Interview: Rebecca Rabson, Founder, PBJ Discoveries
How did Rebecca Rabson, a former criminal defense attorney successfully create two product lines and become profitable early on?
SmartSeat Chair Protectors, a waterproof, stain resistant, and machine washable cover made from soft-to-the-touch, toxin-free fabric AND Kippa Kids, kippot (also known as yarmulkes and skull caps) in kid-friendly fabrics designed to appeal to boys ages 2-15.
- How she came up with her ideas and business models
- Manufacturing in the USA
- Why she recommends filing for a patent
- Her decision & success in marketing and staying exclusively online
Read or Watch her story now and comment to let us know what you think.
READ the Transcript
Rachel: Hi, I’m Rachel Olsen, founder of Best Mom Products where mompreneurs share their adventures in business. Today I’m talking with Rebecca Rabson, founder of PBJ Discoveries and its flagship product, Smart Seat Chair Protectors, which are waterproof seat covers made for upholstered dining room and kitchen chairs. All the protection of vinyl with the comfort of fabric.
Today we’ll hear how she came up with the idea, turned it into reality, became profitable early on, and why she decided to keep her business exclusively online. Welcome, Rebecca. Does that sound about right?
Rebecca: That does sound right. Thanks so much for having me here.
Rachel: Yeah, this is so great. I’m excited to talk with you. So why don’t you tell our viewers and listeners a little bit about what year it was that the idea came to you, how it came to you, and what you did to first get started.
Rebecca: Sure. So it’s now been a couple years. We’ve been selling for almost two years online. And the idea sort of started a couple of years before that. We got our new dining room set, the first really nice piece of furniture that we had in the house. I had two very young boys at the time. My youngest was a little over two, which makes my older one in the four- to five-year-old range, and they’re messy. They’re great kids, but they’re messy. So we were trying to find something out on the market that we could get and I just couldn’t find anything that I liked. I wanted a waterproof seat cover, but I didn’t want a plastic or a vinyl one. They just were all either sticky, or they didn’t look nice, and I thought there had to be something better out there.
So I came up with this design and made it myself using a stapler because I can’t sew and I put it on the chairs and it worked. And we got a lot of great feedback from guests and family who had come to the house, and we used it for a period of time, and then my husband said to me, you should see what it takes to get something like this made. And he put me in touch with a woman who helped us do blueprints and the designs that we would need in order to contact factories. That was the first step. And then it was about six months later that we finally had a product.
Rachel: So when you first had the idea, and you’re using your staple gun, and you’re cutting the fabrics, how did you find the fabric that worked best for you? What was that process like? Did you go to a fabric store and research it that way?
Rebecca: The fabric that I used the first time around is not the fabric that we use now because it’s not sold retail on the market. You can only buy it wholesale from the manufacturer. And actually the woman who helped us with our blueprint design was also the woman who helped us source this fabric. They’re a Massachusetts based company as well, so it was a really nice feel to keep it local.
Rachel: Yeah, that’s great. So what is this woman called? What’s her role in it? Is she a broker?
Rebecca: She works with other innovative design, and textiles is really her area. She works within a group of other people who might specialize in different types of products, but she does the fabrics and the textiles.
Rachel: How many iterations did it take for you to decide on your final fabric and product?
Rebecca: We were really lucky. I gave her what I had designed and all of my drawings that led up to it, and we had one meeting after that where she said, “Here’s what I’ve put together. I sewed this one for you, using what we’d done,” and she said, “How does it look?” And we said, “Well, let me try it,” and I took it to a large furniture store here that had as many chairs as you can get out onto the floor, and I tried it on all the chairs to make sure that it would work.
Rachel: Oh, my god! What did the manager think?
Rebecca: It’s amazing what you can get away with in large stores and there just aren’t enough people to help. But we got lucky. It was really just that one iteration, and then she put together the final paperwork for us, and we went from there.
Rachel: Okay. So I think you have one of the chair covers behind you.
Rebecca: Can you see it in your screen?
Rachel: I can see it.
Rebecca: Okay, you can see. So this is what it looks like on the chair. It’s brown, so I don’t know if you can tell, because it’s on a brown chair, but here’s what it looks like when it’s not attached to a chair. Let me just separate the straps for you because it’ll make it a little bit easier to see. I’m going to stand up for a second.
