Adrienne Metz’s path to entrepreneurship began after two of her aunts underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer. Losing their hair as part of the treatment, they told her, was one of the most devastating effects.
“They felt so vain and so embarrassed to say it, but they said, ‘The hardest thing was when I lost my hair,” Adrienne says. “And they just didn’t expect to react that way. [Chemo patients] don’t want to leave the house – it’s a real problem. It really just destroys your confidence.”
The solution she developed-a comfortable, secure head covering for women undergoing chemotherapy-became the basis for a growing small business that’s on track to sell 58,000 garments this year alone.
The product is the Chemo Beanie, a unique design Adrienne developed with guidance from her aunts Danielle Fournier and Angelle Albright, both breast cancer survivors.
The head covering originated from a need. After Danielle’s cancer diagnosis in 2010, the family combed shops in hopes of finding just the right head covering for her anticipated hair loss. The problem: they could find no such garment.
Scarves and bandanas were difficult to hold in place; caps left the back of the head and neck exposed; wigs looked unnatural; and other products targeted to chemo patients were uncomfortable and low quality. As her aunt described what she needed, Adrienne spotted an opportunity.
“Why don’t they have this thing?” she says. “Why don’t they have something that stays in place? She was basically describing this thing that eventually became chemo beanies.”
Adrienne took up the challenge, working with a seamstress where she lives in southern California to develop prototypes based on advice and feedback from her aunts. Adrienne shipped the prototypes to Danielle at home in Covington, Louisiana, where she served as a one-woman focus group, offering constructive assessments of what worked and what didn’t. They soon arrived at a version that satisfied her criteria.
What started with the need to provide her aunt with comfortable headwear to help her through her cancer treatments soon grew into something larger, as other patients admired Danielle’s headwear and asked where they could get one for themselves.
“The motivation was that she have something to wear, because her hair was falling out,” Adrienne says. “But as we developed it, it was pretty clear that there was nothing else like this in the market. Then I realized, I think we have a business here…. It was so clear that if we wanted to sell these then we could.”
Adrienne incorporated Chemo Beanies LLC soon thereafter. It’s a true family business: Adrienne serves as CEO, with her three aunts and mother as co-owners of the company.
What makes Chemo Beanies different
As Adrienne explains, the Chemo Beanie compensates for the shortcomings of other options. Made from soft, breathable fabrics, it’s designed to be both comfortable and secure.
“I have to feel every fabric and make sure it’s soft,” Adrienne says. “That’s just a key criteria. I could find the most beautiful fabric and if I don’t think it’s soft enough, it won’t pass the test.”
There are currently 38 styles, each branded with the first name of a Chemo Beanies customer. The naming gives an intensely personal touch to the product, which goes some way toward explaining the strong response from customers.
The head covering is also designed to stay in place. Some patients have trouble lifting their arms as a side effect of chemo, Adrienne explains, so a secure fit ensures they don’t have to adjust it repeatedly while wearing.
Adrienne also wanted the product to have a distinctive style, so that it didn’t simply look like a head covering for someone who had lost her hair. By building volume into the style, with ruffles on some models and thicker bunching at the back, and by covering the back of the neck, the wearer’s hair loss is not immediately apparent.
It’s not just about comfort and convenience-it’s about confidence, because it allows women suffering from sudden, unwanted hair loss to feel “cute and fashionable” at a particularly difficult time, she explains.
“People send photos and they look like trendsetters,” Adrienne says. “They look really cool, and that’s how they feel. And that’s awesome.”
The business takes off
When she launched the Chemo Beanies website in 2011, her total inventory was 140 handmade beanies: “It seemed like just a crazy amount of product to have, and they’re all laying on my living room floor, and I remember the site going live, and I had no idea what was going to happen.”
After selling out her initial supply with minimal promotion, she grew anxious and even considered taking the website down to regroup. Instead, she chose to dig in.
The first problem was that a single seamstress couldn’t possibly meet the demand. Sourcing the production overseas was not an option. The minimum number for a production run in China was more than she could afford on a shoestring budget, and she was nervous about outsourcing the manufacturing.
