After a long career in the music industry, hobnobbing with talented big-name artists, Helen’s entrepreneurial spirit and creative passion took over; born of necessity, she created a packable cardigan for women on the go.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in Quorndon,a small village two hours north of London, England and am the middle child of five children. We lived in a mid-sized house on a cul-de-sac where everyone knew everyone. It was a great place to grow up and always felt safe and friendly. It was in an era of playing outside and being creative, making up games and stories, raising tents, and digging in the garden.
I come from a long line of entrepreneurs; my family has owned a retail store since 1922, Tyler’s of Loughborough (the town in England where it is located). I spent every weekday after school at the shop, waiting for my Dad to finish work so I didn’t have to take the bus. I dug around in the warehouse upstairs and was fascinated by my finds. I loved to take home items that were slightly damaged or unsellable to my Mum—much to her dismay. It felt like I was shopping for free!
I liked putting things together, fixing things, and creating things. I would take home packets of seeds so I could grow them in the garden. The store has changed and expanded over the years and is now more of a Crate & Barrel meets Pottery Barn, with some Williams Sonoma and Pandora jewelry in the mix!
As you can tell, I am very proud of our family and its business and how they have managed to sustain and grow through many hard economic times. There is a passion when working for yourself that I don’t believe is often felt when working for someone else. While it’s often exhausting, it’s truly freeing as well. I think that entrepreneurial spirit is in my blood.
I had actually wanted to be in the entertainment industry from an early age; I had ideas of being an actress, singer, choreographer—you name it. This was frowned upon by my school; I was told I should want to be a private cook or a personal secretary. Since I did not want to spend my days sitting behind a desk, I opted to go to catering college after my high school graduation. After six weeks, I remember sitting in a lecture where we were told that women would never be chefs and would only ever be looked at as cooks and not paid the same as a man. That was the nail in the coffin! Although I love food and creating dishes, this path was not for me.
After I abruptly left college—much to my dad’s dismay—I joined my boyfriend’s band as a backup singer, doing a few local gigs on the weekends. I also took a job as an assistant in a record shop and was soon promoted to store manager. Music always had a huge presence in my life; I had taken piano lessons all through school, taught myself to play guitar, but singing was my real passion. At 19, I moved to London after being offered a job in a record promotion office and later ended up working for a large record label and recording studio, Zomba Music/Battery Studios in Willesden, North London.
I lived and breathed music; the studio and offices felt like home. It was here that I met my first real love, Mutt Lange, a record producer, songwriter, and also part owner of the studio. He was producing an album by The Cars called Heartbeat City and I got to be part of an amazing music community. One of my favorite memories was sitting at a long table in a London restaurant having dinner with Mutt, Huey Lewis and his band, Bryan Adams, Roger Taylor (drummer with Queen) and an English comedian/actor, Jimmy Nail. It was of course pre-cell phone/camera days, so the evening only remains as a picture in my memory.
When my relationship with Mutt ended after about two years, it felt like it was time to move on from London studio life. Through luck or divine intervention, I gave a tour of Battery Studios to two potential studio owners who were visiting from the US. One of them was a diamond importer from Chicago who was revamping a recording studio in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, and wanted only the most state-of-the-art equipment. After the tour, they asked if I’d be interested in moving to the US and running their studio.
I was open to the opportunity, given my current circumstances and my desire to explore the world. However, I needed to see where I’d be moving to and asked them to fly me over.
I spent a long weekend in Lake Geneva on Memorial Day, 1986. Lake Geneva is also known as the Newport of the Midwest and many Chicagoans come up for holiday retreats. At age 24, that warm summer weekend, the job offer in hand—not to mention the Mercedes I was given to drive for the weekend—were all enough to sway me; I, along with my best friend Wendy who became my assistant, moved to the States in August of that year.
I stayed at this studio, Royal Recorders, for a year and a half and had some great times; I worked with amazing artists such as Robert Plant, Adrian Belew, and the English band T’Pau, whose number one hit “Heart & Soul” was recorded there.
When Adrian Belew and his band The Bears asked me to be their road manager for their upcoming tours, I was itching for a change so I took the job. This is not something I had any experience with, but I thought, why not? If they have enough confidence in me, then I will give it a shot.
It was me and five guys in a van traveling the East Coast then down South, playing in a different venue almost every night. What a wonderful experience! They were a great band to work with and commanded respect as musicians. We had dinner in amazing restaurants every night. This was one of my favorite overworked and underpaid jobs!
Back on solid ground again after touring, my next possible job opportunity was to become Adrian Belew’s personal assistant on the upcoming David Bowie Serious Moonlight tour. It didn’t pan out as they already had someone from David’s team to take care of Adrian, but at least I got to spend time with David Bowie, of whom I have been a long time fan and who is really humble and a genuinely lovely man.
