A mother-and-son duo founded a company together — and credit it with making their relationship stronger than ever.
Screw the cork; use a condom.
After dinner at a neighbor’s house in September 2013 yielded an unfinished bottle of wine, Laura Bartlett says her neighbor frantically scrambled to find the cork or a wine stopper so she could transport the bottle home safely. With no luck locating either, she and her neighbor concocted a fix using plastic wrap and a rubber band to seal the bottle. “It looked kind of funny, and as soon as my son saw it, he said, ‘That looks like a wine condom!’” Bartlett, 51, told Moneyish.
Almost instantly, they knew they had a unique idea. While Bartlett suggested her son Mitch Strahan, then 20, try to make a prototype, their conversations about it were fleeting. It took about five months before he pursued the idea in earnest.
“He quit his job and started a Kickstarter, and within the first 24 hours, he asked me for help with marketing and public relations,” said Bartlett. They received media attention immediately, with people from as far as Croatia and the Middle East reaching out. “I think people were amused by the name, and it resonated with them,” she said. The duo’s tuxedo-black, 100% food-safe latex condoms not only preserve the life of wine, they prevent spills and mess.
When Strahan was graduating from high school, Bartlett knew his future plans didn’t include going to college — and she was OK with that. “He was waiting tables, living with me and squirreling away the money he was making until he came across an opportunity that interested him,” she said.
A self-made single mom living in Texas, Bartlett — who dropped out of college herself just one semester shy of graduating — spent years working in corporate America as the marketing director for the leasing division of a bank before going into business with her son. “Not going to college isn’t the safest path,” Bartlett said. “I didn’t have that little box to check, and since finding a job is all about algorithms and online forms, I’m sure it cost me some positions — and I also royally disappointed my parents.”
A year after launching their 30-day Kickstarter campaign, which raised $9,285, Bartlett got laid off from the bank where she worked and immersed herself completely in her son’s company. “I sold my house, so there was some cushion there for me to reinvest in the business, pursue the dream and go all in,” she said.
And Bartlett believes her money was better spent this way than on investing in her son’s college education. “Mitch says the skills he’s learned while running this company has been like getting a master’s degree or PhD in business,” she said.
Nearly four years after they came up with the initial concept for the wine condom, the duo’s foil-wrapped product is available in all Paper Source stores nationwide, in addition to liquor stores, boutiques and gift shops. Each box of six reusable wine condoms retails for $15 — and unlike regular condoms, they can be used more than once. “We intended for it to be used as protection on-the-go, and we say it’s 99.9% effective in stopping unplanned spillage,” Bartlett said.
Bartlett and Strahan can’t have their product manufactured in a condom factory; they had to be prototyped from a rubber manufacturer overseas. They’ve since patented and trademarked their invention and are 100% self-funded. CNBC reports that Bartlett and Strahan sold over $500,000 of Wine Condoms last year, mostly through Amazon, and annual sales for this year are projected to extend beyond $750,000.
Starting a business together has only strengthened Bartlett’s bond with her son, now 25, she said. “As an entrepreneur, there’s always unplanned surprises like a shipping issue or a manufacturer issue or customer service or money,” Bartlett said. “There’s always a fire to put out, and when you’re trying to mitigate those things and it’s emotional, it adds a component that makes your relationship stronger.”
And Bartlett has long recognized that her son had entrepreneurial qualities. In elementary school, Strahan would stop at a little store on his way to school and buy cheap knock-off energy drinks that he would sell at a large profit margin. “I got letters from his teachers asking me why he was selling drinks,” she said.
For Bartlett, making sure her two sons found something to pursue that made them happy was the most important thing. “I love my sons more than anything in this world, money or otherwise, and I’m truly honored and humbled that Mitch allowed me to be part of his entrepreneurial dream,” she said.
The road to creating a successful company wasn’t always easy. “We filmed our Kickstarter video in our old house right after our furnace died, and we shot it in our living room, which was about 40 degrees,” Bartlett said. They had to turn their space heater off because of background noise, she said, and throw blankets and coats off to do a quick take.
“I want this story to be hopeful for people and for people to realize that you don’t have to have everything perfectly in place to try something; not everything has to be ideal,” Bartlett said. “It’s OK to fail — just fail forward by trying.”
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