Sunday, July 10, 2011

How Do You Become #1 on Amazon? Ask the Mother of Reinvention

Kelly Lester and
husband, Loren Lester.
It would be one thing if Kelly Lester and her EasyLunchboxes came of age in the thriving world of social media, but what makes her story exceptional is that she first became an inventor and entrepreneur when  Mark Zuckerberg was about 12. Her product then, decorative light switch covers, was made in the United Sates and sold in brick and mortar stores and museum shops.

Her website, was the only game in town back in 1996, when buying a domain name on the nascent World Wide Web felt like riding into an unpopulated frontier: search for switch plates and her company easily came up first.

In 2009, a few years after selling her first company, Kelly started a second. She launched the website.

“If computers had crickets, we heard crickets,” she said. "If you're not on page one or two of search engines, you don't exist."

And so began the reincarnation of a mom entrepreneur. She looked for mom bloggers to do reviews, schooled herself in Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and recently, she got her lunch boxes listed on Amazon. Last week she announced she’d conquered the mighty river of free shipping: in two months her product has became the site's number one selling lunch box.

EasyLunchboxes, containers
and cooler bag.
The story of this second innovation, a single lid bento-style lunch box, began as an obsession. She had three kids in school, three lunches to pack, and no lunch box that streamlined the process. Packing lunches was something she’d done since she was a kid, when she’d toss cheese sandwiches and some store brand Oreos into brown paper bags for her four brothers. For her own three daughters she needed something different.

“I wanted to make the same lunch for all three of them. I wanted it to all be uniformed so I didn’t have to think so hard.”

Using multiple containers (three containers and three girls equals at least nine containers a day) was driving Kelly, “absolutely insane.”

She searched in stores, on Google and Amazon but didn’t find what she was looking for. So she called plastic manufacturers in the United States. Finally she reached a man who told her what she’d need to make her own lunch box.

A mold. And $75,000.

That’s when Kelly turned to China.

She contacted a liaison in America who helped her work with a factory in China and made her EasyLunchboxes for far less than the American quote.

Instead of selling her product in stores, she focused on the website. A few months ago, an associate helped open the door with Amazon. The burden of shipping costs, something that hurts a small business such as hers, has been lightened.

“I can just send them (Amazon) thousands of pounds of product for pennies of what UPS can usually ship.”

Using her own fulfillment service and shipping without Amazon’s discounts costs the consumer $8.95. But it costs her even more.

“People want stuff for free and they want it now,” she said, describing the benefit of Amazon.

Kelly’s sourcing agent has an office in China and one not far from her in California. A third party tests the products. The polypropylene plastic is BPA-free and the cooler bags are tested for lead.

Early in the process, she had to send her shipment back three times until it came back right, meeting FDA standards, but the relationship with her overseas producer has been worth it, she says. Cost was not an irrelevant issue for her, "I'm a thrifty kind of shopper," she said, explaining what she'd look for in buying a lunch box for her own kids.

California is home to another bento style lunch box system also invented by moms but manufactured in the United States. The style is different than Kelly’s single lid system and constructed with what’s described as a durable plastic. The system also comes with a plastic water bottle. But a comparison of a price speaks to the issue consumers and mom entrepreneurs face:

EasyLunchbox system: four plastic containers and cooler bag (made in China): $21.90

Laptop Lunch B630 Bento System 2.0, (made in the US): $39.99

*Both are available for free shipping with Amazon prime.

Lunchopolis, another lunch box system on Amazon and one that has been sold at Whole Foods, explains its manufacturing on its website:

"...although we continually attempt to source manufacturing in either the United States or Canada, we have been unable to find cost effective production. We estimate that if we sourced this product in the United States, the retail price would be more than 45% higher.”

One of the few Lunch box options on Amazon with a similar style but made from stainless steel instead of plastic is LunchBots. A shopper would get one stainless steel container for around the same price as the four included with Kelly's package, but still discover the product was made in China.

Occasionally, the "Made in China" label has been a deal breaker for Kelly’s prospective customers. And, she says, she understands.

“But are you watching your big screen Hitachi?”

There have been times when the cost of working with a manufacturer in China has been steep, however.

“We sold out for three months. They just shut the power grid off." No one knew when it would be turned back on so that the factory could get back to work and finish her order.

“My hair fell out, it was very stressful.”

To avoid that scenario she said she now spends more upfront and maintains a huge stock in the United States.

Jenny (18), Lily (13) and Julia (11)
Having a large demand that can be met, of course, is the whole idea, and it’s one of the reasons she has turned to YouTube to create a series of videos. Filming and editing the video has been a major project for the Lesters, but it helps that she’s an actor, her husband Loren Lester is an actor and director, her brother is a song writer, her 13 year old is a good script supervisor and that Kelly went to UCLA with Sam Harris, a Broadway performer and recording artist. Kelly’s most recent Facebook and YouTube postings feature her two youngest kids, Lily and Julia.

“I would like to influence people to take responsibility for their eating and stop waiting for school lunch programs to get better. It makes me really happy to be able to help people pack healthy lunches for their kids,” she said.

She’s heard from one mother of an autistic boy whose sense of independence was opened up because of her lunch box system. “My lunch box was the simplest for him to use.”

With her first business, Kelly never told people she was making sales calls out of her den in her pajamas. This time around, she says she's made her home, her kids, and her personality "part of the charm."

Before my interview ended, I did take advantage of my time with an original lunch box mom to ask the all important question.

When do you have time to pack the kids’ lunches?

The key, she said, was to pack them at night, sometimes while making dinner.

She tried having her kids make their own lunches, especially as they got older. But, she said, “I like knowing they are taking something of me.....I don’t think I am the best mom in the world but I really want to feed them right, and making cute lunches...that’s not that difficult.”

In fact, making it easy, is what her lunch box is all about.

Being a small business owner, even one who has seized the power of social media, is not different from being one fifteen years ago in one important respect, Kelly mentioned.

It’s still a whole lot of work.

Click here for: Kelly's Webisode with Sam Harris and The Behind the Scenes: see what it takes.

Recently, I was contacted by a mother who had an idea for an invention. "How do you get one made?" she asked. I had no idea, which is one of the reasons why I decided to "do lunch" with Kelly Lester this week.

This is the second in a periodic series, Lunch With, profiles of Lunch Box Mom readers. I met Kelly thanks to Google Alerts, which sends me stories about "Lunch boxes and Moms". For obvious reasons, Kelly is a real Lunch Box Mom. I only stand on them, something she does not recommend with her product.

And in the interest of full disclosure, when my daughters' school asked us to stop using Ziploc bags, I bought a Lunchopolis lunch box, and a LunchBot, and now have two EasyLunchboxes. Given how many times we leave our lunch boxes at school, we seem to need a few extra.

Find Lunch Box Mom on Facebook. And, soon, YouTube, under Lunchboxmom.

1 comment:

jcp said...

A thorough look at the business of starting your own business! And with your trademark humor: "I only stand on (lunchboxes), something she does not recommend with her product." Thank you!