By Jessica Hall Portland Press Herald, Maine.
Cyndi Prince began researching toxins in everyday products when she was pregnant.
Her research on how to choose safer, nontoxic products for her home led to the creation of home-based business LooHoo LLC, which in April was named the Small Business Administration's Home-Based Business of the Year for Maine and New England.
LooHoo began when Prince, a former geologist, learned that dryer sheets contain chemicals that make cotton diapers less absorbent.
After researching natural solutions, she stumbled upon wool balls, which help separate and aerate clothes, soften fabrics and reduce drying time. The ones she tried fell apart. So she set out to create her own handmade wool balls that would be more durable.
The name for her business came from her nickname, Cyndi LooHoo, after the Dr. Seuss character Cindy Lou Who.
The company made and sold more than 25,000 LooHoo balls last year and it is trying to triple that number this year. A single LooHoo ball sells for $8.95, and a starter three-pack costs $26.85. LooHoo's 2013 revenues totaled $120,000.
Q. The company began as a labor of love when you were pregnant. Can you explain some of the research you did and how you built a better dryer ball?
A. I learned that dryer sheets and fabric softeners shouldn't be used on cloth diapers because they put a coating on them and makes them nonabsorbent, which is the opposite of what you're trying to accomplish. I also discovered some of the chemicals were harmful. I was looking for something different. If you dry clothes without anything, they seem rough and crunchy. I searched online for natural alternatives and learned about wool dryer balls. I bought some on Etsy, but a month after using them, they fell apart. I looked at them for so long and I knew I could make them. It's something that I could do. I worked for a couple of months, tried different materials, experimented with different ways of making them. It took 30 or 40 different tries to form the balls and felt them. Sometimes it's an absolute disaster but the scientist in me likes the mistakes because you learn something every time. I gave them to family and friends, who urged me to start a business.
Q. Going from an idea to a fully formed company has many steps. What were some of the toughest steps?
A. Market research was a crucial step. After having the idea, I turned to market research to see if demand in the market was being satisfied. I looked in stores and online and saw on websites that stores were often out of stock. The supplier they had couldn't keep up with demand. It was a huge, green light that I could move forward. I was guessing the stores would welcome a second supplier.
Q. How far and wide are LooHoo dryer balls sold now? How much has the company grown since its inception?
A. Now we're in close to 200 stores in the U.S. and Canada. We started at the end of 2010 and had a small launch. Our first full year was 2011 and we've doubled in sales every year and more than doubled last year.
Q. Has the SBA recognition help your business?
A. It was a great boost. We got a lot of publicity and from that we got a huge spike in traffic on our website. It was a great honor.
Q. Are you a one-woman show or do you have a staff?
A. Even from the beginning, I never considered it a one-woman show. I was surrounded by supporters. I'm still the only full-time employee, but the balls themselves are made at Pieceworks in Montville. We have tight quality control and check in very often with our retailers. Since the balls come back to headquarters in Camden to be felted, I'm very close to the product. And I have a social media goddess who helps me. We source our supplies from Bartlettyarns in Harmony, which is an amazing operation. (Once the ball of wool is wound at Pieceworks, Prince puts the balls through hot water in a washing machine, which makes the fibers more dense and durable).
Q. How important is the "Made in Maine" heritage in marketing your product?
A. Being made in Maine helped us forge a relationship with Whole Foods. They prefer working with local businesses, so it helped open that door, which was a huge leap forward for us. I have asked people in other regions about the "Made in Maine" aspect and I've learned that outside of Maine that people value a "Made in the U.S.A." product. That's really been the biggest factor for us -- we are made in the U.S. and that resonates with buyers.
Q. Is there anything you would do differently if you were starting LooHoo from scratch today?
A. I would think about scalability and building a team earlier. I would surround myself with people quicker so I could free up my time to do sales and marketing. I sometimes wonder if I turned the making of the balls over sooner, where would the company be now? But I'm very happy with the growth. We're on track to triple our growth this year. There are some days I feel like I'm standing in front of a mountain. But I've learned I need to break things down to steps and things become more attainable.
Q. What advice would you give other startups or home-based businesses in Maine?
A. I can say, 'I've been there. I can relate to a lot of problems.' I would suggest reaching out to other business owners and keep asking questions. Surround yourself with smart, inspiring people. Even though I'm the one doing more of the work, I feel like I have a lot of support. I have been helped by so many great resources in Maine, such as the Maine Centers for Women, Work & Community where I took a New Ventures course and met with their counselors. I also had SCORE mentors, who were tremendous. I also reached out to the SBDC (Small Business Development Center) for help with grants. I would tell people to talk to other businesses and expert advisers to get feedback. I may have a million ideas in my head, but it helps to give voice to them to explain them to other people and hear their feedback.
Q. Has being a female-owned business helped in terms of getting grants and funding, or has it hurt you? Or has business become gender blind?
A. I don't think it's gender blind. I have been part of different women's networking groups, which have been helpful. I'm a minority as well. But you are what you are. Choose a path and head out on it and make it work.
Q. What's next for LooHoo?
A. I always think about expanding the product line. But keeping up with demand with our one single product has taken all of my time. I always think about new ideas, but there's only so much time. I'm trying to stay focused on tripling revenue for 2014. In a few years, I would love to sell the business. I would love to start to share what I've learned with other companies.