Interview: Kim Blanding, Founder, Gift It Green (GIG)

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WATCH as Kimberly Blanding, Founder, Gift It Green (GIG) eco-chic, fabric gift boxes describes her Aha moment when her son was opening Christmas presents to creating the design and manufacturing her product.   This Northwestern MBA graduate applied her education and skills as a previous brand manager for Unilever & Walgreens to conduct in-depth customer research studies which led her down the path of learning that her target market wasn’t her actual market.  Learn how this bright, stylish and eco-chic mom turned her idea into reality!

 

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Rachel:            Hi. I’m Rachel Olsen, founder of Best Mom Products where mompreneurs share their adventure in business. Today I’m talking with Kim Blanding, Founder of Gift It Green, which is a line of eco-chic fabric gift boxes that are reusable, fun, and unique. They do not require scissors, tape, or waste.

Today we’ll hear how she came up with the idea Christmas day when her son was unwrapping presents and how she used her corporate experience as a brand manager and product developer to create her line of boxes. She’ll share valuable information on how what she thought was her target market wasn’t, how she realized it, and what she did to change her product to meet her customers’ needs. Welcome, Kim. Let’s get started.

Kim:

The idea came to me on my son’s first Christmas. It was 2007. Our family loves to have a big Christmas celebration. We had four huge black trash bags full of wrapping paper and gift wrap and I thought there’s got to be another way to have a fun, fun way of opening presents, which opening presents should be a blast, but without all the waste.

Rachel:            Great. Tell us a little bit about your products so people can understand what it is.

Kim:                Sure. I’ll show it. That’s probably the easiest way. Imagine a beautifully-wrapped Nordstrom gift box with all the bells and whistles, but instead it’s 100% fabric. It’s got really fun, modern designs. It’s cotton on the inside. It’s got Velcro. It sounds like paper ripping. It’s got multiple layers which is one of the most fun parts of opening a present. Then it has this fake eco-chic tissue paper that sounds like tissue paper. Then on the inside you track all the cities it’s been. It was designed in Chicago, so it starts in Chicago but the idea is you would gift it forward in San Francisco or wherever it may be.

Rachel:            Great. What a great idea. Tell us a little bit about your background and how it impacts your business now. You were a brand manager and in product development. Can you tell me a little bit about where you worked and how that helped you in your product?

Kim:                Sure. My job was coming up with ideas. I worked at Walgreens and I worked at Unilever in a variety of different categories, but my job was coming up with new products, launching new products. When I had this idea in 2007, it always stayed in the back of my mind, but I always had new ideas so I thought this is the one idea that I kept on coming back to. When Unilever ended up moving to the east coast, I didn’t make the move. I decided to try launching this on my own. This was a year and a half ago. It took quite a long time to actually launch.

Rachel:            What was one of the first things that you did when you decided that this is the product that you wanted to move forward with?

Kim:                Well, starting in 2007 I did a quick competitive research. I just wanted to see if there was anything out there that captured the thrilling experience of unwrapping a gift but with no waste and there wasn’t anything like it. I knew that there was a sound consumer insight, which I had a lot of background on identifying the consumer insight, who your target it, how you start setting it up, what your positioning is, how you differentiate. That background in brand management really helped a lot with that. It took until I really could focus on it, it was too hard to do while I had another full-time job. Until I could really focus on it, then I started the launch period. I started with competitive research and some very informal consumer qualitatives.

Rachel:            Okay. What did you find when you did the competitive research?

Kim:                I found there were products that I like to call pillow cases where you throw the present in and you have the drawstring or there were some really beautiful scarf type things where you have the box and then you wrap it in the scarf and the scarf is attached to the package, but nothing that tapped into that sensorial experience, the sound, the feel, the unwrapping all those different pieces of undoing a gift. I thought there’s something there.

Rachel:            Right. When you’re researching this, what was the next step that you took when you decided to do this full time? You’ve done the research now. You’re moving forward. Did you draw it up yourself? Did you design it?

Kim:                I started with, again, the consumer insight. Originally my target was boys and girls, let’s say, two to six years old, moms of boys and girls two to six years old. I went and looked at different fabrics at Jo-Ann Fabric. I tried taking several sewing classes so I could make a prototype myself. Very quickly I realized I wouldn’t have the capabilities so I worked with a local Chicago manufacturer to help develop the prototype. Just kind of the first things that I did.

