Kelley Higney of Bug Bite Thing: “Your life will never be the same”

I was truly just a mom on a mission to find relief for myself and my daughter. When we realized how much of a game-changer the product was for us, I knew I had to offer other families the same relief. My mother and I had a long discussion about my dream to make Bug […]

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I was truly just a mom on a mission to find relief for myself and my daughter. When we realized how much of a game-changer the product was for us, I knew I had to offer other families the same relief. My mother and I had a long discussion about my dream to make Bug Bite Thing a global brand. She fully supported my decision to focus on Bug Bite Thing full time. That was a life-changing decision for me. Even though I believed in the product, I was scared. I took a huge financial risk to start the company. My husband and I sold our home and used the money to start Bug Bite Thing. We rented a house and operated Bug Bite Thing out of our garage. We sacrificed a lot, but I knew it would all be worth it based on all the positive feedback we were getting.

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kelley Higney.

Kelley Higney is the founder and CEO of Bug Bite Thing, partnering alongside her mother, Ellen McAlister. Bug Bite Thing is a suction tool that removes insect saliva/venom from under the skin to remove the itching and swelling caused by insect bites and stings. Bug Bite Thing is a ‘Shark Tank’ product that is Amazon’s #1 selling product for insect bite relief. It is completely chemical-free, reusable and safe to use on children of all ages, as well as adults.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in San Diego and I am a third-generation female entrepreneur. Coming from a line of entrepreneurial women, I gained first-hand experience and learned at a very young age the value of working hard. I was answering the phones for my mom, Ellen McAlister’s business, as soon as I could talk. As a child, when my mom’s international clients were in town, they would stay at our house. We would also go to Las Vegas for trade shows once a month as early as I can remember. I then went on to work for our family’s international export and distribution business, A.C. Kerman, for 15 years.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

It is a quote by the founder of SPANX, Sara Blakely, “Perseverance is the key to starting a successful business.” This quote resonates with me in many ways. When I started Bug Bite Thing I was told that I could not launch with just one product but needed an entire product line to be successful. I followed my gut instinct and on its own Bug Bite Thing became a success. Also, as an entrepreneur, the goal is always to become successful. But it is a long journey, with a lot of bumps along the road to success. I see this as a good thing. The process weeds out many entrepreneurs along the way, as running a company is not for the faint of heart.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I have two books that I recommend to entrepreneurs and other business owners: Invent it, Sell it, Bank it: Make Your Million-Dollar Idea Into a Reality by Lori Greiner and Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business by Gino Wickman.

I greatly respect Lori’s experience as an inventor, entrepreneur, and mentor. Her advice is invaluable. Her book breaks down the process of how to bring a product to market. For anyone overwhelmed and looking for expert advice on how to start, this book is a must-read.

Traction is a great book for people who feel like they are ‘spinning their wheels’ and want to take their business to the next level. The book completely shifted the way I view my business. The concept is that you should view your business from an outsider’s perspective. I went from looking at things from a micro to a macro level.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

When my family relocated to South Florida from San Diego, I was unprepared for how mosquitoes would impact our quality of life. For as long as I can remember, I have been a “mosquito magnet.” And unfortunately, my daughter inherited my mosquito-attracting blood, and living in South Florida didn’t help. Suddenly my daughter was constantly suffering from mosquito bites. My daughter also has a severe reaction to insect bites and develops cellulitis, which is a common, but potentially serious bacterial skin infection.

After many failed attempts using creams and trying home remedies to relieve my daughter’s discomfort, I researched how other countries combat insect bites. As a mother, I did not want to use a product full of chemicals on my daughter. I was also baffled to see how many unregulated products were being used on a daily basis, especially on children. During my research, I came across a little-known product from Denmark that uses suction to help remove insect saliva or venom rather than having to apply creams or harsh chemicals. My “ah ha” moment is when I discovered that the product was more effective than everything else I had tried and offered instant relief.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

I was truly just a mom on a mission to find relief for myself and my daughter. When we realized how much of a game-changer the product was for us, I knew I had to offer other families the same relief. My mother and I had a long discussion about my dream to make Bug Bite Thing a global brand. She fully supported my decision to focus on Bug Bite Thing full time. That was a life-changing decision for me. Even though I believed in the product, I was scared. I took a huge financial risk to start the company. My husband and I sold our home and used the money to start Bug Bite Thing. We rented a house and operated Bug Bite Thing out of our garage. We sacrificed a lot, but I knew it would all be worth it based on all the positive feedback we were getting.

