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.