Don’t talk or show ideas until you are able to market them and sell them to the public. It’s easy for good ideas to be taken and for other people to take credit. Don’t do any sneak peaks or coming soon announcements. You don’t want to give competitors the opportunity to copy your designs and new products before you’ve offered them yourself.
As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michelle Brandriss.
In Michelle’s early career, she worked in a variety of fields including environmental consulting, a turn studying fine arts, marketing, e-commerce for a series of start-up companies in the industry’s fledgling years, and finally, advertising. Once her son arrived, she became a “working mother” and found herself using masking tape and Sharpie permanent markers to label her son’s possessions as he ventured off to daycare, and all the other places a young child’s things can be lost or misplaced. Dissatisfied with the aesthetics and unreliability of such labeling methods, she created Name Bubbles in 2009.
While there were established companies producing similar products at the time, Name Bubbles focused on giving customers improved graphic designs on a better performing customizable label. Today Name Bubbles produces high-quality, personalized, waterproof labels for a wide variety of products that are used in daycare, camp and school. The company works hard to produces the best quality kids labels to help keep her customers happy and their families organized.
Operationally, Michelle learned firsthand the importance for a startup to have good internal employee morale, a solid business model, and sound budgeting. She strives to be a fair and mindful employer and is proud to be a woman-owned manufacturer who encourages an open-minded environment. Workplace collaboration, planning, and discipline are crucial to the company’s success. Creative approaches are encouraged for everyday tasks and overcoming obstacles to meeting these goals, while remaining mindful of costs and the bottom line.
In the decade since Michelle created Name Bubbles, the company has grown from an idea in a basement office to a thriving business with a loyal customer base around the world. Name Bubbles has earned multiple product awards through the years. Most recently, Michelle was proud to receive an Excellence in Small Business Award from the US SBA in 2017. Name Bubbles is also actively involved with several charities contributing over 160,000 dollars through the Name Bubbles Giving Program.
In the spring of 2020, it became clear that kids would not be going to camp due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Name Bubbles would need to diversify, or a new division needed to be developed.
By utilizing the customizing engine of the Name Bubbles website, a sister company was created.
Sticker & Co launched in November of 2020, with waterproof sticker and wall decals that would be created with personal photos on the customer’s phone or computer or from their Facebook and Instagram accounts. These products helped customer’s share and show memories and to stay in touch with family and friends at a reasonable price during a time when we had to stay apart.
In 2019, Michelle was recognized by Marquis Who’s Who Top Executives for dedication, achievements, and leadership as an entrepreneur and administrator. In 2020, she joined the Women Presidents’ Organization, a nonprofit institution designed for female presidents, CEOs, and managing directors of privately held, multimillion-dollar companies. She is a founding member of the Troy Rensselaer Technology Valley Chapter of the Women Presidents’ Organization along with nine other members.
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”?
My childhood was a mix of the Wonder Years and the Goldberg’s, but I always considered it ordinary. I am one of four kids with an older sister and my brother and sister behind me are twins, so I am the middle child. We lived in the same house while I attended school from elementary through high school. I grew up playing sports and had a great group of friends in a middle class suburban bubble. My only regret is that I was more interested in being social and playing soccer than taking the educational aspect of school seriously. During the 80’s I attended both middle and high school, so MTV and music had a big influence on the way I dressed and what I thought was “totally rad”. I am thankful that we had a house full of pets, but my mom is a very neat person. I am sure the dog and cat hair drove her crazy. I shared a room with my younger sister for many years, but I quickly learned that size does not matter. She won the battle of wills. I am still very close with my siblings though we are scattered across the country. We’ve been zooming and calling weekly through Covid-19.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
It’s not whether you get knocked down, it’s whether you get up. -Vince Lombardi
Growing up I was always told to get back in the saddle or to get back up and try again. Perhaps it was from playing sports, but I have always felt that life is challenging and that we will be knocked down in both our personal and professional lives but the lesson is in how we recover.
The unexpected will happen, Covid-19 is the perfect example. Name Bubbles had to close its doors with no income for 6 weeks and then we lost half of our income over the next three months. It made me look ahead to the following year and ask a lot of questions, “What do I need to do to get the company through this? Will kids be able to return to sports and sleep away camps? Will child care facilities be open? How long will Covid-19 be with us and will it affect next year’s busy season?” When I considered these, I realized that I didn’t have the answers and I needed to control what I could. I took a good look at the Name Bubbles’ website and the manufacturing side of the business and asked myself a few more questions. What new products can we make with the equipment we have? How do we utilize the customization portion of the Name Bubbles’ website to create a new division? What would customers be interested in during this difficult time? After spending a weekend thinking through various ideas for a second division, I talked to the team and we got to work.