I also made sure to set up what my positioning was going to be, my differentiator, what my long-term strategy was going to be, which I felt was important because there are always these bumps and different paths you can take and you get so much feedback along the way. I wanted to make sure I was going to stay true to what I thought was the differentiator among the products and so forth.

Rachel:            Okay. The differentiator is that it’s reusable, that it’s eco-friendly, and it’s cute that you can gift it forward.

Kim:                And the sensorial experience.

Rachel:            It’s sensorial, right. You had mentioned, when we talked previously, that you didn’t have a product vision specifically at first, you just had the insight and you kind of wanted to simulate the opening of presents. Tell me a little bit about how you went to Nordstrom and you got a gift box.

Kim:                Again, every size that they had.  You’re right. When I started with the consumer insight, I had no idea if it was going to be a box or a bag or if it was going to have ribbon, Velcro, or eco-chic tissue paper. I think that was just going to every cute paper store, paper source, paper doll, Nordstrom and seeing what they had. I really thought there was something unique in the gift box idea. I remember just ripping open the paper and all the different layers. I thought there was something very unique and fun about actually giving a fabric gift box that has the sturdiness of a box but it is all fabric.

Rachel:            How many prototypes did you have made? You have what? You have Velcro on there. You have ribbon. You have a lot of different elements to your product. How many different prototypes did you have made before you got the final one?

Kim:                Oh my goodness, probably a dozen different prototypes.  What I started with, for example, they kept trying to push cardboard. I didn’t want cardboard. I didn’t feel like that would be gifted forward and forward. They pushed polyester because polyester is much cheaper in price. I just didn’t feel that polyester was a fit with my green. I really wanted the look and feel of cotton. And I had to source all of the materials for them to do the prototype development as well. The prototype development took six months.

Rachel:            Okay. Wow. You had to source all the materials, so you’re saying by that you mean you had to get the ribbon someplace.

Kim:                The ribbon, the Velcro, the cellophane, every piece of it, the tags, everything.

Rachel:            What do you do when you do that? When you have to source it yourself, do you bring it all into your house or do you send it directly to the manufacturer?

Kim:                I had it all shipped here and then I brought it over to the manufacturer because they were located a couple of places in Chicago.  For the fabric patterns, I hired a graphic designer. I had a vision of what I wanted for the different occasions. I started off with the boys, the girls. After I had done some additional research, I did some wedding showers, baby showers, and Christmas were other big gift-giving occasions where they would want something really special and add on a unique touch to the gift, so I added on there. Then I worked with the graphic designer back and forth and then the manufacturer had capabilities to do their own.

Rachel:            Okay. Do you have to pay for each prototype that you get?

Kim:                You pay by the hour. It depends on every manufacturer, but for this particular I paid the pattern maker by the hour and her boss, the lead manufacturer, by the hour.

Rachel:            Interesting. You don’t pay for each prototype. Each time you source the materials, you bring it over to your manufacturer, and they make a prototype from it, they don’t charge you per prototype. They charge you for how many hours go into putting together the prototype.

Kim:                Yes.

Rachel:            Are you self-funded? How did you estimate how much all this would cost? Did you do a formal business plan?

Kim:                I did do the one-page business plan with several Excel sheets attached to it. It’s self-funding so I didn’t have to do a pitch to an Angel investment or anything like that which was really nice. I think it would have been much more complicated. I tried to lay out all the costs and make sure what I would anticipate in the next couple of years. Costs are always more than you anticipate, whether it’s prototype development or legal fees. All those pieces are usually more than you anticipate. I feel like I did a pretty good job of getting a range.

Rachel:            Okay. Did you pad your spreadsheet?

Kim:                I did a high/low, yeah.  I did a low kind of a minimum. Every time before I met with a lawyer or the consult, the first time I met with the manufacturer, those are all free meetings so I took advantage. I asked 80 million questions and I made sure to say, “What are your minimum hours and what are your maximum hours that you think this is going to be?” Then I used those to feed my sheet for my business.