So it’s a piece of material like this with the straps hanging off on the sides and I’m just going to put it right on top of the one that’s already on this chair just so you can kind of see. You place it down over the top like that and you just hook the straps. I’m going to put this one right on top of the one that’s already there.
Rachel: That’s so interesting. Wow, so is it just Velcro on the straps?
Rebecca: The straps have Velcro and you just connect them underneath. Now, there are two on top of here, so it’s nice, because it’s gripping to the other one. The underside has a little bit of sticky fabric because these covers of the material, they kind of are sticking together. So it’s not quite as nice as the first one. But that’s all. That’s all it takes to put it on.
Rachel: Wow. That’s pretty impressive. So it seems like a pretty simple process that anybody, if they’re looking to do. I think you have a patent on this. Correct? There’s patent pending?
Rebecca: They are patent pending.
Rachel: Okay, so maybe talk about you were an attorney. Maybe talk a little bit about your background, and then also why you maybe as an attorney and a small business owner think that it’s important or not important to have a patent.
Rebecca: Sure. So my background has nothing to do with what I do now, and hopefully, will not. I do white collar criminal defense work. So I hope never to have to have to engage an attorney. But I do think it was good to sort of have that general background and I think I mentioned that I work with my husband and our third partner, and we sort of all have different skill sets.
So I bring a little bit of the legal background into the mix. They both have MBAs. And so I was able to put together out trademark application for our product. And I did sort of the first iteration and the provisional patent application. So I did put that together, but we did work with a professional to do the final patent application. I think it’s very technical, and unless you’re well-versed in that area, I think there’s a lot of room for error. And I do think that it is important to try and protect your ideas, and I think that at least going through the motions of applying for the patent is very beneficial, particularly in the beginning, because the patent pending at least puts people on notice that you’re a little serious about what you’re doing. Whether or not it actually gives you any real protection I think is kind of up for debate. The patent, even if it is issued, is only as good as the money that you are willing to put behind litigation to protect it. I think for a lot of small businesses, that can be a real challenge.
Rachel: Yeah. Okay. Interesting. I wanted to hear your feedback on that. Okay. So we skipped around a little, but we did a little on the manufacturing. Okay. So can you tell me a little bit more about the manufacturing process? You worked with somebody locally, and you had mentioned that you had done some designs and handed it over. What did you do those designs on? Were you just doing it on a computer program or freehand?
Rebecca: Just freehand sketching. It’s a very, very bare bones, kind of work with what you’ve got. And it was nice to work with a professional who could kind of translate what I had done into something that would make sense to the professionals. It’s funny. We’ve done a lot on our own, and I think in some ways. I joke that we really do everything on the cheap because we try and do as much ourselves. But I also think it’s important to know when you have to hand it over to somebody who really knows what they’re doing. Whether it’s the patent application, or your blueprint designs, or whatever it is, that you need to take that next step. Sometimes, doing it yourself is great, and other times, it’s just not such a good idea.
Rachel: Right. And what would you say? Do you feel like, when you feel like it’s not a personal strength, how do people identify that? Because I definitely know people who, you know, if you have a friend that you can rely on that’s an attorney or accountant, I know I rely on those people for their expertise. And then there are certain things. So do you just use your best judgment as what you think your own strengths are? How do you make that decision?
Rebecca: Yeah. I think everyone probably knows when they’re out of their element, right? I think sometimes you have the skills, just your general life skills, to teach yourself what you need to learn in order to do it. So I knew nothing about SEO, or marketing, or any of those areas, but you kind of learn as you go, and sometimes you make mistakes along the way, but you figure it out. I think there are other times when it’s a much more technical area, or it requires more training and expertise than you can probably throw together in a short period of time. And I think that’s when it’s a good idea to kind of reach into your networks and see who you can find to either teach you what you need to know or to sort of hand off the job to them.
Rachel: Right. Right. So tell me a little bit about how you divide the responsibilities? What are your strengths in this, and then your husband and then what does your other partner do?