As the song says “Back to Life, back to reality.” I was back in Lake Geneva, needing to unpack my suitcase and figure out the next chapter!
Since I have always been interested in nutrition, natural healing, and supplements, I took a job at the local health food store, Naturally Yours, working alongside the owner, Portlynn. I learned so much from her about health and, to this day, am extremely grateful for the opportunity I had to work with her. Her incredible knowledge and passion have stuck with me as I continue to embrace a very healthy lifestyle. Being able to share that knowledge—and to help people who were struggling with their health and not being helped by traditional medicine—filled my heart and my life.
Although I loved my job at Naturally Yours, it wasn’t enough to pay the bills, so I took a job bartending on Saturday nights. Around this time, I got married and divorced—I called this a dress rehearsal at marriage, not my forte—and moved to Florida. I signed up with seven modeling/acting agencies, did some print and commercial work, was an extra in a couple of movies and waited tables at night.
After a year in Florida, still trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life at age 34, I moved back to Wisconsin. The people there are real and the Lake Geneva area had become my home away from home. Knowing that I am not a person who can flourish in a corporate atmosphere, I went back to bartending and waiting tables as it gave me a sense of freedom and the time to explore what I really wanted to do. I started an event planning business called Details and planned many weddings and events over the course of the next four to five years. I enjoyed every minute of it; being able to organize and create something, using my energy and ideas, was hugely fulfilling. But this business is hard work and it took its toll. Again, divine intervention stepped in.
I met a man who was in the early stages of starting his own record label and home studio, we dated for four years, and I co-ran the label Machine Records; my main focus was licensing music to TV and Film. We had seven amazing artists signed to the small independent label and got to be around so much talent and creativity, which was so inspiring. There was a studio in our home and some great music was created there.
After four years, it was time to move on again—clearly a running theme! I was restless and knew that I wanted and needed more, but didn’t seem to know exactly what that was. I tried moving back to England to be around my family, but I came back after only three months. After living in the US for over twenty years, I had been away from England for so long that I didn’t really fit there anymore.
I soon moved to Chicago, where I had a friend. I wanted a bigger city with more of a buzz and more energy. I lived in the Wicker Park neighborhood, about a mile west from downtown, and instantly fell in love with the area. There is so much to offer, so much life and inspiration to pull from.
I dabbled in the music industry and started my own online music licensing company, Boutique Music Licensing, and had some small successes with music licensed to some MTV shows. Although I had not lost my passion for music, the business itself wasn’t drawing me back in the same way. The desire for change had been brewing for a while and I needed more….
What was the catalyst for your next act?
In July 2012, I was visiting a friend in Williams Bay, WI who owns an adorable coffee and vintage shop called Tickled Pink. There, I ran into a mutual friend, Karen Hill-Krolow, and her daughter Ellen. It was hot outside and the air-conditioning was on, making it a bit chilly inside. Karen was relaying a story about dining out at a very nice restaurant that week and how she couldn’t relax and enjoy dinner as it was so cold from the air-conditioning blasting. I shared that I carried a crumpled-up cardigan in my purse that I pull out when I run into the grocery store or the movie theatre. It wasn’t pretty but it was better than being cold. That was the ‘”aha” moment! I said to Karen, someone should invent a cardigan that you can keep in your purse and it doesn’t get dirty.
After I left, I kept thinking about the idea and the next weekend I came back up to Wisconsin and visited my favorite Goodwill store in Delavan. I gathered together three different cardigans, a shower curtain, and safety pins and brought them back to Chicago. When I got home, I laid everything out on my kitchen floor and got to work. I cut the shower curtain, which was made from a soft water-repellent fabric, and assembled different sized “pockets,” then attached them to the cardigans until I found a few different ways to make it fold into itself. This became the prototype for what is now the Pocket Poppet. I took it to work with me and showed it to colleagues, who all thought it had the potential to be a great idea. I knew I was going to make it happen.
I went back up to the lake again the next weekend, armed with the prototype, and had coffee again at Tickled Pink. Serendipity strikes again! Karen stopped in for coffee and I said that I had not stopped thinking about the “pocket sweater” idea and had made a prototype. She said that she had been thinking about it too and she had capital! We met again the next morning and bared our hearts and souls to each other. We had both had our share of disappointment and heartache in our lives and ached for something more, each having our own set of desires for our own fulfillment.
After a few hours of conversation, we shook hands and both agreed that we wanted to start this business and create something for ourselves, something that was ours, that we could build, something that we could be proud of, be passionate about, and that would fulfill us.
