What a pleasure to be in the audience as Shallan Ramsey took the stage in the Ballroom of the Ashland Springs Hotel to talk about her entrepreneurial journey from the spark of an idea to eventual fruition of a marketable product: MaskIT. Tim Root, SOREDI’s Venture Catalyst, introduced Shallan by citing a few of her many awards—which included winning a pitch competition at the Outdoor Industry Women’s Coalition National Competition for Women Entrepreneurs.
Shallan began relating her story by taking us back in time 4.5 years when she was standing in her kitchen with rudimentary materials that included plastic kitchen bags, shears and scotch tape—and an idea. Taking that idea from inside her head out into the physical world to create the first homemade prototype was the beginning of her incredible journey.
As a single mom with three daughters, two of whom were teenagers at the time, she became aware of the vast amount of toilet paper they were all using to wrap saturated menstrual items for disposal.
From Complacency to Action
Shallan reminded the audience that “necessity is the mother of invention” and in this case, that is exactly what triggered her idea. She created a solution which actually made sense; that moment of frustration became a catalyst to move from complacency to action.
Widening the scope of the problem from in-home disposal issues, Shallen talked about being outdoors and complications faced by hikers, bikers, and campers. Then she mentioned the public restroom situation, and cited statistics about the biohazard contamination (Hepatitis-C, HIV) faced by janitorial workers. The room snapped to attention.
She went on to explain that the MaskIT innovation addresses all of the difficulties associated with the disposal of menstrual waste. MaskIT is the only solution that’s designed to be placed over your hand prior to use, creating glove-like protection.
The pouch design and puppet-like functionality make it easy to remove menstrual items with the pouch wrapped over your hand—like a glove. Then you grab the item and invert the pouch back over your hand to seal the package within the biofilm pouch—which blocks odor on a molecular level. The biofilm material is derived from the starches of plants and vegetables, making the whole package compostable. Cool.
Bonus Feature: Saving Trees!
Statistics cited by Shallan included the fact that over 204 million rolls of toilet paper are used every year, to cover just a fraction of menstrual waste—in the U.S. alone! If only 10% of the women in the U.S. transitioned from using toilet paper to using MaskIT, over 140,000 trees might be saved every year!
The Business Side
Shallan continued with her story by talking about the common challenges faced by new entrepreneurs when starting any business. “Being a true entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart.” She assured her audience that, “plenty of people will let you know that 90% of startups fail—and many will try to fill you with self-doubt and negativity, leaving you to feel like nobody really wants to help you.” This was one of the first challenges she faced as an entrepreneur.
Shallan explained that, when she first had the idea for MaskIT, she kept it to herself. She spent a good amount of time researching, looking for any existing products that might be competitors—and “thoroughly searching the U.S. Patent Database.” She was unable to find any product that offered the features she had envisioned.
She talked about how her confidence grew as she decided that her solution was unique, and she described the feeling as “bubbling on the inside with excitement about the potential.” She considered that twenty billion menstrual products are used in the U.S. every single year. If just a fraction of those were wrapped in MaskIT, her success would be tremendous!
Like many new inventors, she had to recognize—or acquire—a set of business skills and combine those skills with her inventor skills to create the integrated CEO Skill Set required to run a company and take her product to market. As she envisioned her successful outcome, she had to create a map that defined a path for getting from the envisioned success back to her current position; to understand the steps—and the order in which to take those steps—to achieve her goal.
The Lonely Inventor Goes Looking For Support
As is so commonly experienced with entrepreneurial ideas, she wanted to share her idea with the people closest to her, and she was hoping for enthusiastic responses; however, that didn’t happen. After “a few skeptical um hmmm’s and even negative feedback,” she felt a little defeated, and decided that containing her excitement was going to be more powerful than sharing.
Shallan reminded herself of Albert Einstein’s classic comment, “Great ideas often receive violent opposition from mediocre minds,” in order to calm herself and provide her the courage to press on.
Who Do You Trust?
