Sand Dollars

Twelve years ago, Barbara Bigford, a part-time dental hygienist, had a eureka moment on the Jersey Shore. Now her colorful beach accessories are sold in hundreds of stores nationwide

By Caroline Mangan O'Halloran
Bigford touted other companies' products on QVC before she began selling her own Beach Pockets on the network.
Photograph: Jessica Haye and Clark Hsiao

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 entre-preneurs and civic groups (barbarabigford.com). She contributed a chapter to the just-published 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.

First Published June 1, 2011

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