What is your next act?
With Karen, I am co-founder and co-owner of H&K The Poppet Company, LLC., which we launched when I was 50 and Karen was 51. We call our products Poppets; our first one was the Pocket Poppet Cardigan On The Go. We create and design packable clothing for women on the go. We currently have three styles of cardigans that all fold into their own attached water-repellent pockets.
We are introducing a fourth product to the Poppet family this season, the Kate Poppet, a short bolero-style cardigan with an adorable flat belt/bow on the back. It will be ready by the end of August this year. We are also working on prototypes for a wrinkle-resistant packable wrap dress, also available later in 2015 (see video of me putting the new Paris wrap dress on, at the Eiffel Tower, on our Facebook page), as well as a two-sided travel tank that is the same cut on the front and the back, but will have a different color on each side; this way you can switch your tank around and show the different colored front with either a matching Classic/Lotus Poppet or a complimentary color.
We have had many requests from men for a packable garment; we have that on our to-do list along with the Lil’Poppet for children.
We love what we do and feel nothing but positive encouragement and pride from our friends and family. We have great supporters who let us know how well they think we are doing, how proud they are of us both, and what an inspiration we are to them. All wonderful things to hear; they keep us going!
How did you go from a prototype to launching a full-fledged business?
Karen and I met with a patent attorney in Chicago, Patrick Richards. We took the prototype for our “pocket sweater,” which Karen had now sewn together (abandoning my safety pins!). We were thrilled when Patrick told us that not only did he think it was one of the best inventions that he had seen, but that his wife needed a few of them! We left the building giggling like a couple of schoolgirls.
Patrick connected us with business attorneys who love to work with entrepreneurs and agree to offer them a reduced rate. As Karen and I waited to meet with Tammi Franke for our first appointment, we still didn’t have a name for our company or product, both essential if you are going to form a corporation. As we sat in the waiting room of Tammi’s law office, the name Pocket Poppet came into my head and I blurted it out to Karen—she liked it too; what a relief! We had a name for our product and now our company, H & K The Poppet Company.
After realizing that you cannot just start calling up manufacturers and say, “Hi I have this thing that I want made,” I started searching the Internet to figure our how to make it all happen. Neither Karen nor I have any experience with designing, manufacturing, textiles, etc.—although Karen is great with a sewing machine.
I came across a website called the Fashion Brain Academy which was run by a Chicago designer, Jane Hamill. After a lot of reading, I found that she, along with a Chicago consulting company, V. Mora, was hosting a paid tour of four Chicago manufacturers. Bingo! After the tour, we realized that we knew nothing about the industry and signed up that afternoon with V.Mora to engage their consulting services.
This was a new beginning and we set the wheels in motion for another new chapter, a new business, and a whole new set of lessons to learn in my fifties.
How did you figure out which way to go?
It has been a crash course in design, manufacturing, production, social media, marketing, networking, and events to name a few! Having a great partner to share things with every step of the way—the highs, the lows, and the in-betweens—makes a huge difference.
Creating something from the ground up is both exhausting and exhilarating. You have to be passionate about what you are doing, constantly creating new ideas, jumping over hurdles, and moving forward.
We launched our product exactly nine months from the date we started the company. On June 5th, 2013, we shared the Pocket Poppet Cardigan On The Go with the world—or at least with about 200 people! We had our launch party in Williams Bay, WI, at a restaurant called Café Calamari. I had worked there for many years and Karen lives in Williams Bay, so between the two of us, we knew many people in the area. To prepare for the launch, we developed our Facebook page, emailed invitations, and notified the local press. A magazine, At The Lake, contacted us to write our story. The timing was perfect as their article was published just before our launch party. It was our very first piece of press.
We had so many wheels turning all at once to make this day happen and when it did, it was amazing. The turnout of friends, family, and curious customers were alarming. Everywhere I looked, women were wearing Poppets and the party was a huge success. It had taken so much planning, time, and energy to bring this day to fruition, but it was worth all the sleepless nights and long days.
Since then, we’ve been working hard to sell our products through every avenue possible, taking advantage of any and all promotional opportunities. Our most notable appearance was on April 17, 2015, on Good Morning America. We were invited to appear on their “Shark Tank Your Life” segment.
We flew to New York; the call time was 5:30 a.m. the next day. I didn’t sleep a wink and got up to shower and get ready at 4 a.m. Karen and I went over the to the studio, which was across the street from the hotel, and they took me through to hair and makeup and then on to two rehearsals and two visits to the Shark Tank, which was outside in Times Square.