The next challenge she faced was with a marketing firm called Idea Design Studio. She told a story, common among new inventors, about believing a TV advertisement announcing, “Do you have a great idea? We can help you!” She contacted them and was promised that they would help with patenting her product, designing a logo, taking it to market, and helping her find a licensing partner. So relieved to hear that there was finally someone on her side, she believed—like so many newbies—that this online studio truly had her best interests at heart. Several thousand dollars and several months later, she realized that this “plan” was going nowhere, and if anything was ever going to happen, she was going to have to take charge.
Believing In Herself
She recalled that she had been through enough personal defeats in her life to learn that, regardless of the challenges she might encounter, she could trust herself to figure out a way to overcome setbacks. She knew her journey would be hard, require patience, and most likely take way longer that she wanted. But she had a simple—and profound—realization one day that smoothed the pursuit of her dreams: Time passes. She realized she could either do nothing and surely nothing would happen—or she could do something and something could happen. Time goes by either way. So why not try?
One True Supporter
She related the story of meeting a talented young man shortly after filing her patent in the Summer of 2013. She was prompted to have a conversation to “pick his brain.” At that point, since she had filed her patent, she felt safe to tell him about her idea. He immediately saw the value of her idea. At the time, he was mostly a stranger to her. To her surprise, he immediately offered unwavering belief in her; she could literally see the interest in his face. She sensed that he believed she would bring MaskIT to life, and he had no doubts. The benefit of having one other person believe in her was invaluable. Since then he has contributed significantly to the growth of the company.
She shared this insight because she believes that “every entrepreneur needs to have at least one true supporter; someone who believes in you. Because, when you find doubt, you should definitely surround yourself in positivity. Remember, you may not always find positive vibes in the people you’d expect. Sometimes, someone who doesn’t know you so well can see your greater vision.”
When the time came to look for a manufacturer, she literally heard “no” after “no” after “no.” At this point she was requesting NDAs be signed by everyone before she even told them about her idea, and she decided that this was not a good process. She realized that she was working long and hard just to hear “no.”
There were times when she felt really discouraged. She had to continually remind herself that all she needed was one “yes.” So she kept calling.
Shallan remarked that she concurs with the words of successful entrepreneur Steve Jobs: “I’m convinced that what separates the successful entrepreneurs from the non-successful ones is sheer perseverance.” And this, Shallan stated, is why she will never quit.
Shallan then shared something that she doesn’t typically talk about, but is an important part of her dream: The Law of Attraction; she followed the prescribed rules of that law and started writing her thoughts out as if they had already happened.
She held up the actual sticky notes that she had taped to her walls, her mirrors, and above her bed. She talked about the signs she made that projected which retailers would carry more products. This is what surrounded her in her house.
A Little Help From Her Friends
She was lucky to have a few friends to help her with MaskIT, and they joined her this evening. The fact that she could not pay anyone was definitely wearing on her. She revealed that she hasn’t personally taken a penny from the company. In fact, she has put every penny she could into the business. She maxed-out her credit cards, she borrowed money from her friends and family, and was facing the reality of having to choose between food for her kids and her house payment.
A little over a year ago, they hit a point in the business where they really needed help. They had agreements in place for national distribution of their wall-mounted dispensers, and 45 pre-orders from businesses in their local community and yet, they had no money to pay for the facility they needed to get the dispensers into production or any of the costs associated with this kind of launch, let alone the inventory they needed to fill existing orders.
Henry Ford once said, “When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not into it.” Shallan found solace in that thought.
She shared a few personal tools that have helped her get through these difficult times.
There is one piece of paper that is above her bed that states things that she’s grateful for: big things like her children and her house, and smaller things like laughter. In times of discouragement, she literally lays on her bed and focuses on reading—and re-reading—that paper, intentionally appreciating everything positive in her life until she finds the strength to go again.
The other tool she found helpful during the darker moments was: letting go of the “how”. It’s easy to become overwhelmed with the how. During those moments, she reminds herself about riding in a car in the dark; the headlights only illuminate the road for a few hundred feet in front of the car but you know exactly where you are going, and so that’s what she focuses on.
The Snowball Begins…
The first big MaskIT account was in the outdoor industry. On the signs she had made, she wrote down Sportsman’s Warehouse, REI, Sports Authority, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Cabella’s, and Camping World. And when they got Sportsman’s Warehouse as their first big retailer, she walked right over to the sign and put a big check mark next to Sportsman’s Warehouse.