I was able to overcome the challenge of translating the idea of Bug Bite Thing into a business because my mother advised me through the entire process. I was able to rely on her 35 years of experience working with manufacturers to guide me every step of the way. I would recommend any entrepreneur looking into starting a business in an area that you have little or no expertise to figure out who you know and trust that can help you in the process.

A secondary challenge was figuring out how to market Bug Bite Thing to consumers. Bug Bite Thing is unlike all other insect bite relief products on the market. While most insect bite relief products are a topical cream or spray and contain chemicals, Bug Bite Thing only uses suction and is completely chemical-free. I think many entrepreneurs expect their business to be an overnight success. While this is true for some, I intentionally started my business on a local level and a very small scale. I utilized my community’s resources. I reached out to our local Chamber of Commerce, local news stations and even other local female entrepreneurs. I had members of the community test Bug Bite Thing and provide feedback. I also educated them on how to use the product correctly. This allowed me to gauge the consumer demand for the product and the best way to communicate how to use the product effectively.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

My experience is different as I did not invent the product. However, regardless if it is your invention or if you are bringing a product to the market, I would say you must have both passion and purpose. Both of these principles have guided me in my path of entrepreneur and have allowed me to remain anchored to my vision even when others dismissed my idea that a suction tool could change people’s lives.

In terms of research, unlike other generations, with the Internet, we have the advantage of having all the knowledge available at our fingertips. I would recommend doing keyword searches and investigating any competitive products, researching the price point of other products in that same category, conducting a patent search, as well as exploring potential sales channels.

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

My mother. Having her as a role-model growing up, I saw first-hand how much hard work goes into being successful. I did not expect the process of selling a new product to be easy, however, I have a very positive outlook (which I get from my mother). With a good attitude, by making smart decisions, and having the proper legal protections in place, you can set yourself up for success and minimize some of the risk factors before you even start.

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

My process is a little different, as the product was already created. I negotiated to secure the exclusive distribution rights in the U.S. with the product’s manufacturer located in Denmark.

Then, I had to trademark the product’s name and logo. I came up with the name Bug Bite Thing as I kept on calling for someone to hand me the “Bug Bite Thing” and the name stuck. I created the Bug Bite Thing website, social media channels, and had all the creative design work necessary to create the brand.

Next, I had to get my hands on the actual product. I had no idea how to do this and my mother helped me with the contract, as well as deciding how much inventory I would take to start. For anyone in this situation, I would recommend hiring a consultant who has extensive experience working with factories. I would also suggest starting with a small quantity of inventory to start. I had my first shipment of the product sent to my house. I had ordered 10K units which I had expected to last me the entire season. At this point, the business was still very grassroots. I was selling the product on, Amazon, and at local farmers’ markets and bake sales. Then one day, there was a conversation about Bug Bite Thing in a local Mom Group on social media. The local news picked up on that conversation and contacted me for an interview. That interview was then syndicated and all my inventory sold out in a week! For me, this was a huge testimonial to the power of social media and public relations.

At this point, I decided I was ready to work with distributors. Again, my mother’s experience running our family’s business gave me a huge advantage as she was able to help me in finding and vetting them as well as having a lot of contacts in retail. I also cannot emphasize how important it is to have a brand protection program in place once you start working with them. This ensures that your price structure is correct and that your retailers are not selling your product on 3rd party websites. I would recommend that every entrepreneur find someone to help them create a brand protection program if they don’t have any experience in this area. Also, along the way I had many questions and there were many unknowns. I constantly tapped my network and asked questions and advice until I felt knowledgeable enough to make an informed decision.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

A story that is funny now is that in 2019, my family and I moved three times within six months! Bug Bite Thing just kept growing and we had to move to accommodate the company’s growth. We went from working out of our garage to leasing a large facility and then outgrowing that. The lesson that I learned is that you should always make room for growth! Also, you should always hire a really good analyst so you are correctly tracking your growth trajectory as well as making sure your inventory level will meet your demand.