There were hundreds of screaming people for both Shawn Mendes, a young and upcoming singer/songwriter, and for Daymond John. The whole process lasted about three hours. I remember the segment producer, Margaret, coming into the green room and saying, “OK you are on in 13 minutes!” It was the longest 13 minutes ever! Luckily, Karen was there to show support. It’s quite nerve-wracking to know that you are going to appear on live television and do a 30-second memorized pitch to approximately 6 million viewers! Better not mess it up-right? The pitch to both George Stephanopoulos and Daymond John went well and the Poppet won the trophy, which we brought proudly back to the Midwest later that afternoon. What a whirlwind!
What were sales like in the beginning?
We had great sales right out of the gate, thanks to our launch party. We had no idea what to expect. Because this was a new invention, we had nothing to compare it to and no way to gauge how things would go. We manufactured 1,100 pieces on our first run and quickly had to go back into production as we sold through certain colors and styles quite quickly.
We continue to manufacture large (for us) and small runs in both Chicago and LA, depending on our needs. If it’s under 300 pieces, we stay in Chicago. Because we now have three styles that come in XS through XL, we will sell through different sizes and colors at different times.
How has your partnership with Karen evolved as your company has grown?
Karen and I have naturally fallen into more defined roles as we have grown. We capitalize on each other’s strengths and use our skills accordingly. We learn something new every day and continue to grow. We connect with new people at our direct-to-consumer events and love networking with other makers and entrepreneurs. We have also become more streamlined and taken on more of the pre-production work, which helps us to be more knowledgeable about the manufacturing process in general.
Karen still lives in Wisconsin. We house our product in her home office and Karen takes care of the shipping of orders, inventory, finances, as well as many other things. Since I am in Chicago and also work from home, I can oversee our local production, meet with our pattern maker, and network with people in the city to source contacts and event opportunities.
Karen and I accomplish a lot through email and over the phone. We talk most days and get together several times a month or more—the drive only takes about an hour and a half. When we are working on a new design, we will usually meet weekly until it is almost ready to go into production. We have found a way to make it work and figure things out as we go along.
We have no employees but we do outsource help for our website, some social media, attorney, pattern making, etc. We occasionally hire help for events and are starting to reach the point, especially during the holidays, when we will need to divide and conquer. We will most likely create two complete and separate event set-ups so that we can each be in different cities/states at the same time.
What is your advice to women seeking reinvention in midlife?
I would tell them to make sure that they are passionate about their new endeavor, have a true desire to make it happen, and are willing to commit a lot of time and energy to it. It will be tempting to want to give up when the going gets tough, but keep in mind that one small thing can happen that lifts your spirits and makes it all worthwhile.
I remember last July walking to my local Starbucks and picking up the Chicago Tribune on a Sunday morning. I knew we had an article being published that day and thought I would relax and have some coffee while I looked for the piece. I expected it to be a small, business card-sized write-up that I would have to search for and was extremely surprised to find a really great article with a photo in the travel section! I read the article and checked the email on my phone. As I looked at the screen I saw one order after another coming in every few minutes, it was amazing! The article went viral and was picked up by 20 other papers in the syndication. Unbelievable and a great confidence booster!
I wake up every day and pursue my dream. It allows me to be creative, to learn, to meet new people, to go to places I have never been, and to learn something about myself constantly, I am doing things that I knew nothing about and love sharing what I have learned with people that we meet along the way.
Finally, I believe that it is important to surround yourself with people who lift you up, who support you and what you do, who appreciate your entrepreneurial spirit, and who want your business to succeed. Pursue your dream with passion and along the way always try to be kind, open, generous, and grateful.
What resources do you recommend?
Jane Hamill at Fashion Brain Academy
We actually do our own designs, creating an initial idea from inspiration and then completing the design together, along with our pattern maker (see below).
For manufacturing and production:
V.Mora – Fashion consulting, pattern making, and help with production.
For website development:
Renegade Websites (Jhenai Mootz and Joe Bowen)
For social media:
I do most of our social media marketing but we have recently hired a digital marketing company called Mabbly to help us with SEO, PPC, some social media, and making a new video.
For public relations:
Our PR company is Orca Communications. They mostly work with inventors and entrepreneurs.
For patent attorney:
Patrick Richards, Richards Patent Law
Jay Arbetman from the Sourcing District was instrumental in introducing us to our sales rep from Hopkins & Kafoure, which helped us initially get products into about 40 retail stores.
We also exhibited at trade shows such as the International Travel Goods Show in Arizona and the National Luggage Dealers Association in Chicago.
We also sell through our own online store and are now also available to purchase on Amazon: The Pocket Poppet Women’s Packable Travel Cardigan
Contact Helen Tyler at Helen@thepoppet.com