“Initially, I wanted to have more control over what was happening,” she says. “I’m a very hands-on person, and I wanted to be able to feel the fabrics and see where they were being made and talk to that person, and be part of it. I just didn’t want to send it off to somewhere else.”
Ultimately, she found a small manufacturer in southern California she could work with-which has ended up being a benefit, she says.
“As we’ve grown, those relationships that we’ve built [with local suppliers] are critical,” she explains. “I can call at any time, if there’s a problem, I can be there within two hours and we can address it.”
Marketing and distribution would also be essential to keep the company sustainable. Chemo Beanies had strong word of mouth among cancer patients and survivors. But what makes the company’s business model unusual is that Adrienne isn’t hoping for repeat customers-ideally, the women who wear Chemo Beanies will be cancer free after their treatment course and no longer need for the product.
Which meant that while direct sales to online customers would remain an important part of the business, Adrienne began focusing on reaching the wholesale market, like cancer treatment centers, wig shops, hospital gift shops. Through visits to trade shows, mailing lists and direct contacts to wholesalers and retailers, Chemo Beanies are now available in about 800 locations in the United States, as well as on Amazon.com. Adrienne estimates that sales to the wholesale market comprise 80-90 percent of her business.
The challenge: ‘We couldn’t get our heads above water’
The good news was that Chemo Beanies were a hit-Adrienne says she’s posted growth in every quarter since the business was established. The bad news was she found herself in a vicious cycle of working in the business, rather than on the business.
“We couldn’t really get our heads above water at that point,” she says. “We couldn’t pay ourselves, we couldn’t pay anybody else. We were slowly building it, but we were doing it all ourselves. [The profits] all had to go back into production. It was about two straight years of that.”
By 2013, Adrienne was feeling stretched thin. At the same time, her aunt Angelle learned about the Mission Main Street Grants program from Chase.
That competitive grants program was launched in 2012 to increase awareness of the important role small businesses play in local communities and helping those businesses grow. Any for-profit business that’s been in operation at least two years and has fewer than 100 employees is eligible to apply (all eligibility requirements are available at www.missionmainstreetgrants.com).
Applicants are listed online and the public is given the opportunity to vote for their favorite business. All applicants receiving at least 250 votes are assessed by a panel of business experts and entrepreneurs on four essential criteria: the strength of their growth plans; quality of management team; positive impact in their communities; and business knowledge. (The 2015 Mission Main Street Grant recipients are listed here.)
Chemo Beanies applied to participate in the 2013 Mission Main Street Grant program, rallying supporters through their Facebook page, though Adrienne admits she was skeptical of their chances.
“I thought it was a huge long shot,” she says. “People don’t just give you money.”
When she learned they had won, which included a cash prize and small business consulting tools, she still thought she might be dreaming.
“I just stared at the account that I had been sweating over for three years every day, looking to check to make sure that we had enough,” Adrienne says now. “I lost a lot of sleep prior to that check, trying to make sure that we had enough money.
With the infusion of capital, she could place larger orders, taking advantage of quantity breaks to reduce costs. And she now needs two factories running regular production runs of 10,000 units to meet demand. She’s also hired two full-time employees, so that she’s not trying to do everything herself.
Looking to the future
That gives her more opportunity to focus on the company’s “big picture” growth plans for the future-she’s looking for ways to make the operation more efficient while expanding sales into international markets-while also giving her flexibility for the mother of two to spend more time with family.
Adrienne expects gross revenue this year of $650,000-$700,000-a substantial step up from her first year’s revenues of $23,000. In 2016, she projects Chemo Beanies annual sales to top 100,000 units for the first time.
But as pleased as she is with the numbers, it’s the stories from the women who make up her customer base that have been her greatest motivator.
“The reason I didn’t give up, every time I wanted to, I’d get an email from someone saying, ‘what a great product, it’s made my journey so much easier,’” she explains. “I didn’t know how we’d keep going, but I knew that as long as people like the product, it was worth it.”