Annette Giacomazzi, founder of CastCoverZ
I would like to share with you a truly inspirational story, a story of an entrepreneur who didn’t stop in the face of adversity. Annette Giacomazzi survived a rare breast cancer, a failing business partnership, manufacturing issues – major bumps in the road – to come out with a thriving company, a leader in the field. CastCoverZ, which promises its customers to “Feel Better, Heal Better”, offers cast, splint, boot or crutch covers that are fashionable, practical, discreet and functional. Annette is a mom, so she understands first hand why it’s such a useful product. If you’re a mom with an injured child, you’ll put a smile on their face with a fun design and cut down on the germs that linger on the cast. CastCoverZ also manufactures DryPro and CastShield for swimming and showering, micro-fiber or fleece SleeperZ for more comfortable sleeping and many other products – 18 branded lines total. Annette Giacomazzi, the founder and owner of CastCoverZ, offers her savvy business advice in this exclusive interview.
How did you come up with the idea of CastCoverZ!?
In the fall of 2008, my then 10 year-old daughter, Elli, broke her 6th broken bone. Yes, her 6th. She was understandably devastated. Like any mother I wanted to comfort her. But, my cooking doesn’t comfort, so I turned to my sewing machine.
Annette Giacomazzi, CastCoverz founder, with daughter
I whipped out a colorful, happy “sleeve” to cover her cast and fashioned a whimsical fabric into a sling. Then another set and another. Friends and family loved it; but that is what they are supposed to do. It’s when strangers ask, “Where can I get one?” that our accidental creation began.
What reaction did you get from your first buyers?
There are two universal reactions, then and still. The first, “I didn’t know something like this existed!” The second, “Why didn’t I think of this?” Some often say, “I thought of this idea twenty years ago!”
How long and how much capital did it take to get it off the ground from the original concept?
We’ve been in business officially since February 2009. Our first orders were taken at a trade show, the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons in Las Vegas. Internet orders started trickling in after that. We have invested approximately $75,000 in raw materials, labor, production runs, website, promotional materials, trade shows, legal and professional services. But, it wasn’t like we plunked down $75,000 in the beginning. Until the business could pay for itself, I was funded by credit cards (risky), IRA (that’s a no-no!), family loans and savings.
Why did the process stall in the beginning?
In just the first year, my business partner and I acrimoniously split (ka-ching!), my first order of manufactured case-goods was flawed and couldn’t be sold or returned (KA-CHING!), my marriage sank into the abyss (scary), and I was diagnosed with a very rare form of breast cancer (REALLY SCARY). Most people would have thrown in the towel. But, gift or curse, I have tenacity, perseverance and a vision. The proverbial towel snapped me into action. The unbelievable perfect storm of adversity shaped CastCoverZ! and will continue to do so.
Manufacturing products in America is still not a common choice, with businesses heading overseas for cheaper labor. Why is it important to you?
Made in America is not a slick slogan for us. We fervently believe in carrying on the tradition of manufacturing. If faith was the heart that made our country great, then manufacturing is its backbone. We are creators of jobs. Yes, we want to give our customers the best price, but we also want to know we are helping put dinner on the table, a car in the garage, a child’s summer camp experience, and a roof over their heads, too. By creating sustainable jobs, we are investing in the community we live in and love.
Are there certain materials that work best for CastCoverZ!? How do you source them?
CastCoverZ! currently has 18 branded-product lines. Many of our lines are differentiated by fabric. For example, Slingz! and CrutchWear®, are made out of cotton or cotton-blend fabrics. But, our Armz!, Legz!, Bootz! and similar lines are made out of stretch material. Think swimsuit or dance/skate costume fabric. We also have a line of products, Sleeperz!, that uses oh-so-cuddly soft fleece and micro-fiber fleece. Originally, I went to the local Joanne’s store, with coupons and my tax-exempt certificate in hand. Eventually, I sourced fabric wholesalers at small trade shows that would sell to me small quantities (5 or 10 yards at a time). Now, we purchase fabric in 50+ yard bolts direct from the manufacturer.
Which marketing and distribution channels are key to CastCoverZ! now? Did the model change over the years?
