On a hot afternoon in June 2008, Barbara Bowers Bigford stood before the manager of the Walmart in Savannah, Georgia, holding up a blue-and-white striped umbrella. In her Lilly Pulitzer shift and pink flats, Bigford looked more like a vacationer than a CEO on a sales call. She was about to wrap up a lonely but exhilarating five-month business trek, during which she’d talked her way into appointments with more than 125 Walmart managers from Napa, California, to Naples, Florida, to persuade them to stock her invention, the Beach Pockets Umbrella. Every single pitch had ended in a purchase order. “It had gotten to the point where once I had a captive audience and I started talking, I was sure the manager wouldn’t say no,” she says. “No matter how many stores I saw or what meals I missed or how tired I was, I felt like it was showtime. I loved doing presentations because I was so passionate about my product. These umbrellas were my baby—I’d created them.”
The Savannah store manager had claimed she was too busy to see Bigford, but when Bigford promised to keep her pitch to under five minutes (“And I will time it,” she vowed), the manager relented. With an eye on her watch, Bigford began: “I’m the owner of Seabreeze Products, a newly approved Walmart vendor with a fabulous item that I just know you’re going to love—a beach umbrella that does not, I repeat, does not blow away!” She held one up. “This is the only umbrella that comes with a weightless anchor. You just fill these pockets with sand to weigh down the umbrella, then empty them when you leave the beach. Isn’t it amazing? No more chasing windblown umbrellas down the beach!”
Bigford concluded her spiel with a rundown of her triumphs: a prominent mention of the umbrella in the Wall Street Journal, a “best new summer product” nod on The View, segments on local and network TV, a national inventors’ award, three QVC appearances and, finally, the product’s selection as an official gift for celebrities attending that year’s Golden Globes. “Look, here I am with Angela Bassett. She loved my umbrellas!” Bigford said, showing the manager a photo album from her trip to Hollywood. She finished the pitch with another look at her watch. “See, less than five minutes!”
The manager’s next words were “How many in a case pack?” and Bigford knew she’d reeled in another account.
Like her father, a former salesman at IBM, Bigford was born to pitch. As a child, she organized and starred in neighborhood talent shows and won every hula hoop contest in town. The second of five kids, Bigford learned early on how to strike up and maintain lively dinner conversations with her parents’ frequent guests. She created and sold all kinds of things, graduating from pot holders and hand-painted flowerpots to a line of greeting cards for her college bookstore. She dreamed of becoming an actress, a dancer or a choreographer, but her parents urged her to choose a health profession for the steady paycheck. After marrying Doug Bigford and starting a family (she has a son, 27, and two daughters, 24 and 21), Bigford worked part time as a dental hygienist but always had a side venture: painting and selling doll furniture and murals, and acting in TV commercials. Urged on by friends (“They knew I could pick up anything—a saltshaker, a candle, a book—and ramble on about its many compelling features”), she landed several gigs as a product demonstrator on QVC.
Then, one windy day in July 1999, Bigford was sitting on the beach with her kids at the Jersey Shore, struggling to prevent their umbrella from being blown away. She thought, Why not use the sand—there sure is plenty—to somehow weigh down the umbrellas? Of course, to do that you’d need a place to put the sand—and the idea of a pocket was born. Later that day, she found a fabric store and went home with several yards of something similar to parachute fabric, strong but lightweight. Using her mother’s old sewing machine, she quickly stitched her first “beach pocket”—about the size of a volleyball—and poured sand into it. Then she rushed off to Home Depot to look for tools so she could fasten the pocket to the umbrella pole. The next day, “I was in the basement, using a 1950s Black & Decker, drilling holes in metal,” she says. She outfitted a few of the family’s umbrellas that year—three pockets per umbrella did the trick. “I wasn’t thinking about starting a business. I was just trying to make my life easier.”
But the next summer, when Bigford’s umbrellas stood tall on the beach while others went sailing, strangers started coming up to her and asking, “Where did you get that? Can you make one for me?” After one man pressed her for the minutest details, Doug Bigford warned his wife, “If you don’t do something with this, that guy will.” Two days later, she visited a patent attorney—“so no one else would take my idea and run with it,” she says. Two years later, her patent came through, and she thought, I can’t just lock this away in a drawer and forget about it. I’m going to have to learn how to manufacture and sell.