Rebecca: Sure. I do most of the day-to-day operations. We do all of the order fulfillment here, although I now pass that over to somebody else. We’re still working with our one employee. Managing the inventory, making sure that everything we need for manufacturing is in place, working with our manufacturer and our suppliers to get all of that together. I do all of the social media, all of the online marketing, though we don’t spend money on marketing. We sort of take advantage of the free types of marketing that are out there. And all the customer relations are also on my plate.
Our other two partners, so my husband and my friend, I would say that they do more of the number crunching. They close out the books, they do all of the balancing of the budgets. And our third partner who’s not my husband, he and I do a lot of the marketing. So we did all of the design for our packaging, all of our flyers and inserts, all of that, he and I do together. We do the design for the website, but my husband’s the techie in the family, so he actually created the website for us. Which is nice because you always have your tech support handy.
Rachel: And he can’t say he doesn’t have time for it. You’re there 24/7.
Rebecca: That’s right.
Rachel: I know what you’re doing. I really need that updated. That’s funny. My husband’s very techie, and I have him help out with my site too. That’s funny. Okay. So you mentioned a few things that are interesting that I want to touch on. One is that you don’t pay for marketing. What are the free marketing activities that you take advantage of?
Rebecca: Sure. There are a ton of places online where you can list your product, list your company, get a mention, and a lot of them offer back links, which are great for SEO. So we spend a lot of time connecting with people and prowling the Internet, and looking for all of these places where we can list our product. And I’ve joined all of the networking groups online, and all of those are helpful, because you never know where you’re going to meet somebody like you. Lots of people I’ve now connected with. So there’s this great community available online that you can use, and a lot of it is free.
Rachel: Yeah, so can you name some specific outlets, like do you use LinkedIn? Do you use Facebook? How do you connect with people through those?
Rebecca: Facebook, I think, has become less a marketing tool because over the past couple years, they’ve made so many changes that I think make it very user unfriendly for small businesses. I would say that I now use it primarily for networking. As you probably are aware, there a ton of Facebook groups where you can network with people. So I am a member of several of them, and people post, and it’s great for feedback. And sometimes they have products like yours, sometimes that have products not like yours, but all of that is very helpful. When we first got started, I think I used Facebook a lot more for marketing. It was free marketing, because you’d get your fans. You’d be able to post things. They could share things. I feel like now, very few of what you post actually makes it past that sort of front door. And so we use Facebook a lot. I also use LinkedIn. I think it’s also another great way to connect with people, although it’s a little bit less user friendly. But they do have great groups on there, and you can get these messages that come in daily or weekly or whatever your settings are, and people list great opportunities on there. I think when we first spoke, I’ve got a second product as well called Keep the Kids, so through LinkedIn, somebody sort of found me and wants to do something with that product. So you just never know where you’re going to find your connections.
Rachel: Right. So, basically, get involved as much as you can. Take advantage of every free opportunity, and just be open for that. And that’s what else helped you. So I’m curious, if we could maybe talk a little bit about, so you’re exclusively online, and that was a choice that you made, and you’re profitable. Can you tell us how long did it take you to become profitable, and why you made that decision to be more of a lifestyle business rather than going big box retailer outlet?
Rebecca: I think if you had asked this when we first got started, I think we’d say, oh, gosh, it’s our dream to see our product on the shelves of Bed, Bath, and Beyond, and Babies ‘r’ Us, and you think about all these places that you would love to sell. As we got more and more into it, I think what we realized is that it’s a very big challenge for small companies to sell to large retail outlets. There are a lot of hidden and not so hidden costs involved that your profit margin get smaller and smaller and smaller as you do that. And we found that we put very little initial investment into building our product. We did most of it on our own. We built our site. We were really able to get quite a deal on our patent application.
And so aside from the raw materials, we spent almost nothing to get going. And as a result, we were also able to become profitable fairly quickly. It didn’t take us long to recoup those expenses and pay ourselves back. And then once we were making money and the company is sort of perpetuating on its own, it doesn’t require any additional investment from our part, we kind of thought, well, I’m not so sure we want to go another route. We use a nice manufacturer that’s in Pennsylvania, so we’re in the States, and they’re a great, small, mom and pop company. I like working with them. They’ve bent over backwards to be great to us. And as we looked into moving abroad and to going into China and other places, you realize that the costs are not, there’s not as much savings as you’d expect.
