Value Added: The color of her Paint Pen is green, as in cash


Debbie Wiener, left, created the Slobproof! Paint Pen as well as other products. Her son, Sam Weinberger, right, worked on the design for the paint pen. (Matt McClain/For The Washington Post)
Thomas Heath
Reporter March 16, 2013

Whether it’s the dining-room table, a tray in the television room or a restaurant tablecloth, my post-meal place setting always looks like Gen. Sherman’s army just marched through.

Blueberries, bread crumbs, yogurt, cauliflower scrapings. I leave it on me, around me, on the rug, on the couch, on chairs.

Thomas Heath is a local business reporter and columnist, writing about entrepreneurs and various companies big and small in the Washington Metropolitan area. Previously, he wrote about the business of sports for The Post’s sports section for most of a decade. View Archive

I confess: I am a slob — which makes me the target audience for Debbie Wiener’s Slobproof products. She is the Silver Spring mompreneur who has built a thriving business on a “camouflage the dirt” approach to home decorating.

Her philosophy is to decorate for the way you really live, not for impressing the neighbors.

It pays.

Wiener is no Martha Stewart, but she is raking in a high-six-figure income. She earned more than $1 million one year — enough to take her son to Israel for a month to be bar mitzvahed. She built a dream house on the Chesapeake Bay.

Wiener is also the mother of the Paint Pen, a gimmicky household item that helps moms paint over the nicks on walls and furniture.

“Having a neutral color is like having another kid in the house,” said the 54-year-old mother of two. “It requires constant care and supervision. I live with slobs, and I spend my life trying to outsmart them. Everything I do is in Slobproof.”

Like most successful people, she runs on confidence, not reflection. Describing Wiener as voluble would be selling her short.

She is a hurricane.

“Nothing scares me. No one intimidates me. I know who I am. I have been through menopause. I don’t let anyone make me uncomfortable,” she says. “Second, I am not afraid to fail. I am terrified of doing nothing.”

Wiener said she is first and foremost a mother. She is also a passionate advocate for female entrepreneurs. She is a semi-regular on Steve Harvey’s talk show, where she gives advice to businesswomen.

Wiener’s business education began where she grew up, in Boston. Her father had the New England business for Sealy mattresses.

“He was a very good businessman and the single greatest influence in my life,” she said.

After graduation from the University of New Hampshire, she had a successful career advising chemical companies on how to comply with Environmental Protection Agency regulations.

“It was a ball,” she said. She traveled frequently, was her own boss and earned a nice salary with benefits.

She gave it up in 1991 to raise her children, living on savings and family help.

Then came what she calls “my Scarlett O’Hara moment.”

Her charge card was declined while in a Kmart checkout line buying stuff for her son’s Thanksgiving project. She called her husband, she said, and he confirmed they were broke.

“I put my hands on the steering wheel and said, ‘As God is my witness, no way will my charge card ever be denied in a Kmart again.’ ”

But her attempts to resume her chemical-industry career went nowhere. Her phone calls went unanswered.

Then she had an idea. She would cash in on the decorating advice she had dispensed for free to her friends.

“The only thing I have to sell is my own good taste,” she said. “I didn’t know if I had good taste. So I said I will start charging my friends for designing advice instead of giving it away for free.”

She named her company Designing Solutions and advertised in newsletters and synagogue bulletins. She had postcards made with her business information on them and sat at her card table in her unfinished basement late at night, addressing them to people who bought new homes for more than $400,000. She culled the names from listings in The Washington Post .

Like most successful entrepreneurs, Wiener improvised. She didn’t have enough money to pay an assistant, so when she answered the phone she pretended to be “Celia,” who handled clients for her busy boss, “Ms. Wiener.”

“I had a multiple personality,” she said.

Wiener’s big break came in May 2005, when a wealthy Potomac homemaker spent millions on a redesign. Wiener’s take, which included a fee of around $125 to $150 an hour plus a percent of what her client spent, came to $600,000. She made more than $1 million for the year, a peak that has not been repeated since then.

Wiener then did an incredibly smart thing. She hired Morgan Stanley to help invest her money. She started a Simplified Employee Pension plan (a SEP IRA), which enables her to shield a huge percent of her income from tax.

And then she went back to work, trolling the Washington Design Center and show houses, looking for clients. After USA Today wrote a story about Design Solutions in April 2007, Penguin book publishers called and asked her to write a decorating book.

“They asked me what I wanted to call the book, and out of my mouth came ‘Slobproof,’ ” Wiener said. “I became known for real-life kid-proof, pet-proof, busy-working-parent-proof home design.”

Soon after, the owners of Crypton — a furniture fabric that repels stains — came calling, and Wiener now sells about $200,000 worth of Crypton products under the Slobproof! brand.

Next was the Paint Pen launch, which is a lesson in how to turn an idea into a product.

Her son, Sam, designed the pen as a way to touch up nicks and scrapes to painted surfaces. Wiener fell in love with the idea and started researching at once.

She went online, spending hours on the supplier sourcing site ThomasNet.com to find a manufacturer who could build a prototype. After several fits and starts, she found someone in China.

She spent $100,000 of her savings to fund the initial run of 25,000 pens. She found a guy in Texas to imprint Slobproof on the instruments. He found a company online called Vistaprint that made her instruction cards. She even found someone online to make plastic bags to hold the pens. She built an e-commerce site.

No detail was too small: French- and Spanish-language instructions were included in each bag. She paid an artist to sketch the instructions for using the pens.

The Paint Pen premiered at an international hardware show in Las Vegas, where Wiener set up a booth to plug her invention.

The real home run came after the New York Times published an article on the Paint Pen in December 2011. That day, she had 10,000 Paint Pen orders by the time she woke up at 7:30 a.m. — even though they did not have a product ready to ship until Jan. 1, 2012.

When the product did arrive, in pieces, Wiener, her husband, Jim, and their two sons, Sam and Jacob, sat on the floor of their family room and put the pens together, stuffed them in the bag and made them ready for delivery. They did it in every spare moment of every day for weeks.

She priced the product at $19.99 a bag until she earned her $100,000 investment back. Now the pens are $9.99. The unit costs to launch the Paint Pen were $4.50 to $4.99 per bag, including shipping. With 60,000 Paint Pens sold, the unit cost has dropped to under $2 each.

“We have sold over $1 million worth of Paint Pens,” she says. Wiener’s net is between 40 percent and 45 percent.

The pens, design business and furniture are bringing in enough money that she is already on the fast track to retirement, when (I am serious) she plans to raise chickens.

Chickens are slobs, too.

For previous Value Added columns, go to washingtonpost.com/business.

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