Heidi Worcester, Founder and Owner NEATgoods, spoke with Innovation Destination Hartford Website Curator Nan Price about the process of taking an idea, iterating it, and bringing it to market.
NAN PRICE: I read that the concept behind NEATsheets was developed by your father “a perennial businessman” and mother who came up with the idea for a car napkin/bib after a long road trip. How did the business concept evolve?
HEIDI WORCESTER: I took the idea a step further to meet the needs of my aging grandmother. I was looking at products available for her beyond just a bib. I thought: This market needs some good design. I started gaining momentum in my thought process as to how I could develop the concept.
Our first product is NEATsheets, but we expanded to the bigger concept of NEATgoods. The idea is to create exceptionally designed products for everyday uses. We’re taking products that typically aren’t designed and giving them an element of dignity and attractiveness. We launched about three years ago.
NAN: At what point did you realize your idea was marketable and you could start a company manufacturing the products?
HEIDI: I came up with a way to design a solution to using napkins or bibs. I researched the paper and the manufacturing. As I was talking about the concept, people reacted by saying: I get it. And they asked: Have you thought about using it this way? It had a snowball effect of people telling me new ways they thought the products could be used. I thought that showed there were some viability to the concept.
NAN: What steps did you take to get the startup going?
HEIDI: I went to a conference and met Jennifer Gabler, who was co-founding an entrepreneurial accelerator group for women in Connecticut called The Refinery. I was in their first class of students. They were willing to take me on even though I wasn’t far in the process because they thought my concept was strong.
NAN: What did you get out of that experience? Did The Refinery help with your business plan?
HEIDI: The Refinery provided a great support system. They helped with all different business aspects—marketing, finance, branding. We were kept very busy refining our business models. We had assignments, we attended lectures, we were meeting accomplished business people who mentored us.
As I went through the program and kept developing the product, I found that what I thought was going to be our biggest market—which were commuters and people in their cars—was probably a secondary market. I realized there was this whole senior market with a real need for these types of products.
NAN: Did you utilize other startup resources in addition to The Refinery?
HEIDI: After The Refinery, I felt like I was being pushed out of the nest. I realized: I’m on my own and I’ve got to find my legs.
I learned to take advantage of what’s out there. Because if you have a great idea and you want to see it get somewhere, you’ve got to go out and explore the resources available. If you sit at home and try to do it in your own little cocoon, it’s just not going to work.
I connected with Milena Erwin, Program Manager of the Women’s Business Center at the University of Hartford’s Entrepreneurial Center. I’ve worked on my marketing plan with Anne DiFrancesco at the Women’s Business Development Council in Stamford. And I have a fantastic mentor through SCORE, Buz Sawyer, who helps me structure my business.
There are resources available to support you and encourage you. It took a while to learn that, but now I find I’m constantly pushing myself to get out and network. I have to because, while I have a product, and it’s selling on Amazon and it’s doing nicely, I need to sell more. And it’s not my nature to sell.
NAN: Would you say that marketing is your biggest challenge as a startup?
HEIDI: Marketing has been hard, because it’s not a product that you necessarily know you need. And, it’s not a product you know how to google. So, we have to get it known, whether it’s through publications or any sort of news format. We got on the local Fox News station early on. It was great because that week we saw an immediate bump in sales, and that was right at the beginning. We need more of that.
Because otherwise: Great idea but how do I find you? Even if you know you can find us on Amazon, you might not necessarily know what to put in the search.
One strategy that has been extremely successful is we provide NEATsheets to food and BBQ festivals nationwide in exchange for sponsorship rights. This has been a very significant way we’ve marketed our product along with investment in social media, including Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, and Twitter.
In some ways, that’s been our biggest struggle. In the beginning, there were definitely challenges. We made product we weren’t happy with. The sticky tabs weren’t working, or the paper wasn’t high quality. We couldn’t sell something that wasn’t nicely designed or packaged well. The quality wasn’t up to our high standards and that’s what we’re all about—designing a better product.
NAN: Tell us more about how you got your product on Amazon.
HEIDI: Sure. It’s not as easy as you would expect. It was a process. A lot of that was done by my business partner and brother, Greg Pesky. He took on the task of getting us available on Amazon. We did hire someone to figure out the language so we had the proper search terms.
Since then, we’ve gotten an Amazon’s Choice designation, which I find personally influences me when I buy things. We do Amazon AdWords too, so hopefully that’s also bringing more people in.
Amazon offered us business-to-business designation, so we’ve gone through the process of applying for that. There are two designations, Seller Central and Vendor Central, and both have different advantages.
You must be aware that when Amazon offers a designation such as Vendor Central (versus Seller Central), while you have the potential for large sales, you also give up a certain amount of control. Not that it’s necessarily bad, but with the advantages there could be possible drawbacks if your company isn’t ready for them. If you’re considering Amazon, you really should go online and Google the difference between the two.
NAN: It sounds like you really need to do your research.
HEIDI: Yes. I’ve got to say, it’s been a great partnership. Amazon has been supportive. Through Amazon we could not ship as inexpensively as we do. We use Amazon to fulfill orders through our website.
Another thing with Amazon is the testimonials, which are wonderful. But, you don’t know who they are coming from, because you only have access to a certain amount of information. When people order through our website, we’re able to ask them questions. As you’re starting a small company, you want to find out as much about your customer as possible, and we are missing a little of that information.
NAN: Speaking of your customers, let’s talk about your target market. You were talking earlier about how that kind of shifted.
HEIDI: Defining our market has been another challenge for us. We started off thinking we were going toward commuters or travelers, and then found this market of senior citizens.
What I’ve learned from mentors is: You have to focus. You can’t be everything to everyone. But through various conversations, we hear all kinds of suggestions for our products: What if you’re wearing a uniform, or you’re all dressed up and you have to put on makeup? It goes on and on. See? This is exactly what our problem is. Yes, we want to focus, but then everybody starts suggesting other ideas.
We’ve also seen that on Amazon. There are uses we would have never imagined. For example, proms and weddings. And people make suggestions. So, we don’t want to limit ourselves. Because we do feel like we created a better product, and if it works in a variety of situation—go for it!
NAN: What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
HEIDI: There’s an element of freedom. There’s also an element of responsibility. As they say, everybody can come up with an idea, it’s the process of taking that idea to fruition and that’s quite difficult.
Yet, when it works out, it’s invigorating. When you go to Amazon and realize you got a sale. Then you get a sale a week you’re ecstatic. And then it’s sales every day. And then it’s a certain number of sales every day and that number keeps increasing. That’s exciting when you feel like you’re getting something out there and it’s gaining traction.
To me, being an entrepreneur isn’t just about money. Especially with NEATgoods, it’s about creating better products for a market that needs it—and doing it in the right way. I researched the environmental aspects and we support 1% For The Planet to offset our carbon footprint. That’s important for us because we’re creating a disposable product.
We also donate to various charities we feel are important to us. I want to expand on that social message as I grow the business. That’s got to be integral to our purpose and process. With your own company, you have the freedom to do that. You have the freedom to craft it in the way you want the message to be heard.
Also, as a mother it allows me a lot of flexibility. I’m not saying it’s easier than going to a 9-to-5 job, but I can set my own hours and I don’t have to report to anyone. It does mean there are no weekends. That’s something I’ve had to think about it: Where do you put the limits on your life? I want my children to see that I’m working and creating a business; however, I don’t want them to feel I always have a computer on my lap.
NAN: It’s always about finding balance.
HEIDI: Balance is huge. Also, I think it’s important for my kids to see I’m doing something I believe in.
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