The natural assumption is a doctor would love to have our products in his/her office. But, unless they are set up for retail sales, as a general rule, they don’t want to be burdened with collecting sales tax, inventory, and the like. With health care costs rising and lower reimbursement rates, very few can give them away as a promotional item, either. That’s why we reach out to consumers. Another channel that surprised us and is very successful is exporting. American products and ingenuity still carries a lot of weight. Circling back to doctors, they are critical in referring their patients to CastCoverZ! We prefer independent pharmacies over the mass(ive) chain retailers, too.
Please share your approach to time management. How do you run a successful international company while being a mom?
I’m not going to kid you. It’s a very delicate balancing act. My beautiful home is too often messy, the kitchen is often not used, the garden is untended and I let important things like exercising take a back seat. I couldn’t invest the amount of time I do now if my children were younger (Elli was very sick and broken, a lot) or if I didn’t have a husband as involved and engaged as being a dad and with helping in the business, as he is. I don’t know how single moms do it. I bow to them and put a halo on their head.
We are growing at a rapid-fire pace and I can easily fall prey to the tyranny of the urgent. My job is to make sure I don’t. I do this by mapping out my annual, monthly, weekly and daily goals. I try to schedule hours in every day of “not available” time so I can follow up with strategic partners, customers and clinics. But I don’t want to overschedule myself, because our business must respond to our customers. Our customers are often in need (vs. want), frustrated, inconvenienced and, in some cases, in pain. So my schedule must have time built in to take care of some very needful, often custom, orders.
Viewing time as a gift worthy of careful investment is a best business practice. Saturday’s are spent generally working on the business of the business, such as financial reporting, strategizing for the next week, paperwork. I try very hard not to work or buy anything on Sunday. My ideal Sunday is faith, family, friends, and curling up with a good book and taking a nap. Let’s throw in a couple of loads of laundry for good measure, too.
When did you realize CastCoverZ! was a success?
cast from CastCoverZ
First, you have to look at how you define success. Generating press, winning contests or having the most FB fans doesn’t mean anything if you can’t pay your bills or don’t have sales. Beyond that, most businesses take on debt. Are you successful if you are paying your bills, but still have debt? Even accountants disagree! If you pay-down the debt, you may have less to re-invest in the business. It may also mean you can’t act on opportunities. What about cash reserves? That must be a critical component of any business’ financial plan. If you pay your bills, don’t have debt and even have a little cash reserve, but you aren’t paying yourself anything, it’s a hobby. It’s only real if you bring home a sustainable income. I consider CastCoverZ! successful because our employees and customers are taken care of, we master our goals every year, we have a very low return rate, we pay our bills on time, we’re at a critical mass point where we can get some real savings from our suppliers (materials, shipping, etc…), we never make our employees worry about getting their paycheck, are no longer dipping into the family savings, are chipping away at debt and are finally paying ourselves.
What’s been the most challenging moment with the business so far? What lessons did you learn?
Take any of the issues from the first year (business partnership dissolution, flawed manufactured goods, breast cancer, my marriage hung by a thread) and I could write a chapter of lessons learned from each! But, I’ll tackle the business partnership dissolution. My marriage was lacking, a lot. As a result I was looking for something to fill the void. Some people eat, some people cheat. Nope, not me. I go into business with a friend even when my instincts were shouting loud and clear that this was not a good idea. We never garnered a partnership agreement, even though my CPA was repeatedly begging me to get one. I certainly was naïve by saying, “oh, we’ll get to that…” We also had similar skill-sets. The question begged to be asked, “Who was going to do the stuff neither one of us was good at and didn’t like to do?” So, what am I thankful for? I’m thankful that our dissolution happened in the first three months. It would have been downright tragic if we had been in business for 1 or 2 years and it fell apart. What exactly happened? I normally don’t discuss details, because revisiting the negative is not productive. But, my hope is you’ll learn from my mistakes, so I’ll provide two examples. The first example is we agreed to each put $5,000 into the business. I did, but she didn’t and I was left holding the tab. That means we made decisions based on a $10,000 seed fund (not $5,000). That’s huge! But, because we didn’t have a partnership agreement I had no recourse but to double down and fulfill the commitments we made. Second example of the disruption and expense that the dissolution created, I had to go through the motions, expense and trouble of changing the legal status of the company. Add a very unsupportive, snarly husband to the mix and you’re in the middle of a mess.
