Lessons from selling "hot botties" -- what's that? Well, read this post...

Hot botties photo

My daughter made her first hot water bottle cover over a year ago. She got into sewing and decided to make 2 of these covers for her teachers as a Christmas gift last year.  The teachers loved them. She was inspired to make more. The idea evolved into making a bunch of these "hot botties" (that's the name she gave the hot water bottle covers) and to sell them to rabid University of Washington fans at the UW vs Washington State Apple Cup football game this year. As you can see from the photo -- they're cute, purple, and home made. All told, she made 20 of these water bottle covers...and the Apple Cup was this past Saturday. This post attempts to summarize my lessons learned from the rich first entrepreneurial experience.

Our experience on Saturday was rich and emotional. At about 11AM we started the process of boiling water and filling water bottles. We placed the water bottles in a cooler with wheels and the "hot botties" into 2 garbage bags (in case of rain). Also, since my wife and I had not yet been to a UW football game, we weren't sure about the security issues -- and since my daughter was not a permitted vendor the garbage bags would hide the merchandise. We packed up the car and I drove my wife, my daughter and my son to the tailgate area, dropped them off and went to go park. Due to traffic and parking challenges, I met back up with my family 15 minutes later. By the time I met them, they had only sold 1 "hot bottie". My wife indicated that they could use a shot in the arm -- i.e. they needed me to help them sell.  The sale consisted of me going up to a group of people with my daughter -- I'd start the conversation and my daughter would offer the hot botties for sale. Initial price was $30.

The next 30 minutes weren't much better. I'd approach a fan or group of fans -- who were more interested in their hot sausages grilling on the bbq and their beer than my daughters "hot bottie". We sold 2 more -- but got a lot more no than yes. A lot more! My daughter was becoming dejected. She had the look of "this is hard and this sucks".  It was the look that I would have had if I was being honest!  Price was quickly reduced to $20. 

As a family we verged on becoming desperate.  My sales strategy evolved to emphasize the following points:

  1. The hot bottie will keep you warm all game long -- here feel them (i.e. get the potential customer to hold the warm cute product)
  2. These were made by my daughter for school and to learn entrepreneurship
  3. Price is any donation amount you want (now no longer $20)
  4. Focus on selling to older alum and to women.  This product was lost on most males.

As a parent, there was a lot at risk to failing at sales. I kept thinking about how many hours she had put into making these things at my suggestion.  My daughter's confidence and trust in me was at stake. No way were my wife and I not going to sell these things.

We pressed on. And we got a break -- one group of older alumni bought 3 at once. Ahh...some relief. By the ninety minute mark, we had sold half of them. The project was now respectable -- at least it wasn't going to be a failure. I suggested that we should sell a bit more and then go -- but my daughter now was feeling the mojo and she said she wanted to stay and try to sell more.

We sold all of them! And could have sold more! The last customers asked my daughter for her business card!  The day was a huge family success. 

Some reflections -- and think about how obvious a metaphor this is for your startup:

  1. When we got home my wife and I laughed at how close to failure we had been. If my daughter had gone from a look of "this sucks" to breakdown -- we would have had to deal with internal breakdown and would not have had success.
  2. Initial selling was hard!  Price was wrong. Process was wrong. We needed to press through the "hard" part to get a few wins.
  3. The blue bird sale of 3 botties blew wind in our spirits and carried us through to success
  4. The line between success and failure is slim -- very slim
  5. It would have been smarter to make 5 and try selling them before making 20 and trying to sell them. Testing the whole process would have taught us a lot!
  6. When failure costs a lot -- success can happen. But it rarely is easy.
  7. We would have had more success selling beer than hot water botties -- product market fit was off even though we had a unique cute product. It wasn't needed. Accessing the right customers was hard.
  8. Be careful what you suggest your offspring get involved in!