In celebration of Entrepreneurship Week we're sharing the story of our CEO, the inventor of The Stair Barrier and founder of Better Options Company, Janelle Fitzpatrick. Below is the transcript of Janelle's interview with her 17-year-old daughter and Better Options Company intern, Peyton Fitzpatrick. Peyton is a Senior in High School and will be playing softball and attending Elon University in North Carolina next year. She plans to study Business and Marketing.
Peyton: This week is Entrepreneurship Week and Saturday the 19th specifically celebrates Women Entrepreneurs. As a kid we are all asked continuously what do you want to be when you grow up. And over the last year or so, I have had to give this question a lot of thought as I decide where I want to go to college and what I want to major in. So, I thought it would be fun to sit down with my mom and explore her experience of being an entrepreneur.
Peyton: Hi Mom!
Janelle: Hi Daughter!
Peyton: Thanks for joining me today.
Janelle: Thanks for wanting to interview me.
Peyton: I thought we should start at the beginning. Did you always plan on being an entrepreneur?
Janelle: No. It was out of necessity. I was supposed to be a lawyer, who became a recruiter for 20 years. Never in a million years would I have thought I would invent a product, become a manufacturer and now lead a team that manufactures and sells 3 consumer brands – The Stair Barrier, Lazy Dog Loungers and Keenz Stroller Wagons.
Peyton: How did it start?
Janelle: When we moved into our new home in 2007, when you were 2 and Pj was 2 months old there were no gates on the market that worked specifically with banisters and required two flat surfaces. I had 3 sets of stairs and all were different and not one had flat surfaces on both side. I needed a safe solution, but I also wanted something attractive. I had this concept and reached out to a friend that could sew (we both know my skill set there). We made the first prototypes and after a few renditions they worked as planned.
Peyton: You didn’t launch it in 2007 though and actually waited till 2015 to start selling. Why?
Janelle: Starting your own business and specifically launching a manufactured product is an ALL-IN scenario. It is expensive, time consuming and SCARY. Once you make the decision to go for it – you have to FULLY commit and not turn back. You need a lot of people along the way and if you are not 100% in, how do you expect them to be in at all. I also had zero experience in patents, trademarks, procuring materials, manufacturing, safety testing, selling, marketing, ecommerce....it was all learn on the go. Right after inventing The Stair Barrier, I had a couple meetings with two larger companies in the industry and started the patent process. They didn’t jump all over my idea and told me I would have to go overseas to manufacture. I was disappointed and I did not want to go overseas or commit to the quantities needed to do a first run....so I sat on it and life went back to the way it was.
Peyton: So what changed 7 years later that made you want to finally go for it?
Janelle: A friend and her sons were over, and she was telling me she invented a product. She had been working on it for a long time and it was finally happening. I had no idea, and I was so excited for her. You and your brother were little (9 and 7) and we were all there together and I said, I invented something too and walked her over to the gates we had been using. You looked at me and said, “Mom you invented these?” You and your brother thought it was so cool that I made these products and that we used them all these years. And I just looked back to 2007 and realized...I never really tried. I wanted to set an example for you both, that you do not give up and that nothing comes easy. I also wanted a career that I was passionate about. I had always been very career driven and honestly missed it. As a mom that is a challenging thing to admit....that you want more. I had to get over that guilt or I should say, I learned to manage it. After that came giving up an income for no income and writing the check from my retirement account to get started.
Peyton: What was the hardest lesson you learned those first few years?
Janelle: Not getting what you want is sometimes exactly what you need and it does not mean you failed. We had so much early growth and launched with all these new retailers and my cost to manage it all were just multiplying by the day. I had to go raise capital in the middle of it, which is another full-time job. I had to say no to going in store. I also pulled back and stopped selling to all the retailers we were working with to increase margin and improve cash flow. It was a very hard decision.
Peyton: Was that when you brought fulfillment down closer to home in that small office space where Dad, PJ and I were helping?
Janelle: Yes, exactly. While that was a stressful period, it was also so rewarding. I learned so much that year that I would not have learned otherwise. Doing every job in a business has really given me a unique perspective and I highly recommend it. You see the impact that the small things can have on the overall business. I loved having the entire family involved and being able to take Thor to the office every day. I still have the sweet post it notes you and your brother left all over the office for me.
