Twelve years ago, Lolita Healey was a stay-at-home mom. While enjoying a much deserved girl’s night out, she had an idea that has grown into multimillion dollar business. Here’s how she did it.
Before talented artist Lolita Healey was the president and CEO of Designs by Lolita, she was living an ordinary life as a young wife and mother. In her own words, Lolita recalls, “When I had two babies, I was staying at home and bored out of my mind.”
Then one evening, she went out with her favorite gal pals, and they all ordered martinis.
Lolita couldn’t help but notice that each of her friends had ordered a different martini that seemed to match their personality. There the idea was born to create a line of hand-painted themed martini glasses with recipes on the bottom.
Now, some 12 years later, Lolita runs a multi-million dollar business that sells more than 4 million glasses a year. Her fun and celebratory glassware has become a favorite collectible among her many fans.
Lolita (her real name, by the way) recently shared with Business Know-How just how she managed to accomplish this extraordinary business success.
Designs by Lolita – the early years
Success didn’t come easy for Lolita. Nor did it happen overnight.
“I started with about 12 designs and started painting for friends,” Lolita explains. “I can remember working sometimes until 2 in the morning painting glasses, just over and over again, and felt overwhelmed completely.” The little money Lolita made went right back into the business. It wasn’t until “a couple of years of really plugging away” that she started to have a positive cash flow.
Lolita worked hard in the early years to get the word out about her hand-painted glasses and handled all the details that went with selling her product. “I took my wares to local retailers and got my first couple of retail accounts. And I just serviced those accounts on my own. I came up with my own hang tags, my own pricing, wholesale sheets, order forms, brochures.”
Creating a licensed product line
Lolita’s goal from day one was to create a licensed product line; one that she didn’t have to manufacture herself. “Licensing is so hard to do. I had to get on the wholesale sales market, which means doing wholesale trade shows so retailers could come see my product line in a booth at trade shows across the country so they knew I existed.
“I’m only one person and I couldn’t go all over the country selling my stuff, so for me it was worth the investment of doing my first trade show in Atlanta in 2001. And I got enough orders to break even the first show. The second show I did the next summer; I netted like $3,000, so I was thrilled. That allowed me to invest in a show in California, and then a show in Dallas, and then a gift show in New York. So I just kept plugging along, using my contacts all along, saying ‘I want to license this line.’ I didn’t care who came up – it could have been a rep, it could have been a manufacturer – I told everybody that the line needs to be licensed.
“I didn’t want to do the manufacturing. I wanted to do the design; I wanted to paint the type glasses. I wanted to have full design control, and I wanted to manage the marketing. So if a manufacturer is willing to do that, we’re going to be good team.
“After I did the trade shows for two years, I got licensed and it changed my life. And all of a sudden, I went from having about $300,000 a year in sales at the time I got licensed, and I was probably taking home about $50,000. The next year I probably had a million-five in sales, and I was taking home $100,000. So the difference was markedly strong. All of a sudden you give up what you were doing – then you’re just designing and getting royalty checks. That’s sort of where I ended up today. Now I’m in over 10,000 stores, and I have eight manufacturers for a variety of products, so it’s definitely paid off. My early story – it was not easy.”
Determining if licensing is the right entrepreneurial choice
Licensing isn’t for everyone. Lolita advises, “Entrepreneurs need to ask themselves, Do I want to license my product?”
“That’s a big decision. A lot of artists think that’s selling out. But the way I look at it is, if you’re an artist and you really love what you do, and you need to make a living, other people might like what you do too. The more it gets out there, the more you can support yourself. So, there’s nothing wrong with supporting yourself – especially for women being financially independent.”
Second, do you have something viable? For Lolita, this means, “Do you have something that people want out there? And you have to know that before you license, or you’re not going to get a manufacturer to even look at you. You have to know that it sells, you have to know that there’s a demand for it now, you have to already have a business that’s already doing pretty well. If there are proven sales results, and enough creativity behind it, you can get a manufacturer’s attention.”