The result is a new division, Sticker & Co, that will launch in mid-November of 2020. Stickerandco.com will allow customers to create custom waterproof stickers and wall decals from their social media channels and images from their phone or computer. It’s a product line for people to share memories with friends and loved ones and keep their special moments close at hand. It’s an idea that made sense for all of us living through this difficult time and a personal but affordable gift to send to friends and family members.
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 love books on audible and there are so many podcasts that I enjoy that it’s impossible to land on one that has had a profound effect on me in the last 5-years. However, I would like to mention a new author, Julie Clark, whom just made the New York Times Bestsellers List for The Last Flight. She was a friend from college and I must share her fantastic story, it pulls you right in and keeps you on your toes, I highly recommend it.
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 son was a baby, I wanted everything to have his name on it. Personalized puzzles, books and a lot of embroidered items, I couldn’t get enough. Soon it was time for me to go back to work. I started labeling bottles and items for daycare with masking tape and sharpies and discovered that they would peal or wear off.
During drop off I noticed the other kids had personalized name labels. I loved the idea, however, during the ordering process the colors were limited, The other boys in my son’s daycare class used the same labels with the same colors so mix-ups still occurred. But this made me wonder; if I upped the game and provided a label product with more options and styles, would moms start buying from me? I thought about this for a year and did some research, but I had a job in advertising and I would be walking away from a well-paid salaried position to taking money out of savings. That was a scary step.
My “ah ha” moment came during a time that I was traveling a lot for work. I had to fly out on a Sunday afternoon for an 8:00 am focus group and my young son had a high fever and ear infection. As I walked out the front door and saw my toddler cuddled up with my husband, a switch was flipped, I was ready to quit my job and make the name label business happen. If I was going to work crazy hours, at least I would be working for myself.
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?
When I started my name label business, I understood the e-commerce side of the business, but I knew nothing of digital printing or what material I would need to use. I knew, however, that I wanted to control the manufacturing of my labels. A lot of the research and heavy lifting was required to understand the printing process, find the right material and make sure it was safe. It took 4 months of testing and talking to various vendors to find the material I wanted to use and then another 2 months to find the right printer and set up to make the labels.
Nothing happens overnight, it is a process of small steps in the right direction. Give yourself lists and goals to hit in days, weeks, and months. Most importantly, watch your costs and keep your ideas close to the vest. You need to ask the right questions to the right people. If you didn’t get an answer you need than find someone who can provide one and then get a second opinion. Be careful who you discuss your ideas with. There is a reason most people don’t become entrepreneurs and you don’t want anyone raining on your parade.
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 their idea has already been created?
For any new idea that you feel may be original, extensive research should be done online. If you still cannot find any competition than reach out to a patent attorney about the idea and discuss whether it is viable to do a patent search.
Most likely you will have competition, don’t let that discourage you. In fact, make the chase and the competition a motivating factor. When I started NameBubbles.com, there were already two big name label companies in business. One was based in Australia and the second in Canada. I needed to research the competitive landscape and products offered but I knew that name labels were viable products that parents in the US and around the world were buying. Because there were only small players in the US market, I felt there was an opening for me to launch Name Bubbles and to differentiate the brand with unique label packs sold by use, such as Daycare Packs, Sleep Away Camp Labels, Kindergarten Label Pack, etc.
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?
I would say my grandmother inspired me to start my business. There is a picture of her hanging in my office. I like to think that she is looking after me and the business. She was a self-made woman who started a real estate agency and did very well for herself and made sure that I went away to college. I will always thank her for that opportunity and life experience. She didn’t really talk about the tough times she lived through, but as a woman business owner, I know she experienced them. She was good at putting things behind and moving forward. If things became too hectic she would quote Scarlett O’Hara, “I’ll think about that tomorrow.” Tomorrow is another day.
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?
I wish I could say that my mistakes are funny, but sadly they usually cost money, so I hate making them. Be sure to document everything, even if it’s not in your nature, make it part of your personal fabric as a business person. Written documentation gives everyone an understanding of what is to be expected.