So Bigford set up an office in her Paoli, Pennsylvania, home and launched her business while still employed part time as a dental hygienist. With a $34,000 home-equity line of credit to cover start-up costs and her first factory order—a modest 4,000 Beach Pockets—Bigford began planning. First, she would handle everything herself, including package design, contracts with factories, warehousing and accounting. Second, after introducing the pockets, she would bring out one new product every year: coordinating umbrellas, followed by cloth carry bags and finally beach chairs. And third, she would get her products sold in Walmart, even though very few applicants are accepted as vendors. “I knew if I wanted to see my umbrellas on beaches everywhere, my best path was through them. The revenue would be amazing.”
In the first years of her start-up, Bigford experienced two heart-stopping setbacks. She’d ordered more than 15,000 umbrellas, packed in display boxes, from her manufacturer in China, and in May 2004, on the day they arrived at her New Jersey warehouse, she received an urgent cell phone message. “Eighty percent of your beautiful boxes have been crushed,” said the caller. “We’ve just -e-mailed you pictures.” Bigford rushed home to open the attachments. “I broke down and cried hysterically,” she says. Then she went into rescue mode and insisted the manufacturer make good on the loss. It did.
Her second off-the-charts stress attack occurred the day she got word that a distributor she’d hired, someone recommended by a supermarket chain, had swindled her out of $43,000. “From that day forward, I did background checks on everyone I did business with,” says Bigford. “I never paid up front and never hired another distributor.”
By the spring of 2006, with Sea-breeze products in national retailers like Supervalu and Walgreens, Bigford decided she was ready to pitch Walmart. The exhaustive application process required her to supply wads of documentation and the signatures of six store managers (and their respective district managers) who would vouch for her product. Seven weeks after she mailed her application, Walmart issued her a vendor number that allowed her to sell to 18 stores in three Florida districts. She was in.
Her Florida sales were so strong that in spring 2007, Bigford was summoned to corporate headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, where a category buyer told Bigford that Seabreeze was now authorized to sell to all 940 of Walmart’s beach, river and lake stores. “My jaw dropped,” says Bigford. “When I got the district vendor approval, it was like hearing, ‘You’re going to Hollywood’ on American Idol. When I got the extended approval, it was like I won the whole contest.”
By February 2009, Seabreeze’s sales had quadrupled, topping $1 million. Bigford had quit her dental hygienist job, and major retail accounts were talking about upping their orders for the next year. But with big orders had come bigger headaches. She’d taken out a $250,000 commercial loan—her first—and then had been obliged to borrow $300,000 more from a relative to help cover a $743,000 factory order. She was putting in 16-hour days, and in the journal she’d kept faithfully for 10 years, she had begun writing things like, “I have to start making healthier meals for my children . . . I have to be there more for my parents and my friends . . . I’ve missed so many book-group meetings.”
One evening, her husband went upstairs to Bigford’s office. It was long past midnight, and he planned to ask her to power off her computer and come to bed. Enough was enough.
“Doug, we have to talk,” she said as he entered, her voice thin with exhaustion. “I don’t think I can survive another season. What am I going to do if I have five sets of $750,000 orders to cover next year?” That night, Doug and Barbara agreed that Seabreeze Products had come to a crossroads: Bigford could either go all in—with bigger offices and the staff she needed (until that point, she had hired only two part-timers)—or get out. Realizing that she enjoyed launching and promoting Seabreeze far more than running it, Bigford decided to get out. A few months later, she struck a licensing deal with Bravo Sports, an international recreation-goods company, that would allow her to receive royalties on sales of her products until her patent expires in 2017.
With her “fourth child” in capable hands, Bigford has moved on to her third act. She now advises inventors on product development and gives motivational talks to entrepreneurs and civic groups (barbarabigford.com). She contributed a chapter to the business book GPS (Goals & Proven Strategies) for Success. And she’s shopping for a publisher for her own book. “It’s about how one woman broke down the walls of a multibillion-dollar giant,” she says, “and found not the ugly beast waiting to gobble her up but a partner willing to help her succeed.” The working title? Thank You, Walmart.
Running the Numbers
$19.99 Retail price for a Beach Pockets Umbrella (includes three anchor pockets)
$800 Bigford’s earnings for a product demonstration on QVC
$85,000 Amount she borrowed through a home-equity line of credit in her second year to satisfy factory orders
2,017 Number of Beach Pockets that Bigford sold in six minutes on QVC in May 2004
400% Growth that Seabreeze experienced in the two years preceding the licensing deal with Bravo Sports
Click here to read about another inventor who made a fortune with her product.