The real-life Rosie the Riveter in Norman Rockwell’s iconic World War II painting has passed away. But her spirit and determination lives on in Cameron Cruse and Lisa Bradley’s company R. Riveter, named for the face of American patriotism.
The two wives of men serving in the military from Murfreesboro, Tenn. founded their handbag and accessories company with a double mission. 1) Create jobs for military spouses “wherever the military takes them.” 2) Upcycle used and surplus military textiles and turn them into must-have handbags. They debuted their first product, the Grant tote bag, at a tradeshow in November 2011.
In a special Shark Tank episode featuring veteran businesses, Mark Cuban offered Cruse and Bradley $100,000 and a line of credit for new machinery for 20% equity in their company. They plan to spend the money on marketing, opening a new production warehouse and hiring more military spouses.
The company’s 2015 sales totaled $320,000, up 48% over the prior year. Thanks to increased demand following their Shark Tank appearance in February 2016, R. Riveter enlisted two dozen other military spouses to work for them as independent contractors, increasing their payroll to nearly 36. The company doubled staff at it one and only retail store in Southern Pines, N.C. and opened a new production warehouse. Cruse and Bradley hope to open a few retail locations within a year and sell their handbags through other online stores and boutiques.
R. Riverter’s Signature Collection handmade handbags made with water-resistant back canvas and leather cost between $120 and $260, depending on the size. Its line of limited-edition handbags, made from upcycled military uniforms, canvas tents and wool blankets range from $45 to $320.
Bradley explains how her company is on a mission to “inspire, engage and empower.”
Ky Trang Ho: How did you come up with the idea for your business?
Lisa Bradley: I was moving every two to three years with my family as my husband’s job changed with the Army. At each location, I either found a part-time job that wasn’t fulfilling or settled for a full-time job that wasn’t aligned with my long-term career goals.
Seeing so many other military spouses that were in my same situation, I knew that somebody had to do something about it. That’s when I met Cameron and the idea for R. Riveter began. Our own personal experiences as military spouses, as well as listening to other women like us, gave us insight into the real problem of securing meaningful employment among our “silent ranks.”
We wanted to develop a business model that allowed military spouses embrace a career that they could carry with them, wherever our country asks their family to go. It was a simple, yet powerful dream and handbags became the key to it all. It is a product that all women can relate to and symbolizes the strength, resiliency and selfless spirit of our namesake: Rosie the Riveter.
Ho: How much did you personally invest in your business? How did you get the money to start your business initially?
Bradley: We each put a little over $2,000 into the company when we first started. The first investment in the company was in one sewing machine, leather tools and the raw materials to make seven bags. We sold those seven bags at a local craft market. The profit from those was used to make 15 bags. This is how our entire company has grown: step by step and day by day.
Ho: How many hours did you work on your startup per day?
Bradley: Once we decided to launch R. Riveter, counting hours spent on the project would have been impossible. We were 100% dedicated to the success of this company and spent countless, sleepless nights making improvements to our business model, bent over a sewing machine, sorting canvas, stitching and restitching, researching materials, developing marketing strategies, etc.
We were determined to make R. Riveter successful, no matter how many hours it took, but not just for us. This would be for every women who ever had a dream.
Conquering Production Challenges
Ho: What hardships did you encounter in developing and launching your business?
Bradley: Many of the aspects of military life have proven to be a challenge as well as an opportunity. The moves that were preventing us from having a sustainable career have now opened up the doors to a business that helps so many other military spouses in our shoes.
Since starting the company, Cameron has moved once and I have moved three times. Although we still have to deal with the many relocations, we have created our business around these challenges and military spouses can now be part of R. Riveter from across the country.
In fact, what we thought would be difficult for our company has actually become catalyst of growth. Each military spouse who moves and continues her work with R. Riveter, is able to expand our brand at a location we wouldn’t have otherwise had a presence.
Ho: How did you go about making a prototype, sourcing the materials and finding a manufacturer?
