For a while, it seemed as though Mark and Rachel Stephens couldn't sink much further as the software company Mark managed started failing. The British couple had to move from their luxurious loft in San Francisco to an apartment in Rockville, near the company headquarters, and faced an uncertain future -- right when Rachel was pregnant with their first child.
"We were pretty depressed," Rachel says.
But in the 18 months that Mark hung on at the software company ("Six people in a 12,000-square-foot office," he says), Rachel found a new interest: British children's accessories. It's not that they were markedly different from American products, but they were well-designed things that weren't available here, and vice versa. She gave Mark a shopping list every time he traveled back to Britain, and the couple started thinking that some of the items might have a market here.
In 2003, armed with $200,000 from Mark's severance package and personal savings, the couple decided to cut a deal with a few British manufacturers of kids' accessories to distribute in the United States. "We had absolutely no idea whatsoever what we were doing," Mark says.
With just one or two lines to sell, the couple had a hard time getting the ear of U.S. retailers. "In Britain, it's just much easier to reach buyers -- they actually answer the phone," Mark says.
The couple eked out a few sales, partly because of their Web site, TrendyKid.com, but it wasn't enough. Eventually, Mark had to use his IRA to help pay the living expenses for the family, now living in Northwest Washington with two children, Archie, 2, and Imogen, 5.
"We had to find our killer product quite quickly," Rachel says, something U.S. retailers would clamor for. They found it in Trunki.
Trunki is a kids' suitcase, but also a ride-on toy, made from brightly colored plastic, that looks vaguely animal-like, with latches that resemble a nose and a tail. Rachel spotted it at a trade show last fall in Britain and struck a deal with the designer. The couple displayed samples earlier this year at trade shows for luggage and juvenile products, even though the first shipment won't arrive until early July. The response was immediate: Seven hundred orders have come into their Web site, and two container loads are on their way to companies such as Target.com, Hammacher Schlemmer, One Step Ahead and Sensational Beginnings.
This spring, the Stephenses also got the rights to sell a clever U.S. product, the Shampoo Rinse Cup, in Britain. It's a pitcher for rinsing a child's hair in the bathtub that keeps water off the face, and it has been flying out of U.S. stores. "We moved really quickly on it," Rachel says, and immediately signed up a British retailer with 720 stores.
So now, the couple is sending container loads of orders both ways across the Atlantic. Mark, the numbers guy, said revenue will be between $1.5 million and $2 million this year, based on orders they have already received. That's after several years with sales of about $200,000. As distributors, the couple says their profits should be about a third of sales.
"It's kind of spiraled into a good place over the last six months," Rachel says, "on both sides of the pond."
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