As a single mother of three, Melissa Kieling noticed that no single kids lunch bag could keep her children’s lunches cool and safe until lunchtime, so she’d have to stick toxic freezable gel packs in their lunch boxes, which inevitably got lost, or use wasteful plastic baggies of ice that always leaked. Taking matters into her own hands, Melissa researched and patented the idea for a lunch bag that had freezable gel built into its lining and 2009, she launched the PackIt Personal Cooler, the first foldable, freezable bag that keeps food and drinks cool on the go for up to 10 hours—no ice packs needed. Under her leadership, PackIt’s patented technology has expanded from lunch totes into a line of food and drink solutions spanning wine, baby, picnic, and shopping bags that are sold in more than 40 countries internationally.
“…I set about coming up with a prototype—I literally pinned freezable gel packs inside a shower curtain on my dining table—and then worked with manufacturing specialists to bring it to life…”
Melissa, your story is the ultimate tale of an enterprising woman who spotted a brilliant opportunity and went for it! Where did you pick up the skills you needed to become an entrepreneur?
I’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit but also, more importantly, the desire to take risks. Not every gamble works out perfectly, but knowing that there’s no reward without risk is what keeps me coming back for more. Gutsiness is essential because you’re bound to face naysayers along the way while you attempt to bring a new concept to market. Simply being a mom was great training as well. As a mother of three, you inevitably master the skill of multi-tasking, and running a business requires a lot of that.
Please can you tell us a bit more about PackIt and how you came up with the idea?
The concept really began in my kitchen. I was tired of being forced to pack processed foods in my kids’ lunch bags, as they were the only options that would hold up until lunchtime–some of them probably have a shelf-life of decades! I knew there had to be a better way to do it. I started doing research online to find a product that would fit my needs and realised that it did not exist. Identifying that hole in the market was the first step. I figured that if this was something I needed, others probably would too.
I set about coming up with a prototype—I literally pinned freezable gel packs inside a shower curtain on my dining table—and then worked with manufacturing specialists to bring it to life. The concept was so simple and user-friendly that I knew it had to work.
Lots of entrepreneurs talk about ‘bootstrapping’ finance to get started. How did you raise the finance to produce the first batch of PackIts?
I worked with a partner early on who provided a small amount of money to fund initial research and development. Next, we raised money from friends and family to produce a first run of sample goods. I was able to take the samples to our first tradeshow, where people lined up after the show to purchase them.
That’s when I knew I was on to something and needed additional financing to really take a stab at this. We then partnered with a great team of private money investors called ECAP Capital who really stepped up and supported the PackIt growth. Today we employ bank financing to support our day-to-day operations.
How did you ensure no-one copied your idea?
The very first thing I did was apply for a provisional patent. This is actually very easy to do online at the USPTO.gov website (www.ipo.gov.uk is the UK equivalent). Once we had secured some financing for the company, we hired an attorney who completed the full utility patent. Our patent was granted here in the US in May of 2012 and is pending throughout most of the world.
People often describe entrepreneurship as a rollercoaster; what were your greatest highs and lows?
I would say that is an understatement! But I really feel like I am living my dream. I get to do what I love and am so passionate about building the PackIt brand every day. I get to work with a terrific team that has become like family to me. I beam with pride at what we all have accomplished here. With that said, there has also been great struggle.
Having not had extensive business experience, there has been a lot to learn. Manufacturing, sourcing, financing, marketing and sales were all new to me. Planning is also a challenge. When your company is in a rapid growth phase like ours is, you don’t have a lot of historical information to inform your decisions.
One of the most important lifelines of the business is inventory management. You have to buy enough to support your growing demand, but if you buy too much, you tie up your cash flow. When one of our major retailers first came on board, they basically bought everything we had. We ended up airshipping in product to support their demand and it cost us a fortune. To this day they are one of our best customers and, looking back, I would not have done it any other way looking back. At the time, though, it was very stressful and a make-or break moment for our business.
The greatest high was when my kids and I started to see the product on the shelves of major retail stores. To think that it all started in my kitchen and was now available to people in the places millions of people shop every day is just incredible.
What did it feel like when you raised capital?
It is not easy to convince someone to buy into a new idea with no real sales history. And quite frankly, it kept me up at night when we did, knowing that I had other people’s money at stake. I did not want to let anyone down. But we’ve had some incredible partners who have understood my vision and supported PackIt every step of the way.
Did you mind giving away equity in the company?
It is a funny thing, equity. Early on, people would really only talk to us about debt financing. It was really difficult to get someone interested in lending us money for a piece of a company that was not proven. They generally wanted some kind of guaranteed return on their money in the form of interest. Now that we’re highly successful, everyone wants a piece. Which I guess is a compliment, but we keep it as tight as possible.
What do your children think of what you’ve created?
This has been the most incredible experience for me and my children. Not only were they the inspiration for the concept initially, but they also continue to participate in the creation of new products and print and pattern designs, and they are always the first to test a new prototype.
My two older boys have both spent summers working at PackIt and my daughter is in our current marketing photography. I love that they get to experience the day-to-day workings of a business from the ground up. My hope is that this experience teaches them that with hard work you can accomplish anything.
How do consumers in the various countries you supply use the products differently?
We partner with distributors in each individual country that best understand the needs of that particular territory and can help support our brand accordingly. We are still small enough that we can be really responsive to those needs. It is interesting to see the differences in practices throughout the world. For example, with regard to school lunches, there are some countries whose governments supply lunches for kids, whereas in others it’s completely on the families to provide a packed lunch for the children.
Regardless of those policies, we’re seeing a growing interest in worldwide among people of all ages who want to bring healthy food and drinks with them on the go.
What advice would you give to other female entrepreneurs trying to build sustainable businesses?
Admitting you don’t know something and asking for help is a strength, NOT a weakness. When you are unwilling to humble yourself and admit that you don’t know something, you risk missing an opportunity to learn something.
Also, understand your cash flow. You really have to know your general expenses and your cost of goods. Top-line revenue can be great and is very exciting, but at the end of the day, it’s critical that your business supports its expenses, manages its growth and is profitable enough so that you can reinvest back into the company.
What is next for PackIt?
We attribute our success to the fact that our customers really see the value in our products and appreciate how they improve their lives every single day. We’ll continue to offer smart, innovative solutions that make life easier, and yes, a bit “cooler” too.