Peyton: I also remember that is when you launched Lazy Dog Loungers (LDL). How did you end up manufacturing and selling that product?
Janelle: I got involved in an organization of manufacturers in Georgia called Next Gen Manufacturing and after a few years was asked to sit on the Board. Part of that role is to help other manufacturers and make connections. I was introduced to the founders of LDL through Next Gen and their close work with Georgia Tech Innovation Center. LDL needed a way to source new materials, mass manufacture and sell. They also need to modify the product so they could ship it across the US without costing as much as the product itself. We redesigned how it was made, so it could ship smaller and easily assembled by the customer. I also got the product growing up with dogs on a lake AND I love the people behind the product. Not sure it is a strength, but the first box I need to check working with anyone is that I have to like them.
Peyton: How and why did you merge with Keenz?
Janelle: Another entrepreneur friend Tiffany Krumins introduced me to Chris Carroll, the owner of Keenz to discuss possibly manufacturing a few accessories in the US. At the time Keenz was making some big business decisions about the direction they wanted to go and I had just made a few of the same decisions recently, so we had a lot to talk about. I loved the Keenz product and wish it existed when you and your brother were little. Chris is a father of 7 (and has two grandchildren now) and felt the same about The Stair Barrier. As we spent more time talking and learning more about each other's strengths, we realized that we could both benefit from a partnership, so we merged and formed The Better Options Company. The first couple years we were developing new Keenz products, but more importantly transitioning our storefront and backend operations to support substantial growth. This past year we have finally launched our new site, new products, and expanded our team across the board. Our Customer Support team are all moms that work from home on a part-time basis and I love that we are able to offer them a career with some flexibility – they are truly amazing. As you know, I just transitioned from VP of Sales and Marketing into the CEO role, allowing me to have a greater impact on the overall direction of the business.
Peyton: What advice would you give to someone looking to start their own business?
Janelle: Know you are going to fail and whatever you think the business is going to look like it is going to look very different. Do your due diligence, know your market, and know how your great idea is going to make money. And most importantly when you miss-step/fail learn from it and move on quickly.
The Better Options Company Story
In 2008, our founder Janelle Fitzpatrick needed a way to keep her dogs and baby off her curved banisters and extra-wide stairs. As she searched for a stair gate that was both safe and stylish, she quickly realized she’d need a better option. As is the case with many products on the market today, necessity was the mother of invention. She designed a solution that could be safely secured to her banisters and looked good when she walked through the front door. After years of using and testing her prototypes in her home with her own children and dogs, she took the leap of faith in 2015 and launched Better Options LLC and its first brand, The Stair Barrier.
When Janelle first set out to manufacture her stair gates, she was told repeatedly that she would need to produce overseas, fill containers and commit to large quantities. Having grown up in Michigan in a proud "Ford" family, she had no interest in building a business where she couldn’t be a part of the day to day or see the product being built. After almost a year of hard work and persistence, she found a way to do just that with a manufacturing partner in North Georgia and supply partners she sourced from all over the US.
As she was building her business and wearing every “hat” required to manufacture and sell a product, Janelle was also building a trusted network of supply partners and service providers. As her expertise in product development and direct to consumer sales grew, so did the number of inventors and entrepreneurs she met needing a better way to bring their products to market. This is how Lazy Dog Loungers came to be part of The Better Options Family of brands.
A semi-submersible, puncture-proof water raft for active dogs, Lazy Dog Loungers was invented by two neighbors on Lake Lanier that were making them in their basement in their spare time. They needed assistance with sourcing, manufacturing, scaling and selling. Immediately “liking” (first criteria in doing business) not only the idea, but the people behind it, another partnership was born.
In the Spring of 2019, Janelle met Chris Carroll the owner of Paradigm International and the exclusive distributor of Keenz Wagon Strollers. The two quickly recognized the power of a partnership that combined Janelle’s manufacturing and direct to consumer sales experience with Carroll’s decades of experience distributing products across the globe. Together they created The Better Options Company.
Based in Alpharetta, Georgia, The Better Options Company officially formed in August 2019 to deliver families excellent products and exceptional customer service. We remain committed to building long-term partnerships, turning business colleagues into friends, and to helping small businesses grow.