I do have a funny story during the testing period of the name labels before they were perfected. I had stickers and labels stuck on everything going through the washer and dryer and the dishwasher. My husband would go to work with an occasional sticker stuck to the outside of his clothes, and I clogged up the dishwasher a couple of times with material that failed the dishwasher test. Everything in the house was labeled with different sized stickers during those months of testing.
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?
Within 3 months of the website being live and the labels being sold, I submitted products to various parenting award companies to have them test and review Name Bubbles. When the Daycare Pack received the award for Outstanding Product, I immediately put the seal of approval everywhere and began reaching out to magazines and newspapers as well as mommy bloggers.
I also started running more online ad campaigns through Google AdWords and I made sure that the words “Award-Winning” were in several ads. The “Award-Winning” ads had the biggest impact and I was able to increase the advertising buy to drive more traffic. By increasing the number of visitors through the ad buys, the search engine optimization for Name Bubbles improved. It all kicked into gear and we began selling for camp season and would soon be selling labels during back-to-school season. The takeaway is trying to find creative ways to get you product in front of as many eyes as possible, not just your buying customers.
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.)
- Don’t talk or show ideas until you are able to market them and sell them to the public. It’s easy for good ideas to be taken and for other people to take credit. Don’t do any sneak peaks or coming soon announcements. You don’t want to give competitors the opportunity to copy your designs and new products before you’ve offered them yourself.
- Decide whether you are going to be part or the brand or let your company or product stand on its own. Don’t Personally I didn’t become part of the brand; my competitors chose that path, so I decided to push the brand on its own without a spokesperson and I am happy I made that choice. If or when I decide to sell the business, it will not affect the value of the company when I am not around.
- As your company grows you need a company culture and values that support both your customers and employees. This gives employees an understanding of what is expected to produce the products your customers seek and ensure the success of the company.
- Think big. How many people around the world might want your product? Then think about how to reach those people online and in stores wherever they may be.
- I wish someone would have told me to rethink the name of the company (Name Bubbles), now when I meet someone in town I often hear, “Oh you’re the bubble lady?”
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?
The initial research that you can do on your own is the best first step, this gives you an understanding of the landscape regarding the competition and the opportunities. Examine how your idea or invention can help fix or make a customer’s need better. Ask yourself if there may be other prospects that you haven’t considered. Are there any competing products in the space? Is your idea completely new and worth approaching a patent attorney about? Then consider working with a designer who specializes in creating product designs and will help you find the right manufacturer.
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?
This is not applicable to my business or my experience.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
Name Bubbles grew up as a bootstrap company, lean and flexible. There were times when I considered looking for investors, but I really liked being the only owner. Venture capital would have helped eliminate a lot of the juggling between operations, marketing, and website development. I know a great deal of stress and sleepless nights through the first five years would have been easier to manage with more money from outside sources. What it comes down to is your comfort level of having investors and how important it is for you to be a sole business owner, which I found to be my favorite option.
There are plenty of businesses and industries that you will have to move quickly and take investor money, and that makes perfect sense. With Name Bubbles, however, I felt I could build the company slowly and thoughtfully, thinking ahead by years and planning for what would need to be built and purchased.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
In the second year after Name Bubbles opened its virtual doors, we were able to create a division dedicated to charitable causes. As a business owner, it was always one of my goals to raise awareness and support various organizations that support children’s health, happiness and education. To date, Name Bubbles has given over 120,000 dollars to various organization that work to improve children’s lives. Our current giving program gives 1 dollars to Blessings in a Backpack for every school labels pack purchased.
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.
I am very interested in vertical farming or indoor staked, hydroponic farming and I do hope that will be my next chapter. The need is there for us to begin reevaluating where our food comes from and how healthy it is. There are opportunities as well. For example, there are thousands of empty malls across America that can be converted into amazing spaces for effective farming. These crops can be grown without pesticides and the output could be planned for restaurants and grocery stores in their prospective areas. The benefits are present for growing safe, healthy food in an environmentally conscious way while also satisfying the profit equation at a business level.
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.
I would love to have a cup of coffee with Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx. When I was in my 20’s I would cut the legs off my control top pantyhose and wear the control top part under my clothes. Then Sara Blakely introduced Spanx and I was both excited to have them and kicking myself at the same time. She was so young when she created her success, I would love to talk to her and hear about her journey.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.