How a Pair of Military Wives Launched a Remote Handbag Manufacturing Network From a Freezing Attic & Talked Mark Cuban Out of $100,000

How a Pair of Military Wives Launched a Remote Handbag Manufacturing Network From a Freezing Attic & Talked Mark Cuban Out of $100,000

It’s a sacrifice the majority of us never see.

But the often invisible contributions military wives make in support of their husbands can take an emotional and economic toll. We’re not talking about the obvious sacrifices you like the of stress military deployments or juggling children and erratic schedules without the help of a spouse.

The sacrifice on center stage here is one that can slowly but surely erode the confidence and self-esteem of military spouses …

They routinely pick up and move when their husbands are assigned new duty stations.

“Oh, I got turned down for another job,” Lisa Bradley recalls saying repeatedly to fellow military spouse Cameron Cruse when their husbands were stationed in Georgia.

“That’s how we became friends—we really struggled to find work despite being overqualified.”

Both have Masters degrees. Each is creative and chock full of business smarts and grit. Yet employer after employer told Bradley and Cruse they lacked the experience necessary for the positions for which they had applied.

Why?

Because military spouses like Bradley and Cruse move every couple of years to follow their husbands, employment gaps often exist on their resumes and plant seeds of skepticism that grow strong in some employers.

In fact, the unemployment rate among military spouses is 42% despite the fact that 85% want or need to work.

“Many of my friends started giving up after being turned down for work so many times,” Bradley, who has moved six times in eight years says.

“It’s hard to give up your career aspirations but we do it for the betterment of the country and to help our husbands succeed.”

But what if it’s a sacrifice that no longer has to be made?

That’s the question Bradley and Cruse asked themselves. Might there be a way to build a business that provides military spouses with portable employment opportunities and allows them to earn an income regardless of where they live or how often they move?

“It was time to stop being part of the problem and create a solution,” Bradley says.

The decision was made on Veterans Day 2011.

Neither Bradley nor Cruse knew it at the time, but they’d have to overcome a freezing cold winter in an attic, survive a kerosene-fueled fire that cost Bradley her pants, and learn how to install insulation to turn their idea into a reality.

Channeling Rosie the Riveter

It was the dead of winter.

Bradley and Cruse were holed up in their new company’s headquarters: the attic atop Cruse’s home. “We didn’t want a lot of overhead,” Bradley explains. “We didn’t have a lot of resources and Cameron had a one-year-old at the time so that’s how we started.”

Launching lean has its dangers though.

The two had each charged two thousand dollars to their credit cards to purchase a commercial sewing machine and a small supply of leather and canvas. The idea was to was to make handbags, earn some money, and ultimately offer military spouses across the country an opportunity to join them in earning flexible income no matter where they live.

That vision was almost immediately put to the test …

To ward off the cold and stay warm in the attic, Bradley and Cruse bundled up in winter clothing and sewed handbags until the wee hours of the morning. One night, while working late to finish a collection of bags, Bradley got too close to the kerosene heater and got much warmer than she wanted.

“My pants caught on fire,” she says with a laugh. “Luckily they were made out of a plastic-like material so they just melted before the fire could spread.”

The next day, Bradley and Cruse made one more purchase: insulation they quickly installed in the attic so they’d no longer have to worry about catching fire.

Those are the first few days of what would become R. Riveter, the maker of handbags crafted by a network of military spouses, known as riveters, scattered across the country.

The company’s name pays homage to Rosie the Riveter, a World War II icon that symbolizes the contribution women made to the workforce that helped win the war.

For the first six months, R. Riveter was a two-woman show.

“We couldn’t keep up with demand no matter how much coffee we drank,” Bradley says.

That’s when R. Riveter started hiring other military spouses to make handbag pieces. Then, within two years of launching, Bradley and Cruse would both move away and put their idea of military spouses working together but remotely to the test.

Here’s how Cruse and Bradley, along with their remote manufacturing network of Riveters began operating:

  • Riveters across the country crafted handbag pieces
  • Pieces were sent to a fabrication shop in North Carolina
  • There they were assembled and shipped

In 2015 — a year after a successful Kickstarter campaign — R. Riveter opened a large retail store in North Carolina where Cruse had moved. That’s when demand really began picking up and Bradley, who had moved to New York, says the company began to scale.

As Bradley recalls:

“Up until then each bag was custom-made, and customers could choose their color, liner, and style. That got us the cash flow we needed but to scale we knew we needed to start selling from pre-made inventory.”

