CHICAGO Frustrated that she couldn't find her lipstick, keys and other essentials in a stylish new handbag given to her as a gift by her son, Anita Crook came up with a solution. In 2005 she designed the Pouchee - a pocketbook organizer that Crook expects will fetch her close to $2 million in revenues this year.
"I couldn't find any way to organize it and I thought, well, you know, maybe I could design something," said Crook, 63, who began the company out of her home in Greenville, South Carolina with $10,000 from her savings and the conviction she was filling a need. "I don't look at myself so much as an entrepreneur as I do a problem solver."
Pouchee now offers some 25 different portable organizers under the same name, including those made of faux leather, cotton and custom fabrics. Women can't seem to get enough of the product, which is available in two sizes and has spots for cell phones, credit cards, makeup and keys, as well as metal loops at the top that make it easy to transport from purse to diaper bag or gym tote.
"If women feel like they've got control over at least one area in their life, if they can get their handbags organized, I think it really makes them feel good," said Crook, who said Pouchee helps meet the need for order in a hectic world.
Crook, who studied art in college, turned to a friend's daughter to sew the initial sample for the organizers based on a prototype she designed; before long, she had made contact with a factory representative in New Hampshire who had connections in Asia.
"Next thing you know, I've got 2,000 Pouchees coming in from China, and I thought, ‘What am I going to do with them?'" she recalled. "I first started going door-to-door with Pouchees in my car. I was a nervous wreck."
It wasn't' long, however, before Crook discovered her instinct was correct.
Jill Griffin, owner of It's Personal Monogramming and Engraving, a gift shop in Columbia, South Carolina, was one of her first customers, betting on an initial 12-piece order; the organizers jumped off her shelves within the first hour. She quickly phoned Crook to have additional Pouchees delivered.
"It's a constant order for us," said Griffin, herself a Pouchee user. "Women love them and they buy them and give them as gifts."
Crook now counts some 1,500 gift shops in the U.S. and Canada as customers, and she has been gaining traction in gift-friendly vacation spots like the Bahamas. The majority of her business is wholesale, although she also sells through her website (pouchee.com). Crook is fiercely loyal to her retailers, offering them a guarantee she will never sell to more than one store in the same zip code. And despite repeated requests from retail chains, you won't find Pouchee at Big Box stores.
"At this point in my business it would be a serious mistake," said Crook. "(Boutiques) don't want to carry the same thing Target is carrying."
The selective approach has paid off. Even during the recession, Pouchee's sales continued to rise about 45 percent each year. Crook has managed the growth without taking on any debt, largely relying on word-of-mouth referrals to promote her product.
One industry watcher said part of the increase is tied to a broader trend: women are buying more handbags than they used to.
"Only a few years ago, women still had the one-bag-at-a-time habit," said Kelly Cook, who blogs about purses at bagsnob.com. "Now that you're switching bags all the time, you are having to deal with reorganizing every time you switch, and that's a big hassle."
Crook has kept her inspiration close to home, with ideas for new products largely coming from personal experience. Tangled jewelry on a trip to Hungary for her son's wedding led to the introduction of a jewelry traveler. Her husband's need to collect sunglasses, loose change and other items in his SUV prompted a console caddy.
Like many entrepreneurs, Crook has learned much about running a small business on the fly and concedes there have been some costly bumps in the road. Last fall she miscalculated inventory needs and had to air ship extra Pouchees from China in order to meet demand for the Christmas holidays, a move that bit into margins.
"We've been known to run out," said Crook, a grandmother of three who runs the company out of 1,200-square-foot warehouse and offices with a staff of four. "I'm going to do what I need to do to get Pouchees into stores."