Breast cancer treatment and early menopause gave Haralee the idea to design and sell moisture-wicking nightwear for women.
Tell us a little about your background…
I grew up in Massachusetts and graduated from the University of Massachusetts with a BS in Food Technology. I always had an entrepreneurial spirit from selling potholders door to door as a kid to owning my own advertising company in college.
After college, I worked in consumer product sales and management for 5 years, then in pharmaceutical sales and management for 21 years. I worked for Fortune 100 and Fortune 500 companies. I was able to glean the best practices from my work experience with these companies when I decided to start my own company.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I was diagnosed with breast cancer during a routine mammogram at the age of 48 (and have been in remission for 13 years!). It may seem unbelievable but the idea for my company crystallized while I was going through breast cancer treatment.
I was thrown into menopause, complete with drenching night sweats. I was familiar with wicking clothing but I could not find anything that was soft, comfortable, and super wicking for sleep so I started my own company making beautiful moisture wicking sleepwear for women. Never in a million years did I think that my cancer diagnosis would propel me into my next act!
What is your next act?
I am the CEO of my own company, Haralee Sleepwear, based in Portland, which I have called home for the last 30 years. I have my hand in all aspects of the company, including marketing, designing, customer service etc. We help women look great and get a better night’s sleep with our gorgeous wicking sleepwear.
We make pajamas, nightgowns, and pillowcases that are moisture wicking. Those core products are the ones we will continue to make and sell. We have made a robe in the past and might bring it back. We tried some daywear tops but they were not successful so we are selling them through on clearance. I design all the styles, working closely with my pattern maker on the feasibility of the styles for production and costs.
We promote the Haralee line via Google Adwords, Yahoo Ads, and promoted pins on Pinterest. The majority of our products are sold through our online store or other online stores, although we do sell to some brick and mortar boutiques too.
I knew we were onto something when we launched online, did a fashion show on a local TV morning show one week later, and were soon overwhelmed with orders! My greatest joy is my customers’ response to our products. They tell us they are sleeping better; the product works; they love it; they love us!
How did you prepare to take the plunge? How supportive were your family and friends?
After my cancer treatment, I opted for flex time with the pharmaceutical company where I was employed. I never went back full time, choosing instead to put the rest of my hours into starting my business, and eventually committing myself full time to Haralee.
I took almost 2 years to research my company. I sourced fabric options, manufacturing companies, pattern makers, sample makers, models, web designers, photographers, and hosting companies. I spoke to everyone and anyone I could meet. I did a lot of searching on line as well. I did focus groups, samples and refashioning. I invested some money I inherited when my father passed away and matched it with my own funds to self-fund the start of our company.
When it came to choosing a name for the company, I considered many options but ultimately ended up using my own. It’s a name my parents made up. I thought to use other names but they were already taken or led to porn sites! I knew with the oddity of my name I wouldn’t have any trademark infringement or other problems with using it. My grandparents started a restaurant—my parents sold to retire after 60 years in business— and its name was Weintraub’s, so I knew personal names worked.
My family was totally on board, so much so that I made my 86-year-old mother a Vice President with responsibilities for sales and PR that she did deliver! She was the first to notice buying trends in various parts of the country.
My husband has been the Operations Manager for Haralee, in charge of all the shipping and inventory, folding and packaging of the products. My sister ran a focus group for me on the East coast when I was just starting and remains my size small fit model. My niece Hannah has given me some input on designs.
I am also truly lucky to have great friends and coworkers who want me to succeed. They help me with their ideas, product shows, and of course modeling my products!
I’ve always had a home office. My corporate life has trained me to be disciplined about my work, so it was easy to transition the same habits when I started working from home.
What challenges did you encounter? Were there times when you thought about giving up?
The biggest challenges I faced early on were sourcing a consistent line of fabric and a manufacturer who could deliver. I am happy to say we now have a great fabric wholesaler for all our fabric needs and a fantastic manufacturer.
Our goal was to be made in USA, ideally locally, so we had to overcome some challenges to stay true to our values. It was difficult to find a manufacturing company that could work with the fabric because it’s a bit tricky. It turned out that I was lucky to live where I do because there are so many former Nike, Columbia Sportswear, and Adidas employees working in the industry.
We are made locally and I employ independent local contractors for all my needs: my pattern maker, sample maker, photographer, web master, web hosting company, and manufacturing company.
I learned to use only models who wanted to model. I use only women who have had cancer or are once removed, daughters or sisters or friends. In our early years, I would beg friends and family to model and if they didn’t want to do it, you could see it in the pictures. I am truly blessed to have friends who will model!
I did not think about giving up. I knew we were helping women and this thought has been my mantra to continue pushing ahead with my business. We also donate a portion of every sale to breast cancer research. For the last 2 years, the Susan Love Foundation has been the recipient of our donations. We also use real women who are cancer survivors and their daughters or sisters as models. My goal is to show that women can look beautiful any stage of their life and that cancer affects the entire family.
What words of advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
I believe if you are willing to make the commitment of time and resources to become an entrepreneur, your age is just one more benefit. Everyone can glean, like I did, the best practices from their lives and incorporate them into their business.
The easiest and most successful way to work out of your home is to make one spare bedroom your office. It is a room where you can close the door and it is all business. The computer, desk, chair, copier and phone are all dedicated to your business. If you think of the time spent commuting to work, time spent chit chatting with co-workers, time spent in meetings that you don’t have, it is easy to manage your time effectively from your home based office. It’s also a great money-saving option.
I don’t recommend spending a lot of money on things that don’t give you a return on investment, whether it’s a fancy desk chair or expensive how-to seminars.
Talk to anyone and everyone you meet about your business. That’s how I found my pattern maker and manufacturer, through networking. I still hand out cards and brochures to anyone I meet, from the emergency room staff where I took my husband last week after a gardening mishap, to the person who came to service the dryer—you never know who will be a customer!
What words of advice do you have for women going through menopause?
Menopause happens. It is part of life. Some women have mild side effects, some more severe. My sleepwear can really help with the night sweats. My biggest tip is to wear open toe shoes year round! Some women can take Hormone Replacement Therapy drugs to eliminate the side effects of menopause. As a breast cancer survivor and advocate, I do not support HRT. I know I will get some flack from that statement but the link to HRT and breast cancer is like playing Russian roulette.
What resources do you recommend?
Small Business Development Centers for classes and mentoring
My fantastic pattern maker is Portland Apparel Service (contact: 503-239-7976). Jamie the owner not only is a great pattern maker but also gives design advice. Our wonderful manufacturing company is US Embroidery. They do great work and use specifications in inspection that are higher than my own!
I belong to Midlife Boulevard, a website for women in midlife, also Vibrant Nation. Start Up Nation is a good business site. I subscribe to Google alerts on subject matters that interest me, like breast cancer, menopause, and women in small business. I follow Susan Komen and Susan Love Foundations as well as Cure Magazine for breast cancer research news.
What¹s next for you and for Haralee?
We were approached this past summer to sell the company. It was flattering but I said no. It did get me thinking of my exit strategy but only just thinking right now because I am having too much fun and enjoy it too much.
Contact Haralee Weintraub at email@example.com