Rachel:            Great. Well, that’s helpful. I want to go a little bit more in depth now on defining your brand. You have a very strong background in that. A lot of thought went into your brand. Tell us some research. You had mentioned to me before that you went to a gift show in Chicago and started getting feedback from them before you did anything else. Is that right? Am I jumping ahead here?

Kim:                My background, because I did a lot of selling in to retailers, were mostly mass merchants, but I went to 25 retailers in Chicago and five retailers in Michigan. I did an informal focus group and then I did a quantitative study of about 200 women. I found that to be the most useful thing that I did very cheap, pretty much free. You can do the survey online for free. The focus groups just have wine and cheese and have friends of friends come to get honest, good feedback. I did the moderating myself but you could certainly hire someone to do that. The retailer feedback was fantastic.

Since I had worked with big merchandisers and I had these big Suave and Dove, these big brands behind me, I wasn’t used to going in and selling my own product without that.

I think, again, I had always stayed true to what my mission was and what I say the deal breakers were. For example, everyone has an opinion on a design or a pattern. People are going to have an opinion on the size of your logo or this or that, but what are the things that you want to stay true to?

I started hearing very consistent feedback from retailers and moms that presents for girls and boys when they have 20 birthday parties in a year and they’re spending $25 to $35 on a gift, they weren’t interested in buying this type of present. “My son would never appreciate this,” or, “I buy so many birthday presents throughout the year for my daughter’s friends at school that I really don’t need it for that.” What I did hear is, “Oh I’d love that for my mom,” or, “This would be a perfect start of a family tradition,” or, “I have a frame or a gift card for a girlfriend and I really want to make it unique,” or, “I’m going to a baby shower and I would love for people to see this really unique, fun present to open because opening the presents is the best part of the show.” Those were the things that I started doing qualitatively.

Then on the retail side they were saying things more like, “We like the elegant, unique, chic designs. We do not like the cutesy designs.” For example, my boys and girls were more cutesy. I completely dropped two designs just from getting that feedback from retailers and consumers.

Rachel:            How did you know to go with that? Was it just an overwhelming majority felt the same way and you thought, “Okay I’m getting enough”? At what point do you say, “Well, five people told me this. I guess I should do these ones”? Or did you say, “Fifty people told me this”? How did you decide the factor?

Kim:                I think you just go with your gut on some of those. If I had three retailers, boutiques that I really trusted in Chicago and one in Michigan that I really trusted that was giving me consistent feedback, these are the people who know what’s going to sell or not. I thought that was really consistent. Moms saying, “I like this pattern but I’m not sure I’m going to use it,” or, “This would be good for someone else.” I heard enough of that when I was combing through those two patterns that I said, “My gosh, I’m [inaudible 13:22] that. I don’t want this inventory. I don’t want to sit on it. No one’s going to buy it. Why am I going to do it?”

Rachel:            How many patterns did you ultimately decide on bringing to market?

Kim:                I started with three. I’ve got the flowers, the owls, I don’t know if you can see it, and the cupcakes. I’m launching my Christmas this fall.

Rachel:            Great. I noticed on your website, which is what’s interesting I think about your design, I thought, when I first went, your website’s beautiful. Everything is very crisp. You can tell exactly what it is, so that’s good. Just from a consumer perspective. I’m obviously not an expert in design. I thought it was interesting when I first came I thought, “Well, how am I going to know what fits in each box?” I like how you not only have the physical dimensions of the box, but that’s sometimes hard to tell too, but it says, “Here’s what fits in each box.” I thought that was really clever. Did you think through everything you were going to do on your website of how you were going to explain the product before you put the website up or did you do pieces little by little?

Kim:                I think for websites, I used outside inspirations. I looked at what Disney does on their website, what Apple does on their website. The sizing question came up a lot in my qualitative focus groups. I heard a lot from moms, “I just don’t know what size I’m going to get, but I don’t know what that means. What is 8.5×11 mean? What does 10×13 mean?” That was really helpful. I said if I use one consistent thing, if I say three DVDs, 10 DVDs, and 25 DVDs, does that give you a sense? They said absolutely. They like the comparison. They also wanted me to include often gifts they give, like a photo album and a picture frame and things like that.

