Clever Mom makes $1 million with new way to pack lunches.
By Chuck Green
Since she was obsessed with finding a certain type of lunch container for her children, Kelly Lester figured other mothers might be as well.
“I just couldn’t find exactly what I was looking for and thought if I kept searching and really wanted it, other people were doing the same thing,” said Lester, who developed a product called Easy Lunch Boxes, designed with compartmentalized containers and cooler bags.
Actually, years before, Lester came up with an idea for decorative switch covers, which she later sold to focus more on her career as an actress and singer. Lester still acts and sings.
But the stage aside, when it comes to conceiving product ideas, Lester said, “I’d never try to sell or market something you could find 9,000 of; I’d never be a jewelry designer and try to sell jewelry. I try to come up with something that there’s a need for, something that people can afford. I’m a thrifty shopper myself.”
Lester was intent on approaching her current concept differently than her first, when she had a factory with nine employees and was constantly there. “This time, I have everything made in China, and I don’t fulfill anything myself,” said Lester, who instead has a fulfillment house.
Seeking someone to make the containers, Lester contacted U.S. manufacturers, who provided cost estimates that were out of her range. That’s when Lester realized she needed to go overseas instead. Problem was, she didn’t speak other languages, or understand things like international trade. So she began Googling. “Pretty much everything I’ve learned, I’ve learned on Google. I Googled things like, ‘How do you make things overseas,’ and found the term ‘China sourcing agent.’”
One company’s website popped out at her. “I came up with 20 different websites and all of them were sort of general, kind of slick, like ‘contact us and send us your email.’” Meantime, the site that appealed to her spelled out the process, start to finish, and included a couple of case studies. “She explained what she had done with a couple of small businesses and different products, so it was more obvious to me that it might be workable. I liked it. I have a pretty good gut instinct about a lot of things and spend an inordinate amount of time looking at things like websites and blogs. I figured if someone has taken the time to present something as clearly and easily as she did, I wanted to talk to that person. When I did, she was extremely forthcoming and immediately sent me all of these references, which were glowing.
The arrangement’s worked well, she noted. “She pretty much handles everything, and I don’t have to deal with the factories; and she has high standards for the factories she deals with. She’s a conduit and takes a small percentage of every order and arranges everything,” Lester said of her rep, who’s Chinese. “Her background is in manufacturing and printing. There’s no way I was personally equipped to navigate any of that.”
Meantime, Lester also participates in a private Facebook group, where she gathers with a number of others, with whom she exchanges information. “A lot of them have been burned by their factories because they order something and it shows up different, or they’re not clear what to do,” said Lester, who’s company is self-funded, along with support from her father.
Lester values any advice she receives, especially given that her approach to her current product differs from the way she operated the first one. “It was a learning curve,” she said. “With my old business, I actually dealt directly with people that I came in contact with that had U.S. factories. I ordered something and it showed up a week later.” On the other hand, “when you order something from China, it shows up three and four months later—if you’re lucky. So you have to plan way in advance.”
Chuck Green is a writer in Atlanta. Learn more: www.chuck-green.com.
KELLY’s STARTUP AT A GLANCE
Business description: My EasyLunchbox System takes the madness out of lunch packing. EasyLunchbox compartmentalized containers and cooler bags allow you to pack lunches fast, without wasting time, money, paper, or plastic. EasyLunchboxes are the best-selling lunchboxes on Amazon.com
Founded in 2009: Sales from last year $800,000; this year, over $1,000,000
How you started business, and why: “I came up with my business…well…I would like to say that I was so taken with the amazing Japanese style of food packing called “bento” that I decided to design an ideal version for American-style boxed lunches. But really, I came up with it because I was lazy. I didn’t want to spend time in the kitchen packing lunches. However, a mom’s gotta feed her kids [sigh]. I have three of them. And school lunches [ick] were not an option. If I had to pack, I needed to figure out a way to do it FAST. I also wanted to pack waste-free. I had been using multiple containers and lids for each daughter’s lunch—and getting stuck with a load of dishes at the end of every school day—from just one meal! So I designed a product that streamlined the process.
“Today and into the future, my goal is to reach more and more people—offering them the tools and ideas to make healthy grab-and-go meals fast, easy and fun, with little to no negative impact on the planet. I am currently building a new community site—a free public forum where lunch-packing enthusiasts (experienced or beginners) can gather, share ideas, and ask questions about all things related to lunch packing—no matter what brand of lunchbox they like to use.”
Web site: http://www.easylunchboxes.com