Bradley: Our first prototype was made in an attic in Dahlonega, Ga. with a vintage sewing machine. The bag was a simplistic design that had various uses. In the beginning, the recycled military materials we used to make our handbags was typically donated to us. But we did eventually begin our own search for new and exciting additions to our inventory on our own.
All of our handbags are assembled by our military spouse Riveters at our warehouse near Ft. Bragg, N.C. The parts and pieces they use to create the final product come from all over the country, shipped in by our remote Riveters, who handcrafted them. We have created a new way of manufacturing, which has many positive inputs as compared to traditional ways of manufacturing.
Ho: Where is your product made?
Bradley: Our products are made in the homes of our very own American military spouses, wherever their families happened to be stationed. Each military spouse is responsible for a different part or piece of a handbag and once all of those items make the journey to our warehouse in North Carolina, they are assembled into the final product.
Ho: How is the product distributed?
Bradley: Of course, there is our brick and mortar shop. Here you’ll find fashionable and chic Riveters, who love getting to know our customers and helping them choose the perfect handbag in person. Those customers are privy to a shopping experience like no other and can walk out the door with their brand new bag — the same day.
When it comes to our online store, purchases are shipped from our warehouse by the same Riveters who assemble our handbags. Military spouses are used to wearing many hats, after all.
Bagging a Shark Tank Deal
Ho: How did you prepare for your Shark Tank appearance? What made it a success?
Bradley: Cameron and I are actually located in different states. Crafting and perfecting our pitch was done over the course of a couple trips back and forth to visit one another. Preparing for our Shark Tank debut took dedication and long hours. We worked as a team to plan for every possible outcome.
Having a strong support system in our families, friends and team made all the difference. A powerful mission and a quality product was what ultimately led us to making our deal with Mark Cuban.
Even if we didn’t get a deal when we aired, the process of getting ready for Shark Tank was one of the best things we did for our company. It gave us a reason to step away from day-to-day operations to organize and process the business into a presentation worthy for the sharks.
While running a fast-paced, growing company you have to take time to stop, reorganize and make projections for the future. Sometimes in the day-to-day life of an entrepreneur these important planning actions get put on the backburner.
Ho: How did you value your company when you appeared on Shark Tank?
Bradley: We asked for 20% equity stake partnership for $100,000 investment. This valued our company at the time at $500,000. We based this on our revenues the previous year. Many investors would see this as a modest ask. Since we were profitable at the time, we validated this with a discounted cash flow model and they were similar.
We saw Shark Tank as a way to share the unemployment struggles of military spouses with America and encourage them to support our mission. There are so many ways to make a positive impact on the military spouse community. It was our sincerest hope that our Shark Tank appearance would inspire others to take action and serve in their own ways.
Ho: What about being in the Shark Tank surprised you the most?
Bradley: What was most surprising to us was how personable the Sharks were. They aren’t just sitting on those chairs for ratings. They sincerely want to make every entrepreneur that walks through those doors think about how they can find success in what they are passionate about.
Our time with them in the tank really showed how every single one of them truly cares about our armed forces and the military spouses that stand behind those important men and women.
Ho: If you could do the show over, what would you do differently?
Bradley: Absolutely nothing. We are thrilled with our Shark Tank outcome.
Ho: What can you teach others about your Shark Tank experience? What are the secrets of a successful audition and appearance?
Bradley: Be completely confident in yourself and your product before making the decision to walk through those doors, because once you do… there’s no going back. Rely on your team and lean on your family and friends for support. Preparing for a national television debut is stressful. And you don’t have to go through it alone.
Ho: How is working with Mark Cuban?
Bradley: Mark makes himself available to us more than we could have ever imagined. His team communicates with us several times per week. We have built such an amazing rapport with them over the last several weeks.
Ho: What do you hope he can do for your business?
Bradley: We are hoping that working with Mark Cuban and his team allows us to continue expanding and reaching more military spouses with the portable income they need. The exposure we received from our appearance on Shark Tank has been a real game-changer for us. The sky has become the limit.
Ho: What kind of return can Mark Cuban expect to make from investing in your business?