Lessons learned? 1). Ask yourself the difficult questions, “Why am I really going into business with this person? What do they bring to the table? What are their (real) reasons for wanting to partner with you? Will this relationship withstand doing the work of a partnership agreement, first?; What is my risk threshold? Can I risk losing money and a friendship?” 2). Never go into business with someone who has a similar skill-set. However, the same mind-set is very important! Friends are vital to an entrepreneur, but business partnerships aren’t necessarily. But, keep your friends in your cheerleading circle. You’ll need it!
How did you motivate yourself to keep working when you were diagnosed with breast cancer?
What I didn’t know was as the business was growing, a sarcoma was growing in my right breast. Just 9 months into the official creation of the business, I had to put on the brakes. That was September of 2009. I basically put the business on auto-pilot for the next 14 months. What that means is I didn’t invest in new employees, new designs, or new marketing campaigns. I stripped my calendar of everything that wasn’t vital to being my best. That meant saying no to all volunteer activities, surrounding myself only with positive grounded people and situations. My faith became my rock, my foundation for everything. But, what gave me motivation was my children. I had to be strong for them. At only 11 and 13, they “sponged-up” whatever we emanated. Happy, sad, scared, strong, faithful, snarly, etc. it didn’t matter. So, I reserved my best for them. It was all for them. I spent only 2-3 hours a day in the business and it showed. But, what was exhilarating for me, was seeing the upward, albeit slow, trend of sales. I imagined what would happen to the business if I threw myself at it, like I did my health and recovery. It was December, 2010, when I said to my family, “OK. I’m all better. I’m ready to throw all I have at CastCoverZ! Are you behind me?” Look where we are two short years, later!
What advice would you give to moms that want to launch their own business?
Everybody has a least one good idea in their head. Many have dozens! The difference is the people that actually execute those ideas. Research, research, research your idea. Go to www.mominvented.com and check out Tamara Monosoff’s books and resources. Her site is packed with the information you need to make a good decision. I can’t tell you how many times I ask a mom with an idea, “Who is your competition?” and they don’t know! Worse, they say, there is no competition. There is nothing wrong with competition. The world is full of competition. Think of all the different juices, mascaras, music choices and cars there are. What is wrong is not knowing who they are or thinking your product is so special there is no competition. Most importantly, don’t forget your children are with you only for a short time. They need to know you love them. Put the phone down, set specific office hours, eat meals at a table with them, read, play and snuggle with your children. Those are the memories you and they’ll remember. Not the sales calls you made or the orders that came in.
Do your kids get involved in your work?
Absolutely! Our dinner conversations revolve around our customer service experience, our employee stories, profit margins and supplier issues. When they were younger (before sports and jobs took them away), they helped with shipping, packing and inventory. I pray that seeing their mom work hard and reap rewards has been a positive experience for them. Watching their dad get involved (one year ago) is what made it a true family business.
What’s next for you?
Annette Giacomazzi & family
I see 2013 as the year of competition. 3 companies came on the scene in 2012 and 2 more are in the works. That shows the need is there and it keeps me on my toes. As the Proverb says, “Iron sharpens iron.” There are a few consolidations in the works, too. CastCoverZ! 2013 will focus on continuing to provide the “de Lancey Principle” in our customer’s experience, introduce new products, strategic partnerships and expand into other markets.
What is the de Lancey Principle?
Thank you for asking. You know how Coach Wooden has the Pyramid of Success and Stephen Covey has the 7 Habits of Highly-Effective People? My father, Ted de Lancey, had a compassionate customer care program that he used to grow his successful business over 50 years ago. I have resurrected it, tweaked it a bit and will be introducing it to the world, this year.
If I asked your kids, what kind of mom you are, what would they say?
Whew, that’s tough. They’re teenagers. 🙂 I pray they would say, “she’s happy, faithful, works very hard, has rules/boundaries and loves us a lot.”
Learn more about Annette Giacomazzi and CastCoverZ at castcoverz.com.