“Everything falls into place, as it should.”
Shallan displayed the sign she hung above her bed.
One more thing: Shallan post-dated million dollar checks for each of her three daughters.
So, one by one, her intentions began to manifest—and she believes they will continue to do so.
Now MaskIT is available nationwide. There are several retailers, and the product is available online through Walgreen’s, WalMart, and Amazon, and in stores like REI and Sportsman’s Warehouse and [coming soon] Raley’s.
During the rollout, two initial problems were discovered: the first packaging format would not stand up on store shelves, and the travel pack wouldn’t stay closed; they discovered this after ordering 20,000 pieces.
Shallan brought this up because she really felt it important for other entrepreneurs to know that they will make mistakes, as she did. Her advice? “Don’t dwell on the mistakes. Do your best to fix your mistakes and move on towards the end goal. Things don’t always go as planned, so allow yourself to be flexible.”
Recovering From Mistakes
For the record, the packaging mistake wasn’t a total loss. The company implemented a puberty education program about a year later, and they were able to re-purpose the incorrect packaging for samples.
Connecting With Investors
At that challenging moment, she had been trying to raise money for several months. She had joined a few networks and had dozens of great conversations with bankers and different investors, all of which was taking a good portion of her time. They all really liked MaskIT, but in the end, they would say that the company didn’t have enough revenue yet, and told her to come back later. Or, they didn’t work with consumer product companies. She was having a very hard time connecting with the right type of investor.
The Harder You Work, The Luckier You Get
They say the harder you work, the luckier you get. But she feels truly blessed to have heard about the Sounding Board opportunity at SOREDI. Last December (2015), she had the pleasure of connecting with Tim Root and Steve Vincent in that setting. In the following months, they were able to spend a fair amount of time together and she would like to think that, at some point, they realized she was the real deal, and MaskIT was going somewhere.
And then they were able to launch the commercial side of the business, which is already shaping up to be a game changer for MaskIT; this is in large part due to the help they have received from SOREDI—and for that, she is forever grateful.
Southern Oregon Angel Investors
It was late last Spring that they decided to get Shallan’s crew in front of the Southern Oregon Angel Investor Network; this was a pinnacle moment for MaskIT. Her gratitude towards everyone who took a chance on her is unlimited. They have 15 local investors in MaskIT. The funds were critical for them at that moment, but the real—and priceless—bonus for them was 15 people in the Rogue Valley were standing behind them and cheering them on. Imagine!
There have been more than a few of those investors who have taken the time to meet with Shallan individually, offered their advice and support, their help and expertise, and have quite frankly become valuable advisors.
So, where are they now? You can find their wall-mounted dispensers in several places in our local community, but also in businesses, schools and universities all over the country. Shallan is working with the Director of Environmental Quality for Carnival Cruise Lines. Norwegian Cruise Lines is evaluating MaskIT’s proposal for a full implementation for all of their cruise ships. Best news this month: Shallan just found out that LAX Airport is going to be bring MaskIT into Terminal 5 and, if they like it, they will implement fully throughout the whole airport.
MaskIT’s sales in January exceeded their sales for the entire last quarter. Their sales so far this year, as of March 10, exceed the sales for all of 2016.
Shallan expressed that she wants to acknowledge and express her sincere appreciation for our local community and everyone who contributed to their success: Their first retailer, Ashland Shop ‘n’ Kart, all of the local businesses that have purchased and installed MaskIT dispensers, including SOU, the Southern Oregon Angel Investors, and all of SOREDI.
And, of course, her team!
Shallan acknowledged her very special team.
“I DIDN’T GIVE UP!”
In closing, Shallan said that, “At MaskIT, we want to do good and be good and, second, we want to empower people to save the environment.” She is very proud that they are doing that from right here in Ashland, Oregon. Watching that happen has been the most extraordinary experience of her life! She expects there may be a day when someone asks her, “How did you do it?” She plans to calmly respond by saying, “I didn’t give up.”
Based Upon: Shallan’s narrative.
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