Bradley: Mark seems most concerned with giving us the help we need to keep the momentum and moving forward. He is genuinely proud to be part of our company and what we are accomplishing every day for military spouses.
Of course this is all in the big picture of making a company that is profitable for not only Mark, but also every single one of the military spouses who work with R. Riveter. The only way to continue our mission is by being a profitable and viable company for military spouses to work for.
Post Shark Tank Blast
Ho: How much did your sales and profits to increase after the Shark Tank appearance?
Bradley: We have been blown away by the support of our Shark Tank fans. America truly understands our mission and want to do all they can to help our company and the military spouses we are comprised of.
Due to our product being made 100% by hand, and the inputs to our product coming from across the country, we had to roll out a well thought out backorder plan for the Shark Tank spike. We are selling our products based on one-month shipping dates. Customers have been very understanding of our need for future shipping dates until we bring more military spouses on board and fully train and scale our handmade operations.
We have already scaled significantly and have tripled the amount of military spouses and look forward to shipping soon. Including sales that are backordered to June, we have already more than doubled our sales from last year.
Ho: What kinds of distribution deals / sales channels did you score after being on Shark Tank?
Bradley: We are selling on Amazon exclusives in the month of April during a Mark Cuban event. We also are looking at exclusive deals with various websites throughout the year. We are most excited about expanding our own retail sales channels as that gives us the most opportunities to provide jobs for more military spouses.
Commandeering Rapid Growth
Ho: What are you doing now to move your business forward and expand?
Bradley: Prior to Shark Tank, we were not exploring marketing solutions beyond social media and the occasional email campaign. But moving forward with Mark Cuban and his investment, we have spent the past several weeks integrating new marketing softwares with our online store. This will allow us to understand our customers’ wants more effectively and reach them with what interests them most.
In terms of production, we also have a lot of great new limited-edition handbags getting ready to make their big debut. These are made from various recycled military materials. And they all have their own, unique story to tell.
Ho: What are your goals for your business over the next year and five years?
Bradley: Our goal since 2011 has been to help as many military spouses as possible. That mission has not changed since airing. Shark Tank has already allowed us to almost triple the amount of military spouses that R. Riveter is proving mobile income to. We already are moving up a year goal to launching next month.
Be sure to check out our website May 1 for a significant expansion of our product offering. In the next three to five years we are looking at expanding our own retail outlets that allow us to directly help more military spouses located around military installations across the country.
Ho: What is your media and marketing strategy?
Bradley: We use social media to interact with our customers on a daily basis. We are always interested in sharing our story and product with our followers. We also enjoy engaging with them through various articles and trending content that brings them into the R. Riveter family because they absolutely are.
We also use an email campaign system to notify our customers of sales, promotions, new blogs and new or returning products and manage ads through online search engines, social media platforms and online/printed publications.
Ho: How do you find business partners, instructors, salespeople, etc.? What qualities do you look for?
Bradley: Of course, working with sewing machines and our materials is a plus. But many times that is a skill that can be learned. It is most important to us that the candidate is passionate about our mission, motivated to work in a team setting and embodies the humble spirit of Rosie the Riveter.
Ho: What other products do you have in the works? When are they set to launch?
Bradley: Our limited edition bags are expected to hit our website in May. We also have a new section of our website dedicated to military spouse makers debuting May 1st. Be sure to pencil in a stop on our website for May Day on your calendars.
Ho: What business books do you recommend people read and why?
Bradley: #GIRLBOSS by Sophia Amaruso is a book we recommend to our team and fellow military spouses who are seeking out advice on their new entrepreneurial adventures. It’s just one of those inspirational stories that really makes you stop and say, “Huh. I can actually do this.”
Ho: What are you favorite business websites, tools or resources that you love and why?
The mute button is really a vital piece of our web equipment. Because many of us are military mothers working from home, there are often the sounds of children in the background during meetings. These everyday noises are not something you hear at most businesses around the company. But at R. Riveter we’re proud to be working mothers. It’s these little everyday reminders of the amazing women who make up R. Riveter and what our company stands for.