for the injection mold. This is my first business and I realized that organic growth can be slow. This is not just a new product, but a new concept. There is an education piece and the video is key. I don’t have funds to advertise, so I have been using social media to gain exposure. There are only so many hours. I can’t wait to one day actually hire someone who is experienced in this area to assist! To address this challenge I am working on getting press to get more eyeballs on this product. I joined a press group that is teaching me how to do this properly and gain contacts. Disguise The Surprise was on 3rd Hour Today and I was on my local St. Louis FOX station two times this past year and once on our NBC affiliate. The FOX station is Columbus, OH also did a piece on Disguise The Surprise.
Another challenging area is video. Hiring professional videographers for everything from a founder story to videos for your website, b-roll, ads, etc is very expensive. I can’t afford to hire someone yet. I found local guys who can do some small one-off’s for me. But what I did do is utilize my own son – he is sixteen and in a Broadcast Tech class at school. I reached out to his instructor and he let Tyler use my founder story video as a class assignment. Recently, he finished my video and I am so proud of him! Is it perfect? No. But it is good and tells my story in a fun and light way. That was one way I worked around lack of funds to hire professionals.
Have you experienced any significant personal situations that have affected your business decisions?
For fourteen years I was the active mom who was the PTA President and very involved in my kids lives. During Covid, we also got a puppy, so tack that responsibility on. There are just not enough hours in the day to get everything done. I think especially for someone with a personality who is a doer, it’s hard when the end of the day comes and your list is still crazy long. Sometimes you wonder how in the world it will all get done. It’s a hard balance juggling the hours for business and personal life. I need to tell myself, that the rest can wait until tomorrow.
What is your biggest tip for other startup entrepreneurs?
Gosh, I would say several things. When I was starting out, I found my manufacturer right here in St. Louis who was willing to work with small businesses on numbers. I also had many people tell me he was a “good person”, so I felt comfortable starting a working relationship with him. They told me I would have to go to China to get my injection mold done due to costs. But when the quote came back, the price was double the cost. I told them to hold off a bit. I researched and found AMBA (American Mold Builders Association)…who knew that existed! I called about fifteen to twenty companies and explained what was going on. In the end, I found a fabulous mold making company outside Chicago with over sixty mold makers on site. Their cost came in right at the same cost as the Chinese factory with way less lead time! I was thrilled. So my tip is to trust your gut instinct and do research on your own. Don’t always, “just listen” to what people say. Find out on your own as well. One other smaller lesson is on printing materials. I ordered bulk material to save money on individual costs, but then I quickly realized that my images and visuals were constantly changing. I had to throw out lots of papers. Luckily they can be recycled. But that is another tip. Don’t order bulk print right away, for you will most likely evolve.
How do you find inspiration on your darkest days?
People in my social groups that I have met through this business. There are a couple of product business communities where I have met other small business owners, primarily women. They are my sounding board and who I brainstorm with. I am very thankful to have them in my life. I would love to have even more and find more local in-person mentors.
Who is your most important role model?
Well, I would say that it was my mom. She passed away five years ago, but when I was younger, she and I would talk about various product ideas. Right after college, I researched one of her ideas to see how this whole thing worked. But then life happened and I moved to New York City. Of course, years later, this product is all over many stores! When I started looking at my list of product ideas to get something started a couple of years ago, I could not help but think of her and how she would be helping me on this journey if she were here. ◼