The International Licensing Industry Merchandisers’ Association, Inc. (LIMA) is an organization that Lolita wishes she had known about when she first started out and now heartily recommends: “They are a wealth of information. They publish a licensing letter once a month. They’ll send you a book and it has every licensing agent in the country and what they specialize in. And it lists manufacturers by product type, and licensing attorneys, which you would need. It tells you when the licensing shows are. It also tells you how you can order consumer spending data. And even if you’re starting a business, it’s a good organization to join just because of the research that’s available. When I started out, I didn’t know that there was an organization out there for me that I could go to for resources. I didn’t know that I could do the licensing show and rent a booth and show my stuff, and have manufacturers walking around looking for new things to license.”
Protecting intellectual property
By the time Lolita was a mere 12 years of age, she had filed for and obtained a copyright for her own cartoon character that, incidentally, she says she’s getting ready to relaunch: “It’s a little bug. My girls love it.”
“Protect and never give away your intellectual property,” advises Lolita. “If it was your idea, don’t share it with your friend and say, ‘oh, we’ll do this together.’ Copyright every idea you’ve got, every sketch. Just protect yourself. Don’t ever give away your stock to someone who just helped you out. I’m talking from experience here. You need to be smart about business. Make yourself the 100% owner of the corporation.”
Tips for other entrepreneurial Moms on achieving business success
Number One: Passion
Lolita’s passion for her craft and for her business is undeniable: “I live and breathe this business. There’s not one morning I wake up and don’t think about what’s going on. Sometimes I’ll wake up in the middle of the night, thinking about what I’m going to do … it’s definitely because I love it. I’m checking email 9/10 o’clock every night because I’m just dying to know what’s going on. I just can’t shut it off, and I’m always coming up with new product ideas.”
For prospective entrepreneurs, Lolita feels passion is the number one prerequisite: “Don’t do it unless you love it. I can tell you that is the biggest thing right there. If you want to start an accounting business and you really don’t love it; it’s just a way for you to make an income – you might want to think twice about it. Because, in the long run, you’re going to be miserable. And so will everyone around you. It’s not worth it.”
Number two: research and education
“Know the industry that you’re getting into, and know your business model. Just go to your local bookstore and look under ‘How to Launch a New Product.’ In every one, there will be a chapter on how to build your business model.”
“Peter Drucker is one of my favorite marketing writers and I studied him in college. If you’re unfamiliar with marketing, and this goes with ‘know your industry,’ know your marketing. Read a Peter Drucker textbook, or something he’s written, because he talks about the four ‘P’s’ of marketing, and the Hierarchy of Needs. These are things that you are going to need to understand if you’re going into business for yourself.
“Knowing your industry includes knowing your customer. Who is your customer? Identify them. It can be more than one type. Write them down.”
Number three: get help where you’re weakest
“If you’re weak in accounting, hire a bookkeeper; even to help you with your personal books. Get help with the kids. You know, I wish I had done that more … even if it’s your local neighbor’s kid to come over and be Mom’s helper for a little while.”
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Designs by Lolita – today and tomorrow
Today “Lolita lovers” can find her products in thousands of stores around the country, as well as on her website at .
New product lines include Lolita’s ‘Love my Candles’ collection and ‘Love My Sundae’ bowls. The candles collection features candleholders in the shapes of champagne flutes, martini glasses and wine goblets. Each contains a gel candle infused with custom-scents inspired by the design.
The sundae bowls are designed for children, teens and adults, and the themes include ‘Pajama Party,’ ‘Paint Ball,’ ‘PMS,’ and ‘Who Needs a Man.’ ‘Lolita Beach’ beach towels – and a lifestyle entertainment book – will also be out in coming months.
And Lolita says she’s having a ball. “I have a staff of eight full-time people. I have a studio in Savannah, Georgia; a studio here in Providence, Rhode Island. I have a team of graphic designers. Every design I paint on a glass is turned into flat art, which I then put out to my manufacturers to put on various products, which I have full control over. I’m doing everything from designing beach bags and beach towels, designed a line of flip-flops. I’m going to be getting into cosmetics … but the bottom line is, I start every design, I come up with every idea, but I have a great team to help me implement and get the design work out to the manufacturers.”