When Kate Sauls was in a car accident in 1993, her life changed in more ways than one. She not only suffered a severe injury but also developed the idea for a business.
“I run around telling people that my business was started by accident from an accident,” Sauls says. “The front end of the tire folded up underneath. My foot got caught beneath the tire and the electric brake assembly. It just popped my foot off.”
Fortunately, the doctors were able to reattach her foot, but recovery was a slow process. She had several injuries, including nerve damage in her neck and shoulder. For the first year she was wheelchair-bound, raising two children as a single parent and living off of welfare.
“When I couldn’t get to therapy or [was] in between therapy, my doctor told me to use microwavable heat on my neck and shoulder,” she says. “So I am trying to hold these rice bags and packs on my neck [and] shoulder and carry a kid. It was impossible.”
That’s when the idea clicked. Sauls figured out a way to improve the design of a hot-and-cold therapy pad and called it the Kozy Collar.
“I just knew whatever needed to be in this bag, it had to be flattened and ribbed so it didn’t shift around, and I needed a hole for my neck to go in,” she says.
With no business background and little in the way of capital, she began buying the cheapest supplies she could find to sew her version of the shoulder wrap on her kitchen table.
At the time, Sauls was living in Section 8 housing. The next thing she knew people started asking, “Hey, can I get one?” She remembers working around the clock to sew, pack boxes and get ready for the next craft show to sell her invention.
“Sometimes we would only have enough money to pay the booth rent and the gas to get there,” she says. “The first $20 we made I would take my kids to the concession stands and we would have breakfast.”
Eventually it paid off. Sauls says that in nine months she made $64,000 selling her new product at local craft shows and flea markets. She was finally able to get off government assistance and provide for her family.
By the early 2000s, Sauls had opened a warehouse with nine full-time employees. They sold Kozy Collars to small businesses and big box stores. However, her business, like many, came to a screeching halt during the Great Recession.
“We had a lot of small businesses just go out of business,” Sauls recalls. “They never paid us. Then we had a lot of our big business slow paying us. So I’m pulling a second mortgage. I’m financing payroll out of my pocket trying to keep everything afloat.”
She ultimately laid off her employees and went back to producing heating wraps like the old days — at home. But that wasn’t the end.
New Problems, New Solutions
In 2013, another product idea emerged from a painful problem -— this time with her knee. Sauls woke up in the middle of the night with excruciating pain and decided to put on one of her original heating pads. The only problem? It wouldn’t stay in place.
“I thought, ‘I just want relief. I’m going to figure it out,’” she recalls. “I got up and went into my garage. I needed a heating pad that’s going to stretch and that will fit around my knee.”
She says she found an old sweater that eventually solved the problem.
That’s when the ThermaStretch came to be.
Sauls was scared to fail, but her children, now older, encouraged her to start a family business. They came up with $20,000 to get a utility patent and formed the company Livell Company — meaning “live well.”
Initially, they started selling on third-party websites like Amazon and Etsy. This year, the company expanded to TV when HSN asked Sauls to be a part of its American Dreams show. Sauls says that in just eight minutes they sold 750 ThermaStretch units for $39.95 each, generating almost $30,000 in revenue.
A Shot at the Big Time — With Walmart
Sauls says that over the years she’s made upwards of $1 million selling heating wraps. Although that might sound like a lot, she has yet to take a regular paycheck.
But her financial woes may soon be over.
This year, Sauls applied for Walmart’s Open Call, an event that gathers American entrepreneurs to pitch their products in hopes of placing them on Walmart shelves all over the country.
“My sister Fran O’connor did the research online to figure out the process and do the submission of all the forms,” Sauls says. “Then out of the blue, Walmart says, ‘Are you available to pitch the product to a local store manager?’”
What she didn’t know was that Walmart had already decided to invite her to its headquarters in Arkansas for Open Call.
“They came out with cake and balloons,” she says, referring to a group of Walmart staff people. “Threw a little party in the aisle. It was exciting… The idea that a company like Walmart would like to have our product on the shelf would be some kind of security, success.”
On June 13, Sauls, along with her sister and son, pitched ThermaStretch to Walmart buyers during a 30-minute meeting in Bentonville, Arkansas.
Some entrepreneurs landed deals on the spot. Sauls didn’t get a yes — but she didn’t get a no, either.
“[The buyer] said they are not working on their [shelf displays] until spring,” she explains. “So we are going to come back in the fall, talk about packaging, sizing and all kinds of stuff. We’re excited and have some homework to do… That’s the journey. We will tweak a little here, tweak a little there, and listen to what they have to say.”
Although she left Walmart’s Open Call temporarily empty-handed, Sauls offers this advice: “If you’re passionate about it, don’t be afraid of failure, because that is the road to success.”
Christie Post, supervising producer and host at Codetic, is always finding ways to make stories visual. You can see the videos she produces on YouTube. Subscribe and give her a shoutout @christiepost.