The break R. Riveter needed was in sight.

But to get there, Bradley would have to do something both courageous and baffling on the surface: she’d have to fire herself.

I Love This, But ...

Depending on the design, as many as twelve Riveters are involved in making each of the company’s handbags. Each Riveter stamps their personal Riveter number on the piece they make which allows customers to look inside their bags and see evidence of all the Riveters responsible:

“We settled on handbags because they’re a personal product and women carry them everywhere. Every time a customer picks up a bag she’s also picking up and supporting a community of military spouses.”

But there’s one Riveter whose number you’ll never see stamped inside one of the company’s handbags — Bradley’s.

“I actually got fired from sewing pretty early on,” she says with a laugh.

The realization that Bradley was less than stellar seamstress came at an R. Riveter pop-up boutique when a customer who had already purchased a handbag made by Bradley showed up with a polite yet embarrassing request.

“‘I love this, but can you flip the pocket for me?’ I had sewn the liner pocket upside down.”

Thankfully, turns out Cruse, a designer, is the expert seamstress.

So Bradley, whose parents were entrepreneurs, vowed never to sew again and instead focus on what she does best: run the business.

And run the business she has …

In 2016, R. Riveter appeared on Shark Tank where Bradley and Cruse made their pitch and wound up with three offers: “It was the most exhilarating and terrifying day of our business lives.”

It was also one of the most lucrative.

The ladies accepted Mark Cuban’s offer of $100,000, which Bradley says was made after Cuban noted that manufacturing in one spot is notoriously difficult and that he was exceptionally impressed with the remote manufacturing network R. Riveter had created.

“Our business model really jived with Mark and his ideas. It was a no brainer when he made the offer.”

Following the show, R. Riveter increased its remote network of Riveters from fifteen to thirty to meet demand and further its mission to provide mobile employment opportunities to military spouses. Additionally, the company, which launched its original ecommerce site on Shopify, recently upgraded to Shopify Plus, an ecommerce solution for high-volume merchants focused on growth.

In Bradley’s words:

“Choosing Shopify is one of the best things I’ve ever done. We’ve been with Shopify from day one. It’s easy to set up and handled the surge in traffic from our Shark Tank appearance without any problem at all.”

Besides helping solve a major problem facing military spouses, R. Riveter’s financial and operational performance is impressive:

  • The company grew year-over-year sales 630% between 2015-2016
  • The customized checkout available via Shopify Plus has lifted conversion rates and reduced abandoned cart
  • Ecommerce accounts for 80% of the company’s sales with the rest attributable to its North Carolina retail store

“The whole reason we exist today is because of technology and Shopify is a big part of that,” Bradley says. “Without technology we wouldn’t be able to run a business in which more than one hundred Riveters, employees, and contractors are scattered across the country.”

It’s a mission that started with handbags but is now morphing into new creations like storage boxes made of license plates that remind service members of the places they once and will again call home.

Success + Support = The Riveter Network

Mobile employment and quality income opportunities are the most visible of R. Riveter’s achievements.

However, much like the problem the company was founded to address, it’s the achievement we can’t see that is extremely meaningful to Bradley. The goal now is to improve the lives of military spouses well beyond their rising incomes.

Describing the Riveter network, Bradley explains:

“What we’re really building is a huge network for success.”

The modern American woman feels like she has to do it all and the Riveter network is a place military spouses can go to get the support they need from people who understand.”

Riveter is now expanding that network by expanding its offerings.

Recently, the company began selling home decor items made by military spouses trying to grow their own brands. It’s called Post to Pillar, a curated marketplace of handcrafted home decor accessories like soaps, pillows, and containers made from old vehicle license plates that can serve as reminders of a military family’s travels.

“We wanted to create an even greater pillar of support which is why we named it what we did,” Bradley says of the home decor collection. “The items we select complement our brand and we’ve helped some military spouses triple their sales which makes a huge difference in their lives.”

What’s Next?

While Cruse and Bradley aren’t ready to show their cards, you can bet that any future moves will be based on the same mission that propelled R. Riveter from a frigid Georgia attic and onto a national stage where a billionaire investor was charmed.

“Whatever the future holds our focus will be helping military spouses. It has been a phenomenal experience and we’re just getting started.”

About the Author

Nick Winkler is a contributor to the Shopify Plus blog & founder of The Winkler Group, a strategic communications firm that provides content marketing services to the world's best know brands, businesses, and marketers. Get more from Nick here.

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