We use a real specialty fabric. We’re not willing to sacrifice that quality, and we would have to do that, I think, to get a significantly better price. You also have to order in much larger volumes. So right now, we do order fulfillment basically out of my home. We don’t have to pay any of the warehousing costs, and we don’t have to worry about having a shipment of thousands and thousands of these showing up somewhere that have to be dealt with. And I think there are very little costs associated with selling online. We don’t advertise. We use a lot of SEO and keywords. We come up in the natural search, and that’s how we’ve been able to grow our business.
Rachel: Okay. Let me ask you something. When you say SEO and you don’t advertise, and you come up in the natural search, I’m sure every single person out there is wondering, how did she do that? I want to be profitable. How did you do that, and how do you continue to do it if you’re not advertising and you come up with work? What are people searching for, when you look at your Google analytics, and people find your product?
Rebecca: I think you need to know your keywords, and I think that not all products lend themselves to search terms. But there are people who are searching for waterproof seat cover, fabric seat cover that doesn’t stain, so we try and hit all of those. And you’ve got to, I’m not an SEO expert, but also you need to make sure it appears in all of your photograph tags and all your pages, and all of your descriptions, and your meta tags. And it’s important to have original content on each page, because you can’t just repeat the same thing, or Google gets annoyed with you.
So there’s all these different places that you have to try and make sure that the things that make your product special, the words that would help people find you, are there. So we do have a blog, and primarily I use it as a way of connecting with other mompreneurs. We like to feature a lot of other mompreneurs and other products on there. There’s an article that’s interesting to me, I’ll include it. But we often will also include customer photographs. That’s a great opportunity to give another image, put some of our keyword tags there. It’s fresh content that shows up in another place.
Rachel: Right. Right. Okay, interesting. So do you also hire at any point in time a publicist, or someone to help you get out there and land on a magazine cover, or do all of those sorts of things?
Rebecca: For the most part, no. We have for the past year worked with somebody who does PR, but it’s a very different approach. Most of the PR people that we spoke to wanted a lump sum of several thousand dollars for a very concrete period of time, typically somewhere around three months. And we thought, well, I’m not sure that we want to put that much into it. So we found this gentleman who, basically, you pay per impression, and there is a capped fee. So over the course of the year, you pay a certain amount per your impressions, and I would say that we’ve had a decent amount of print media. Maybe not necessarily national magazines, but local newspapers and other things, and it’s been fun when customers have sent you the ad, and said here’s where I saw your product. So that’s been kind of cool.
Rachel: Right. And do you notice a spike when something like that goes in the newspaper? Do you automatically notice an increase in sales, or do you just notice an increase in impressions?
Rebecca: Sometimes both, and sometimes neither. I think it depends on the market. It depends on what the circulation of the publication is like. We will definitely have days when there will be a huge spike, and sometimes we can track it to something, and sometimes you can’t. So I think it’s difficult to know where you’re getting your return. Sometimes you can tell through Google analytics where people are coming from, if it’s a particular region, if it’s tied to a particular site. And then sometimes, it’s just kind of unclear.
Rachel: In that, like it’s interesting, what do you pay most attention to? Do you feel spending time on your blog. Where is the best return on your time been, as far as results?
Rebecca: I feel like now that we’re in summer mode, it’s so hard to answer that because I’m not sure we do anything. I think initially, it was multitasking. I think it’s focusing on all of those things because if you throw enough on the wall, eventually something will stick. And then you know where you should put your intention. Making sure that we had the back links that we needed, trying to get up in the natural search, which did take some time, but eventually we did get there. I think all of those things are important, and it’s really hard to know, because we don’t sell in stores. It’s not like we have our distributor rep who’s going to get us somewhere we can say we know that these nine stores came from that person. We’re selling to individual consumers, and so sometimes it’s difficult to know. They may see us in three different places before they finally decide to purchase.
Rachel: Right. Right. I think that’s the tough part about online sales. You don’t know necessarily what their purchase route was, or all of the places that they saw you. But I know that you had mentioned before when we talked which I thought was interesting is, when you had gone into it, you thought people would maybe, and tell me if I get this wrong, purchase one or two seat covers at a time, and you found that they actually were purchasing six. Is that correct?