Rachel:            Great. The quantitative study, for somebody who’s not familiar with this or knows of quantitative studies, how exactly did you do it? What was the process? You said you used a survey. Did you just find an online survey? How many questions did you include? Can you talk a little bit more details about that?

Kim:                Sure. For doing the survey, I would recommend doing it after you’ve done the qualitative research, after you’ve done some of the retail visits or whatever upfront research, the competitive research. You really want to limit it to 20 to 25 questions at the most. You want to be able to make a decision from that data. If you’re not going to make a decision from a piece of information, I wouldn’t include it.

For example, I was still vacillating between should I offer it to boys and girls. I spent three questions on that. I had a lot of questions on pricing so I spent a couple of questions on that. I had some questions on the occasions that they would give this for. Christmas was more popular or wedding showers or baby showers. I also wanted to make sure to really understand the eco-aware mom, like what some of her habits were about recycling and couple of those things.

I really thought through what are my 20 most important questions and then I made it so easy for her to answer. I tested it on myself, made sure she could finish it in three to five minutes. Then I tested it out on five other people that had never looked at the survey.

For example, make sure they can check on everything as opposed to doing open ended. If you have an open-ended question or a question that you want more specific information on, limit it to one. I really thought through what are my holes in information? What am I going to use this for? Then I built the survey as easily to follow, have a few eyes look at it, a few people who aren’t as familiar with your product just because you become so close to it.

Rachel:            Okay. That’s good advice. How did you find the 200 participants to do it?

Kim:                I just leveraged my network of moms mostly, my college friends, my friends from MBA, my work friends and had them forward it to their other friends as well. All the survey, which is really easy, most of them are free, SurveyMonkey, QuestionPro, or Surveypro. You can set up the demographics and make sure everyone’s meeting. For example, it had to be a woman because that’s really who my target is. It was really important talking to the eco-aware mom. Those were my first couple of questions. Anyone that didn’t meet that, it said, “Thank you for your time. You’re all done with it.” The people that met my target continued with the survey.

Rachel:            Interesting. Were just able to promote that via a link then through Facebook or email?

Kim:                Absolutely. Facebook, email, my husband asked a bunch of the girls he worked with as well.  You want to get a sample size of these 200 to 300 to have any meaning. Even though these services are free, they’ll do all the tabulations for you, like the statistical significance. You don’t have to worry about any of it. It’s fantastic.

Rachel:            That’s great. How long did it take to get those results? Did you put an end date on it for people to fill it out?

Kim:                I did. I kept the survey open for two weeks. I got 90% of the responses within the first week.  You don’t want to keep it open too long. Then they tabulate the results within a couple of days.

Rachel:            Okay. What was your biggest finding from that?

Kim:                One of my biggest findings was my pricing. I wasn’t sure what my pricing was. For my target, for the sentimental, unique gifts that they were looking for, they were open to the pricing that I offered, which was very helpful. Even though pricing is obviously very difficult to do in a quantitative or qualitative study. The second was the retailers and the qualitative feedback I had gotten before on the kids, the girls and boys, was spot on. People were interested in buying this for their moms, for their girlfriends, for baby showers, wedding showers. They were not as interested in giving this for kids’ occasions.

It confirmed what I thought even though originally that wasn’t my core target after. It confirmed what I’d been hearing and so I was able to drop those, which was good because I had two less designs to worry about in inventory.

Rachel Olsen:  Right. No, that’s great. It’s huge. It saved you money. It saved you time. Now you can focus on what’s selling. I want to talk to you a little bit about your logo. You used a crowd sourcing site for this. Tell us about that process, how much that costs, and what you got from that.

Kim:                Great. Wait. I’m assuming you can show the logo so they can see.

Rachel:            Yes.

Kim:                I used a service called crowdSPRING. There are a lot of different design services. Crowd sourcing is fantastic if you have a very clear brief of what you want. I knew I loved design work and I knew exactly what I wanted. You can include a visionary board of logos that you like or brands that you like for inspiration for the designers.