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

I think the “tipping point” was seeing the consumer demand in South Florida begin to grow. I offered a 100% money-back guarantee from the beginning to troubleshoot if people are using it incorrectly. One good decision that I made when starting the company is focusing on our customer’s experience. Since the beginning, I have strived to ensure our customers are satisfied with our product, as well as their entire experience with our brand. We always want our customers to feel like they are part of our company’s journey, and in turn, many of them want to support our brand and mission. They become our biggest cheerleaders. This is true to this day. I think any consumer brand should be first focused on customer service, as without happy customers, your brand will not have longevity.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Your life will never be the same. That is the beginning of you making it. It is like having another child. I jokingly say my third child is my business, as it requires nurturing, your attention at all times, and is both rewarding and challenging.
  2. You will never stop thinking about your business. After this point, your life and your business merge and you can’t ever have a complete ‘mental break’ from your work as a founder. I am constantly finding things that give me ideas for my business. When I am doing something else and want to remember something that I found, I email myself screenshots and take notes on my phone.
  3. Hire consultants or employees in the areas of your business where you are weak. If you don’t know, don’t guess. Also, hire for the roles that will save you time so you can prioritize how you will focus your time. I understood marketing, so my first hire was a consumer service representative and someone to assist with packing orders. There are never enough hours in the day to do it all. This helped me stay focused and grow the business.
  4. Strongly vet and partner with the right people in the industry to launch your product, including distributors. As I mentioned earlier, this is critical for protecting your brand, ensuring your pricing and product integrity. I have encountered distributors who looked great on paper. But after thoroughly vetting them, it turned out they were not as experienced as they claimed and by doing so, I was able to avoid a possible mishap which would have diluted the brand integrity.
  5. Market research is critical, know who your target demographic is, and your go-to-market strategy before you launch as well as have the proper infrastructure in place if the company is to take off quickly. When I first launched Bug Bite Thing, I had identified our target customer as male outdoorsmen. And while that demographic remains one piece of our market, we were missing out on our biggest target demographic: moms, like me, looking for non-toxic products that are safe to use on their children It makes total sense now as that is what inspired me to create the company, but sometimes early on when starting your business, it takes a while until you see things differently.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

Do your research. Know the market industry’s potential growth as a sector to help you determine the market opportunity for your product. Identify your target consumer. Ask yourself, is this something that will help people and make their lives better? Can I start this business without a huge amount of capital? I think if the answer is yes and your gut instinct is that you are onto something, this is a very good start. Talk with friends and family, don’t give them too much information on why you are asking and try to get unbiased opinions from friends and family to gauge potential consumer interest in that type of product.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

It depends on the individual entrepreneur’s skill set. I think if you have zero experience in the retail and distribution industry, the answer is yes. I was told multiple times that Bug BiteThing alone would not succeed. People said that I needed another product or a line of products to launch the business. Instead, I relied on the feedback from my community who loved the product. Also, my gut instinct told me that the product was going to change people’s lives. This reassured me that the single product would succeed. I watched the demand start to grow. I also started out very slow and I was extremely cautious. This also allows for more of a learning curve. If you want to launch on a large scale, I would recommend not going it alone.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

This depends on your financial situation and your comfort with taking a financial risk. Also, once you put together your business plan you can determine the amount of capital you will need to get your company off the ground. It depends on how much decision-making power you want to maintain in your company. I wanted to control the brand’s growth and be able to make the decisions so looking for venture capital was not something I wanted to explore early on. I grew up in a family business where the growth mentality is that it is a marathon and not a sprint.

If you are interested in scaling quickly and the type of founder who is looking for support to steer the ship, this may be a better route.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

To educate people that there is a non-toxic option for insect relief on the market that is truly effective and raising awareness about how many chemicals are in products in the United States. As a mother, I am always looking to use chemical-free products on my children. Jessica Alba of Honest Company has done an incredible job raising awareness on this topic. She started Honest Company after her daughter suffered an allergic reaction to a laundry detergent. Jessica researched other household products and found that many contain untested and potentially toxic chemicals.

I also have been contacted by parents whose children are being treated for cancer who wanted me to know they are constantly recommending Bug Bite Thing. Apparently, patients undergoing chemotherapy can be more susceptible to insect bites. Their doctors have recommended Bug Bite Thing as it is chemical-free. I am investigating how to make the product even more easily accessible to cancer patients.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Encourage parents to look at the products they are using on their children and discuss how many cosmetic and personal care products on the market in the U.S. contain chemicals that are banned in other countries.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Sara Blakely. I am very inspired by her. Sara took an idea she believed in and created an empire. Many people dismissed her idea when she started, yet she trusted her instincts and was hugely profitable in her first year in business.

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