Rebecca: Right. Yeah. That’s exactly what happened. So I created this product because I have two messy kids, so I though for sure people would buy two if they’ve got two kids, three if they have three kids. They put them on those couple of chairs. But what we found is that 25 percent of our sales are for six covers or sets that are larger than that, and I find that pretty surprising because of where I envisioned this product being helpful. So I think that people are seeing it more as a very practical home decor item. Because it’s very discreet, you can put it on all of the chairs. Sure, why not, right? Protect them all. It’s very easy to use. It looks pretty nice. And so people were buying them in sets.
And then we have 25 percent of our sales are also for individual units, so then we have repeat customers. So it’s interesting to see the way that our sales have really shown us what the market is, as opposed to you go into creating a product thinking that you know your target market. And then I think you’d done an interview with somebody else recently where you highlighted this fact. And it was only after going back and doing some of the number crunching and really looking to see where your sales were coming from and what the market was that you were hitting that you realized that, oh yeah. You do sell to the mother child market, but there’s this home decor market, and in our case we also have now discovered there’s this elder care market, as well. So we’re now selling to nursing homes. That’s been a great place to go, as well.
Rachel: That’s so interesting. It’s babies, kids, and the elderly. They’re all… no, but that’s interesting. I think I told you before, I have two young girls, and our dining room table and chairs are ruined. There’s no point in doing anything, and I feel like every few weeks I tell my husband, I really want a new dining room table, but my kids are now still so young that it’s just not worth it, I feel like. So this is something I should’ve gotten in the beginning instead of seeing what has happened to my chairs. So how did you find out about the nursing homes? How did you realize? Did you get a sale online and it was for a nursing home facility?
Rebecca: Well I always sort of knew in the back of my head that there was this kind of market. And I would say that it starts to trickle in, and then I don’t know if it’s word of mouth, and I feel like we’re just now beginning to really explore this market more fully because we had a couple of sales to individuals where people would say, can I use it in this way? They wanted to know if they could use it on a wheelchair cover seat, you know, those padded seats. They wanted to know if they could use it on a recliner on their relative’s chair because of incontinence issues. So we had a couple of those, and we got some nice feedback from the people who did use it that way. And then we did, we had a large sale to a nursing home.
And so I followed up with, we realized that the address… we were like, hmm, this is bigger than our normal sale. And we Googled the address, and we saw that it was a residential care facility. So we contacted them, and we said, we noticed that you made this purchase. We’re very eager to hear what you think of the product and how it worked. So that was great, because we opened up this dialogue. And we were able to get more specific feedback from that market. And so we’ve had a couple of sales like that now, and we’ve made a point of following up with them. And so the next step will be to find out, well, how did they find this in the first place, and what can we do to explore and take advantage of that new market, as well?
Rachel: Great. That’s fascinating. So different areas, different markets that you weren’t even, you might’ve had a hunch on, but now you can explore it and that’s interesting. Okay. So we talked a little bit about the seat covers and I know you have another endeavor called Keep a Kid, and I think this is such a great idea. I’d love for you to describe what it is.
Rebecca: I’ll show it to you right now. So, they are… can you see that?
Rachel: I can.
Rebecca: They’re yarmulkes. They’re skull caps, and they’re the larger style. So kind of more like the middle eastern ones that fit the whole head. I would put it on, but it’s the wrong size for me, so it wouldn’t fit me well. But, basically, my boys go to a Jewish Day School. They’re required to wear these, and this is the style that they like as opposed to the smaller ones that stay on their hair with clips. And there was nothing fun that they could wear.
They just don’t have this larger style in anything other than very traditional brocade fabric or knit. And I thought, well, there’s no requirement that they have to look serious. So again, I met with some people who know more about sewing than I do. They helped me create a pattern. We got a pattern that worked, and I hired some individual sewers who are sewing them for me right now. We’re talking to factories about getting them mass produced. So, again, we’re selling online, although this model I feel like is a little bit different, because primarily what we’d like to do is work with Jewish organizations, whether it’s schools, camps, synagogues, preschools, to do fundraisers, so that a portion of the sales through their community would go back to the organization. And so that’s what this summer we’re focusing on is contacting the schools, signing them up, and getting some accounts going.