I ended up getting 35 unique designers that each gave about five or six designs. I had about 150 designs. I would say about 35 very unique directions. I would say from the start to the end it was about two weeks to getting my logo. I had a very easy, great experience. It was about $500, which is, I would say, very low for coming up with a logo that I was really happy with. I wanted something that communicated green, fun, whimsical. The “G” is for Gift It Green. It also looks like a present. The leaf on top is supposed to be the green element. I think it worked really well.

I would not use it for a website where you really need that back and forth maybe, but I think if you have a logo or a fabric design very specific of what you want, I was very happy with the crowd sourcing. It was very reasonable.

Rachel:            That’s great. I don’t know too many people who have used it so that’s a good resource for people who are looking to do things a little bit less. What types of things do you feel like because of your background you knew very specifically what you wanted or did you just feel you had a vision for your company and knew what you wanted?

Kim:                I think my background definitely helped, but I think, as an entrepreneur, you know your business better than anyone. I think if you can put in a brief or show examples of things you like and be as clear with the designers as possible that really helps. You put in what price you’re willing to pay and you only pay if you choose the design.

Rachel:            Okay. I want to talk a little bit about how you use social media. Let’s move into that realm.

Kim:                Social media I haven’t had as much time as I want to, I’m sure you hear this from a lot of people, to develop the social media. An easy way is to link your Facebook page to your business website. That’s super, super easy. I’ve had several people tell me I had to set up a Twitter page so I did set up a Twitter page. I will say I found Twitter very helpful from a B2B perspective, business-to-business perspective. For example, I’ll follow some people and I’ve had a couple of mommy bloggers who have featured me just because I had a Twitter page. I wouldn’t have gotten the PR if not.  You don’t know what’s leading to sales or not, but it seems really helpful. All press in the beginning is helpful for new businesses.

Rachel:            Right. You just launched a few months ago, right?

Kim:                I just launched a month ago.

Rachel:            Yeah. We won’t go fully into sales and distribution, but is there anything that you want to… How are you starting to get your first customers?

Kim:                Well, pounding the pavement, setting up appointments, sending them feedback, sending them samples. I’m doing a gift show at the Chicago Merchandise Mart. I did a Consumer Trade Show at the Navy Pier for the Green Festival. Just getting the word out there as much as possible has been really helpful so far.

Rachel:            Okay. Where are you going with this? You want to get into boutiques and retail stores. Are you in any boutiques right now?

Kim:                Yes. I’m just in a few right now. My idea is that I would be in several boutiques across the country and then hopefully, as well, have my online sales.

Rachel:            Great. What are you doing to go about press? Are you going to hire a PR firm?

Kim:                I am. I’m going to hire a PR person.

Rachel:            Okay. What is your grand vision? What does the future hold for Gift It Green?

Kim:                Well, I kept the brand Gift It Green so it could be a big thing. It can be all things gifting that has more of a green lens. Making opening presents as fun as it should it be, but trying to avoid waste as much as possible. I think it’s about taking those tiny little steps every day to make the world a little bit better place for our kids.

Rachel:            Yeah. That’s right on your home page that, I might get this wrong, everybody that opens three gifts a day, like for Christmas, that waste can cover 450,000 football fields. Yeah. It’s incredible. You have some interesting statistics that make you think, “Okay, this is great. Everyone’s opening presents in one day. What happens with all that?” We didn’t even go into depth, but I really love the idea of how you have the crinkly tissue paper. You’ve put a lot of thought into this. I wish you a lot of success. I just want to end it with what advice would you give somebody starting out, parting wisdom now that you’ve been through this entire process?

Kim:                I would say take a lot of time up front to really think through the strategy before you dive into the details too much. What are your deal breakers that you absolutely have to stay true to? For example, mine was this box still has to be gifted forward. I’ve had people approach me and say, “Well, can I put my brand on the ribbon?” or, “Can you do a custom fabric print with my brand?” I said no because then it can’t be gifted forward. That’s a deal breaker for me, for example. Trying to do everything I can to be as eco responsible as possible through my business is another thing that I try to live the mission as well.

Whatever your strategy is up front, just stay really consistent through that. Then your website, how you approach retailers, everything around that, your packaging, your logo and then it’s much better to be consistent.

Rachel:            Great. Well, thank you. We can end with those great tips.

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