Rachel: That’s great. So what has the initial response been? When you had this idea, did you go to your child’s school and say, what would you think about something like this, or did you just go ahead and make it?
Rebecca: Well, when my seven year old heard of the idea, he went, oh, yes! He’s my demographic, and he likes it. I got a couple made. I worked with a woman who I hooked up actually through my factory, and she started sewing some. So then I started handing them to my son and to their friends, and every single boy loved it. They’re lightweight, they stay on their heads, they’re comfortable, they’re in cool fabrics. So I knew that it would be a hit with the demographic that we wanted. And then the question was, what would the administrators think of it? So, of course, I approached my son’s school first, because that’s our community. And we got great feedback about the idea and how it was going to work. So that’s really nice. It’s nice to get positive feedback once you have the idea, and you hope that it actually will work out.
Rachel: Right. No, that is. So when you were thinking about doing this, did you just say, I have it all already set up. I already have the manufacturer for a cloth type product; this would just be another easy thing to throw in. What was your line of thinking when you thought of this idea?
Rebecca: I definitely thought I would love to take advantage of what I’ve learned along the way, right? We’ve been very lucky that we haven’t had any huge mistakes that’ve been costly. But, of course, you learn throughout the process, and I feel now that I know more, much more, about the margins, and how you want to price things, and how much it should cost you to make it. And so I wanted to use that information to do it even better.
And, of course, we did speak to our manufacturer about having them made. But, you know, they’re different products, and the factory that we use specializes in one thing, but not necessarily these. So we’ve spoken to other factories. But, yeah. The idea was that this seemed like an easy thing, too. It was in the same area. It wasn’t like we were going into molded plastics, right? So you hopefully have some background information that you’ve put aside along the way that will be helpful.
Rachel: Great. And what does the future hold? Do you envision just keep creating new products as you go? How many businesses can you run and raise two children? I’d like to know.
Rebecca: I definitely feel a little maxed out. My husband and I were out one night, and he made some comment about, gosh, no, there should be X, something that he had wanted. And I turned to him, and I was like, we are not making that, too. I think two is enough right now, particularly two unrelated things that you can’t market together. Ideally, it would’ve been great to come up with a secondary product that was tied in with the seat covers. I feel like that would’ve been perfect. But I also think that it’s really hard to sit around and say, I’m going to come up with a product idea that hasn’t been done yet because I feel like everything’s been done so far. And this is more again, it came to me because I have boys who wanted something more fun and different, and so that’s sort of where [inaudible 00:30:10].
Rachel: Right. Right. No, I love it. How do you manage it all? You have two boys, I think they’re seven and nine, around there?
Rebecca: Yeah. My nine-year-old will be ten this month.
Rachel: Oh, sorry, ten. It’s a big deal. I’m sure he would correct me. How do you manage it all? It’s summer. I know what a struggle it is for myself and every mom out there right now to continue to try to work and spend quality time. So how do you do it?
Rebecca: I think you do it by the seat of your pants. Right? You do the best that you can, knowing that you’re going to fail miserably on more than one day. And you just try not to drive yourself nuts about it. When they’re in school, it’s a little bit easier, but still I’m working school hours, and that often requires getting up at five in the morning so I can work before I take them to school, trying to work until I get them at three, because the afternoon, I turn into a chauffeur, and I feed them, and we do homework. And there’s just no time for work until they go to bed. This summer, this is their first week in school since they got out, so it was two weeks of what we call mommy camp. And so not so much work got done.
Listen, there are challenges to working and having children, but I think I have it pretty good since it’s my own business. I create my own hours. I don’t have anybody over me saying it’s got to be done and you’ve got to be in the office. It was much more difficult, I think, working as an attorney, before kids, just knowing that, that lifestyle is a really tough one.
Rachel: Right. Right. Well, I thoroughly enjoyed talking with you. You’re so energetic, and I appreciate all of your candid information that you shared and I think it’s going to be really valuable. So I’m going to go ahead and I’ll put in the video as well the links to your site and if people are interested and they enjoyed this interview, you can find more interviews like this at www.bestmomproducts.com.
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